Monthly Archives: October 2011

Months, years, and days

The news from the Bay Area is full of remembrances this past week. Twenty years has passed since the big Oakland Hills fire. A lifetime, really.

More than a lifetime.

It doesn’t seem that long ago. I was working a dead-end job answering a phone that only rang when people called to complain about my employer. My ex-wasn’t yet a teacher. She was working a dead-end job filing copies of insurance policies for commercial real estate holdings owned by an equity investment firm. She was young, and so from time to time she took her job in stride, but I was not young. I was 31. I remember walking down from our dark, mildewy apartment to the Nature Sanctuary at Lake Merritt, seeing that someone was working in the visitor center there explaining the various species of birds that could be found there, and feeling bitterly jealous, feeling as if I had wasted the best years of my life not getting jobs like hers. What had happened to me? A drudge unable to rescue my failing landscaping business — sole proprietorship and undiagnosed ADD are not always the best partners — and now chained to the recycling hotline, bringing in eight dollars an hour. Becky and I loved each other, but neither of us loved ourselves, and our relationship increasingly consisted of shouting across a widening rift. I learned some years later that she was building up her resolve to leave, seeing no future between us. I was sullen. She drew cartoons in her journal of herself jumping out office building windows, not plummeting but soaring off to somewhere better. We didn’t know how to talk back then. We never really learned.

Twenty years ago this week I came home from an excruciating weekend staff meeting and found Becky and her bicycle gone from the apartment, which was two miles downwind of the fire.  In that day before ubiquitous mobile phones I had no way to find out where she was, and so I fretted, but then told myself she’d hardly have pedaled toward the fire and I felt better. I was wrong: she’d headed straight for the fire, kind of: she’d gone shopping at the Rockridge Safeway, probably a half mile from the fire. She coughed for the next week or two.

Twenty-five people died in the Oakland Firestorm of 1991, including May Blos, a close friend of a close friend. 3,354 single-family dwellings were destroyed in the fire, including one owned by my friends Tim and Rhonda — though I wouldn’t meet them for another decade. Of condominiums and apartments the total units destroyed numbered 437. One of those units, in the “Parkwoods Apartments” complex near the fire’s point of origin, was rented by Becky’s high school friend Suh.

Suh was away during the fire, but her cat Oliver wasn’t.

Twelve days later Becky and I took the bus from our apartment in downtown Oakland over to Berkeley, to the neighborhood where I worked. I no longer remember what we were doing there, whether we were there because I had to do something at work or we were shopping for something in the neighborhood. I can’t honestly think of why we might have been there. Except that we found ourselves outside the Berkeley East-Bay Humane Society, and I suggested to Becky that we see if Oliver was in there. I do remember that part. “Maybe a window broke and he got out!” I said. Becky was extremely dubious, but she didn’t spend a whole lot of time talking me out of things back then. We went in.

And so the reason that I have been altogether useless for the last week or so is that in a little bit more than a week from today, November 2 2011, is the twentieth anniversary of our meeting Zeke. On November 4, after thinking things over, I took him for a walk out of the pound and he never went back.

Twenty years.

How can that seem only a moment ago, when it seems like an eternity since I saw him last? Going to the front end of the blog to find that post I linked to the phrase “took him for a walk” just above, I scrolled through the pull-down list of monthly archives for a very long time until I reached the months in which I was writing about him with him still sleeping next to me. I had to scroll past 57 of those months, in fact, to get to the month in which he died.

And of course because I pay attention to anniversaries, I paid attention to this one in Zeke’s last few months, which means that November 4 also marks five years since the day Zeke and I last got in the car, drove a ways to a nice place outdoors, and went for a walk. Though to be honest he didn’t walk much. He stood on this beach for twenty minutes and gazed out across the Bay.

Zeke hates corporate logos

Twenty years ago was before I started writing. It was before I knew that I had a career waiting. It was before the “Chris and the desert” thing, mostly. It was before the white in my beard and before I had spent more than a hundred hours on the Internet. It was also before Becky and I owned a car, and I remember wondering, as I walked Zeke six miles home across Berkeley and Oakland past sidewalks and concrete walls still smudged with fallen ash, what the hell I was doing. I spent some of the next years in a slow panic that I would get things wrong, fail to take care of him, fail to protect him.

