Monthly Archives: February 2008

Public relations professionals and other goddamned liars

I’m still recovering my equilibrium from having received this in email a week ago:

Interior Department Removes Northern Rocky Mountain Wolves from Endangered Species List

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Office of Public Affairs
4401 North Fairfax Drive
Arlington, VA 22203
703 358 2128 Fax: 703 358 1930

Contact:
Ed Bangs (406) 449-5225, x 204
Joan Jewett (503) 231-6211
Sharon Rose (303) 236-4580
Joshua Winchell (703) 358-2279

The gray wolf population in the Northern Rocky Mountains is thriving and no longer requires the protection of the Endangered Species Act, Deputy Secretary of the Interior Lynn Scarlett announced today. As a result, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will remove the species from the federal list of threatened and endangered species.

“The wolf population in the Northern Rockies has far exceeded its recovery goal and continues to expand its size and range. States, tribes, conservation groups, federal agencies and citizens of both regions can be proud of their roles in this remarkable conservation success story,” said Scarlett, noting that there are currently more than 1,500 wolves and at least 100 breeding pairs in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming.

It goes on from there [PDF]. You can find out what actually happened here. Please consider donating to the groups fighting the delisting. I have spent the last week looking at those phone numbers in the head of the release posted above and wondering whether “how do you liars sleep at night” is, properly speaking, a request for more information.

Today, still reeling from the duplicity, I got the release I’ve tacked below the fold. It was delivered in a personal email. After I recovered from the usual unnerving sense that I had utterly failed to represent myself properly here if this person thought in any way that CRN would be a sympathetic venue, I got angry.

Why? Take a look at this 1962 photo of Labyrinth Canyon, by Phil Pennington:

image

Here’s another shot from that year of nearby Dungeon Canyon, by Sarah Moench:

image

I got them from the Glen Canyon Institute site. There are plenty more like them in the gallery there.

Wanna go there now? Me too. Can’t. This is what it looks like now.

It won’t look like that for long, mind: study after study shows that the Colorado River, already oversubscribed by water consumers, is going to pretty much run dry in the next 12 years or so, and Lake Powell will shrink to reveal a transformed and damaged but still beautiful Glen Canyon.

So the press release below the fold is not only destructive but futile, a last gasp of the yahoos who can’t imagine going to the desert without the jet skis and the DVD player. Scratch that: they don’t even want to go to the desert. They want the desert to go away so that they can go where the desert was. And those who stand to scrape another season or two of profit out of the desecration put out “things are great come see our wonderful recreational opportunities!!!1!” press releases.

Liars. Evil, destructive, myopic liars.

For more on the Castle Rock Cut described in the release, see this.

Continue reading

What the blogger had for breakfast

huauzontle

The word is huauzontle, and finding its etymology is a bit of an adventure. You will likely already have guessed, given the “-tl” ending, that the name derives from the Nahuatl langauge, the tongue of the Aztecs, and thus, as is true of “tomatl” and “coyotl,” describes something found in central Mexico. And you are correct. But what does it mean? The one direct English translation I found, a bit suspect, was “hair amaranth.” This is obviously not quite right. The plant looks amaranthy enough to confuse a present-day non-botanist North American, but pre-contact Americans knew their amaranths, and this isn’t one of them. It’s a Chenopodium, one of a genus of plants closely related to the amaranths (and lately, after genetic study, put within the amaranth family by the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group) but distinct in morphology. The chenopods were of great economic importance to Native Mexicans, and it’s hella unlikely they’d have called one an “amaranth.”

The huauzontle entry in the Spanish fork of Wikipedia brings us closer, giving as its parenthetical etymology of the word:

(del náhuatl huautzontli, literalmente = ‘bledo como cabello’, de huautli ‘bledo’ y tzontli ‘cabello’.)

Word for word: From Náhuatl “huautzontli,” literally = “chenopod resembling human head hair,” from huautli “chenopod” and tzontli “human head hair.”

It’s charming enough that Spanish has a word for “human head hair,” and cabello, like “hair,” functions as both a singular and collective noun. It can mean one strand of hair from a human head or the mass of hair on a human head. There’s also an adjective, cabelludo, which means “hairy” except with that same restriction to the hair being on a human head. I’m clearly going to have to start using “cabelludo” in casual speech.

But about that “bledo.” It’s one thing for a land-based culture to have a diverse and detailed taxonomical vocabulary for important crop plants. With a couple of exceptions, though, the chenopods aren’t nearly as important to the agricultural economy of Mexico as they once were, especially as the agricultural economy of Mexico is mainly cultivated in Iowa these days and dumped on the market by subsidized US corporations. How cool is it that a simple common part of speech nonetheless persists in Mexican Castellano describing a genus of plants most gringos have never heard of?

