August 16, 2021

Brown Trout, Road Work, Yurts: Getting Re-located on the Arkansas River

Waiting for a pilot car on US 50 near Texas Creek. The driver is Darryl Godot.

I went fishing on the Arkansas River today, which should be normal as pie for a southern Coloradoan, but for me it has not been that way.

I just wasn't making enough time for fishing—and then COVID 19 fell like an old-time theatre fire curtain. That should have made for more time, me being already in work-at-home mode, but I was fooling myself: I was not invulnerable to the "languishing" and loss of purpose affecting many of the Laptop Class.

My last remaining two-piece medium-weight spinning rod had died in combat at North Michigan Reservoir in State Forest State Park in August 2019, and I finally replaced it last month. So today's mission was  to (a) try out the new rod and (b) go someplace.

I came out of a side canyon on a little county road, popping onto US 50 beside the Arkansas River,  where the traffic was pouring up the river — eighteen-wheelers, RVs of all description, and the repurposed school buses favored by the whitewater rafting companies, painted with names like "Chuck" and "Dionysus."

On the sound system, Mara Aranda is singing in Latin and Ladino. Lots of drums. It all fits —  a troop of medieval lancers on skinny horses might pick their way down these rocky slopes looking right at home.

Smoky haze from fires further west fills the canyon, obscuring "Precambrian rocks cut with black dikes and white dikes." It's like a haze of memory: I am driving down the canyon in my old pickup late at night, headlights on the granite walls, after visiting that girl in Salida. She ditched her radio DJ boyfriend and came down to my place, but the kindling just never caught fire, and she went back to  . . . LA?

Forward a few years—beer, chips and salsa on the patio of the old Salida Inn as local Trout Unlimited members strategize how to protect fisheries in the proposed state parks division's Arkansas Headwaters Recreation area, which seems to be all about commercial rafting, commercial rafting, and oh yes, kayaking. Colorado Trout Unlimited's state resource director, Leo Gomolchak (major, USA, ret.) was always there to keep us fighting. I walk out to the parking lot with him—the tires on his Bronco are worn down to the steel cords. (He resembled the actor Lloyd Bridges, don't you think?)

Another memory: coming down the canyon at night in my friend Dave's truck, and a mountain lion comes up from the river, dashes in front of us, and climbs the steep hillside on the right, at speed. 

The spinning rod is no longer a virgin, so to speak.  We will eat trout. I am normally a catch-and-release guy on wild trout, but at least once in a season, I eat some, if only to recognize that this is Serious Business for the fish, if not for us. It's not like a friendly game of tennis where the players shake hands across the net. "Good game!" "Great casting, man, total respect!"

But I had gotten so disconnected. The river seemed higher than I expected—I had not even checked a fishing report. The Wellsville river gauge, upstream from where I stood, was showing 766 cfs, definitely in the fishable zone but still a little higher than I had expected. 

I was back to wearing new-ish rubber-footed hip waders, which reminded me about how in the late 1980s and 1990s, you were a total bumpkin if you wore rubber-footed waders. All the kool kidz had felt-soled wading boots, and eventually so did I.  

Ed Valdez, the short and stocky original owner of the Cañon City fly shop Royal Gorge Anglers, used to refer to the Arkansas' underwater surface as "greased cannonballs," in other words, slimy rocks. He wore felt soles with strap-on cleats, and he cast a long fly line. "I'm short, so I have to cast good," he said.

Now many states have outlawed felt-soled boots because they can more easily spread invasive organisms. Deplorable rubber soles are cool again.

And I am feeling a little unsteady on the "greased cannonballs," even in ankle-deep water. Note to self: bring a wading staff. Yet as ever, the presence of the river draws a curtain between me and the highway traffic. There is only the rod, the lure, the water, maybe the trout. Until the sun is too high, and I feel my  concentration slackening.

