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Archive for the ‘Natural History’ Category

We’ve had two whopper storms to kick off the winter rainy season.

The first, October 25, brought sheeting rain, unbelievable wind and waves. The Port of Port Orford, which we visited in the morning, had, by afternoon, sustained heavy damage, in the end estimated at over $1 million.

The Port 10/25 courtesy of Melissa Campbell

The Port 10/25
courtesy of Melissa Campbell

No people or fishing vessels were lost but a fish processing building went over the edge taking numerous fish storage tanks along, the Port office had 18” of water, waves topped the rock jetty damaging it, and one side of Griff’s, a seafood restaurant on the dock, was pushed out.

Griff's, two days later

Griff’s, two days later

Port, 10/28

Port, 10/28

The surf was amazing, totally covering the port beach and the wind was so strong our 10-year-old grandson had to run to stay in place at the overlook. The pelicans and seagulls came onshore en masse and hunkered down to wait it out on the headlands.

pelicans

pelicans

Gulls and Pelicans

Gulls and Pelicans

The second storm, which hit Port Orford Friday managed to tip over half a trailer home on Highway 101 just where it enters Port Orford from the south. (I guess those high profile vehicle warnings on the weather went unheard or were ignored. They were predicting 70 mph gusts!) The wind and rain was hard enough to wake me up Friday night but by Saturday all was just a passing memory.

Today, the sun is shining. And the streets are dry. No one can say the weather around here isn’t dramatic.

blown over trailer house

blown over trailer house

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The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert. Henry Holt and Co. New York, NY. 2014. 319 pp.

Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction has received glowing reviews since its release in February.

Her writing, is lucid, inviting, eclectic, engaging and in some instances downright, if only vicariously, exhausting for us armchair travelers as we tag along with her as she treks around the globe, hunting for examples of the story of mass extinctions. Generally biological time on earth has been divided into five great extinctions. The rise of homo sapiens, and our impact on the rest of the world is considered by Kolbert (and most field biologists) to have set the sixth great extinction in motion.

Sixth-extinction-nonfiction-book-kobertKolbert makes an amazing number of stunning and mind-bogglingly depressing observations. Reviewers have marveled at her “objectivity” in presenting facts like this: “Today, amphibians enjoy the dubious distinction of being the world’s most endangered class of animals; it’s been calculated that the group’s extinction rate could be as much as forty-five thousand times higher than the background rate.” For facts as nightmarish as hers, a “hair on fire” approach would certainly not be out of order. Still, I can imagine two reasons for it: One is to let the facts speak for themselves, which to people like me, they do, elegantly and inarguably. The other, and probably equally potent, is that expressing any kind of emotion would give the idiot deniers of human-caused mass extinctions (much less climate change) the lead to dismiss out-of-hand as mere hysterical overreaction what is the frightening reality of what they are being presented with.

The one literary trick she uses I wish she would tone down is a New Yorker trademark in science writing, the interjection of information on personality and physical descriptions of the scientists which are generally novel but unenlightening. For example, one of people she interviews has differently colored eyes. I may be easily distracted, but I retained that factoid rather than the scientific discoveries those eyes had made.

Still this is a timely and important book whose major takeaway is precisely this:

“To argue that the current extinction event could be averted if people just cared more and were willing to make more sacrifices is not wrong, exactly; still, it misses the point. It doesn’t much matter whether people care or don’t care. What matters is that people change the world.”

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It’s been a dry 2014 here in the Sonoran Desert, about 0.6 inches of rain. Annual amounts for January through May average about 3.3 inches. So less than 20% of the average rainfall for the first five months of the year. We’ve had one true rain since we arrived in late December.

It’s been hot as blazes the last few days as well, over 100° yesterday. Forecast today was 104° with a front moving through. It was 80° at 5:00 am. But even though the humidity just before dawn was less than 20%, clouds filled the sky and the weather forecasters, ever optimistic in the desert, gave it a 20% chance of rain.

By mid-morning we smelled it—the unique clean dry(?) smell of wettening creosote. Yes! It was raining somewhere within our aromascape. We waited expectantly. I felt a few drops as I ran to close the car windows. Then…nothing.

The desert is a harsh mistress. But nothing caps that amazing smell of desert rain. No matter where it might have fallen.

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All the Land to Hold Us: A Novel. Rick Bass. Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt. New York. 2013. 324 pp.

In 1970 Charles Reich wrote the runaway bestseller, The Greening of America. It was all about hippies and the new age coming and people living in peace and harmony. OK, that’s a slightly cynical synopsis but that’s how my pseudo-sophisticatedly 19-year-old self responded to it. He was talking about me (at least my cohort), and he seemed painfully naive to me, even then. But I doggedly persevered to the brutal end, 433 pages later. No lightbulbs went off; no aha moments. Oh geez, I thought then, When will I learn to stop reading when a book just isn’t working for me?

Well, about 10 years ago, as I began to see the arc of my life moving beyond its zenith, I started to drop novels if they didn’t move me within the first ten pages. Some even sooner. I embraced the idea that life is short and there are so many books to read…why read those that don’t speak to me?

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The Cover’s Great!

Recently I saw Rick Bass’ All the Land to Hold Us was a finalist for the 2013 Orion Award for fiction. I figured it would be my chance to read the five starred must-read Bass, a hero in literary and environmental circles.

And I tried, I promise I tried desperately, to embrace this book, despite its tempo (painfully slow), its characters (unlikeable and unlikely), its narrative arc (I’m still not sure where I ended up.) But I soldiered on through 324 pages of salt miners, and oil and gas people and rogue elephants, even a lily-white (literally) sorta-heroine who cooks her naked self to skin cancer scavenging for valuable fossils at the edge of the Permian Basin. She thought it was her ticket out of that nowheresville named Odessa, Texas.