To be fair, the gringos have the same word with the same meaning. It’s a cognate, anyway: “blite.” Of course a vanishingly small percentage of gringos have ever even heard the word, and most who have probably assumed the person was using a homonym. “Blite,” nonetheless, is the common Gringlish word meaning “chenopod.” You can now use it to describe lamb’s quarters and pigweed and epazote and quinoa.

And huauzontle! Which I found yesterday in the corner store. That little corner store is an ethnobotanist’s wet dream. It’s run by a Mexican-American sister and brother, and they cater in part to the neighborhood’s burgeoning Andean population, so there are always little treasures popping up on the shelves. Corn so purple it’s black, for instance, sold for making chicha morada and which I bought a couple years ago as seed corn. Or Chuño, an Andean form of freeze-dried potato traditionally made by grinding potatoes, leaving them outside overnight to freeze at 14,597 feet, then mashing them the next day to drive out some of the liquid and repeating the process a few more times. There are bright yellow Aji peppers that look way more hot than they prove actually to be, and sludgy, bitter drinks made from maca, one of about a dozen common Andean tuberous vegetables. (Tried it. Didn’t like it.)

I haven’t seen oca there yet. When I do I’m buying some and sending it to Kat, because she really loves the stuff. 

Anyway, they had huauzontle yesterday, Chenopodium berlandieri ssp. nuttallii,  which is used in a manner very much as is broccoli. The green flower buds and small stems (pedicels) on which the buds reside are cooked and eaten as a green vegetable. Since it’s from Mexico, it is traditionally cooked at least twice before people eat it. Blanched or boiled and then wrapped around cheese, battered with eggs, fried, and then cooked in tomato sauce, for instance. Sometimes it’s just boiled and battered and fried on its own, and people eat it by holding the big stems and pulling the buds off with their teeth, vaguely like corn on the cob.

That first step of boiling may have been completely necessary back a couple thousand years ago. Blites often have saponins in them, bitter, soapy chemicals likely evolved by the plants under selective pressure from grazing animals and insects. Quinoa, for instance, which some Blitologists surmise may actually be descended from huauzontle or vice versa, has enough saponins in its seedcoat tissue that you need to rinse the seeds before cooking them. Huauzontle might have been bitter back then unless you leached the saponin out of it.

I didn’t boil the huauzontle. I just chopped it up some, sauteed it for a bit in olive oil, poured three beaten eggs over it all, made something the approximate shape of an omelet, and grated some pecorino cheese over it. It was really, really good. And it turns out I made a safe choice about the saponins. As the Spanish fork of Wikipedia says:

Las saponinas pueden ser tóxicas, pero el huauzontle contiene cantidades tan pequeñas que no presentan ningún riesgo.

Mmmmmmm, ningún riesgo. Mi favorita.

Monday

A dead squirrel, unmarked by obvious injury, lies in the street. I pull up to the curb. A turkey vulture, shy and dark, looks up at me. It had been gauging the edibility of the squirrel. It preferred to dine unobserved. I gave it a moment or two to collect itself.

It retreated to my neighbor’s roof.

The vet had asked me to call in 45 minutes. It had taken me 40 minutes to drive home. The rabbit stopped eating again this morning. He was shivering and pallid, and bore an expression that unnerved me — as though he was contemplating a nearby entrance to a warren in the Elysian Fields. “And then I saw this long, dark tunnel, and a soothing rabbity voice saying ‘come away from the light, little one!’”

I took him and his thousand-yard stare to the hospital, dropped him off so the vets could puzzle over him.

The vulture was unsettled. My exiting the truck prompted a skittering across the roof. I ran inside, grabbed the camera and the long lens. I managed just three shots, then the bird got skittish and flew to the eucalyptus down the street.

They are such shy beasts, for all their morbid associations, their cadaverous affect. People call them scavengers with lip curled in disdain, disgust. A truly noble carnivore kills its meals, they imply, and then having dismissed the vulture they wander off to the supermarket, to bring home slabs of flesh that have been dead for weeks.

I find them appealing, skilled practitioners of an estimable trade. They bear the proud lines of their cousins the condors, the teratorns, though on a much smaller scale: the ponies of the buzzard world.

The squirrel fell from the overhead wires, I decide. Only twenty feet up, but the pavement is hard. I wonder if it was one I’ve been feeding. I cannot tell the locals apart by sight. I look up at a passing shadow. The vulture makes lazy arcs on a thermal, gaining altitude without apparent effort.

Springs come up in the middle of our street, buckled pavement and puddles where the rest of the asphalt is dry. They streams flow beneath the surface, carve out channels in our soft bedrock. A month ago one of them undercut the water main at the corner, and when the pipe burst the pavement rose eight inches from the pressure.