A couple months later Becky wrote a passage in her journal describing how having Zeke around made her decide to stay with me. She drew a little picture of Zeke next to the entry, flying through the air encaped, with the legend “Zeke to the rescue!” And of course, within a year of his death 15 years later we were done. For a long time I romanticized his keeping us together during (what I thought then was) the great crisis of our marriage, but it wasn’t heroism. It was only pack cohesion. Of course he kept us together. It’s what they do.

Twenty years. There are people who were not yet conceived when I met Zeke, since born and grown and schooled and married with kids, or killed in wars, or both. And I look back at what I’ve done in that time and I see precious little of importance. So many late nights spent working, so many stupid hours spent composing rebuttals to bad-faith internet arguers, so many weeks spent on the road without him, and for what? I shoved him out of the way when he was insistent, and for what?

Since he died I think of those moments and feel a twist in my gut. I wish they were held in a bank somewhere, those cumulative hours -days -months of his I wasted. It is probably best I didn’t keep track, because tonight I would be tallying them all, finding the sum, and making calculations with the total span of my life the dividend.

I am about as over him as I am ever going to get at this point. The memories of Zeke that float to the top of my mind are for the most part happy ones. And yet I see my future clearly — at least in this one respect — and it involves a man of advanced years seeing the calendar, remembering a walk of 35 years prior, and being immobilized for a moment by grief as fresh as ever.

This is as good as it gets.

cropped-Coyote-Crossing-2010.png

Planet of Plagues

I noticed that this article, which was published in the Summer 1999 issue of Earth Island Journal, has fallen off the Journal’s website archives. So I’m putting it up here. It’s badly dated, and there are things I say with assurance here that I would now nuance to hell and back were I rewriting this. Some aspects of this piece have been superseded by a decade of new information, and some I understand better now, and some are a bit from each column. But it’s probably worth saving anyway, so here it is.

Extinction and Health [May 1999]

No part of earth is undisrupted by humankind’s acts, from the sea floor to the interior of the most remote land. Only those species that thrive on our disturbance have benefited. The rest are at least beginning to decline. Some have vanished forever. For decades, environmentalists have warned that our planet stands on the brink of a mass extinction. More and more scientists have joined the warning chorus.

Environmentalists often refer to the current frightening situation as “unprecedented,” going on to predict a biologically sparse period lasting millions of years, or however long it will take for the surviving rats and starlings to evolve into antelope and albatross equivalents. In the meantime, we will live in a world that is immeasurably, if intangibly, poorer for lacking wild things.

But our predicament is not unprecedented. To think it is unprecedented deprives us of the opportunity to learn from past extinctions what we may expect of this one. And one conclusion we can reasonably draw is that in the wake of this extinction, our lives will be more unpleasant in a very tangible way. The coming extinction may make us sick.

Despite the clear threat of this wave of extinction, our species is accelerating our damage to the biosphere. As you will read in the articles that follow in this special issue of Earth Island Journal, humankind is embarked on an unprecedented project of destruction of the natural world. We are scouring the seafloor. We are systematically killing off most animals larger than a German shepherd. We are reducing the amount of habitat available to other organisms -such as the migratory songbirds and amphibians whose declines are described here -and eroding the integrity of the habitat that remains, by means ranging from climate change to the introduction of invasive species.

Some of the evidence of decline, like that in the breeding bird surveys, is ambiguous. Some damage, such as that done by clearcutting, is devastatingly obvious. Regardless of the degree of certainty in any one area, however, it is clear that the cumulative effect of our actions -wiping away habitat, poisoning the air and water, tweaking the climate and “harvesting” whole species out of existence -will (or has already) set in motion what biologists and paleontologists call a mass extinction, in which 20 to 95 percent of the species on the globe die off completely in a relatively short time.

