Monthly Archives: January 2010

Obama, SOTU and the environment

image I should know better than to compose posts in a browser window: Safari just crashed and took with it about 20 minutes worth of writing on Obama’s miserable-from-an-environmentalist-POV State of The Union address on Wednesday.

Fortunately, Rana has said essentially what I wanted to, and much more economically. She quotes the atrocious moment in the address where Obama calls for more nuclear, more coal, more offshore drilling, and says:

People like to talk about Obama as a visionary, as someone who wants to change the way we do things in this country.  I point them to this.

This is not visionary.  This is not change.  This is more of the unsustainable growth-at-any-cost nonsense that caused the very problems he alludes to when he mentions the climate bill.

Read the whole thing.

Metaphor of the day

“When late in the afternoon I finally stumbled — sun-dazed, blear-eyed, parched as an old bacon rind — upon that blue stream which flows like a miraculous mirage down the floor of the canyon, I was too exhausted to pause and drink soberly from the bank. Dreamily, deliriously, I waded into the waist-deep water and fell on my face. Like a sponge I soaked up moisture through every pore, letting the current bear me along beneath a canopy of overhanging willow trees. I had no fear of drowning in the water — I intended to drink it all.”

-Ed Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Updated: Terry, in comments, informs me that I have unwittingly posted this on Abbey’s birthday. 

Why Joshua trees are shaped the way they are

The first time I awoke in the Mojave I was cramped uncomfortably into the passenger seat of my girlfriend’s Honda in a roadside rest area on Route 58 near Boron. It was not yet light. I had agreed to drive her car from Los Angeles to the Bay Area alone; she would fly back to spend time with her new boyfriend. The situation was untenable. Our breakup was not far off. I dropped her at the airport, then drove toward anywhere but home. A couple hours later I turned east on 58 from Mojave, vaguely remembering a rest stop from a visit five years before, not knowing which way I’d go when I awoke the next morning.

I awoke in darkness with a badly stiffened neck. Through the dry, cloudless air, a few spring morning constellations shone brilliantly. The nearby hills on the Edwards Air Force Base, speckled with lights from one installation or another, made it hard to tell where the sky ended and the earth began.

And then I saw a difference between land and air. The black sky to the east seemed to turn a deeper black, as if some unseen hand had poured a vat of purple ink into it. The cast was enough to outline a few objects on land: texture crept slowly into the featureless dark. A pale red smudge formed to outline the horizon to the east. As I watched, rapt, it spread to the whole eastern sky, a brilliant vermilion wash fading to violet overhead. I got out of the car to stretch.

Behind the spot where I’d parked, a twenty-five-foot Joshua tree stood outlined against the red morning sky. It was a flat silhouette, no relief discernable in the dim light, and I could not tell which of the curving, intersecting, crazily twisted branches was in front and which behind. It seemed an odd, alien thing, drooping wood and daggers, a painting done by Bosch and Dali with a Edvard Munch sky.

A few minutes later the sun came up, but the tree looked only a bit less odd for being three-dimensional.

Route 58 was once called Route 466, a feeder road for Route 66, the great Mother Road, the route mid-continent refugees took to get to the promised land. Between Dust Bowl and deliverance lay desolation. The migrants poured past my resting spot in a veritable stream, bound for low-paying, abusive jobs in the fields of California. 466 was part of the pipeline from Oklahoma City to Bakersfield. In the most important cinematographical treatment of that migration, “The Grapes of Wrath,” director John Ford portrayed the horror, the frightening otherness of the Mojave transit by showing the slow passage of Joshua trees at night.

It’s not surprising: the trees are strange. Joshua tree fanciers are fond of quoting the famous statement of John C. Frémont, western explorer and first Republican presidential candidate, on his first glimpse of Joshua trees somewhere in the vicinity of Walker Pass:

“Their stiff and ungraceful form makes them to the traveler the most repulsive tree in the vegetable kingdom.”

Oddly enough, few quote the passage in full, which is from his Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the year 1842, and to Oregon and North California in the Years 1843-44. (The title doesn’t seem quite so long when you consider the original byline, which read “by Brevet Captain John C. Frémont, of the Topographical Engineers, under the orders of Colonel J.J. Abert, Chief of the Topographical Bureau.”) The sentence that precedes his bon mot, dated April 14, 1844:

“Crossing a low sierra, and descending a hollow where a spring gushed out, we were struck by the sudden appearance of yucca trees, which gave a strange and southern character to the country, and suited well with the dry and desert region we were approaching.”

