September 10, 2019

Is this the Death of Digital Cameras?

Pholiota squarossa, shot with the Nikon Coolpix.
On a hunting trip last fall, I lost my camera.

But aside from a really artistic shot of aspen-bark graffiti, which would have appeared on this world-famous blog, I was not too brokenhearted. It had cost me only a little more than $20 on eBay.

Two years ago, I did a little smartphone-versus-pocket digital camera field test, "iPhone versus Pentax Point-and-Shoot," followed by a musing on cost-versus-speed of access, "The Smartphone vs. the Pocket Camera, Revisited." 

Now I have a different iPhone (an SE, not the latest, but I like the pocket size) and a second little Nikon Coolpix off eBay, probably at least a decade old. The Nikon still wins for cost, spot-metering, and genuine optical zoom. The iPhone . . . well, Instagram.

Even that retro set-up is increasingly post-retro. The digital camera market — both high-end and low-end — is in free fall.

Camera sales are continuing to falling off a cliff. The latest data from the Camera & Imaging Products Association (CIPA) shows them in a swoon befitting a Bollywood roadside Romeo. All four big camera brands — Sony, Fuji, Canon, and Nikon — are reposting rapid declines. And it is not just the point and shoot cameras whose sales are collapsing. We also see sales of higher-end DSLR cameras stall. And — wait for it — even mirrorless cameras, which were supposed to be a panacea for all that ails the camera business, are heading south. 
Meanwhile, in the acoustic world, vinyl records may soon outsell CDs. So who knows what will happen next. (Vinyl represents 4 percent of all music sales, to put it in perspective.)

August 31, 2019

A Tale of a Tortoise



The short focal-length iPhone camera exaggerates his size a bit. 

On the 21st of August, M. and I were having brunch on the veranda when I saw something moving out in the unmown grass. According to her, I said, "Holy ****, there's a tortoise in the yard!" and she just figured that I was messing with her.

Then she looked for herself. And there really was a tortoise, marching determinedly eastward up from the shallow gully between us and the county road, past the greenhouse, and on toward the steep ridge behind the house.

A neighbor's dog had been barking across the road, a steady woof-woof-woof-woof that I had thought maybe meant it saw a deer, but there were too many trees in the way to tell. Obviously the tortoise had passed that house too.

I knew we had to do something. It was heading into an environment where it might survive for a time, but not permanently. There are no native land tortoises in southern Colorado — the winters are too cold.

Furthermore, its appearance was a mystery. We have lived 27 years in this rural subdivision. We never heard of a neighbor who had a large tortoise. There are some relatively new people who think that they can pasture four or five horses on five unirrigated acres, which is why M. calls the guy Mr. Dust Bowl. It had come from that direction, but was that a clue or just coincidence?

Since the tortoise was heading right for our driveway, it was an easy matter to catch it and put it into the large dog crate. (Its shell was too big for the medium-size crate.)

At the thought that the tortoise might have escaped from Mr. Dust Bowl, M. went into full Underground Railroad mode: "We are not taking it back there!"

We called our friends the wildlife rehabilitators. They deal almost exclusively with mammals, not ectothermic tetrapods, but they had a large gravel-floored enclosure that had just been cleaned after its former inhabitants, two young mountain lions, had been released.

"Bring it over!" was their response.

Not being herpetologists, we were all doing some quick research. Hmmm, it appears to be an African spurred tortoise (Centrochelys sulcata), native to the Sahel. (Bred for the pet trade, I suppose.) In the wild their status is "vulnerable," which means the Chinese have not incorporated them into some kind of virility potion and wiped out the whole population, at least not yet.

