Jen with one of the Conservation Canines. I stole this picture from the project page. Apologies that I don't know who to credit for it!

Dogs, Cats, and Scats: Saving Jaguars, One Poop at a Time

One of my favorite leisure activities is looking at other animals’ poop. If you’re reading this, you’re probably the kind of person who can relate. I have a collection of photos on my phone that I’ve taken while hiking—everything from the irresistibly hairy gray dreadlocks produced by coyotes (which I happily handle) to the compact tourmaline pellets of elk and moose and the enormous spreading mounds of bear sign, great brown skies constellated by the bright remains of berries. Someday, in the fullness of time, I will realize my dream of buying the domain name www.shitisaw.com and building there a grand compendium of crap.

In the meantime, I’d like to direct your attention to a particular piece of scatological science that you can support at this very moment. It’s a project run by University of Washington wildlife ecology PhD student Jennifer Mae-White Day, who’s crowdfunding the final year of her dissertation research. I’ve posted this several times in a couple of places, so apologies for the repetition; but I can’t overstate how worthy I think this project is of your support. Here’s why:

Jen’s work relies on trained detection dogs which help her search for jaguar scat. Her research site is located in a remote, rugged habitat in Southern Mexico where other techniques for studying these elusive animals would be extremely difficult. (Aside: Did you know that Darwin was fascinated by jaguars and continually tried to find them while on his excursions in the Americas? You would if you followed him on Twitter. He’s a great one for Twitter.) Anyway, scat surveys are a totally noninvasive means (they don’t involve trapping or otherwise stressing the species of interest) of collecting information about animal movements, diversity, and health. Poop contains both nuclear and mitochondrial DNA, so it can be used to identify individual jaguars and build a picture of genetic diversity within the population. It also contains hormones and absorbed toxins, which means Jen can quantify the psychological and nutritional stresses the jaguar population is under. And by tracking the locations where scat is found, she can figure out which landscape features, particularly those affected by human activity, attract or repel jaguars (hugely important to deciding where to target conservation)—as well as how genes flow between populations.

In short, this is very good basic science AND it’s highly applicable to our immediate efforts to preserve both the vanishing jaguar population and the ecosystems where they play a vital role as top predators. PLUS, it supports the work of Conservation Canines in general—so apart from anything else, you’ll be helping to save the lives of rescue dogs and give them purposeful work.

Jen with one of the Conservation Canines. I stole this picture from the project page. Apologies that I don't know who to credit for it!

Jen with one of the Conservation Canines. I stole this picture from the project page. Apologies that I don’t know who to credit for it!

That’s my pitch about the value of this research. My other pitch is about how much I think Jen, specifically, deserves your support. First of all, she’s very experienced with this type of research; she’s been working on projects involving large carnivores, tropical habitats, and scat surveys for many years, so she knows exactly what she’s doing and any funding she receives is going to be efficiently used. Secondly, I know her because she TAs my ecology class at UW, and she happens to be incredibly good at that. She leads our lab sessions with great enthusiasm, knowledgeability, and finesse, and I’ve learned a lot from her explanations.

Finally, Jen is a fantastic person as well as a determined scientist. A few weeks ago I made an appointment with her to talk about my grad school plans, and she sat with me for nearly two hours in the middle of what was an incredibly demanding week for her. At the end of it I felt like I had gotten an enormous education in approaching the application and decision processes, as well as sharp insight into how to thrive as a grad student. I was also moved by Jen’s generosity and kindness. If you’re reading this and you don’t happen to be the kind of person who likes looking at poop, then you’re probably a person who knows and loves me, and wants to support my future success. I can tell you that meeting Jen has directly contributed to my chances of achieving that success. So even if you couldn’t care less about jaguars or dogs or conservation, if you care about me, that’s a pretty good reason to support her.

I’m pushing this so hard because the Experiment.com model, like Kickstarter’s, only funds projects if they reach the goals they’ve set—so if Jen doesn’t get to $10,000 in the next 9 days, she’ll lose everything she has raised so far. I think that would be a tremendous shame. One last thing: Even if you can only spare a small amount in support, your modest backing will go twice as far, because every new donation from now on will be matched dollar for dollar till the end of the funding period.

Please consider making a contribution. If you do, and we’re ever in the same city at the same time, ping me and I’ll buy you a drink. Then we’ll toast to good science and good people and good old fashioned poop.

LINK TO THE PROJECT PAGE WHERE YOU CAN DONATE

LINK TO POSTS JEN HAS MADE ABOUT SCAT SURVEYS

JEN ON TWITTER

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On Living Without Windows

If I look to my left as I type at this moment, I see the whispering canopy of a European white birch some 40 feet tall, its branches dangling boas of diamond-shaped, tooth-edged leaves. I see the straight line of a utility cable weaving through the crazy puzzle of the tree’s profile. I see the nose of a silver sedan parked on the street below, and if I crane my neck to look over my shoulder I can see another birch, another cable, and a clutch of houses rising on the curve of Phinney Ridge, the neighborhood northwest of the one where I live. I see these things through the nearly full-length windows I am lucky to have lining the wall by my desk.

These are my windows; they are part of my apartment. It is simple enough to say, as you do: This is my view.