So I had a hamburger at a little store. The gas pumps were plastic-bagged, and the the indoor restrooms were dead. What is this, the Other Colorado? There were porta-potties — evidently on the six-month service plan.

I drove down part of the highway that I had not seen for five years or more. How is this happening? It's the Covid Contraction. Must fight it! 

There was road work in progress. Cue the northern-states joke about there being only two seasons, "winter" and "highway construction."

A rafting company now offers "luxury riverside yurts." True, they were on the river bank, but they were in a gravel parking lot where the paying customers get off the buses, hear their safety lectures, and load onto rafts to run the Royal Gorge. And all this only a hundred yards from US 50's truck traffic. Maybe at night it is a "luxury" experience.

And so back up in altitude to home. Five stars, will do it again.

August 09, 2021

On the Perils of Navigation with a Small Screen

Oil pan cracked, the bus sits on Coffee Pot Road. (Photo: Garfield County Sheriff)
People in Colorado are having a good laugh over the hapless Greyhound bus driver who took his passengers onto a rough Forest Service road, following some app that was supposed to route him around the part of Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon that is currently closed due to mudslides.

Meanwhile, the state highway department  supposedly prevailed on Google Maps and Apple Maps to mark Independence Pass (Colorado 82) as "closed," which led to a lot of the Denver-based media saying it was closed "due to mudslides."

Not true — the closure was to keep oversize vehicles off the road. There is signage, but when people who don't know the road try to use it as a detour, inevitably some big motor home or tractor-trailer rig ends up stuck.

I am happy to let Siri on my iPhone guide me around a city, but the small screens just don't do the job when you need to orient yourself in a large area. Nothing — so far — beats a big paper map that lets you see the relationships of Place A, Place B, and Where You Are Now.

Last Friday, M. and I were driving down a long gravel road homeward-bound from mushroom hunting. Below us, a car with two kayaks on the roof pulled out from a popular creekside parking spot, and the driver turned left, uphill. As we came past, she waved. We stopped.

"Can you tell me where the campground is?" she asked, holding up her cellphone.

I blanked for a moment. "There is no developed campground up here," I said.

 "I mean the _______ Creek Campground," she said. "We made a reservation there."

"Oh," I replied, "You passed that about six miles back."

(True, the Forest Service signage there could be better. It is easy to miss the turn-off to this little public campground if you mistake it for a private driveway — you have to pass a small private campground and a couple of houses on the way in.)

She turned around and followed us, over washboard and potholes and cattle guards, until we passed the turn-off, when M. rolled down her window and made vigorous pointing gestures to the right. The would-be campers had only lost about 45 minutes wandering around and then being re-directed.

• I suspect that if she had zoomed in far enough to see the forest roads on her map, then her posiition and the campground would not be on the screen at the same time, making it hard to see their relationship.

If she backed out her view enough to see the campground (if it was on the map), she probably could not see how to get there.

• I did not know that that small campground was now in the Rocky Mountain Recreation Company reservation system. Makes sense though.

• Where they were going to use those kayaks I do not know.

UPDATE: As of Tuesday, August 10,  the state highway department was still feuding with Google Maps. Good luck with that.

July 30, 2021

All My Flycatchers, Season 17: The "Spare Tire" Strategy


 Season 17.
There is nothing like monitoring a bird's nest to collapse time — it is like there is only one spring and one summer, constantly cycling, and in the end — some day — I will be this grumpy old man who cares about nothing except whether a pair of Cordilleran flycatchers have returned in June.

This year's "Lucinda" built a nest on the Official Flycatcher Nesting Shelf, sheltered under the eave on the back of the house, above human head height, and protected (I would like to think) from most predators.

She laid three eggs, pictured. And then a few days later, a fourth, which never hatched. This seems to be a pattern — a late fourth egg, maybe intended as a sort of "spare tire." Sometimes there is fourth chick, but they never seem to live. Several times, when cleaning out the nest (flycatchers do not re-use nests), I have found the desicated featherless body of the fourth chick.