We are not, in all likelihood, seeing that yet. Despite the dire statements of some environmentalists, we have not yet caused the level of damage seen in mass extinctions for which we have fossil evidence. Paleontologists identify five mass extinctions in the fossil record, and a host of smaller extinction events, the least of which wiped away 20 percent of living genera. The great-grandmother of all extinctions, which took place 245 million years ago at the end of the Permian, saw the disappearance of 75 to 96 percent of all species alive at the time. Sixty percent of all genera in the world didn’t make it past that period. More than half of all families (the taxonomic category just above the genus) died out. We talk about critically endangered species, such as the cheetah, or subspecies, such as the Siberian tiger; imagine not just those but lions, pumas, cervals, bobcats, lynx, and Sylvester all dying out and you are still picturing an extinction event orders of magnitude less devastating than the Permian. Compared to the old-fashioned mass extinctions the planet used to have, our current unpleasantness ranks only slightly above the apparent background extinction level. We have certainly not extirpated anything near a double-digit percentage of existing genera. Our destructive proclivities may be unprecedented, but the current wave of extinctions is not -so far.

Fits and starts


As our situation isn’t unprecedented, we can look at previous mass extinctions to see what we can expect if we cause another. To do so, we must take a look at the mechanics of extinction and evolution.

Unless you went to school very recently, you learned of evolution as a slow, arduous process. Minor, almost imperceptible variation enters the genetic pool of a species, through mutations. With enough time the genepool may become modified enough by accumulation of beneficial (or merely benign) mutations to constitute a new species.

Despite popular mythology, the process does not imply increasing perfection. A recent study of the famous Galapagos finches is a case in point. Researchers Peter and Rosemary Grant found that the finches are, indeed, constantly evolving, but in response to cyclically-changing environmental conditions. A dry spell might mean large, hard-shelled seeds are the only available finch food -other plants fared poorly. Thus, finches with big strong beaks reproduce more successfully. When the dry spell ends, there are more small, easily-opened seeds available, and the big-billed finches find it harder to handle this food than do their smaller-beaked cousins. Succeeding generations show a trend toward smaller snoots. Cycle after cycle, the finch populations evolve to adapt to shifting environmental conditions, at a remarkably rapid pace: one or two generations, as opposed to eons. In environmentally stable times, the goalposts of that evolution are constantly shifted by the regular cycles of the environment: drought and flood, warm and cold, perhaps even -for organisms as short-lived as bacteria -night and day.

If Galapagos finches are nothing special and other organisms evolve in basically the same fashion, one would expect to find two consequences in the paleontological record. First, that when ecological changes were cyclical and relatively gentle for long periods of time, we should find a fair amount of stability in species, that generational oscillation in a characteristic such as beak size would appear to us as a very stable range of variation in the fossils of a species.

Second, we would expect that where change is sudden, marked, and non-cyclical, as is the case during and after a mass extinction event, such change would generate dramatic evolutionary changes in the species surviving. If, as is thought, a comet smacked into what is now the Yucatan at the close of the Cretaceous, killing off the dinosaurs and ammonites and pteranodons with a global cloud of sulfur and dust, the stable cycles of environmental change would have been seriously disrupted, meaning that species would be pressed to adapt to abruptly different environmental circumstances. One would expect a sudden flourishing of diverse and innovative new species.

In fact, paleontology confirms exactly these conclusions. The bulk of the fossil record shows stable species, with a low background level of extinction and a similarly low background level of new species arising. But after the double handful of extinction events for which we have evidence, new species appear remarkably suddenly, diversify, and split into more new species. Then the lineages solidify and the biosphere becomes relatively stable again, until the next comet hits.

This is the heart of “punctuated equilibrium,” a model of evolution first proposed by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould. Each extinction, whether caused by comet or climate or just dumb luck on the part of the last fertile members of a species, changes the environment of its neighbors, providing both the opportunity and the impetus to evolve. The more extinctions, the more subsequent evolution. Even after the Permian extinction, when life was nearly wiped out altogether, species evolved to fill the new gaps very quickly.

Planet of plagues


So mass extinctions have, in the past, been followed by a burst of rapid evolution in which new species take advantage of whatever opportunities are available to them for survival. We face an impending mass extinction caused by our own actions. Despite the apocalyptic pronouncements of some environmental activists, our species is almost certain to weather the wave of extinctions. There are so many of us that even if nine-tenths of the people in the world died all at once, it would make little difference from an evolutionary standpoint. We can survive with bone awls and axes on glaciers; we can thrive in the bleakest, driest deserts; we breed successfully amid the rats and pigeons and carcinogenic soot of our large cities. We aren’t going anywhere. On the contrary, unless we experience a species-wide shift in our approach to the rest of the world, Homo sapiens will continue to dominate the biosphere post-extinction.
Logic, then, would dictate that the majority of evolutionary job openings in the post-holocaust world will be associated, to some degree, with humans.

