Monthly Archives: April 2007

Throwing myself at the mountain, seeing if I stick

Back for the first time since December 29. Back for the first time since… before.

Let me start by saying this: If you live within a two hour drive of Mount Diablo, go for a walk up Mitchell Canyon this week. I mean it. A short list of what was blooming today: Collinsia, Owl’s clover, scarlet and (insanely fluorescent) purple Delphinium, California poppies of the standard and light-margined coastal types, Clematis lasiantha, Ericameria, Castilleja, death camas, that three-leafletted shrub I always forget to hey out that I want to call hopseed with clusters of white flowers, yellow monkey flowers in the creek, Mule’s ears, other Damned Yellow Composites, wallflower, native thistles, more Stylomecon than I have ever seen at one time in my life (the best group is at the head of the canyon, just before the trail starts to climb away from the creek) and, of course, Calochortus:

Calochortus

And where there are many flowers, there are many flower-dependent creatures.

Adelpha bredowii

Aside from the California sisters as seen above, there are checkerspots and orangetips and sulfurs, swallowtails of both common kinds and half a dozen other butterflies I could not identify.

I had in mind a short little hike, not to the summit, maybe six miles or eight. I’ve been mainly off the trail. My natural tendency would be to go for the summit, and then to count the hike a failure if I did not have a summit in me. So I fixed Juniper Campground as my best-case scenario destination, a respectable hike, eleven miles up and back. If I turned back before that, or if my whim took a different trail and came down one of the back canyons, that would be fine too.

My whim took me off to the west a half mile below Juniper Campground, a trail called Burma Road. Maps I’d seen showed a loop between Burma Road and one of the first trails that branches off Mitchell Canyon Road. I had none of those maps with me, but shrugged: I could afford a mile or two of backtracking. It was early in the afternoon, and I dropped down the west side of the mountain in steep switchbacks, 1600 feet in a couple miles. Passed a concrete spring with algae and shy tadpoles, passed islands of peridotite and pine and lichen, passed curious wildlife.

ground squirrel

I took a right fork to a rather imposing fence. Barbed wire and cable, and beyond it a broad fire road headed straight for downtown Walnut Creek. not the direction I wanted. The left fork headed obviously in an even wronger direction. I started to worry, a little. Was I sure I didn’t have a map? I rifled the inner hidden pockets of my pack. Yes, I was sure I didn’t have a map.

My alternatives seemed to me as follows: I could hike out for civilization and take a cab to my truck. I could burrow under the mean-looking fence — I obviously wouldn’t be the first — and do some route-finding through the dry grass and chamise back to the truck. I could lie down and go to sleep.

I chose the fourth alternative: After laughing heartily at my utter stupidity, I trudged back up the way I’d come down. I filled my water bottle at Juniper Campground. There was a trail-runners marathon on the mountain, and they had a drinks table set up in the campground. I cadged some salt from them and walked back down Mitchell Canyon to the truck. Seventeen miles and 4960 feet, three miles more hike and twelve hundred feet more climb than if I’d just gone for the summit. Certainly not the longest hike I’ve ever done. But maybe the second-longest, and possibly the climbiest.

At the start of my detour down Burma Road, less than halfway through my 17-mile hike, I gained a vantage point over a broad meadow I’ve walked through dozens of times. I startled a coyote there, once, so rapt in hunting ground squirrels she did not see me approach. Yesterday the wind riffled the still-green grass, silver cats’ paws flowing across the sward. There is structure to the wind’s chaos, fronts and eddies, and I watched rapt as a hungry coyote. All I love are waves kicked up by the impact of light on earth, and we fade only a little less quickly than these shimmers in the grass.

Passing the spot on my way back Raven joined me for a time, circling, a quarter mile of company. I’ve missed you, I told her, and then told myself it was the wind that filled my eyes with tears.

Books

One drawback to quitting Earth Island this past winter: no paycheck. Having the time to take care of Zeke was an immeasurable gift, and the time since then to write has been almost as good. But though I’ve picked up a little work here and there, the bank account is dwindling a bit. As a way to help mitigate the serious hit my income took in January, I’ve set up a bookstore here. I’ll be adding new stuff over the next few weeks and experimenting with re-organizing it. It’ll change here and there.

But take a look at its current form, browse around, see if there’s something there you like. I’ve added a “CRN Bookstore” button on the right side of the page here.