That part—that Welcome to Odessa, Nowheresville part—I could definitely grab onto. But the glowing reviews, most using the word “lush” at some point or other, made me ask, “Yeah, but have you ever Seen West Texas?” This is the heart of the problem I had with this book. No desert is lush: Lush is reserved, to me, for luxurious, almost overwhelming vegetation, and if writing is lush, it needs to include a lot of plants, not just paragraph long, intricately woven, “throw every word you’ve got at it” descriptive writing. Bass goes out of his way to point out exactly how Not Lush West Texas is even as the descriptions of stark salt flats and rocky geological strata fill page after page.

I was particularly taken aback by a comparisons to Faulkner. Faulkner’s prose fit his Mississippi kudtzu-strangled ruined-plantation landscape. Bass’ West Texas, not so much.

The other characterization, magical realism, doesn’t work either. Surreal gets closer but it’s still hard to integrate giant puppets (even if there is a redux of the earlier elephant) with fundamentalist small town life that it felt to me, too often, like I was reading two books that the author was told to convert to one.

Honestly I wish I liked this book. I believe I’m exactly the demographic Bass is aiming for. And yes, I agree there is sometimes exceptional writing. But nothing matches. The location, the characters, the story line, they don’t make sense together. In fact even its nod toward environmental issues associated with oil and gas development seems to come too late with too little.

Wow, I guess Mr. Bass really did hit a nerve with me. That, in and of itself, is quite the accomplishment for any novel set in West Texas.

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Today we took a quick trip to Madera Canyon’s Santa Rita Lodging birding area—a group of covered roadside benches just perfect for relaxed birdwatching. Adjacent to a small grassy field holding about fifteen nearby numbered bird feeders all in a row and designed to attract different birds—we less adventurous (or time-pressed) birders can come up with some great quick spots. Although Madera Creek isn’t running (we’ve had about 20% of normal rainfall) and both the oaks and sycamores look pretty peaked, this is a time for migration through and coming home for many bird species. In less than an hour we saw flocks of lesser goldfinches, broad billed and black chinned hummingbirds, wild turkeys, a black headed grosbeak and, probably most spectacularly, a lazuli bunting. Not bad for some essentially drive-by birdwatching.

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Beauty is not a word one associates with contemporary art and literature. In fact, beauty is something of a pariah in esthetics generally. The ugly the grotesque the brutal the bizarre have cache. If art follows life, it does seem quaint to talk about beauty in this age of political upheaval, cultural relativism, raging consumerism, rampant technology, environmental tragedy.

But—democratically speaking—is not beauty in the eye of the beholder? The great nineteenth century lyric poet John Keats gave beauty its most ethereal meaning, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”.

Finally, art is said to mirror nature. Nature can certainly be brutal, cruel, ugly, in human terms. But in the eyes of many, nature is also full of beauty, plain and simple beauty. In fact the kind of beauty that also attracts insects and birds, no strings attached. A beauty that is beyond ecology, beyond human construct. Well, maybe within a human construct that opens our minds to an infinity of mental mirrors reflecting our long evolutionary inheritance, emerging as we did as a species when the only truth was nature.

And somehow after a million years of inhabiting earth we humans can still find beauty in nature, even desert beauty in a parched land of thorns and spines, heat and dust. And some of us we will even agree with John Keats—beauty is after all truth. SRE (All photos © SR Euston)

 

 

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Arizona is dry. After parched Nevada, the second driest state. But it has a great river.

That river begins with freshets in the Colorado Rockies, is infused by New Mexico rivers, carves  great canyons in Utah, reluctantly accepts Glen Canyon Dam, then revived,  goes about its  great geological task, uncovering the incandescent  sandstone glories of the Grand Canyon.

Then there is the Santa Cruz. A puny sort of non-river in southeastern Arizona looking mostly like a road in the sand.

It wasn’t always so. Spanish missionaries, Mexican settlers, the Mormon Battalion, Anglo developers—they found a river flowing, small but life giving with cottonwoods,  riparian pools, grassy wilds, from its headwaters near Patagonia, dipping into Mexico, flowing free, meeting the Gila River as it  rolled on to join the Colorado at Yuma. The river flowed through early Tucson, watered the lands at Mission San Xavier, provided for irrigation.

The Colorado still glistens below the Grand Canyon. The Gila River still has some wild upstream stretches. But the little Santa Cruz is nearing extinction. Ground water pumping continues, the water table drops, the drought plagued watershed is filled with mines and houses and cattle. To use a watery analogy, the glass by now is far less than half full. But for optimists there’s a hopeful exception—a cottonwood shaded flowing stretch below Nogales that is replenished with clean effluent  from an international  waste treatment plant—technology for once in service of the environment.

The exceptions always give one hope. Here is a mesquite-cottonwood riparian refuge, an exceptional birding environment offering walks, photography and a semblance of the old Santa Cruz. One easy access point to all this is at Tumacacori National Historic Park.

Recently southern Arizona got its first rains since mid-December. After the rain, a good inch and a half, the Santa Cruz River bed at Green Valley was braided with silver meandering streams, under the eye of the rain drenched, snow touched sky Island peaks of the Santa Rita Mountains. For a moment, this river was flowing.The photography offered a few fleeting chances.  Maybe even an environmental pessimist can find hope.

The following photographs move back and forth between cottonwoods and placid river in the upper, semi-restored,  stretch at Tumacacori, and the evanescent apperance after early March rains of  a shinning but rushing and muddy stream near the Continental Road Bridge in Green Valley, taken mostly in black and white.   SRE

 

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