In the excellent article “Planet of Weeds,” published in the October 1998 Harper’s, David Quammen describes some of these opportunities. In the wake of ecological disruption, Quammen notes, species that are pre-adapted to take advantage of disturbed ecosystems are thriving. He forecasts a world dominated by the equivalents of rats and starlings, crows, buffelgrass and kudzu, with species dependent on stable wild ecosystems increasingly displaced.
Quammen’s article is relatively optimistic. Annoying and pestiferous as starlings and tumbleweeds may be, such species will generally respect the boundary of our skin, the occasional rat bite or star thistle prick notwithstanding.

A hint of a worse future hit the front pages early this year, when researchers determined that the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) originated in wild populations of chimpanzees. Chimps’ habitat is shrinking, and wild bands increasingly come into proximity with human beings. Somehow, through bushmeat hunting or other close contact with chimps, a human contracted HIV. The subsequent human death toll may have passed 12 million as you read this.

Microorganisms rule the world, as they have since life began. The majority of biomass on the planet consists of single-celled organisms. We may notice their presence only when they make us sick or leaven our bread, but we could not live without them. They are the foundation of the nitrogen cycle: only bacteria can take nitrogen from the air and change it into usable form. It’s a safe bet that there is no animal that could survive without its internal flora of microorganisms. Every moth, wildebeest, or aardvark bears a specialized community of germs, some of them so fitted to their host species that they are found nowhere else.

When these animals vanish, their internal flora either find new hosts or go extinct. Most of them will die out. Some will find a convenient alternative organism to inhabit. Humans are likely to be convenient fairly often. Many of these organisms will be relatively benign. But some, like HIV, the Ebola virus, and hantavirus, will interfere violently with the workings of the human body.

This is as bad for the pathogen as the host: if you die, most of the germs inside you die. Less-deadly forms of the pathogens survive more reliably, thus reproducing more successfully, thus being selected for in an evolutionary sense. There is some evidence that HIV is becoming less-virulent with the passing decades, and you yourself may well harbor Ebola Reston, a benign strain of that frightening virus.

As habitats are destroyed and their resident species obliterated, humans face the prospect of a series of plagues. At first, some of these diseases will kill lots of people, then they’ll settle in to making life unpleasant, but not quite killing their hosts. They may take many forms: a growing range of complaints has been recently linked to infection by microorganisms. Fifteen to twenty percent of human cancers are now known to be infectious in origin. Ulcers and kidney stones have been linked to pathogens, and some postulate a schizophrenia germ. The plagues may be here already, unrecognized.

If there is an upside to this frightening trend, it is that the threat of emerging diseases provides a concrete reason for preserving biodiversity. Environmentalists have long appealed to aesthetics or morality to enlist support in protecting the wild, or dangled the elusive promise of miracle drugs from mysterious rainforest herbs. These moral and utilitarian arguments are persuasive, but incomplete.

Emerging diseases give us a compelling reason to preserve what we can of the myriad wild habitats we’re now threatening: self-defense. Better to keep the next millennium’s diseases where they belong: in the coral reefs and rainforest canopies and bloodstreams of limestone-cave bats. We can try to stem the next extinction, keeping the billions of strains of microorganisms in check, or we can provide those microbes with inadvertent wildlife refuges in our bodies.

Scientific illiteracy and he-said she-said reporting

This is a really frustrating bit of recursive scientific illiteracy.

The issue was kicked off by a post which you can find at “friedcranes.org” though due to the cumbersome layout of this page by the time you read this you may have to search a bit. Look for the October 7th editorial on “Tonapah [sic], Nevada.”

