March 31, 2012

March Drought and the Considerate Thief

A mule deer doe sniffs a scout camera.
March came in like a lamb and leaves like a thirsty lamb. Not a drop of rain or snow—no, take that back, it did rain once for thirty seconds.

Spring beauty
We are seeing some wild flowers thanks to the winter snow. Spring beauty (Claytonia) popped up on schedule a couple of weeks ago.

With the ground dry, I put up a few scout cameras. This picture of the doe was unusual only in that deer normally ignore a camera, but this one seems to have decided to give it a look and sniff, back on the 14th.

There is another place near home where a large concrete culvert runs under the state highway. It is more like a tunnel, really—rectangular in cross-section and tall enough to walk through upright.

I was curious to see if deer, turkeys, or other wildlife used it as a crossing. I thought that I could up a camera near the culvert and then remove it before turkey season, which begins April 14th. The camera went up on March 12th, and on the 23rd, M. and I walked up there to check it.

The camera's display showed 17 images collected. Something about the camera was different though, but my hay fever-slowed brain did not register it that at first.

At home, I opened the camera case to remove the SD (memory) card. But there was no SD card. And it was not that I had forgotten to insert one, because there were no images in the camera's built-in memory either.

About then it occurred to me that that particular camera had been covered with camouflage tape. Now all of the tape was gone but for a small strip on the bottom.

Obviously someone had pulled off the tape looking for a way to open the camera—not really necessary. Then he (?) had removed the card. Was he
(a) Afraid that someone would see his picture?
(b) Interested to see for himself what wildlife images might be on the card?
(c) Just sending an "I don't like cameras" message?
But at least the camera itself was undamaged, and for that I am grateful. SD cards are cheap on eBay.

March 28, 2012

A Conspiratorial Explanation for Wildland Fire

During my years of working in multi-ethnic Pueblo, Colorado, I always found the Italians to be fondest of conspiratorial thinking.

(The university, of course, with its churning leadership, provided an excellent hothouse for conspiracy theories.)

M. and I were there today, and we stopped in at our favorite liquor store, where the owner, in his raspy old-Italian-guy voice, commented on the dry, windy, weather, and the recent spate of local fires.

Then we moved to the Lower North Fork Fire, currently burning up in Jefferson County.

"Two people died, you know," he said, leaning closer across the counter. And promptly he began to share his theory, in which the fire's origin was connected with the deaths.

I started to say, "But. . . " and then shut up. Why discuss something prosaic like smoldering embers from a prescribed burn last week when you could spin a tale of murder and arson instead, a tale so much more satisfying to the soul?

March 26, 2012

Water and Fire

A volunteer firefighter wades the creek to attack one flank of the brush fire.
Unlike what the fire monks might have done, I did not bow when I saw the plume of smoke. In my defense, I was driving. I believe I said, "Well crap, there it is."

All day the wind had set the pine trees nodding and bending. A patrolling BLM fire patrol truck had gone up and down our road once in the morning.

As I was working in the early afternoon, the power briefly blinked off. Maybe that was when the winds slammed the wires against a dead cottonwood tree on a ranch to the north, setting off a brisk three-acre brush fire in the riparian zone, full of tall, prickly currant bushes, dormant willows, and narrow-leaf cottonwoods.

For once we had water. I pulled the brush truck down along the creek, hooked up some 1-inch forestry line, and others started hauling it across to attack the fire.

Someone else prepared a drafting hose to refill the truck's tank. Oh water, lots of water. Like city hydrants!

Both floating pumps were in the water too—you can  barely see one at lower left, with a 1.5-inch line attached.

Yes, Bob should be wearing wildland PPE, but he is not. On the other hand, he was there —  and willing to stand in thigh-deep cold spring run-off.

"Big Sister" department came from the nearest town, and the BLM and Forest Service sent engines too. Four hours later we declared it out, sort of. We'll need to patrol more in the morning, checking the smoldering logs, etc. There may be, as the feds like to say, "smoke on the incident."

March 24, 2012

Fire Monks: Five against a Wildfire

The warm months of 2008 exhausted California's wildland firefighters with a series of big fires. Inland from Big Sur, the Basin Complex fire burned 162,818 acres between late June and late July.