"Trying their wings" is not a metaphor

Meanwhile, eating breakfast and supper on the front porch this past week, I was watching a flycatcher making its short hunting flights from a dead limb on a ponderosa pine tree. It seemed like a good hunting spot, since it overlooked a small open area.

Then I saw the bird land on another larger limb and watched it with binoculars. Wow! another nest, with three little heads poking out. I got my spotting scope and a small tripod that fit on the table top. I know, very Ranger Rick, birding between bites of breakfast.

Two days ago, one chick was stretching out a wing that looked fully fledged. Yesterday morning, it was out of the nest, sitting on the branch beside it, but still being fed by one of the parents. 

This morning, all three were out of the nest. If they were raptors, I would call them "branchers," but do you use that word with passerine birds too? Anyway, there they were, outside the nest but sticking close, occasionally beating their wings without taking off. (We could hear the soft thumps from twenty yards away.) 

The adults, meanwhile, kept up a steady cycle of fly in, land, feed one or two young, fly away, perch, hunt, and repeat.

By late afternoon, the nest and the branch that it sits on were empty of flycatchers. Maybe the lease ran out on July 30th.

I wonder if there is a forgotten fourth egg up there.

July 12, 2021

Rolling Down from Rattlesnake Gulch

 

A smokey sunset over the hood of Engine 968. This was a Jeep wreck up the canyon, not a fire call, but I still like it when I can work the place name "Rattlesnake Gulch" into my report in the National Fire Incident Reporting System. It's just so by-gawd Western.

Will This Be Mega-Mushroom Year? Or, Foraging Texas-Style

 

I was hiking on June 25th with my wife and my niece when I found the giant puffball on the right.  I cut it in half to make sure it was still fresh enough to take home—and it was.

Then as we were driving the little road out from the trailhead, my niece, who was in the right-hand back seat, starts shouting, "Wait! Wait! Stop!"

She had spotted the other puffball. She has good instincts — she spent her teen years on my sister's farm, where aside from electricity and motor vehicles, it was pretty much 1890 — hand pump for water by the sink, wood heat, and the privy was out back. You blast the kudzu with a shotgun when it tries to crawl in through the screen door, that kind of thing.

"I never foraged from a car before," she said, climbing back in. 

"That's doing it Texas-style," I said.

But seriously, while the Western Slope is baking, here in southern Colorado we are getting early tastes of monsoon weather, and I have never picked so many mushrooms this early at this altitude (below 8500 feet, give or take). It was the first year that we had the dehydrator running in June.

M. and I will be heading for higher country soon. We have hopes.

July 04, 2021

Apple Pie Is Not Always for Your Enemies

 

Every now and then, M. reverts to her New England roots and serves apple pie for breakfast  (The white stuff is yoghurt.)

I like it, but now it reminds me a visit a few years back to the Salem (Mass.) Athenaeum.  They had an exhibit on historical food-writing, and — in a humorous and ironic way — were giving out cards printed with Mark Twain's description of traditional New England apple pie:

To make this excellent breakfast dish, proceed as follows: Take a sufficiency of water and a sufficiency of flour, and construct bullet-proof dough. Work this into the form of a disk, with the edges turned up some three-fourths of an inch. Toughen and kiln-dry it a couple of days in a mild but unvarying temperature. Construct a cover for this redoubt in the same way and of the same material. Fill with stewed dried apples; aggravate with cloves, lemon peel, and slabs of citron; add two portions of New Orleans sugar, then solder on the lid and set in a safe place till it petrifies. Serve cold at breakfast and invite your enemy.

For all that he lived some years in Connecticut, Twain's preference was always for Southern cooking.

June 30, 2021

The Last Post I Will Write about Fisher

When he could still run — Fisher, spring 2017.

Once there was a Chesapeake Bay retriever named Fisher, whom we took in as a 2-year-old "rescue" back in 2009. 