Could it have been abandoned, the way people dump dogs and cats in the country? Sadly, that is possible, maybe probable. One article calls sulcata "America's most adorable mistake."
At the wildlife rehabilitation center.
But you’re bound to run into problems when you combine breeders who produce thousands of cartoonishly cute hatchlings a year; buyers who get the third-largest tortoise species on a whim without educating themselves; pet stores that sell the animals without warning buyers how big they’ll get or how to care for them; and wonderful, knowledgeable owners who nevertheless age out of being able to care for a heavy and long-lived pet. Sulcatas are nearly guaranteed to outlive their owners. Experts aren’t sure exactly how long they live in captivity, since the pet trade started only around half their lifespans ago, but educated guesses peg it at over 100 years.

With the tortoise temporarily housed, the center's director drove to town to buy fruits and vegetables for it — "him," we now believe.

M. and I went home and waited. No one had walked up the road calling, "Here, torty torty torty."

No signs appeared on telephone polls or at the post office two miles away, which serves as a community bulletin board.

And nothing appeared on any of the active county-wide Facebook groups, where people are always reporting lost dogs — or found dogs — or strayed horses, or whatever.

After a week, the rehabbers called someone they knew at the Denver Zoo, and today a carload of zoo herpetology volunteers showed up, including someone who is already caring for an African spurred tortoise.

They took "Sully," as the rehabbers had nicknamed him, away with a plan to find him a "forever home." I have no idea how that will all work out, but it is better than letting him wander the San Isabel National Forest looking for a non-existent mate, or whatever his tortoise brain was telling him to do.

Don't get me started on why people think that they have to possess these creatures.

A little pop-culture note: that was an African spurred tortoise in a certain famous scene in Breaking Bad. Here you can learn about the "making of." No tortoises were harmed.

August 30, 2019

In a Disaster, Rush into Medieval Lighting Technology

M. and I were talking to a friend at the laundromat today. We don't use it anymore — we finally decided that our well could support a small washing machine — but we drop off magazines there. Magazines should move, once you have read them.

We bumped into an acquaintance there. John and his wife live on a ridge top, off the grid, which puts them in both forest-fire and lightning zones. They know that.

He said that a recent lightning strike exploded a big pine tree near their house. Along with the tree (and some baby rabbits), the strike fried their generator, inverted, and on-demand water heater — and of course it meant that they could not pump water from their well.

"We were back in the Stone Age!" he said.

It got dark, they wanted to read and play chess (they are serious about chess). What to do? Being a handy sort of guy, John rigged up a bank of LED lights with a 12-volt battery. It was too bright, his wife said.

But he could have made rush lights, if he had started a little earlier. 

It bothers me to see movies and TV shows set in the past where there are masses of (petroleum-based) candles blazing away.  Like the HBO series Vikings —by Thor's ring, they had so many candles that they must have brought them back from their raids by the longship-full. Kings could not afford so many candles!

But what the common people had were rush lights, as demonstrated in the video clip above. You have to overlook the non-medieval heat gun. The Brits are getting really absurd about safety issues.

So there you have it. Find some pithy grass and soak it in animal fat. Hold it in some kind of clip or support, and you have light, without the need to raid an abbey. 

August 29, 2019

The Dawn Cow-Rus


There was a herd of Black Angus cattle near our campground last weekend at State Forest State Park — I will be writing more about the park itself soon.

Tuesday morning they were right down around the trailer, noisily crunching grass, bumping the trailer (just once), and mooing, led by the cow-municator in chief.

He is not in this video, but there was a white Shorthorn* bull in with the Black Angus cows. That is one of his offspring there, I suppose.

Now I am thinking about a bovine smartphone app, like this one.

*I may have cousins in the cattle business, but I make no claims to expertise myself. But I think he was a Shorthorn, with the jowly face.

August 18, 2019

Whatever Happened to Pickup Campers?


A couple of weeks ago, my friend R. and I were talking about trailers and RVs and such (maybe because he had recently gotten a new-used boat), and we both had the same question: When did pickup campers go away?

They were the inexpensive gateway to car-camping if you did not want to sleep in a tent due to weather or (conceivably) bears. 

"And you could tow your boat behind it," R. pointed out.

