May 08, 2008

19th-Century Climbing, Disney-Style

Climb until you hear the angelic chorus, then bear left and look for the secret route up the chimney.

Many years ago, probably at a drive-in theatre in Rapid City, S.D., my cinematic introduction to mountaineering came in the form of a Disney movie, Third Man on the Mountain.

It starred James MacArthur, who was Disney's go-to actor for juvenile leads for a few years circa 1960. Here he is Rudi, an 18-year-old dishwasher, son of a famous (but dead) Swiss guide. Does he have the right stuff to be a famous guide like Papa (cue angelic chorus)?

But Captain Winter, the English adventurer (perhaps based on Edward Whymper) believes in him and wants him along on the Englishman's attempt to climb "The Citadel" (i.e., the Matterhorn).

Peculiar recently linked to a video of old-school mountaineering. Hah! If we assume that Third Man is set in the 1860s (Disney?? accurate???), then these guys would give a Patagonia marketing manager heart failure.

Aside from their hobnailed boots, they have no equipment to speak of, not so much as a piton. Just hemp rope (which is always getting dragged over sharp rock edges) and big ol' ice axes that look like pulaskis.

They climb in street clothes--tweed jackets--and Capt. Winter always wears his necktie because he is (a) the client and (b) an English gentleman.

Yet because it's a movie, the whole way up the Citadel/Matterhorn consists of maximum-exposure ledges, cracks, chimneys, and overhangs with a merciful arête at the end. All hail the stunt men in their hobnailed boots.

But as a 9-year-old I was mightily impressed. Of course, I didn't know the movie was based on a novel by James Ramsey Ullman, Banner in the Sky. Later, as a college student in the 1970s, I read another of Ullman's mountaineering novels, probably The White Tower. I was so impressed that I wanted to write to him in care of his publisher -- only to learn before I sent the letter that he had died in 1971.

May 06, 2008

Making Money off Migrating Birds

All through southern Colorado, groups and landowners are figuring how to make money off of migrating birds--or off the people who want to view them.

For instance, you can go down to Las Animas on May 17 and be "Bent on Birding." (Note to British readers: "bent" in this case does not mean that they cheat on their life lists. Nor is it a reference to sexual preference.)

Around Mancos and the Ute Mountain Reservations, an elaborate program is planned, starting tomorrow.

Other trips are planned to remote ranches for viewing hepatic tanagers and other migrants. Because of the distances involved (for humans), food and lodging are provided. Here's a typical listing, courtesy of the Colorado Division of Wildlife's events and festivals page:

Field Trip to Kim Area Ranches for Hepatic Tanagers, May 31-June 1. Limited to 12 participants. $90 per person includes one night lodging and dinner. This trip will visit area private ranches to search for nesting Hepatic Tanagers and other breeding species near the New Mexico and Oklahoma borders. Contact: Nathan Pieplow at

For general Colorado birding information, visit the Colorado Birding Trail site, which also has a calendar page.

May 01, 2008

Teaching Nature Writing - Part 3

The nature-writing class had its final exam today (i.e., turned in portfolios) at the Cactus Flower, a Pueblo restaurant whose main recommendation is its large dining room -- no waiting. (Seriously, the red chile sauce is good if you order the "hot" strength. Almost New Mexico quality.)

The students -- who have been blogging here -- gave me a homemade farewell card. Thanks, guys, now you have me feeling all Mr. Chips-ish. But I am still going to grade the portfolios as I would have done sans card.

And then on to new adventures.

April 30, 2008

Gary Snyder Wins Lilly Prize

Poet, essayist and -- dare I say it -- philosopher (in the original sense of the term) Gary Snyder has won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.

Snyder is always on my nature-writing reading list, which is partly why he pops up now and then on this blog, such as here and here (about being a wild animal) and here (about vultures), and here (Shelby as "wild").

The foundation's news release describes him as "in essence a contemporary devotional poet, though he is not devoted to any one god or way of being so much as to Being itself. His poetry is a testament to the sacredness of the natural world and our relation to it, and a prophecy of what we stand to lose if we forget that relation.”

Via University Diaries, who brings herself to admire Snyder even though he is outdoors too much (at least on the page) for her taste.

The Persistence of Pigeons

Photo and illustration by Chas S. Clifton
"Pigeon excluders" courtesy of Colorado State University-Pueblo Physical Plant anti-bird conspirators.

Pigeon courtesy of itself. Photo by Chas, last week.

According to my pigeon consultant, Steve Bodio, this is probably a male homer doing the daytime nesting duties.

UPDATE: Welcome, visitors from I and the Bird.

April 28, 2008

History Wars in Custer County, Colorado

You might think that the historical marker on top is older than than the one below it, but actually the reverse is true: The sign on top is a replica of an earlier 1964 sign, placed in defiant counterpoint to the newer marker that recently replaced it.

Do we have a clash of narratives?