Over the years he progressed from Horrible Dog — there were reasons why his first owners could not cope with him — to Horrid Dog to Exasperating Dog to Problem Dog to finally just The Dog. 

I have written about him here quite a few times, and he has popped up elsewhere in blogs and on Facebook, as in this blog post by hunting writer Holly Heyser on her old Norcal Cazadora blog. He appears there as "the guilty dog." 

Spinal problems from a nasty twisty fall he took while chasing something finally got to be too much. (I have been down that path before.) After three years of coaxing him along with gentle treatment, CBD oil, and pain medicine, it was time for the curtain to fall, last week, just short of his 14th birthday.

I am training myself not to check the front porch for his presence every time that I drive in.

June 14, 2021

A Lesson from a Veteran Tracker


I never got a chance to learn animal tracking from some near-mythical Apache who could track a mouse across slickrock. But a couple of weeks ago I had another kind of tracking lesson.

Some of us volunteer firefighters  were called to a motorcycle wreck just inside the county line, but when we rolled up, there was no rider, no ambulance, just a couple of Colorado State Patrol troopers walking up and down beside the highway. There was nothing for us to do, but you always stop to make small talk anyway.

According to the CSP troopers, someone—the victim's riding buddy, I think—had called it in, and an ambulance came and picked him up before law enforcement was notified. Just one of those weird Dispatch things. 

(Maybe the call went to the larger adjacent county's dispatch center. Just because you call 911 does not mean you get the right jurisdiction.)

So what you do in these cases is stroll around and try to figure how this Suzuki C90 "Boulevard" came to be upside-down amidst spring wildflowers.

Someone pointed out narrow tire marks on the asphalt that veered toward the edge. Was that where he had gone off? Then a sheriff's deputy arrived, and the troopers treated him deferentially. Why? Because he was a senior CSP sergeant who had recently retired and—to fill his days and supplement his state pension—had gone to work as a county deputy.

(He is not the first. It's a good deal for the sheriff: for a small-county deputy's salary, he gets an experienced officer who is not yet ready to hang up his handcuffs.)

He was the "Apache tracker." He looked at the rubber skid mark and quickly dismissed it as an unrelated track left by (probably) a light trailer with a flat tire: "See how the mark is darker on the edges than in the middle?"

A few steps more and he pointed down—here was the motorcycle's track in the gravel, he said, estimating that the rider had come up a hill and gone almost—but not quite—around a curve at considerably above the 65 mph speed limit.

I bent down and looked. Oh yeah, and there farther on were flat drag marks on either side, left by the rider's boots as he struggled to keep control. It was all clear—or at least clear-er. 

Then the small shallow ditch and the tall grass had taken charge, rolling the Suzuki and tearing off various small parts. Apparently the rider survived.

It's always interesting to watch a master craftsman at work.

June 02, 2021

100th Anniversary: The Southern Colorado Floods of 1921

 

 

A Pueblo telephone operator made
this sketch after she was able to return to work.
If you have spent any time in southern Colorado, you've heard about the floods of early June 1921. Pueblo's gets the most attention: there are markers on old downtown buildings showing how far the water rose, with special attention to the old second-story telephone exchange room, where the "telephone girls" stayed at their switchboards, relaying emergency messages, until the water rose around their ankles and they were evacuated by boats.

The video comes from this Rocky Mountain PBS page about the flood.

Pueblo gets the attention because of the loss of life and the the property damage. 

But it was only Pueblo that suffered. The community of Penrose in eastern Fremont County was ripped by a flood whose damage still lingers when the days of steady rain cause the collapse of the earthen Shaeffer Dam on Beaver Creek.