In a steep valley surrounded by fire stood the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, built at the site of a former hot springs resort hotel.

The Zen Center had survived fires in the late 1970s and 1990s. The monks were not unprepared. They had a fire cache with tools and protective clothing. They had built a sprinkler system out of PVC pipe to protect the main buildings of the monastery complex, fed by pumps from a creek that still flowed And as the 2008 fire moved closer, they got some short-term help from two hand crews who built fire lines and did other mitigation.

Cover of Fire Monks by Colleen Morton Busch
But was it enough?

As the fire closed in on Tassajara, guests and some staff were evacuated, leaving a crew of twenty to defend the monastery.

Finally the word came from the US Forest Service that the one dirt road into Tassajara was close to being overrun by the advancing flames.

Their on-scene adviser, a Cal Fire captain, told them to evacuate—which they did.

But at the last roadblock—the point of no return—five senior staff, four men and one woman, turned around and returned to the monastery grounds to "greet the flames."

They were the fire monks. And, soon enough, the fire would greet them.
The summer's elusive guest had finally arrived. They'd been waiting for this moment for almost three weeks, imagining scenarios, educating themselves, guessing which direction it would come from. But they'd never imagined there would be only five of them to meet it. And they hadn't imagined it would arrive on three sides simultaneously, plowing downhill as if trying to make up for lost time. . . .

There wasn't a moment where they all stood together as they had in the emergency meeting . . . or huddled on the road, [at the roadblock] to collectively make a decision. Yet they had to make a decision, to either bunker in their safe zone as the fire passed through the valley or make a stand to try to defend Tassaja. Here was another pivotal moment, from which so many possible outcomes could spin, the kind of moment that might be held up to the light afterward. . . . .

The five Zen priests at Tassajara weren't in the habit of dividing choices into right or wrong, good or bad. They'd practiced seeing everything that happens as a part of a continuous and always completely unified stream of events. Each moment flowing like the creek, from what came before into what comes next, all of time moving together . . . .

In Zen, you can't really make a "wrong" decision. But you can't make a "right" decision, either. You can only respond moment to moment in a way that feels the least harmful and deluded, the most compassionate and true.
Writer Collen Morton Busch, a Zen practitioner herself, was not present for the fire, but stitches together a compelling, page-turning narrative.

In her writing, she frequently references Sitting with Fire, a blog kept by the evacuees—here is a sample entry from the height of the emergency.

Mike Morales' Firefighter Blog, which is still published, also covered the struggle for Tassajara, but he was wrong about one thing: the cavalry (engine crews, air tankers) never did come riding to the rescue.

In this video, Busch discusses her book, Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire at the Gates of Tassajara. The San Francisco Zen Center, Tassajara's parent organization, also remembers the fire on this web page.

March 22, 2012

Blog Stew with Poisoned Birdseed

Time to clear out the blog fridge ...

The Scotts Miracle-Gro company has confessed to selling birdseed—contaminated with an insecticide that is harmful to birds! (Way to grow your customer base!)
Scotts pled guilty this Tuesday to charges that the company illegally put insecticides in its “Morning Song” and “Country Pride” brands of bird seed. That’s right: The company knowingly coated products intended for birds to eat with substances toxic to birds and wildlife.
Morning Song birdseed mix probably has great shelf life, though.

A skeptical look at wind power from Europe.
Wind frequently does not blow when we need it. For example, as the BBC reported, the cold weather on Dec. 21, 2010, was typical of a prolonged cold front, with high-pressure areas and little wind. Whereas wind power, on average, supplies 5 percent of the UK’s electricity, its share fell to just 0.04 percent that day. With demand understandably peaking, other sources, such as coal and gas, had to fill the gap.
The author argues that published cost-per-kilowatt hour figures for renewable energy sources leave out the cost of conventional power plants that must take up the slack when the wind does not blow or the sun does not shine.

I did not know this—you can still be a Junior Forest Ranger. There is a website with activity booklets and info for parents, teachers, etc.

On one newspaper job, I used to take the weekly photo of an animal up for adoption at the local shelter. I learned a few tricks about making them look good in B&W photos, but I could have benefited from this site. It's all about taking good animal photos to help in the adoption process, and you can download a PDF of photography tips.