That soft bedrock is laced with limestone, and the plants in the garden are rich in calcium. That’s the theory. The rabbit has been slowly filling his bladder with stucco. It showed on the x-ray as though he had swallowed a river rock. Subcutaneous lactated Ringers, one tenth liter a day for the next few days, may well flush out that rabbit limestone. It will at the very least give him all the more reason to hate us. It is another variable in the decision looming as to his eventual home. I had wondered if parting from the garden might sadden him more than parting from me. Turns out that may be beside the point. He sloshes in his cage, isotonic solution in a reservoir beneath his skin, and he is eating again.

Bishop pine

pinusmuricata.png

Looking on my shelves for a piece of information on bishop pines and not finding the book I wanted, I came across my copy of Peattie’s The Natural History of Western Trees. I hadn’t cracked its spine in ten years. Curious, I pulled it off the shelf and opened it at random. The random page I found, page 113 of 750, was the entry on the bishop pine.

So many books here, my repeated purges notwithstanding. My arms were bruised for weeks when we moved into this house, dented by book box corners.

By the time the bruises faded I had already planted the bishop pine. It had already near-succumbed to the summer’s first hot spell. I ran a hose to it, fearing the worst, and then that same week moved every box of books a second time to fill the shelves I’d just put in.

In the move before that one, a friend offered to shelve the books by subject in the new house. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll get to it when we get settled in.” That was in 1998. Now Peattie sits between a biography of Lincoln and a book on PHP. Research in my library has its serendipitous aspects. It requires a mental map of disjunct and shfting territories. I tend to land in places I hadn’t expected.

Peattie recounts the disdain with which 19th century California loggers regarded the bishop pine. Its wood is heavy but weak, short-stemmed and full of knots but coarse-grained, not good for much besides holding up squirrels. Lao Tsu’s gnarled tree, it has offered nothing and has thus survived.

The bishop pine thrives in shallow, hostile soils, in salt spray and on dim north-facing slopes. It is a closed-cone pine. When fires overtake the forest, when black-tail deer run panicked and the aplodontia roasts in its burrow and the smoke column hugs the coast for miles, the cones begin to open. The heat coaxes them, and seeds set fifteen or twenty years ago fall to the ground, sprout in the blackened duff.

Three moves ago I walked beneath the plume as the last of the Oakland Hills Fire smouldered. Shards of paper ash, near-consumed and fragile, fluttered to the pavement. The ink was still visible. Three thousand incinerated libraries were cast into the orange sky. Blackened leaves fell from the sky for days, ashen prose in English and Spanish and German and Chinese, Hebrew and Arabic, mathematics and love letters, sonnets and wiring diagrams, whispered, blackened memory to float through miles of air and fall apart at a touch.

Ecclesiastes 2:11 face up on the curb at Broadway and 29th Street.

The bishop pine grows from here north to Humboldt County. It grows from here south to Lompoc. There are a few isolated groves in Mexico, on Cedros and Guadalupe islands and on the coast of Baja. Despite its extensive range it is not widespread. When glaciers capped the Sierra Nevada the bishop pine grew in broad forests up and down the coast, on the floors of interior valleys now far too warm for them.

The seedling stage is the most vulnerable to heat. Where the climate has warmed and there is no gardener to run hoses to thirsty trees, mature trees will scatter their seed in vain. Their progeny fail to profit under the sun. When fire eventually kills the older trees, the species is extirpated from the site. Twelve thousand, fourteen thousand years of change and damage and retreat, and the pines now live in pockets along the coast. They have evolved in isolation. They reflect their surroundings. They are wind-sculpted bonsai in the Channel Islands, chest-high dwarves in the Mendocino White Plains, pleached arbors on the leeward slopes of Inverness Ridge.

In my garden they are one six-year-old seedling, planted from a gallon can in a fit of optimism, a desire to reinhabit a piece of land bladed half a century ago by the developers. After the first thirsty summer it grew wide and I pruned it hard, cut off the leader, chose one of a few lateral stems for a trunk. The joint will be a picturesque low kink in twenty years, I thought, and it may break down the wall behind it then but best not to borrow strife against the future. I will sit in this tree’s shade, I told myself.

Thirty-two times I’ve moved in this life, and in all but the first took books with me. The bole of the bishop pine is an inch and a half across. I have planted trees before that I did not expect to see grow for long. I have lived in houses that are now gone, trees growing among their foundation stones. One day the ground here will shift and trees will sway, will bend or break. They say within this generation the earth will move. I always thought I would plant saplings in the rubble. Bolt your shelves and you will live, unburied in an avalanche of words. My back sore with the thought of carrying them a thirty-third time. I would have leaned my aching back against the bishop pine’s broad trunk. I would have felt its sticky amber in my hair and laughed at the still turning of the years.

Go Carl!

Mr. Buell makes the big time, talking (albeit briefly) about Manhattan mastodons to NPR’s science writer Robert Krulwich. A four-minute piece of audio is available at the top of the page.

That’s the second time in a couple weeks NPR has covered coevolution of plants and Pleistocene megafauna. I smell a fad. By summer, I expect an all-Osage-orange channel on basic cable.