The authors of the editorial are concerned about concentrating solar stations that incorporate thermal storage by using molten salts. The idea behind the technology is that solar power doesn’t work so well when the sun goes down, so if you use the sun to heat something that stays hot for a while after sunset, you can use that stored heat to turn a turbine and generate power. It’s a very common idea, and one often touted by people claiming that centralized solar is better than PV — though Solar Done Right’s Bill Powers has shown persuasively that solar thermal storage is a really frigging expensive way of generating electricity. It’s probably a technology worth developing further, in that there will likely be a few ways in which CSP proves to be useful, as in powering desalination plants, where you could use the concentrated brine as your source of molten salt, or something like that. But as a way of making electricity in the desert, it’s more a talking point than an economically feasible technology.

The molten salts generally used in this kind of tech are nitrates of potassium and sodium, commonly referred to as saltpeter and Chilean saltpeter, respectively. They’re cheap and abundant, and there are certain health hazards involved with their use: ingesting too much of either in preserved meats is thought to increase your risk of colon cancer, for one. They can be irritating to sensitive tissues. They have been known to start wars. If you heat it up to somewhere around 350°C and then accidentally spill it into the environment, it can cause nasty fires. In fact, these salts give off oxygen when heated, so they’re really good at starting fires under certain circumstances. Mix them finely with something quite flammable and apply a small spark, and they allow that flammable substance to burn far faster than it would without the saltpeter there, which is pretty much what those Ninth Century Chinese chemists found out when they discovered gunpowder, which is a mixture of potassium nitrate, powdered charcoal, and sulfur.

It’s a misunderstanding of that last property that the folks at friedcranes.org are worried about, as they say in their editorial:

We have been copying the Tonapah [sic], Nevada media with our editorials for months about the infamous Crescent Dunes Bomb being proposed to be built by SolarReserve in their soon-to-be-eradicated town in Nevada.
    Are they interested? Nah!

    Not one reporter has had the gumption to take five seconds to Google “sodium nitrate” and “potassium nitrate” and learn to their everlasting dismay that these chemicals are the highly explosive saltpeter and Chilean saltpeter, respectively—exactly the benign “molten salts” for energy storage that SolarReserve enthusiastically drones on and on about in their unending press releases.

    Not one reporter in Tonapah [sic] has bothered to observe from SolarReserve’s own documents that 12 million gallons of these highly explosive chemicals will be stored in two tanks adjacent to 12,000 gallons of diesel fuel at the Tonapah [sic] site.

    Not one reporter in Tonapah [sic] is the least bit dismayed that SolarReserve claims that they will keep these explosives at temperatures from 500°F to 1050°F despite the fact that both chemicals start boiling at about 750°F—presumably to begin venting “harmlessly” into Tonapah’s pristine air.

    Not one reporter in Tonapah [sic] has had the guts to report that the 91,000 tons (compare that amount to just 2-½ tons of explosive and diesel fuel used by Timothy McVeigh to destroy the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City) of high explosive SolarReserve® is so cavalierly planning to plop next to town has the equivalent explosive force of three atomic bombs the size of those we dropped on Japan at the end of the Second World War, albeit without the accompanying radiation.

    Not one reporter in Tonapah [sic] has had the temerity to criticize the slip-shod engineering foisted off on the citizens of their Nevada town, nor to at least warn their friends and neighbors that an incendiary bullet fired into those massive tanks from a mile or two away (outside their purported secure perimeter fence patrolled by an alert security guard) would be sufficient to trigger the tragic explosions.

Etc.

There’s a small problem with the Friedcranes folks’ argument: neither potassium nitrate nor sodium nitrate is explosive. In order to be explosive, something needs to be flammable, and both salts are in fact non-flammable. If you had a vat of boiling saltpeter and a lit match, and you tossed the lit match into the vat, the match would explode, as it burned furiously in the extra oxygen the saltpeter would likely be giving off. But the saltpeter wouldn’t explode, nor catch fire, nor do anything, really, that a similar quantity of molten metal wouldn’t do.