March 18, 2012

Bugging Out, for Kids

In the "prepper" community ("survivalist" is so 1980s), "bugging out" means leaving home in a hurry due to natural catastrophe or civil disorder.

But how do you explain it to the kids and help them get in the spirit of things? Make it a fun, fun game.
If you have to bug out, your kids will too. As an added bonus, they also can help carry stuff. Not as much as mom and dad, but they should be able to provide some help. And, if you’re like me, you kind of like having them around.

The first thing you do is talk to them about why. Don’t bombard them with doom and gloom scenarios—make it fun. In discussing why with my children, we talked about everything from weather, asteroids, zombies, pirates and more stuff than I can remember. They had fun with it, imagining the different reasons we’d have to get out of The City (My The City). Their little imaginations run wild, making-believe all manner of silliness, and they’re funny and intuitive.
For completeness' sake, my thoughts on the matter after our first forest fire-caused evacuation.

Seriously, you should know where you would go if you had to leave. And if you have to "shelter in place" — which is probably more likely — you ought to be able to be self-sufficient for at least a week, unless you really enjoy standing in line for a couple of bottles of drinking water.

Even if government aid agencies are functioning as they should, do not assume that they will be able to help you right away.

For a different approach, here is the first of a series of posts in which the writer assesses his and his family's conduct during Hurricane Katrina, what they did wrong and right. 
Problems arise for various reasons.  One of them is sheer laziness.  You don't really *want* to pack all your crap in the car and take a long drive.  Especially not with little kids.  It's aggravating, it's expensive, and you'd rather download porn off the internet.  There are plenty of reasons — excuses, actually — not to make the hard decision.  There's also a little voice inside your head that says, "Well, these weather people have no idea what they're talking about anyway, so maybe they're wrong.  Let's just wait a little longer and see what happens..."  Of course, if [television meteorologist] Nash Roberts had said we should go, then everybody would have went [sic] — but like I said, he wasn't available.  Why?  Because he was evacuating.  If we'd have known that at the time, every man, woman, and child would have fled instantly.  When the Weather High Priest gets out of Dodge, you should too.

March 17, 2012

Still Carving Crazy Horse

As a Forest Service district ranger in the Black Hills, Dad was present for the creation of Korczak Ziolkowski's huge Crazy Horse monument. I remember seeing it as a little boy, when it was just a ridge with a notch in it created by dynamite and earth-moving. I was familiar with Mount Rushmore, and I could not see how this ridge and notch would ever be anything like that.

From Crazy Horse Memorial website.
Dad always dismissed Ziokowski himself as a nut.

Fast forward twenty years: I go back as an adult and yes, I can see where the warrior's head, his outstretched arm, and the horse's head are supposed to be.

When I visited two years ago, there was a face.

The New York Times visits the Ziokowski family's ongoing project, now in its sixty-fifth year, to build the world's largest sculpture. It's a little like one family deciding to build a Gothic cathedral. Progress is slow.

The Indians' own response has been mixed over the years.
“I’ve never heard a single Native American, not one, ever say I’m proud of that mountain,” said Tim Giago, the founder of Native Sun News, based in nearby Rapid City. 

Thomas Shortbull, president of Oglala Lakota College, which receives a number of scholarships from the foundation, acknowledged the discontent. “But most people see the positive of filling the void of the lack of recognition that we have in this country for Indian people,” he added. 
Giago is a longtime journalist, and I expect that he knows whereof he speaks.  On the other hand, the Ziokowskis say they got a sort of tribal go-ahead back in the 1930s:
Although the idea originated with Indian leaders — “this is to be entirely an Indian project under my direction,” Henry Standing Bear, a Lakota chief, wrote in a 1939 letter to the sculptor — Mr. Ziolkowski discovered after his arrival that the local tribes had little to give, either in money or labor, Ms. Ziolkowski said.
Dad last visited the Black Hills in 1999, a few years before his death. We did not visit Crazy Horse—his agenda of people and places to see was more personal to him. I go by it now when I am in the Hills and realize that as a boy I underestimated the Ziolkowskis' tenacity. Maybe one day the Crazy Horse Memorial will be seen as an important American site.

The motto of "Never Forget Your Dreams" has wide appeal, and meanwhile, Crazy Horse has a webcam.