We both remembered how when we were kids, a lot of the dads in the Boy Scout troop or whatever showed up with campers mounted on their 1960s or 1970s or maybe early 1980s pickups. 

Sometimes the camper was slid out of the pickup bed in the off-season and left sitting on sawhorses in the side yard, while the pickup was used for other hauling or just as a daily driver.

Was this just another example of American Feature Creep? More and more gadgets, more and more dollars? Did Plain Jane pickup campers not offer enough profit margin compared to motorhomes and camping trailers? I suspect that they did not.

I still see a few, often with pop-tops, which helps with the wind resistance out on the highway, but nothing like during my childhood.

August 13, 2019

Fighting Washboard Gravel Roads

The county Road and Bridge department put this up on the road that I travel now and then. I appreciate what they are trying to do — in a county full of gravel roads, maintaining them is a constant job.

Today I noticed that the road up to our mushrooming grounds had gotten noticeably rougher in just a week, to where if I don't slow down, the lightweight Jeep Wrangler will want to start dancing sideways.

So what is going on? Some physicists worked on the issue:
Just about any road with a loose surface — sand or gravel or snow— develops ripples that make driving a very shaky experience. Physicists have recreated this "washboard" phenomenon in the lab with surprising results: ripples appear even when the springy suspension of the car and the rolling shape of the wheel are eliminated. The discovery may smooth the way to designing improved suspension systems that eliminate the bumpy ride. . . .
"The hopping of the wheel over the ripples turns out to be mathematically similar to skipping a stone over water," says University of Toronto physicist, Stephen Morris, a member of the research team.
"To understand the washboard road effect, we tried to find the simplest instance of it," he explains. "We built lab experiments in which we replaced the wheel with a suspension rolling over a road with a simple inclined plow blade, without any spring or suspension, dragging over a bed of dry sand. Ripples appear when the plow moves above a certain threshold speed."
At Midwest Industrial Supply, which sells dust-control and soil-stabilization products to counties like ours, they note that 
Protracted periods of dry weather can also lead to washboarding, as arid conditions cause the crust that forms on the surface of gravel roads to loosen and become more susceptible to reshaping by passing tires. Conversely, if a gravel road doesn’t have the appropriate crowned road profile, water won’t be able to drain properly. Water will then accumulate in depressions and ripples in the road, which will in turn be deepened by passing traffic.
 That "certain threshold speed" is about 3–5 mph, depending who you ask, and speed does make the washboarding process worse.

All this raises another question in my mind. Did horse-drawn carriages and wagons create washboard surfaces too? (I expect that their narrow wheels mostly left ruts, but I do not know for sure.) And if so, did the advent of washboarding lead the old-timers to cuss those newfangled motorcars for ruining the roads?

Hawk's Wing in Hiding


This is Sarcodon imbricatus, known to its friends as hawk's wing — or hedgehog mushroom, but there are no hedgehogs in North America, ergo we don't use that name.

Some people say they can be bitter, but I, my wife, and Wild Food Girl like them.  There is a soup recipe in the download at the link, or see this.

August 07, 2019

Things that Grow from White Fir Stumps

Another fir seedling. It is not growing from the stump's
root system, but from a seed that started in the decayed sump.

A mushroom. Yes, it is attached.

A rock. I figured it was attached as well.

August 05, 2019

Brome Grass and Bear Shit — Thinking about this Summer

I
Liatris punctata

The Liatris are starting to bloom, which marks beginning of Late Summer here in the foothills. Funny thing, with last spring having been so wet, I expected a wildflower explosion. And the summer has been fairly rainy, although with a hot and dry period in July.

Nope. Where are the wild geraniums? Golden banner? Where are [fill in the blank]? Some asters, vetches, locoweed, yarrow . . .  they showed up.

At higher altitudes, there is much more profusion. We must have been in some kind of  meteorlogical "doughnut hole" again.

The Magyar Menace
Instead, early summer turned into March of the Brome Grass.  There have been patches of it here and there, but something — presumably the extra moisture — really threw its switch this year.