This is obviously a finer point for people, like the friedcranes folks, for whom chemistry is an arcane art. So let me put it this way:

  • Burning, whether slowly as in a banked campfire or quickly as in a gigantic explosion, takes place when a substance combines with oxygen and gives off heat.
  • A substance is non-flammable when there is no place in its molecules for oxygen to latch onto easily.
  • Sometimes this is because you’re not providing a high enough concentration of oxygen or heat to make the combining happen rapidly: pure iron, for instance, is flammable in an atmosphere of pure oxygen, but at normal O2 concentrations and heat it combines with the oxygen far more slowly, rusting away over years.
  • Sometimes, as in the case of water, a substance is non-flammable because it already contains as much oxygen as it can hold.
  • Saltpeter has enough extra oxygen in it that it’s aching to give it away: heat it up a little and the oxygen comes streaming out.

Clearer? Saltpeter does not burn. Therefore it does not explode. It is safest kept away from highly flammable materials, and thus I do hope the TonOpah solar developers have their diesel tanks a discreet distance from their molten salt tanks. But if they don’t, what would happen in the worst possible accident is that the diesel would explode. It’s not pretty when big diesel tanks explode. People can get badly hurt and die. It happens. And if you have an exploded diesel tank, you’ve probably got flash temperatures high enough to vaporize some of the saltpeter, and thus you have a mild hazmat issue for first responders to deal with. In fact, Wikipedia’s page on potassium nitrate has this handy guide to firefighting around the stuff:

Fire Fighting Measures

Fire : Not combustible itself but substance is a strong oxidizer and its heat of reaction with reducing agents or combustibles may accelerate burning.
Explosion : No danger of explosion. KNO3 is an oxidising agent, so will accelerate combustion of combustibles.
Fire Extinguishing Media : Dry chemical, carbon dioxide, Halon, water spray, or fog. If water is used, apply from as far a distance as possible. Water spray may be used to keep fire exposed containers cool. Do not allow water runoff to enter sewers or waterways.
Special Information : Wear full protective clothing and breathing equipment for high-intensity fire or potential explosion conditions. This oxidizing material can increase the flammability of adjacent combustible materials.

image So: no exploding saltpeter — despite the stuff having its own pesky cautions in dealing with it at high temperatures, none of which should be taken lightly — and thus no need for alarmist talk of 40-mile “blast zones” from accumulating even “millions of gallons” of it onsite, as the map taken under Fair Use provisions from the September 29 Friedcranes.org editorial would lead you to believe. That map is meant to express alarm over a larger solar thermal storage proposal in Colorado, significantly larger than the Tonopah Crescent Dunes project.

As for devastation in “Tonapah” from a saltpeter-enhanced explosion on the Crescent Dunes site, said site is just under 15 miles from town. It’s possible that some folks could badly injure themselves after being startled by the blast from 12,000 gallons of diesel fuel combining with oxygen in a fraction of a second: spilling hot coffee on themselves or falling off ladders or something. A north-facing window or two might even break. And workers at the plant itself will be in significant danger. But odds are the town will still be there afterward.

So a couple of enviros get their science badly wrong. It happens far more frequently than I am comfortable with — you can google “chemtrails” for jaw-dropping examples of same. The friedcranes folks seem to be nice enough people, though clearly just a bit too non-discerning in their choice of trusted sources of information. But people in the green camp getting their science utterly wrong is nothing new. One of the first things I had to do after taking over the Earth Island Journal for the first time was apologize to every single subscribing healthcare professional for the previous guy’s reference to “tuberculosis viruses” in milk. Not to mention the few hours I put in trying to explain to him how half-lives actually worked. A lot of this stuff has become background noise for me due to overexposure, and in most cases I’d have left the people at Friedcranes.org alone. They seem like perfectly nice people otherwise and life is short.

But then I read this piece in the Pahrump Valley Times.

SolarReserve refuted concerns circulated over the Internet by a Colorado environmental group that evoked fears of a catastrophe from an explosion from the molten salts used in a future solar power plant at Crescent Dunes.

Emails from FriedCranes.org state sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate are highly explosive saltpeter, not benign molten salts as SolarReserve touts in its company press releases.

After repeating FriedCranes’ statements about “highly explosive” nitrate salts of potassium and sodium, the article continues:

At the suggestion of the environmental group, an online check by the Pahrump Valley Times found sodium nitrate is used as an ingredient in fertilizer and pyrotechnics. Potassium nitrate is used as a fertilizer and a main component in stump removal; it’s also an oxidizing component in gunpowder.