The Glendale Stage Station in Penrose was put out of business
in the flood of 1921 and finally burned by vandals in the 1970s.
Heavy rains fell in early June of 1921, and by June 4th, cracks were appearing in the Schaeffer Dam. An urgent message was sent via horseback to all the settlers along Beaver Creek. Everyone heeded the call and took their livestock and as many household goods as possible to higher ground. On the morning of the 5th, the dam gave way and torrents of water raced downstream. The floodwaters continued from Beaver Creek down the Arkansas River all the way to Pueblo, where horrible flooding occurred. The fertile topsoil was washed away and most families did not return to the homesteads. No lives were lost and all the livestock were saved, but this was the end of the thriving settlements along Beaver Creek.

I don't think anything like June 1921 was seen again until June 1965, when Cherry Creek, which flows from the south into Denver, flooded, washing out Interstate 25 at Castle Rock and flooding parts of central Denver, but without as much loss of life. Cherry Creek Reservoir was built to keep that from happening again, and now it is a popular recreation area.

If you have information on the floods in other non-urban areas, please comment.

May 25, 2021

Black Bear Bolts in Rocky Mountain National Park (Updated with Video)

Young black bear boar runs for freedom (National Park Service)

At six a.m. last Thursday (the 20th) this young male black bear and his "cellmate" had some visitors: three National Park Service employees and two Colorado game wardens. The last were there to instruct the former in the fine points (heh) of darting and tranquilizing bears.

The two "boys" (subadults) came down from Rocky Mountain National Park to a rehabilitation center in southern Colorado after the East Troublesome Fire last year. They spent the winter getting fat — and somewhat bored — until finally it was time to release them in a area not so much frequented by park visitors.

One of the NPS staffers reported, "The boys were very well-behaved and calm on the trip. The release went really well — away from visitors."

The GPS-tracking collar shown is designed to come off after a time.

I would probably enjoy traveling up I-25 through Denver more if I could be tranquilized in a windowless trailer too.*


The rehabbers were curious if the two bears would pal around together for a time, but the GPS evidence said they did not.

"The bears stuck together for less than two minutes before going in separate directions. They're sub adults and their genetics are telling them to go off and find their own territories," one of the NPS stafers reported.

* Actually, bears in transit are usually recovering from the anesthesia with the aid of another drug. For one thing, it means one will not end up lying on top of the other and possibly smothering it. An exception might be if they have to be moved from the transport trailer on a sled or something, where they need to be kept quiet longer.


May 24, 2021

Turds, Trash, and Tire Tracks: The Car-Camping Pendulum Swings Again

1925 Ford Model T touring car (Wikipedia).
A century ago, our national forests had a problem. Behind the wheels of their Ford Model T's and other cars, Americans re-discovered camping. Soon over-used favorite camping areas were littered with trash, human waste, multple firepits, unauthorized roads, and all the other bad effects.

The US Forest Service was fifteen years old and trying to get a handle on "scientific" forest management, firefighting, and grazing management. It was part of the Department of Agriculture. ("We're tree-farmers," an old-school district ranger once told me.)

Recreation management was not on their to-do list. That was the National Park Service's job—different agency, different department—the Interior Department. 

Davenport Campground, 1920s, San Isabel National Forest,
southern Colorado, designed by Arthur Carhart as one
of the first automobile campgrounds.

The Model-T generation changed all that, driving and camping everyplace instead of taking the train and shuttling to a big resort hotel like the Old Faithful Inn.

By the early 1920s the Forest Service hired landscape architect (and wilderness advocate) Arthur Carhart to figure how to manage these automobile recreationists.

For more on Carhart's influence on southern Colorado, start here: "Looking for Squirrel Creek Lodge, Part 1."

The Forest Service built campgrounds up through the 1960s and 1970s, but the 1980s — the Reagan years — saw the pendulum swing the other. A couple of Carhart's recreational areas near me were closed in the early 1980s "due to lack of funding for maintenance." In the 1980s and 1990s, local Forest Service managers sang the praises of "dispersed camping." 