The 1964 text, reproduced on the replica sign, reads as follows:

Much of this area's early history occurred on nearby trading posts and settlements, which lived and died leaving little trace of their existence. Such was the post built one mile west by Maurice Leduc in the 1830s and the village of Hardscrabble established in the 1840s by traders and trappers below the fork of Hardscrabble and Adobe Creeks. Hardscrabble's walls and flat-roofed adobe houses formed a protective square in the middle of county long fought over by the Ute and Arapaho Indians. Villagers traded with anyone who happened by, but the tiny community was too far removed from the main-traveled Santa Fe Trail to survive. By late November 1848, when John C. Fremont and his men briefly visited Hardscrabble on their way west in search of a central railroad route through the mountains, the village was almost deserted.

The newer (non-replica) sign's text owes a debt to the late Janet Lecompte's book, Pueblo, Hardscrabble, Greenhorn: Society on the High Plains, 1832-1856. It includes a sketch and brief biography of Teresita Sandoval, who was clearly the femme fatale of Fort Pueblo, "willing to share the drudgery and terrors of frontier life with her man--until a man she liked better turned up," as Lecompte describes her.

The newer (non-replica) sign even hints at sex:

Despite some company policies forbidding interracial marriages, unofficially many trading firms of the nineteenth century actively encouraged their agents in the field to wed Native American or Hispanic women. Such unions were good for business, as they fostered lucrative cross-cultural relationships. (Full text here.)

The replica sign is the work of the new Wetmore-Hardscrabble Historical and Genealogical Society, also responsible for signage at the so-called Kit Carson Rock. Do they find the new text too "complicated," or do they just miss the familiarity of the old sign that stood for forty-plus years?

In his book The Past is a Foreign Country , David Lowenthal writes, "Viewing the past as wholly ideal, the traditionalist seeks refuge in mystical connection with his great and ennobling heritage, but is partially absorbed in and subconsciously attracted to the new influences he affects to despise."

April 21, 2008

Herons at Pueblo Reservoir

Mark Jostes of Florence shares some photos of a blue heron and the heron rookery taken in early April at Pueblo Reservoir. The stands of flooded dead cottonwood trees have been well-used, but the no new trees are being created -- thanks to the presence of the lake -- for when these fall down some day. What then?

April 15, 2008

Fire Day

Driving home from the university toward the mountains, I could see two wild fires burning: one at Fort Carson, where an air tanker pilot died, and a smaller one in Pueblo West.

If I had been looking in the rearview mirror, I might have seen the one that has burned into the little prairie town of Ordway.

Nine o'clock at night, and a warm wind is still whistling in the stove pipe.

April 13, 2008

NRA's Misplaced Hysteria on Colorado Hunting Regs

The National Rifle Association does a pretty good job reminding politicians that the Second Amendment is part of the Constitution. (That's why I am a member, like my daddy before me.)

By contrast, the NRA trips over its boot laces when it tries to get involved in Colorado public lands and wildlife-management issues.

In the April 2008 issue of its magazine American Hunter, Darren LaSorte, NRA-ILA manager of hunting policy, waxes hysterical about the Colorado Wildlife Commission's decision to prohibit black-powder hunters from using rifles with the CVA Electra built-in electronic ignition system.

Why, this single decision is solely responsible for any drop in the percentage of Coloradans who hunt, rants LaSorte from his northern Virginia office.

Evidently Darren LaSorte does not understand the concept of a primitive weapons hunting season.

Archers hunting big game need to be quiet, careful of the wind, and take shots typically from inside 30 yards' range. The difficulty of doing that successfully is one reason why they are given a four-week season, late August to late September.

Meanwhile, hunters with black-power muzzleloading rifles get only eight days (longer on the prairie). In exchange for getting their slice of September--when the elk rut is still in progress--they accept certain limitations. Essentially, their technology is frozen at about 1850 levels: a single-shot rife, no telescopic sights or laser sights, no two-piece sabot bullets, no pre-formed powder pellets, no breach-loading rifles.

But there are always people who want to push the regulatory envelope, and LaSorte supports them, I suppose largely because they might buy ads in his magazine.

Likewise, the NRA's misinformed clamor over roadless areas might just be connected to the large number of advertising pages purchased by ATV manufacturers. Like we should let Kawasaki dictate America's public-lands management.

These are the problems you see when a very top-down organization tries to jump into local issues where it has little knowledge on the ground.

Groups such as Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, the Colorado Wildlife Federation, or the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership have much more credibility in wildlife-management issues.

The Fox in the Night

Red fox, April 13, 2008. Photo by Chas S. Clifton

Another picture of a red fox dropping by around midnight, leaving scent trails that fascinate the dogs the following morning.

Coincidentally, Patrick Burns offers a chart on fox size around the world. Maybe I should put a yardstick out with the dog-kibble bait.