SolarReserve had a ready answer to the group’s argument: The project is “fully permitted and completely safe.”

SolarReserve spokesman Andi Plocek said the questions over molten salt were put to rest in the environmental impact statement. She said other solar projects use molten salt storage, though most don’t have the solar tower that will be constructed at Crescent Dunes.

And this got me angry.

I’m not going to blame the reporter for this crappy story, because I don’t know what he actually turned in. Editors can take a perfectly good story and ruin it. But the Pahrump Valley Times should be ashamed of itself.

It is an objective fact that neither potassium nitrate nor sodium nitrate is explosive. A responsible article should have said so. Instead, the article turned objective fact into a he-said, she-said View from Nowhere piece, to borrow a phrase from media observer Jay Rosen.

I recognize that this isn’t the first example of scientific fact that’s been subject to this treatment. Anthropogenic global warming and evolution by natural selection are scientific facts, and they get covered this way all the time. Same goes for the spurious alleged link between vaccination and autism, and a lot of other such needless controversies.

But as far as I know, no one is seriously proposing we reexamine saltpeter’s flammability. One side of this story just has it unquestionably wrong, it’s a trivial matter to find out that they have it wrong, and that fact should have been in the first or second sentence of the piece. Which should have been framed differently anyway.  “Local High School Student With B+ Average In Chemistry Refutes Fears of Saltpeter Explosion” might have been a good headline.

Meetup photos

These are by Jim Stanger, unless otherwise noted. I don’t identify people in photos unless they tell me it’s cool, so that’s why I’m not doing so here. feel free to ID yourself in comments if you like.

puppies

I will, however, ID Louie — the blond puppeh in the background, and Stella, the black one in foreground gazing adoringly at him. This was in the meetup’s “living room,” underneath Florian’s awning.

photo

A Datura, a.k.a. Jimson weed. Night-blooming disturbed soil colonizer, pollinated by hawkmoths.

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Zebra-tailed lizard. These buggers can run fast, like 25 mph.

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Taking advantage of a moment of shade on a hike.

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A carpet of yellow Monoptilon bdelloides in front of an outcrop.

Sunset Lighting

The first night’s sunset.

Coyote Roaming

The first night’s sunset being photobombed by Yours Truly.

Sunset Over Joshua Tree NP

Aaaaaaahhhhhhhh.

And one by me, with the cameraphone and Instagram:

Ironwood

Coyote Crossing Meetup report

tl;dr version: we had a great time and we’re doing it again, so be prepared to visit the desert on the weekend of April 21, 2012. We should have warm days and cool nights around then, and very dark skies.

image

Friday was a bit of a mess. I’d planned on spending the morning making some last minute preparations for the campout, and ended up instead spending it getting a new battery for Annette’s car, which took up basically the entire morning. She was sick, and it was bad enough I was ditching my sick girlfriend for a weekend, I certainly wasn’t going to leave her without a car. But I found a mechanic that works on Minis two blocks from our house who was able to swap the battery out, and change the oil and airfilter besides, in a couple hours. I got out to the site only half an hour later than I said I would, and even late I was still the first person there. So, win.

Opening Day

One other note about the morning: a few minutes of it was spent greeting my neighbor Florian Boyd, who dropped off a shade awning, a rollup camping kitchen table and about five gallons of water in a handy jug. He couldn’t make it to the meetup, but between giving us shade and that extra water he made it far more comfortable — though not as fun as if he’d been able to make it. Thanks, Florian.

But when I got to the site, there was an appealing ironwood tree not far from where I parked, and it was casting a nice patch of shade, so I postponed setting up the awning and dragged a chair out into that shade. After about half an hour of decompressing, letting the road noise ebb from my ears and the auto repair stress seep out of my shoulders, Jim Stanger pulled into camp. We had just enough time to chat a little and then a sedan crunched over the low berm and into the campsite. Out came James Goebel, his partner Pamela Chui, and their friends Philip Anselmo and Sonia Mineo, all from the environs of Irvine California. We six sat and chatted beneath the ironwood until the sun started angling toward the west, around 5:30, at which point we all went for a walk in the cooler air. High points of that walk: coyote burrows, cryptobiotic soil crusts, ocotillos still covered in green from the storms of September, desert pavement and washes and lotsa little holes in the soil.