(But Daveport Campground, pictured above, was re-built in the early 2000s to re-create its 1920s appearance. Retro-camping with federal dollars — who knew?)

Everything Old Is New Again, Including Turds and Trash

Some people blame the COVID pandemic. I don't know, but suddenly car-camping (and hiking) is really popular. Some headlines:


"Nature 'more important than ever during lockdown'"

More than 40% of people say nature, wildlife and visiting local green spaces have been even more important to their wellbeing since the coronavirus restrictions began.

"Colorado public land managers rely on education, then enforcement to deal with a crush of long-term campers"

Closing heavily used campsites is public lands “triage” as Forest Service and local officials struggle to protect natural resources from a growing wave of backcountry campers and explorers this summer.

"Consultants present potential solutions to mitigate overcrowding issues at Quandary Peak and nearby trailheads"

As events were canceled last summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic, other activities — like hiking Quandary Peak, McCullough Gulch and Blue Lakes trails — skyrocketed in popularity. The influx of visitors to these areas last summer caused a barrage of issues like speeding, congestion, lack of parking and safety concerns

"Reservations will be required for Brainard Lake, Mount Evans beginning in June"
Some areas of Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests that allowed “dispersed” camping will be converted to day-use only


"Which Public Lands Are Right for You?"

Your bucket list should go beyond national parks. This decision tree will help you find lesser known locations with half the crowds. [Also more Instagrammable.—CSC]

Even if it is true that headliner national parks (like Great Smoky Mountains and Grand Canyon) saw fewer visitors due to COVID-related shut-downs, camping on close-in public lands has exploded.  Here in Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park visitation is up 44 percent over ten years, and the NPS wants a reservation system permanently. Not everyone likes that idea.

Suddenly, that loosely managed "dispersed camping" is being managed, heavily. There is a new term: "designated dispersed."

 
"Managed Designated Dispersed Camping Begins on South Platte Ranger District"

Rocky Mountain Recreation will begin managing 99 designated dispersed camp sites on the South Platte Ranger District portion of Rampart Range Road starting Friday, May 21. Each campsite is numbered, and designated parking areas are marked. Thirty of the campsites are available for reservation through recreation.gov and 69 sites are first come, first serve. Campers will be issued a tag to hang in their vehicle. Reserved sites will have a “Reservation” card posted at the campsite with the name of the visitor.

 On the Pike and San Isabel National Forests, the popular Rampart Range dispersed camping area near Woodland Park now has a complicated map. (Facebook link here.)


In the long run, maybe the USFS just needs more developed campsites, with regular maintenance, campground hosts, the whole business — or else a concessionaire to run them.

May 06, 2021

Death of a Wildlife Protector

 

I started donating at the "get a logo ball cap" level.
In 2018 I went with some other Backcountry Hunters & Anglers volunteers to clean up a cartel-run marijuana grow on national forest land in southern Colorado.

Although the growing crew had been arrested and the plants pulled up and piled. there was a lot of non-biodegradable trash to be collected for later helicopter pickup: a mile of plastic irrigating pipe, soggy sleeping bags, wire, chemical containers, food trash, etc.

We hiked in escorted by two Forest Service law-enforcement rangers armed with pistols and a AR-15 rifle. They scouted ahead to see if anyone had snuck back in (nope), and then we went to work. I thought at the time that with all the public-lands volunteer work I have done since Boy Scout days, this was first time that I had had an armed escort.

Central Africa, of course, is a different story. Armed escorts are a fact of life.

Rory Young (Chengeta Wildlife)

I learned about Chengeta Wildlife from Alan Bunn of African Expeditions magazine, which tracks a lot of poaching issues.

Unlike some well-known groups fighting poaching (mainly for the rapacious Chinese market) in East Afica, Cengeta works in central and western Africa — in nations such as the Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, Mali, and Burkina Faso.