Fun fact: Smooth brome was imported from Hungary in 1884. Some consider it invasive, but the ranchers seem to like it. Not like cheatgrass, in other words, which is a brome too but which is evil.

What are some alternatives? The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources suggested these natives:
I tried my own line-up this year with plants bought from Hartungs' Desert Canyon Farm in Cañon City, one plant each of Indian ricegrass, Achnatherum hymenoides; big (giant) sacaton, Sporobolus wrightii; and silver spike grass, Achnatherum calamagrostis

These are my three test plants. They are hard to see, but all are doing well. Now it's a matter of harvesting seed.

And the bears!

A black bear left this little calling card near the house on July 24th. Fisher the dog had been on alert that night — rushing out onto the veranda barking, then into the back dog run barking — he knew Somebody was out there.

It looked like the bear had eaten some immature currants, but I don't know how much nutritional value it extracted. One bush not far from the site was pretty well stripped. I ate on currant for form's sake the next morning, out of a sense of brotherhood with the bears, who taught the peoples what to eat.

That was Early Summer. Now it is Late Summer, mushroom season. More to come about all that.

August 02, 2019

Driving Around Looking for a Farmers Market

Farmers market in Westcliffe, Colorado.
A few years ago, we had a membership in a CSA farm on "the mesa" outside Pueblo. In the summers, we planned our weekly shopping/library trip to coincide with the day when we could harvest or pick up our fruits and vegetables.

Then "our farmer" had some life changes and closed his operation, scattering his interns to the Colorado winds.

Vegetable gardening here in the foothills is a tricky operation, so for more volume and variety, we relied on farmers markets.

Only most of them that we see are only about 10-percent fresh food to begin with. The rest are selling crafts, preserved foods (jellies, etc.), burgers, brats, tamales, homemade soap, CBD products, house plants, fabric thingies, wooden thingies, adoptable dogs . . . you name it.

We made a circuit of four or five markets in a three-county area but more or less settled on the Saturday market at El Pueblo History Museum. In June the Pueblo Chieftain proclaimed,
The grounds of El Pueblo History Museum will soon be inundated with farm-fresh produce, crafts made by local artists, popular Pueblo food trucks, and countless other locally made goods as the museum gears up for the annual El Pueblo Farmers Market.
"Inundated" is not the word I would use. Yes, there were food trucks, but some food vendors that had been there last year had disappeared. One organic-grower couple whom we called "the Ravens" were back, but with less than usual. On our first visit, the third week of June, we bought some veggies from them and from Arkansas Valley Organic Growers. AVOG's radishes were too woody to slice, and their mushrooms were about a day away from rotten.

M's very favorite grower was not there that day or subsequently. Meanwhile, the museum's market day had shifted from Saturday to Friday, putting them in head-to-head competition with another one in town. In an editorial titled "Dueling Farmers Markets," the Chieftain noted,
Obviously, it will be tougher for shoppers who work regular weekday schedules to make it to either market, unless they can find time on their lunch hours. Trying to spend any significant amount of time browsing at both markets on a lunch hour would pose a significant challenge. . . .  it seems logical that at least some of the vendors would like to hedge their bets by selling at both markets. For small mom-and-pop operations, that will be difficult, if not impossible, with the conflicting dates and times.
In Fremont County, the Thursday market in Florence seemed sparser than ever in terms of actual food. One significant organic grower had dropped out two years ago for unspecified reasons, while another, smaller operator decided that he was better off selling from his own farmstand two days a week.

In Custer County, the Westcliffe farmers market was the healthiest of the bunch, in terms of producers' offerings, which (being Westcliffe) included local grass-fed beef and too-sweet Amish cakes and breads. My favorite tamale vendor was there too.The county's population triples when the summer people arrive, and there is a distinct vibe of said summer people wanting to shop there in order to participate in local culture. (I have no problem with that.)

Also, there is live music, although you have to wonder if "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" is music for food-shopping.