March 16, 2012

"Really Darn Good" Colorado Wine

A year ago, Gary Vaynerchuk devoted a Daily Grape episode to Colorado wines, concentrating on Guy Drew Vineyards near Cortez, and pronounced their Metate blend "really darn good," after admitting that "we [whoever 'we' are] don't really think of Colorado as a serious producer of wine."

A little over the top, but worth three minutes. "The fruit is very flush and very New World," at least I think that is what he said.

M. and visited the vineyards two years ago. We thought the wines were really darn good too.

April-June 2012 Precipitation Forecast

Click to embiggen.
Precipitation forecast for Colorado and the Great Basin suggests a dry spring and early summer, with "equal chances" for the mid and late summer. See all the forecasts here.

My North Dakota friends should see less spring flooding.

I was really happy about the snow this winter—more than eight feet total at the house—but now it is time to worry about fire.

March 15, 2012

Pleistocene Park, continued

The Pleistocene, when men were men and mammoth bones framed your house.
(Mammoth Site museum, Hot Springs, South Dakota)
Russian and Korean scientists are moving ahead with a plan not to breed mammoths exactly, but to inject mammoth DNA into elephant eggs and then implant the eggs in female Indian elephants. 
Mammoth remains were uncovered in thawed Siberian permafrost, and scientists around the world have been trying to extract DNA from the remains. Previously, paleobiologists were able to reproduce mammoth blood protein, and Japanese researchers want to resurrect the mammoth within five years. This new project will move forward if the Russian institution, the North-Eastern Federal University of the Sakha Republic, can ship its mammoth remains to the Koreans.
I reckon that the Russians are thinking "Pleistocene Park tourist attraction" while the Koreans . . . will do anything—or at least Hwang Woo-Suk will. Jeju Island might make a good Pleistocene Park, come to think of it.

But since mammoths used to roam the American Southwest, I think that if successfully recreated or hybridized, they should be released into the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Lots of different habitats there, and I like the idea of them splashing through Médano Creek.

March 09, 2012

Bighorns in the Canyon

Click to enlarge.
Two bighorn ewes and  a lamb photographed two days ago in Custer County, Colorado.

March 08, 2012

Western Snowpack Map, March 2012

Things looking a little better for southern Colorado and parts of New Mexico, especially compared to last year. Source.

March 03, 2012

Hipster Headresses?

Really, I had no idea. I must not get out enough.

I'll stick to wearing my Zuni bolo tie slide occasionally. It was made by one of Dad's buddies on the tribal firefighting crew, only I cannot sell in eBay (as I discovered) because it was not signed.

"Teensy Backpacks" Solve an Avian Mystery

Image from Slater Museum, Tacoma
Today's Denver Post describes research into a long-standing avian mystery—where do the black swifts that nest in Colorado migrate to in the fall?
Don't yawn, nonbirders. Stick with the story because this is an avian yarn that involves dicey climbs behind waterfalls and pitch-black, ladder-toting hikes to remote caves. It has interesting elements such as itsy-bitsy bird backpacks on what look like flying cigars. It is underscored with a dying man's devotion to "the coolest bird."
Good graphics at the Post site. This birding blog was discussing the geolocating technology used on the swifts back in 20120.

March 02, 2012

Dog Food in Ancient Greece

Sounds pretty good, but written for the riding-and-hunting set, perhaps, rather than for Athenian urbanites.
So, if you lived in Athens at the time of Socrates and owned a Laconian hunting hound like those depicted on Greek vases, what would you feed them? Ordinary pups get barley bread softened with cow’s milk or whey. But more valuable puppies eat their bread soaked in sheep or goat milk. You might add a little blood from the animal you expect your puppy to hunt. At dinner with your family, you scoop soft chunks of bread from the center of a loaf  to wipe grease from your fingers—and toss them to your dog, supplemented with bones and other table scraps, perhaps even a basin of meat broth. After a sacrifice or banquet, you make a special treat: a lump of ox liver dredged in barley meal and roasted in the coals. Naturally, as a matter of professional courtesy, you share any rabbits, stags, or boars with your faithful hunting partners.
Ancient Athenians often only ate red meat when there was a sacrifice; otherwise, fish cakes could be bought from street vendors.