Chengeta trains and equips anti-poaching rangers while also conducting "Education and outreach to ensure that the current generation and the next are aware of the need to conserve wildlife and protected areas" and attempting to create "Social pressure to deter and prevent wildlife crime: Working through traditional and religious leaders to positively influence local behavior.."

Its co-founder, Rory Young, was born in Zambia to Irish parents. 

On April 26th, Young was with two Spanish documentary filmmakers, Roberto Fraile and David Beriain, working on a film about anti-poaching efforts in Burkina Faso, when they and their escort were attacked by fighters from Jama'at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin, yet another Muslim jihadi group. All three were killed.

According to Chengeta' Wildlife's statement,

Rory was leading a wildlife protection patrol in Arly National Park, Burkina Faso on 26th April 2021 when they were attacked by terrorists, which resulted in his death and that of two Spanish journalists who were capturing his efforts to protect precious wildlife. 

The Spanish government flew their bodies back to Madrid. Here is video of their arrival at the Torrejón  Air Base. The cooperante irlandés would be Young.


The work will go on. Meanwhile, you can donate to a separate fund for help Young's wife and children. I did. I wouldn't feel right about wearing the cap unless I had.

If Looks Could Kill . . .


 . . . then these tom turkeys would be dead, because they are engaged in a hostile stare-down with their own reflections. Angry gobbling was heard.

Some mule deer in the background. Southern Colorado foothills life, at some friends' house.

May 02, 2021

What's Wrong with Arbor Day?

Born in southern Colorado, I spent much of my childhood in South Dakota, living where the Black Hills met the prairie. When it came to trees, the ethos was Trees Are Good — Absence of Trees is Bad

One Arbor Day we pupils at Canyon Lake Elementary School in Rapid City were herded out on the front lawn to watch a tree-planting. As best I can tell from Google Maps, that tree is still there, although its top looks a little drought-damaged.

Two hours south of Rapid City is Chadron, Nebraska, gateway to the Nebraska National Forest, "the largest hand-planted forest in the U.S." Not-coincidentally, the first Arbor Day in America was held in Nebraska and marked by massive tree-plantings throughout that state.

President Theodore Roosevelt thought that Arbor Day was a splendid idea and issued a national proclamation to that effect in 1907.

Trees Are Good, right? Or as the bumper sticker has it, "Trees Are The Answer."

Yet even in Nebraska, not everyone thinks so.

Chris Helzer, who is the Nature Conservancy’s director of science in Nebraska, speaks out against the Trees Are Good attitude beyond Arbor Day, when it affects prairie ecologies, in a blog post titled "The Darker Side of Tree Planting in the Great Plains."

Euro-American cultural attitudes, once again, collided with ecological realities, he writes,

In 1907, a combination of those [western Nebraska] tree plantations was designated as the Nebraska National Forest, something many Nebraskans were and are proud of.  I’ve always seen that whole process as a kind of sad appeal for respect (‘See, we DO have forests in Nebraska!’)  It’s like an accomplished and popular actor, musician, and philanthropist feeling inferior their whole life because they’re not good at basketball – and repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) trying out for teams. . . .

We have a lot of work to do if we’re going to get the public to support prairie conservation. Tree planting isn’t the problem, and neither are the people and organizations who advocate for it. Trees are very nice. Some of my best friends have trees.

The problem is that tree planting is linked to an unsavory and unfortunate legacy in the Great Plains that still colors perceptions today. We need to separate the reasonable practice of planting a tree for shade, shelter, or fruit from the concept that white Europeans have a God-given right and duty to convert barren prairie wastelands into neat rows of corn and trees. I’m sure most people aren’t consciously making that connection as they dig a hole for their new apple tree seedling, but that doesn’t mean the cultural influence isn’t lurking in the background.

He makes a good argument: healthy prairie ecosystems are wonderfully complex, and yes, they do store CO2, if that is on your mind. We could let prairie be prairie without "improving" it  — although even Helzer admits that shelterbelts are OK around farmsteads.