M. and I weighed the reasons why we visit these different towns, and in the end, we started planning some errands so that we could visit the farmstand. No more chasing the perfect farmers market.

But I still need to buy and freeze more tamales.

July 22, 2019

Who Says There Is No Gain in Reading?

I was reading The Raw and the Cooked, a book of food-related essays by Jim Harrison that appeared mostly in Esquire magazine in the 1980s and 1990s, when a partly full packet of 34¢ postage stamps fell out. That price dates them to 2001, the year of publication.

Who says there is no gain in reading?

It was a used copy bought in Taos last June, and it had been sitting in the bedside pile atop the dog crate.

When Harrison died in 2007, several of my friends and I all independently turned to one of his poems, "Barking."
The moon comes up.
The moon goes down.
This is to inform you
that I didn't die young.
Age swept past me
but I caught up.
Spring has begun here and each day
brings new birds up from Mexico.
Yesterday I got a call from the outside
world but I said no in thunder.
I was a dog on a short chain
and now there's no chain.
I should go thaw some venison, make some chimichurri sauce or at least a cheese sandwich, stop staring at those words.

July 19, 2019

Fictional Game Wardens and the "Natural Resources Mystery Novel"

I have just started reading Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash.

Rash, a poet and novelist, has deep roots in western North Carolina. I chose this book because I like "natural resource mystery novels," and the protagonists are a newly retired county sheriff and a state park ranger. 

The honorary parents of the "natural-resources mystery novel" might be Tony Hillerman  (1925–2008) and Nevada Barr. Hillerman's two Navajo tribal policemen, Lt. Jim Leaphorn and Officer (later Sgt.) Jim Chee, deal with all sort of crimes, but a percentage of them involve people wanting to exploit something about the Big Reservation—archaeological sites, minerals, whatever. (His daughter, Anne, carries on the series.)

Barr (b. 1952) worked in theatre and television before taking a job as a seasonal National Park Service ranger at Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas, the site of her first mystery novel, Track of the Cat (1993), which introduced protagonist Anna Pigeon, a Park Service law-enforcement ranger.

All I can say about Ranger Pigeon is that she is extraordinarily physically resilient. Any actual NPS ranger with her list of injuries — all logged here — would have retired on full disability five or six books ago. Wikipedia sums up Barr's plots: "The books in the series take place in various national parks where Pigeon solves murders that are often related to natural resource issues."


So it would seem that natural-resources crime would be perfect for mystery writers. It does not always work out that way.

Wyoming writer C. J. Box created state game warden Joe Pickett, who first appeared in Open Season (2001), followed by eighteen more. As the series moves on, Joe Pickett quickly spends less and less time catching poachers, etc., and more being a sort of special investigator for the governor of Wyoming, although that gig ends when the governor leaves office.

A typical plot involves Joe getting in over his head facing a family of criminals, drug-cartel sicarios, or some other baddies, only to be rescued by his own personal "noble savage," the mystic falconer/special-ops veteran Nate Romanowski, who appears suddenly to save the day, eliminating bad guys with his .454 Casull revolver by shooting offhand from half a mile away.

Box can write a tight thriller — the Cassie Dewell novels, starting with The Highway, are better-plotted and less repetitious than the Joe Pickett series.

Maine is not Wyoming, and Paul Doiron's series about Maine warden Mike Bowditch seem more rooted in nature and culture than Joe Pickett's Wyoming.  Maybe that is because Doiron used to edit Down East, "the magazine of Maine." The series begins with The Poacher's Son (Mike, of course)

The next one I need to read is The Precipice. Here is the synopsis:
When two female hikers disappear in the Hundred Mile Wilderness — the most remote stretch along the entire Appalachian Trail — Maine game warden Mike Bowditch joins the desperate search to find them. 
Hope turns to despair after two unidentified corpses are discovered, their bones picked clean by coyotes. Do the bodies belong to the missing hikers? And were they killed by the increasingly aggressive wild dogs?
Soon all of Maine is gripped by a fear of deadly coyote attacks. But Bowditch has his doubts. His new girlfriend, wildlife biologist Stacey Stevens, insists the scavengers are being wrongly blamed. She believes a murderer may be hiding in the offbeat community of hikers, hippies, and woodsmen at the edge of the Hundred Mile Wilderness. When Stacey herself disappears along the Appalachian Trail, the hunt for answers becomes personal.
Real police work is bureaucratic — and so is being a game warden or park ranger. But because they so often work alone, far from back-up, they make appealing protagonists with a dose of "What would I do out there?"