April 11, 2008

The Urban Red-Tailed Hawk

Red-tailed hawk with squirrel. Photo copyright 2008 by John Wozny. Used by permission.
Inspired by Jamison's telling of the red-tailed hawk and rabbit encounter, reader John Wozny of Denver sent this photo of an urban red-tail with a Washington Park squirrel.

I was reminded some red-tails who nested on the steeple of the Methodist church in downtown Cañon City when I worked there and were teaching themselves to catch pigeons. Normally, terrestrial mammals are what they eat. But if you are an urban hawk, you take what is there.

Thanks, John!

April 07, 2008

Signs of Spring in Southern Colorado

Signs of spring here in the Wet Mountains:

Spring beauty blooming along the county road.

Red-winged blackbirds starting to sing.

• A single-engine air tanker overhead, which as soon as I saw it, started my heart to beating a little more rapidly. But there was no column of smoke on the horizon, and after a couple of elliptical flights over the Wets, the pilot headed (apparently) for the Fremont County airport. Just a training flight, I guess.

The snow melts, and it's wildfire season. Yippee. :-(

April 05, 2008

Living Long the Mineralized Water Way

From another of those "Live to be 100" articles:

Drink hard water. Nicoyan [Costa Rica] water has the country's highest calcium content, which perhaps explains the centenarians' lower rates of heart disease, as well as stronger bones and fewer hip fractures.

"We have that one covered," M. says, as she shakes big flakes of mineralized deposits out of the tea kettle.

Nature Writing, Environmental Justice, and Lefty Prejudice

Peculiar links to a review essay on nature reading that I had also skimmed at the Bodios' last week.

Author John Derbyshire is better known as a political writer, and he hits Lefty enviros pretty hard. But he likes Steve Bodio's work:

The Left survives and flourishes because, as well as there being plenty of people whose satisfaction in life is to boss others around, there are even more who are willing to be bossed. Those who are not so willing — persons of a prickly-libertarian temperament — often head out to the wild places, to end up as lovers of the raw creation. There is, too, that aspect of the conservative temperament that abhors sentimentality and wishful thinking, and greets with happy recognition the cycles of death and mayhem that comprise most of the natural world's activity. I am thinking here, in both cases, of the Western writer Stephen J. Bodio, whose 1998 memoir On the Edge of the Wild offers an eloquent hunter's perspective on nature.

And Barry Lopez's too. (I would have to go to the mat with Derbyshire over his judgment on Gary Snyder.)

Even more, however, I recommend Rebecca Solnit's piece in the latest Orion titled "One Nation Under Elvis".

Solnit, one of the nation's best nature-and-culture writers, I am coming to think, speaks of her own move away from unthinking Lefty bigotry:

I grew up surrounded by liberals and leftists who liked to play the idiot in fake southern accents, make jokes about white trash and trailer trash, and, like the Canadian enviros, made gagging noises whenever they heard Dolly Parton or anything like her. If Okies from Muskogee thought they were being mocked, they were right, in part.

Her point is that the mindless partisanship of both Right and Left does environmentalism no good:

Right-wing politicians may serve the super-rich with tax cuts and deregulation and privatization galore, but they also dress up expertly in a heartland all-Americanism that has, at least until Bush’s plummeting popularity, allowed a lot of rural Americans to see them as allies rather than opponents. The right has also done a superb job of portraying the left as elite and hostile to working-class interests, and the class war going on inside and outside leftist and environmentalist circles did this propaganda battle a great service. The result of all this has been a marginalized environmental movement—more specifically, an environmental movement that has alienated the people who often live closest to “the environment.”

Even the "environmental justice" people seem blind to poor white people, she suggests, because they still carry around mental cartoons from the civil-rights era. She suggests, instead, that

The anti-environmentalist right has shot itself in both feet in the past few years, losing credibility and constituency, and a smart and fast-moving left could make hay out of this, to mix a few fairly rural metaphors. It would mean giving up vindication for victory—that is, giving up on triumphing over the wickedness of one’s enemies and looking at them as unrecruited allies instead.

Stone Men

Archaeologist Anthony Swenson expounds reasonably on sheepherder's cairns. (Scroll to the bottom.) I had not heard the term Stone Johnnies before.

My father spent part of his Forest Service career riding the sheep range of the San Juan Mountains in SW Colorado, which is why if you asked him to say something in Spanish, he would reply,"¿Cuántas borregas tiene?"

He always offered the explanation, "They built them to have something to do."

The navigational-marker explanation makes sense in open country, but I have also seen the cairns in high mountain valleys where a person could not easily get lost without going over a ridge.

Of course, if you ask the modern-day shepherd why that cairn is there, he'll likely shrug and say 'don't know', but even if he doesn't know who built it or why, he still knows it's on the next ridge north of his camp. Thus, they continue to serve as landmarks, even if those who employ them as such have forgotten that they were built for that purpose. Which, when you think about it, is fairly delightful. How many man-made objects can you think of that continue to perform their intended function long after we've forgotten what that function was?