I find the “Similar Items” function brings up some interesting things I hadn’t heard of. A book on mammal evolution for only 80 simoleons! Ah, well. Maybe after I hear from the Macarthur people. Until then, it goes on my wish list.

Also: I expect to be picking up the pace on reviewing books here as well, and when I review something it’ll go in the store. I’m working on Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey by Julianne Lutz Newton, and expect to have that one done and reviewed soon.

cropped-Coyote-Crossing-2010.png

What really bothers the creationists

A few weeks ago, the science world briefly noted an Imperial College London study concerning rotifers. The remarkable news about the rotifers in question was that though they had not had sex for 40 million years — which fact prompted a few predictable jokes about marriage — the animals had nonetheless managed to diversify into a number of distinct species in that time.

Bdelloid rotifers don’t reproduce sexually, as mentioned above, but rather through parthenogenetic oögenesis, a phrase I like enough that I’ll use it instead of the equivalent term “parthenogenesis,” because really, how often do I get a chance to? A bdelloid rotifer produces eggs that are, in essence, clones of herself, almost more like Agave offsets than eggs as we usually imagine them. Those eggs develop into new rotifers which lay new eggs. It’s the anti-feminist’s nightmare made flesh: every rotifer a mother and no males needed, not even to move little rotifer pianos or open little rotifer jars.

The finding that bdelloids have managed to give rise to different species despite their reproductive strategy is interesting, but not especially surprising. Making endless copies of the same genome rather than swapping genes with every generation is an evolutionary handicap, but we’re talking at least 40 million years here. Some scientists put the bdelloid loss of sex back around 100 million years ago. Though bdelloids are remarkable for surviving periods of dessication almost a decade long, a month is a more typical bdelloid lifespan, so making the supremely conservative assumption that each rotifer reproduces only once, that’s at least 480 million generations to play with, plenty of time to accumulate diversity even just through copying error.

The reason the study was at all notable outside the Rotiferologist Community was that it offered an Exception that Proves the Rule, the rule being that evolution is an epiphenomenon of sex.

Evolution is an epiphenomenon of sex. 

Reductionists define evolution as change in a population’s allele frequency over time. This is a supremely unsatisfying definition, about like describing mammalian sex as stimulation of epidermal nerve endings through friction. You can’t really argue with the definition, but you’ve lost a lot of nuance in translation. Still, that’s the arena in which sexual reproduction turns the evolutionary speed dial up to eleven. A bdelloid rotifer is surpassingly unlikely to possess a genome different from that of her great great grandmother: a sexually reproducing organism is unlikely to have a genome identical to its mother’s (though such things do happen). Asexual organisms play genome solitaire with the same deck of cards in the same order, while sexually reproducing organisms shuffle the deck and play, I dunno. Pinochle. Given forty million years, sexually reproducing creatures can evolve into about any niche available. A mass extinction in the Cambrian wiped out the planet’s reef-building multicelled animals, and forty million years later in the Ordovician metazoans were building reefs again, and paleontologists consider that intervening stretch of time puzzlingly long. 

But sex does more than increase the shuffling of genes as the generations progress.

The simple definition of a species we learned in high school has been eroded significantly. You can start bar fights among biologists by ingenuously asking what a “species” is, especially if the crowd includes a bacteriologist, a botanist, and an expert on salmonids. The word has an utterly different meaning when applied to kangaroo rats than it does when used in the context of blue-green algae. But for the world on our scale, the world of living things which we can apprehend directly with no more magnification than a hand lens or a good pair of binoculars, the world of bats and bugs and trees and moss, you can mainly go with the canon. The word “species”as used in one’s daily life can still be defined in the old familiar language of the Biological Species Concept as related by Ernst Mayr:

“Species are groups of interbreeding natural populations that are reproductively isolated from other such groups.”

Dogs and wolves and coyotes bear fertile offspring, and few biologists advocate putting coyotes in the same species as wolves and dogs. The male calf of a female cow and male bison is often fertile; his sister usually won’t be. Don’t get me started on the orchids, whch can produce fertile progeny from parents of two different genera. Often enough, closely related species whose populations are separated geographically will produce abundant fertile offspring when brought into proximity. There are abundant fuzzy edges to the Mayr version of the species concept, and it’s lost a lot of utility for those doing serious biology.