Modern desert-loving aesthetic sensibilities notwithstanding, Frémont didn’t intend that as a compliment. His bad mood can be forgiven. He had recently spent several long weeks floundering in the deep snow of the Sierra Nevada. His beloved horse Proveau had died of fatigue only a month earlier. Several of his favored compatriots had abandoned his expedition, seduced by the wiles of coastal California. Just that week he’d confirmed that the fabled Buenaventura River, which allegedly ran from the west slope of the Rockies to the San Francisco Bay, could not possibly exist: the Sierra Nevada was just too unbroken a range to permit such a river to flow through it. He was about to crush the fond dreams of thousands of speculators. Also, he had not had a decent cup of coffee in weeks, a problem with which every Mojave traveler can commiserate.

It will be no surprise that I have a bit of a bias in this matter. But after extended visits to Joshua tree country the apricot and almond trees and the live oaks in coastal California just look wrong to me. Their growth is too exuberant, their branches twee, a rococo profusion of twigs and dainty leaves getting in the way of the sky. It takes me a day or so to readjust when I leave the Mojave.

Stiff? Ungraceful? Quite the contrary.

Unlike oaks or pines or redwoods, the stems of Joshua trees are remarkably flexible. Other trees, hardwoods and softwoods alike, have vascular tissue in their trunks that is heavily reinforced with lignin, a polymer that makes up as much as a third of the weight of the wood of many trees. Lignin stiffens trunks and branches. That rigidity confers strength, but with such strength comes brittleness. A thick tree trunk bends only a little in a strong wind. Too strong a wind will shatter it.

Further, lignin is heavy, and so horizontal branches pose a special engineering problem for woody plants. Too much weight at the far end, and the branch will break off near its point of attachment. Lignified trees must reinforce all but the lightest horizontal branches by adding structural support, either by thickening the undersides of branches at the trunk (compression wood) or by buttressing the top of the branch to help hold it up (tension wood.)

If Joshua trees look different on the outside from most other trees, they are even more different on the inside. The trunks of hardwoods and softwoods are essentially a thin cylindrical shell of living tissue, the vascular cambium, which makes two kinds of vascular tissue: xylem on the inside of the cylinder, phloem on the outside. The tree’s leaves transpire water, creating a vacuum that siphons water up the xylem from the roots. Leaves turn water and sunlight into sugar, which flows down the phloem to the roots. Each year, the cambium produces another layer of xylem, creating those annual tree rings). Xylem is more or less dead tissue, a set of static pipelines to the leaves. In the center of a growing tree, the oldest xylem becomes a landfill, a waste repository for resins and other byproducts of plant metabolism. The tubes are clogged with plaque, close off, harden. This is heartwood, the densest, darkest wood in the tree. It is structural support and not much more.

When I’m in Joshua tree country with a friend who’s new to the Mojave, I sometimes lift good-sized pieces of fallen Joshua tree under the pretext of looking for desert night lizards. In truth, I’m generally seeking to impress, if only momentarily. The trunks of Joshua trees are nearly as light as balsa. You will find no heartwood there, and precious little lignin. The trees depend for their strength on long strands of fiber, and they have plenty of it. Sawn in sections, they show no growth rings annual or otherwise, perplexing those who would guess at a tree’s age. In the Joshua tree trunk, xylem and phloem are combined into vascular bundles, little two-way conduits wrapped together with a thick insulating cellulose fiber between them. The trunks do not resemble hollow cylinders so much as bridge cables. They contain lignin — all vascular plants do — but not nearly enough to make the stems rigid.

In the early days of settlement of the Mojave, Joshua tree wood was often used to splint broken limbs. Peel off a cylinder of the wood to fit a broken arm, and it would immobilize the injured limb until the bone could be set – but was pliable enough to bend it into place, and to remove without a cast saw. And unlike a plaster cast, it breathed.

In that flexible strength is the secret to the Joshua tree’s appearance.

A young Joshua tree’s terminal bud grows toward the sky. Its stem is springy. It is capable of bearing great weight. If prevailing wind, or sudden loosening of soil, or brighter sun just around a rock outcrop spur the bud to grow less than absolutely vertically, the increasing weight of the stem causes it to sag ever so slightly. The bud responds to the change in direction by putting on more growth, heading for the vertical again. This increases the load on the stem, which weighs it down closer to the horizonatal. The bud continues to change direction, and the stem increasingly bows.