We turned back and got to camp just as John Helms and Hope Tracey arrived bearing nodules they’d rockhounded a few miles south, like geodes only without a hollow center. I started a fire, Pamela started cooking up some lentil soup on a cartridge stove, and Philip went for a walk in camp and made a new friend:

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That photo’s by Jim Stanger. The other highlight of the twilight was John and Hope finding a sidewinder down the road a bit.

The rest of the evening, and on into the neighborhood of 3 am, was spent sitting around the fire eating, talking desert politics, drinking wine, and enjoying each others’ company. Midway through this part of the festivities Ruth Nolan showed up, bearing good cheer, more wine, and a few delicious snacks. There were some meteors. One by one people drifted away to sleep, the coyotes sang off toward Desert Center, and then it was…

Day Two.

We woke slowly at 7-8, puttering and making coffee and various shared breakfasts. I’m going to have to do the polenta again: that worked well.

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Seen in the photo above, someone lounging in the shade of Florian’s awning while Jim S., at far left, makes yet more breakfast.

After a while, Hope and John took off to go see an art show in Joshua Tree. Ruth volunteered to lead everyone on a trip up to a canyon she knew, where she thought there might be petroglyphs. Someone who went on that trip will have to provide some details: I stayed in camp to greet Saturday arrivals. Of whom there was one: Janeen Armstrong, longtime reader of this blog and the one that was here before it, and a good friend. Janeen traveled to the meetup from Port Townsend, WA, and thus deserves some sort of prize even ignoring the fact that she brought Northwestern coffee and blended Scotch with her. We had about twenty minutes of catching up and then the canyon trip returned, with people not having found petroglyphs but reporting that they all had great fun nonetheless. Then the Irvine folks took off, and a couple hours later so did Ruth. Jim, Janeen and I took a slow saunter through a gorgeous wash filled with ironwoods and palo verdes, came out on Eagle Mountain Road, then walked back up to camp accompanied by about two dozen Gambels quail.

Another fire, another dinner mainly cooked by Jim, some of the delicious whisky thoughtfully provided by Neen, several hours of great conversation, and our vows to get to sleep earlier than we had on Friday night were technically kept, but not by much.

In the morning the three of us drank aero pot coffee Janeen kindly made from a batch of Guatemalan beans, which she hand-ground on site. It was good. Breakfast quesdaillas, more coffee of the less labor-intensive sort, and we were all three of us just about to reluctantly mention the prospect of rolling up the tents when a note came in from the outside world that made us procrastinate. About an hour later the sender of that note, Lakey Kolb, showed up with her Beau Stephen Andrews and their pups Louie and Stella. More great conversation ensued for an hour or so. Then we all headed for home.

Along the way, there was a lot of great conversation and brainstorming and enthusiasm about new approaches to the save the desert thing. Among the things we all generally agreed on were that 1) this was a great way for people that didn’t know the desert at all (such as for example Janeen and a few of the Irvine Gang) to get to know and love the place, and 2) we needed to do it again.

So I’m looking for venues, thinking of balances between creature comforts for the not-particularly-hardcore and actual deserty desert so that we’re not camping in an irrigated park, and April 21 seems like a good target date. So mark your calendars and I’ll have more news soon. With seven months to plan, some folks from farther away who said they’d wished they could make this one might actually be able to make the next one.

And help me think of something to call this new series of get-togethers other than “meetup.” The first one to suggest the winning name gets to eat polenta at the Spring 2012 Coyote Crossing Whatchamacallit. Suggestions from the thesaurus: “affair, assemblage, assembly, assignation, audience, bunch, call, cattle call, company, competition, conclave, concourse, concursion, confab, conflict, confrontation, congregation, congress, contest, convention, convocation, date, encounter, engagement, gang, get-together, huddle, introduction, meet, one on one, parley, powwow, rally, rendezvous, reunion, session, showdown, talk, tryst, turnout.”

I kind of like Coyote Crossing Congress. And Coyote Crossing Rendezvous would allow us to reclaim that acronym from the obsolete rock band that’s still using it.