But those fuzzy edges are edges, exceptions to the rule. Maybe the Biological Species Concept definition falls apart when you’re at Tehachapi Pass discussing the Ladderbacked and Nuttall’s woodpeckers, whose ranges overlap there. But if you’re discussing the differences between the Nuttall’s woodpecker in my backyard and the raven chasing it, the cat watching them both from the garden wall, the rabbit hiding from the cat and the oak tree the woodpecker retreats to, when you’re discussing the vast majority of the biological diversity that makes up our everyday world, the rough generalization holds. The difference between ravens and oak trees and the yeast in your beer boils down to this: ravens have sex with ravens, and not with oaks or brewer’s yeast.

Sexual reproduction facilitates evolution into greater genetic diversity, and then the outward expression of that diversity is preserved when sexual exchange of genes is halted between two divergent populations. If sexual reproduction had never been invented, life on Earth would likely consist of a layer of mucilage in various shades of green, red and brown, an entire planet coughed up by a cosmic cigarette smoker. The very existence of bees and birds is due to the subject matter euphemized by 1950s parents as “The Birds And The Bees.”

You can even give sex credit for geology, a lot of the time. The rock in the hill I’m sitting on is the fossilized shells of diatoms, which evolved through sexual reproduction. Much of the limestone in the world can likewise be credited to sex, though the coccolithophores that made the Chalk Cliffs in Dover haven’t yet been caught in flagrante delicto. Coal? Came from big sexy ferns and seed plants. And as icing on the cake, consider the flashiness many species evolved for sexual purposes: brilliant feathers, blaze-orange and red petals, majestic antlers, birdsong.

In sum: Sex created the world as we know it.

This, I think, offers an answer to those wondering what has motivated biblical literalists to choose opposition to teaching evolution as their last-ditch stand against rationality and empiricism. They had a bit of trouble with Galileo, but at one point or another all but a few crackpots accepted that the earth revolved around the sun. There are other parts of the Bible whose literal truth they have happily abandoned, severe proscriptions against prosciutto-wrapped chicken breast in cream sauce or coveting one’s neighbors’ Rolex, prohibitions against admitting people with skin problems to the priesthood and the like.

But if they have been willing to grant that Genesis 1:14-18 might not be the literal truth, with its description of the sun and moon as lights stuck on a firmament with much-smaller stars as an afterthought, why the steadfast adherence to Genesis 1:11-12 and 1:20-27?

Simply this: heliocentrism can be swallowed, as can prosciutto, without denying primacy to the literalists’ God.

But Verses 11-27 of Genesis Chapter One explicitly credit Yahweh with conjuring up every last bit of the biodiversity on the planet. The fundamentalists might be willing to accept challenges to the literal truth of those verses, but look at what reality offers them as the alternative! All that diversity that was credited to God, the great sea monsters and every winged bird, the cattle according to their kinds, and everything that creeps upon the ground? Reality would have them accept that those were created by sex instead.

Evolution replaces God with sex, in other words, and that’s too much for them to bear.

And the compromise path offered by scientists of Christian faiths, that God created Deep Time and set evolution in motion? That’s saying God created the world with sex, and nothing bothers the fundies more than saying God used sex to create something.

cropped-Coyote-Crossing-2010.png

Who finds this place?

From my April stats so far, showing the most popular search strings bringing people to Creek Running North.

Top 20 of 4866 Total Search Strings
# Hits Search String
1 237 3.16% tree octopus
2 166 2.22% banshee
3 148 1.98% creek running north
4 65 0.87% hairy legs
5 64 0.85% toad in the hole
6 46 0.61% unresolved psychiatric issues
7 45 0.60% i hate white people
8 42 0.56% chris clarke
9 41 0.55% festuca
10 37 0.49% llama
11 29 0.39% snail sex
12 25 0.33% hairy butts
13 24 0.32% festuca ovina
14 22 0.29% life and death
15 21 0.28% bard
16 19 0.25% emerald bay
17 19 0.25% mantis religiosa
18 18 0.24% chris clark
19 18 0.24% faultline
20 15 0.20% bitchphd

cropped-Coyote-Crossing-2010.png

Earth Day

I am reminded that yesterday was Earth Day. I should have thought of it: Earth Day coincides, roughly, with Muir’s birthday. I’d hoped to hike on Mount Wanda to celebrate John Muir’s birthday on Saturday, and didn’t. The last five days, today included, I have woken each morning after — literally — having dreams about Zeke’s last few breaths. April has been worse than February so far. It was only by a serious act of willpower that I got out this weekend at all. But I might not have remembered Earth Day even without the distraction. Seven years ago I landed a job with an environmental news dotcom, and when one of the Vice Presidents told me their target reader was someone who knew what April 21 was, I nodded blankly. I didn’t figure out what he was talking about until the next day.