Eventually a branch may be horizontal for much of its length. Auxins, the plant hormones that suppress the growth of buds, move within the trees more or less by the dictates of gravity. There is less auxin at the top surface of a horizontal stem. New buds hidden beneath the surface push their way between plates of bark. They emerge and grow skyward, rosettes affixed to the branch like pinecones. They lengthen and add more weight to the mother branch, themselves bending and bowing when they reach a certain length.

After years of balance and adjustment an old branch of a Joshua tree will sometimes resemble a draftsman’s French curve, broadly sloping at the trunk, bowed gently but firmly back toward the ground, its tip upswept. More likely, it will become a fractal nest of such curves, each of its daughter branches – from tip or adventitious buds – succumbing to the sway and warp. Should a branch become so heavily laden that it settles, over years, to the ground, roots will often form where it touches the soil. When a tree becomes so lopsided that the roots on one side of its flared trunk can no longer keep their grasp on the subsoil, such branch roots may keep the upended tree alive for dozens more years.

I once had a toy, a little wooden dog, made of blond beads threaded together on strings. The strings fed through holes in the dog’s paws through a little platform, where they were glued to a spring-loaded button in the base. Press up on the button with your thumb, and the thread slackened. The little dog would flop amusingly. Release the button and the spring would tense the threads, bringing the dog to attention, alert and ready to play. I sometimes remember that toy in the Mojave as I sit beneath the Joshua trees, built from more or less the same blueprints. Taut-stringed branches wave gently in the slightest breeze, support and weight always finding balance somehow. Their slow dance both announces and calms the wind. They distill grace from tension.

Intermittent intermittancy

The post has been linked by a few more large sites, and the little frills in the template that were just fine when we held steady at 100-1000 visits a day have caused hamster failure at 24 times that traffic.

I’ve trimmed the individual article page template and turned off a bunch of things, but people may still get a white browser window of death from time to time.

I’m away from the internet for a few hours. If the site is erratic, rest assured that 1) I’m working on it and 2) it’s just a website. Thanks!

I wrote a book

True, it’s old news to some of you that I wrote a book about my adventures with my friend Zeke. There are a lot of new people traipsing through here unexpectedly, though. Not coincidentally, it looks like the huge crowds of new folks — as welcome as you all very much are, and make yourselves at home! — are going to cost me some money. So if you like what you see here on the blog, please consider buying a copy of my book Walking With Zeke. That way I get a little help paying for bandwidth and you get a book. It’s win-win, really. That is all.

Your pressing questions answered

-Yes, I do know that the post uses a metareferential method first used (so far as I know) in a piece by David Moser from Whole Earth Review in 1990. I read it when the issue came out, enjoyed the piece very much, and had it in mind when I wrote the post.

-Yes, I do know that I did not originate the idea of a metareferential blog post, and I have in fact seen what is likely the best if not first example of the trope, a brilliantly minimalist 2006 post by Jim Henley.

-No, the point of the post was not merely to repeat the metareferential blogpost trope. The intent was to comment on the deadening sameness of much online discussion of political topics. This was prompted by seeing the same old [FOO]-FAIL dynamic develop after a contentious panel at a blogging convention, but I could have written it after the livejournal race and SF blogging blowout, any number of feminism-gender-race-otherprivilege discussions, or discussions of operating systems.  The metareferential trope, while quite played out, seemed to me to be a fun way to do this.

-Yes, I do think I’m funny. Someone has to.

Blog slowness

Some of you may have noticed that the blog seemed to be offline for a bit on Monday night.


This is what happens when you get frontpaged on Fark.

Fortunately, my web host says that it will only cost me an additional 70 dollars a month for a hosting plan that will handle this kind of traffic: they’re giving me 24 hours’ taste of that for free.

Apologies for the frustration.

The public speaks

The following is the complete text of an email sent to me by way of my photo gallery’s contact form:

I urge you to read some books on nature photography. I would recommend John Shaw but his books are from the film era, although even if you’re shooting digital, they would help you a lot. You seem like a nice guy or I wouldn’t have taken the time.

Handshake numbers

Carl Zimmer has a fascinating article up at Yale Environment 360 on network theory in the environmental sciences. As he puts it:

By mapping the connections between species, they are discovering some of the rules by which all ecological networks are organized, and how these rules help foster biodiversity. They’re also studying how biological invasions, overfishing, and other threats are reorganizing these networks, and possibly putting them at risk of collapse.