May 01, 2021

3 Nature Writers Lost in 2020: Richard Nelson

Earlier Posts: (1) Barry Lopez (2) Pentti Linkola 

I am fudging this one just a little. The anthropologist Richard Nelson (b. 1941) actually died in November 2019, but I did not hear about it until January 2020, when an archaeologist friend sent me a link to a number of news items in his field.

Reading email on my laptop in some coffeehouse in Colorado Springs, I was skimming the news items when I read of Nelson's passing —  "having asked that he spend his final minutes, after being taken off of life support, listening to the recorded sound of ravens."

Richard Nelson recording a gray jay, up close.
(Liz McKenzie for the Rasmuson Foundation).

The type got all blurry after that, and I don't remember any of the rest.

I did not know him, never heard him speak. His radio program, Encounters, was not on any station around here to my knowledge, but you can get samples online, such as here.

The Alaska-based Rasmuson Foundation  has a good page about Nelson.

I knew him through books: he wrote a number of them, first in a more anthropological vein, such as Hunters of the Northern Forests

As his Wikipedia page puts it, "[he] moved from anthropological studies to a more literary style" with Make Prayers to the Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest.

That was the book that pulled me in, with bits such as the Koyukon people telling him that it was impolite to point at a mountain. (The Koyukon speak a related language to Navajo and Apache; evidently they are the ones who said, "Fine, you go south. We like it here.")

The video above is based on that book. It is one of a series that you can find on YouTube.

He also wrote Heart and Blood: Living with Deer in America, among others, with its often-quoted statements that ""When it comes to deer, wildness is the greatest truth. And tameness is a tender, innocent lie." 

A reviewer on Goodreads wrote, "It's a really interesting look at people's relationships with deer from all angles (our spiritual and ecological connections with wildlife, the dilemma of controlling overabundant deer, trophy hunting, hunting deer for venison, the anti-hunting movement, etc.)."

I remember the passage about hunting blacktail deer in the coastal Alaska forest with his Border collie Keta:

Now . . . rather than staying close, Keta sidles off and lifts her nose as if there's a faint musk drifting in the breeze. She comes reluctantly when I gesture toward my heel. Taking her cue, I pause and watch ahead, then move when a sigh of wind in the trees covers the sound of our footsteps. Luckily, the ridge is well drained and densely carpeted in sphagnum moss, so it's fairly quiet going.

Keta's behavior telegraphs the scent's increasing strength: she moves forward, catches herself and looks back, falls in beside me, then shunts away to my left or right like someone pacing at a line she's been warned not to cross. She probes her nose into the breeze, occasionally reaching to the side for a stronger ribbon of scent. She hesitates and stares intently, aware that something is nearby but unable to pick it out. And most telling of all: she leans back and anxiously lifts a forepaw, possessed by her desire to charge off but yielding to the discipline she's learned, as if an inner voice were ordering her to wait.

By this time I'm convinced it must be a deer. If it were a bear, Keta would refuse to keep still and she'd woof suspiciously, deep in her throat. I edge along, furtive and stalking, as if I'd already seen the animal. At one point I even try sniffing the air, but for me there's not a hint of smell. It's strange, being completely numb to a signal that's as obvious to Keta as walking into a cloud of smoke. I stop for several minutes to study the ravel of shrubs and trees and openings ahead. But despite Keta's certainty, the place looks vacant to me.

And that passage concludes,

No scientist, no shaman, no stalker, no sentimentalist will ever understand the deer . . . and for this I am truly grateful. I am possessed by a powerful curiosity about this animal, but what I desire most is to experience and acclaim its mysteries. In our explorations of scientific and practical information about deer, we should always keep in mind what the elders and philosophers teach: that while knowledge dispels some mysteries, it deepens others.

I just wish someone had kidnapped him from the hospital to let him spend his last days with friends on that island, beneath the open sky, hearing real ravens, letting his spirit float free.