Here’s a little secret: most employees of environmental organizations with which I am familiar don’t spend a lot of time thinking about Earth Day, excepting those who work in development departments. The general reaction of environmental organizations to the first of the modern crop of Earth Days, in 1990, was a mixed bag of appreciation for the excuse to do public outreach and fear that the likes of Chevron and Monsanto were buying their way into the celebrations. By Earth Day 1991, that leveraged buyout had been completed. The day now exists as a national holiday of greenwashing, a day of festivals at which homeowners can pick up biodegradable garbage bags — or to drop their non-biodegradable plastic bags into a bin for recycling, and never mind that the plastic is actually “recycled” into unregulated landfills in China and Thailand. (Jackets made of old soda bottles are a wonderful thing! All you need to do to make that work is to buy exactly as many jackets as your soda habit makes possible.) I spent my share of days in the early 1990s working at Earth Days, having earnest conversations with people who would collect a copy of every piece of literature on every table and then drive off in their 4Runner with the “Random acts of kindness” sticker on the back bumper. I suppose a few of them read the material, and a few of them were moved enough to do something.

We take opportunities for promotion where they exist, and if we set up a table next to the EPA’s Earth Day timeline, so much the better. When no one’s looking we can take up Sharpies to correct their posterboard displays where they laud Bush’s Clear Skies and Clean Air Mercury laws.

My problem is more fundamental: I object to the compartmentalization. What are we, if we are not Earth?

On Sunday I walked up into the hills, scant-dressed given the weather, hoping that the silt-laden wind would abrade me and scrape away all I no longer wanted, longing for that roadrash of the soul. I came upon a corpse, a skunk oddly odorless, vertebrae articulated and intact, the only flesh left a bloated bladder, beautiful striped tail still near-pristine. Skunk, dog, man, we all rot in turn, our hoards of nitrogen and calcium returned to the soil. There is no better antidote for ghosts: the pale tawn smiling shadow in my peripheral vision vanished, went back to its home beneath the oregano and Cynoglossum. None of it matters. We have our heads inverted. One day to take from our important lives to spend in consideration of the Earth? We spend all our lives on Earth, and it suffuses us. We are a transitory flicker on the Earth, a moment in a fever dream, and we will melt. The wingnuts are right, though not as they expect. A million species go extinct, one of them bearing iPods, and none of it matters. The Earth revolves and revolves again, around the sun, around the galactic core, and that messy cascade of dissipative effects we call “life” will continue until Sol goes Nova.

Earth Day? The Earth should pick one day in a million years to consider us sidelong.

I am not so dispassionate as I make myself out to be. I would mourn the loss of memory, of Beethoven, of frybread and chiles. I would leave words against the insane unlikelihood that sentience would again, one day, evolve, sometime before the serifs crumble with the stones. (A futile gesture, but what isn’t?) We are not built for the long view, really. We are best suited to the moment, the shiny object and the fleeting feel of strawberries on the tongue. It is an impossibly long time until the next April 22, and today the anise swallowtails drink from the thistles on the sunlit south face of Crescent Ridge.

cropped-Coyote-Crossing-2010.png

File this under “missed design opportunities”

There’s a documentary out of late, name of Helvetica, on the 50th anniversary of the ubiquitous sans-serif typeface. And I want to see it, though Becky just rolls her eyes.  So I guess I’m waiting until she’s out of town and renting it then.

Anyway. I’m looking at the film’s website and something seems a little odd to me. I look at the page source to find the style sheets info, and sure enough:

p.body {
font-size: 10px;
font-family: Verdana, Helvetica, Arial, sans;
letter-spacing: 0px;
color: #333333;
line-height: 13px;
}

p.ads {
font-size: 10px;
font-family: Verdana, Helvetica, Arial, sans;
letter-spacing: 0px;
color: #333333;
line-height: 13px;
}