Carl starts out by invoking a well-known heuristic for the small-world network phenomenon, the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game. It’s overplayed, but it really does illustrate how such networks, well, work. For those one or two people in the world who are unfamiliar with the game, the idea is to measure the number of degrees of separation between any actor and Kevin Bacon. As an example, let’s take this guy, who’s a long-time member of the writers’ group I joined last year. Clif was in Silent Running with Ron Rifkin, who was in JFK with Kevin Bacon, so Clif has a “Bacon Number” of two.

“Six degrees of Kevin Bacon” is, of course, a play on the “Six Degrees of Separation” concept, the notion that the average number of personal acquaintanceships linking any two people on the planet will be about six. In the words of Mark Buchanan in his book Nexus: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Theory of Networks

One of these experiments was performed by psychologist, Stanley Milgram, in order to create a picture of the web of interconnections within a group of people. To do this he sent letters to a random selection of people living in Nebraska and Kansas asking them to forward the letter to a stockbroker friend of his living in Boston but did not give them the address. To forward the letter he asked them to send it only to someone they know personally who they thought was socially closer to the stockbroker.  Milgram found that most of the letters made it to his friend in Boston and most of the letters made it in just six mailings.

As it happens, The Raven and I were briefly talking about a variation of the Bacon game a couple days ago, which gives me a way of riffing on Carl’s post in my usual way of Making This All About Me. The version is called the “handshake number” concept, which Stephen Jay Gould wrote about a couple times: how many handshakes does it take to get from you to, say, Stalin?

I can get from myself to Stalin in three handshakes for sure. When I worked at the one nursery still open within the District of Columbia back in the mid-1980s, I waited on — and exchanged handshakes with — Clark Clifford, who among many other things was Harry S Truman’s White House Counsel. Truman, of course, shook Stalin’s hand on July 17 1945 at Potsdam. Clifford links me to a whole lot of people, in fact. Through him I’m two handshakes away from every US President who served in the second half of the Twentieth Century, and through them with one more handshake to probably tens of thousands of notables from Elizabeth II to Martin Luther King to Marilyn Monroe.

(Actually, though the Bacon number and handshake number concepts don’t match precisely, as you can co-star in a film with someone you’ve never met, I can probably get to Ms. Monroe in one less step via my writers’ group friends.)

My jobs with environmental groups over the years have provided some interesting handshake paths. Dave Brower, for instance, connects me to hundreds of veterans of the environmental movement famous and unsung, likely the most prominent being Wallace Stegner and Ansel Adams. Brower -> Adams puts me at least as close to Dorothea Lange and Everett Ruess as I am to Stalin and Mao. Brower->Stegner gets me to about four-fifths of the American writers I admire, given Stegner’s long career of mentoring younger writers from Ed Abbey to Raymond Carver, and working with contemporaries like DeVoto. I actually have a few other lines to Stegner, given his long involvement in Bay Area life.

Others whose hands I’ve shaken in the course of my work life include Jerry Brown (through whom I get linked to all kinds of people from the Dalai Lama to Linda Ronstadt), the departed Hopi Elder Thomas Banyacya, Ed Begley, Jr., writer Gary Nabhan (who links me to probably 80 percent of the Seri ironwood carving community), etc. etc. etc. I’ve had a pretty damned rewarding career so far and met some great folks, so I may have more prominent handshakes nailed to my wall than a lot of people.

But the point isn’t that I’m well-connected. The point is that we all are. Some of my most direct connections to the world’s most famous and/or notorious people came while I was working a retail job at minimum wage. Others came as a result of knowing people who aren’t themselves famous, whether the teacher who studied with a renowned scholar or the one-time romantic interest whose grandparents knew a lot of famous writers or whatever. Some came through just being in the right place at the right time, as when I walked to the train station one afternoon and there, shaking people’s hands as they entered the station, were Gray Davis and Cruz Bustamante who would a week later become California’s Governor and Lieutenant Governor, respectively. When I was very young Paul Erdős gave a talk at my school. We shook hands after I answered a question correctly that he had posed to the assembled kids. As I recall, the answer to his question was “aleph-one,” which by coincidence is also my Erdős number. The one I like most came as a result merely of having the right brother: back in Buffalo in the 1970s, Craig was a high school classmate of the late David Hampton, the con artist whose deceptions inspired the play “Six Degrees of Separation”. Which makes me two degrees of separation from “Six Degrees of Separation.”

Really, the surprising thing once you start tracing things out is not which people you can establish links to but how many of those links are redundant. I can, for instance, get to Ronald Reagan in four or fewer handshakes in at least three ways and probably more, given his membership in not only the realms of state and national politics but also through Hollywood. (Clif gets me there via Henry Fonda.) That’s the thing about living networks: they tend to offer multiple ways to get from point A to point B. Which somehow doesn’t make it any easier to score good drugs these days.