July 11, 2019

Bobcats Released, Bunnies Beware


Bobcats. Photo by Tom Sanders, Wet Mountain Wildlife.
Two  bobcat kittens (Felis rufus) came into the local rehabilitation shelter a year ago. Actually, at one point there were three, but one released himself, hung around for a time for the free meals, and then went on his way. These two stayed put and ate rats. Lots of rats, delivered by the Rat Man, who was usually me.

I picked up so many rats at the Raptor Center that I felt I needed a steampunk Rat Man costume and a Cockney accent: "Foine rats, madam. None better!"

I always thought the Raptor Center raised their own rats and mice, but they buy them too. They come neatly arranged on a plastic-wrapped foam tray, just like when you buy rats at the supermarket. 

Rats may be ordered by size, up from "pinkies" to "jumbo," or whatever the New York-size ones are called.

But enough about rats. The bobcats are them, grew up, and on the summer solstice they were released on the High Plains near Limon, Colorado. If you were thinking of them as a forest cat, think again — they were found near Limon, and they can make a living on rabbits, rodents, and maybe by scavenging birds knocked out the sky by the renewable electricity project in the background of the video (courtesy of Colorado Parks & Wildlife).

July 09, 2019

San Isabel, Where the Internet Ends, Sort of

That mysterious box at lower right.

My friend Galen has been visiting the Lodge at San Isabel since boyhood; me, I probably came first in the late 1980s. On a fishing trip last week, we stopped to photograph this newish sign (not 1930s original), but we noticed something else — the functional pay phone.

The information sheet that you get when asking about the lodge's rental cabins makes it clear: no mobile phone service (unless you have a satphone), no wifi at the lodge or cabins, no broadcast television, and no satellite-based TV or Internet access. (Some homeowners have satellite dishes, of course.) You can borrow DVDs to watch. Messages for guests are posted on a notice board by the main door.

Otherwise, go fishing. Go for a walk. Paddle a kayak. Do something.

It is almost like "the land where the Internet ends," a piece about Green Bank, West Virginia, that ran in the New York Times last month.

Green Bank is home to several giant radio telescopes, all set in a "National Radio Quiet Zone, 13,000 square miles of mountainous terrain with few cell towers or other transmitters." (That sounds a lot like much of the Wet Mountains, if you stay off the ridges.) Scientists studying weak signals from the cosmos want no interference. The area also attract "electrosensitives," people who think that cellular phone signals and other transmissions make them ill.

The writer, Pagan Kenndy, wonders,
Activists have already created “dark sky reserves” to protect wilderness from artificial light. In the future, might we also create “privacy reserves” where we can go to escape the ubiquitous internet?
As it happens, San Isabel is (mostly) in Custer County, where to the west, in the Wet Mountain Valley, there is already a "dark sky reserve" with a website, "star parties" and so on.

She talks to a stranger in line at a convenience store. There is something odd about him.
The man carried himself oddly, with his chest puffed out and his head swiveling as if to scan everything in the store, from the hunting gear to the Little Debbie display case. I thought his posture must have been a remnant from his brain injury, but then realized everybody seemed to be walking around with the same heads-up attitude. Take away the cellphones, it turns out, and you also take away the cellphone hunch. And with nothing else to do but meet one another’s eyes, people talk. 
 Or they are gazing at the lake, watching the ospreys dive, looking to see if the trout are rising.