This is the title of a typical incendiary blog post

This sentence contains a provocative statement that attracts the readers’ attention, but really only has very little to do with the topic of the blog post. This sentence claims to follow logically from the first sentence, though the connection is actually rather tenuous. This sentence claims that very few people are willing to admit the obvious inference of the last two sentences, with an implication that the reader is not one of those very few people. This sentence expresses the unwillingness of the writer to be silenced despite going against the popular wisdom. This sentence is a sort of drum roll, preparing the reader for the shocking truth to be contained in the next sentence.

This sentence contains the thesis of the blog post, a trite and obvious statement cast as a dazzling and controversial insight.

This sentence claims that there are many people who do not agree with the thesis of the blog post as expressed in the previous sentence. This sentence speculates as to the mental and ethical character of the people mentioned in the previous sentence. This sentence contains a link to the most egregiously ill-argued, intemperate, hateful and ridiculous example of such people the author could find. This sentence is a three-word refutation of the post linked in the previous sentence, the first of which three words is “Um.” This sentence implies that the linked post is in fact typical of those who disagree with the thesis of the blog post. This sentence contains expressions of outrage and disbelief largely expressed in Internet acronyms. This sentence contains a link to an Internet video featuring a cat playing a piano.

This sentence implies that everyone reading has certainly seen the folly of those who disagree with the thesis of the blog post. This sentence reminds the reader that there are a few others who agree. This sentence contains one-word links to other blogs with whom the author seeks to curry favor, offered as examples of those others.

This sentence returns to the people who disagree with the thesis of the blog post. This sentence makes an improbably tenuous connection between those people and a current or former major political figure. This sentence links those people and that political figure to a broad, ill-defined sociodemographic class sharing allegedly similar belief systems. This sentence contains a reference to the teachings of Jesus; its intent may be either ironic or sincere.

This sentence refers to a different historic period, and implies that conditions relevant to the thesis of the blog post were either different or the same. This sentence states that the implications of the previous sentence are a damned shame. This sentence says that the next sentence will explain the previous sentence. This sentence contains a slight rewording of the thesis of the blog post, a trite and obvious statement cast as a dazzling and controversial insight.

This sentence contains an apparent non-sequitur phrased as if it follows logically from the reworded thesis of the blog post. This sentence is a wildly overgeneralized condemnation of one or more entire classes of people phrased in as incendiary a fashion as possible which claims to be an obvious corollary to the thesis and non-sequitur.

This sentence proposes that anyone who might disagree with the wildly overgeneralized condemnation is, by so disagreeing, actually proving the author’s point. This sentence explains that such people disagree primarily because of the author’s courageous and iconoclastic approach. This sentence mentions the additional possibilities that readers who express disagreement with the wildly overgeneralized condemnation are merely following political fashion or trying to ingratiate themselves with interest groups. This sentence is a somewhat-related assertion based in thoughtless privilege and stated as dispassionate objective truth. This sentence explains that if the scales would merely fall from those dissenting readers’ eyes, they would see the wisdom and necessity of the author’s statements.

This sentence invites readers to respond freely and without constraint as long as those responses fall within certain parameters. This sentence consists of an Internet in-joke that doesn’t quite fit the topic.

[This parenthetical sentence was appended some time after posting as an expression of gratitude for the post’s many visitors and an apology that server overload has prompted the owner’s closing of comments, at least for the time being.]

A truly inspirational and uplifting thought

“It is my personal belief that when the last human has fallen, and the last skull lies on the irradiated earth, a coyote will come trotting out of some safe place. Don’t ask me where he’ll come from; but I believe that he will survive as he has always survived. The coyote will trot in his furtive, skulking manner, to the skull. He will approach it carefully with the caution borne of millenia of avoiding steel traps and snares and pitfall. He will cautiously sniff it. His educated nose will tell him that he no longer has anything to fear from the bleached remnant of a once great civilization. Taking a few short steps to get in the exact position, he will lift his leg.”

— Charles Cadieux, from his book Coyotes: Predators and Survivors.

Hat tip to Camilla Fox of Project Coyote, and Coyote’s Facebook Fan Page. Photo by Matt Knoth.



Taken June 17, 2004.

If someone told me I had to choose just one of all the photos I’ve ever captured and delete all copies of the rest of them, this is the one I’d choose to save. No hesitation whatsoever.