On Thursday morning Ross and I woke in the half-dark and drove two about and a half hours north of Seattle, picking up our friend Susie along the way. The goal for the day was to hike to a place called Hidden Lake Lookout, which lies just over the border between Mt. Baker Snoqualmie National Forest and North Cascades National Park. Susie had hiked this route before, several years ago, and had in general sung the praises of the landscape through which it climbs—a part of the Cascade mountain range that Ross and I had not yet visited.

Nothing about the hike disappointed. The vegetation was everywhere riotous and everywhere changing; as we moved from forest to open cliffside, the dappled ferns and mosses fell away and we started seeing spikes of fireweed, starry asters, lupine, mountain ash, paintbrush and false hellebore. At times the giant, hairy fans of cow parsnip—cousins of the hundkex (“dog biscuit”) I encountered in Sweden—nearly pushed us off the path. And after Susie pointed out the ripe wild blueberries that lined the trail, every new patch became an excuse to pause and pluck a half dozen tiny bright beads, tart as anything and more satisfying than water.

We saw and heard pika as the terrain got rockier (each call like a fraction of a red-breasted nuthatch). Four white-tailed ptarmigan, brown summer plumage fading sooner than I would have thought into winter white, stood clucking softly on a steep outcrop near the top, as high as snowfields. Near the top of everything, the first glimpse of Hidden Lake appeared like a crazy mirage shining low in the throat of the mountains around it, and here there were ravens. Always ravens in high places.

This is Hidden Lake, no longer quite so hidden.

But windows are my subject today.

Ross and I left Susie napping on a boulder in the sun and half-hiked, half-scrambled up another few hundred feet to the top of a narrow peak above. The views here, if possible, were even more expansive. We could see, though we could not have named all of these mountains at the time, Mount Shuksan. Big Devil Peak. Eldorado. Mount Baker. Johannesburg. Mount Sahale. Boston Peak. Mount Forbidden. Glacier Peak. The sky was close enough to touch and nothing for miles around, it seemed, was hidden from us—except perhaps the place where we had started from that morning, down below the shadows of the trees.

We found a place to stand, to twirl around and take it in. And then we turned our attention to the structure that gives the trail its name: a wildfire lookout built in 1932, decommissioned a few decades later, and currently maintained as a first-come, first-served camping shelter.

The Lookout.

Five or six other parties were at the top when we arrived, including a pair of young backpackers who had been lucky enough, they told us, to nab the space just as its previous occupants were leaving. The couple had arranged their sleeping bags and foodstuffs in the lookout, a little wooden cabin tethered to the rocks at very nearly 7,000 feet, and were now sitting just outside it. Ross, before me, hesitated on the doorstep. The lookout was, of course, public property—but even at that height, a certain canon of possession held.

“Go on in,” the couple said, with jovial magnanimity (a relief to me, since a trip report I had read about this hike made mention of a party that had commandeered the house and tried to prevent day hikers from entering the lookout even for a peek). “Go take a look!”

And so we did. And as we entered, both of us—entirely involuntarily—gasped. “Oh, my god.” Here’s what we saw:

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I’m not sure if these pictures made you gasp, too. It’s hard for me to know how I would feel about them if I didn’t have in my mind the memory of what it was like to step over that small threshold onto clean, peeling floorboards, thinking of nothing in particular except the sun and the air, feeling only a mild curiosity about what the inside of a fire lookout might be like, and to all of a sudden see that view, through those windows. It was quite genuinely breathtaking.

Not that the view outside the lookout’s walls had been less breathtaking—at least, it made no sense for that to be the case. By definition, what you could see through the windows was circumscribed and what you could see outside was not. Nothing ought to have been more spectacular than the 360 degree panorama we had beheld from the exterior, turning on our heels and back again until we all but lost our balance. A few pieces of wood and glass ought not to have improved on our eyes’ best evidence.

And yet, as soon as you walked through that doorway something made you gasp. It happened in exactly the same way to the people who stepped in as we stepped out—a stopping in their tracks, a sharp inhalation. “Oh, my god,” a woman said.

Reemerging from the lookout I was slightly irritated by the extra awe I’d felt on entering the structure. It took me a while to understand. At first I thought it must be something about the way the windows framed the mountains; perhaps they gave the overwhelming beauty of the scene some shape, I speculated. Perhaps they somehow emphasized the vastness of the landscape by placing onto it a sense of human scale, making the peaks seem even bigger and more majestic than they already were.

There may be something in that, but now I think the simpler, more direct, and more frustrating explanation is that windows make us feel as if we own what we see through them. And what a possession this would be! Everyone who stepped into the lookout that day, I think, immediately entertained a fantasy of moving into that irresistibly charming wooden cabin—of making it their home. That table, theirs. That bare bed, theirs. And that sublime, extraordinary view: theirs.

I often wish, spoiled as I am by having grown to love the outdoors through fieldwork at sites that were very nearly empty of other human beings, to be more alone when I hike. I grumble, quite unjustifiably, about having to share the trail with people who love wild places just as much as I do. This selfish impulse, I know, is another thing I share with many of those same people. I wouldn’t try to change it—solitude is precious, and we all deserve to seek it. But I would like to let go of the hunger to see the view through those windows, and of the silly, seductive sense that a place like that lookout was somehow the best possible vantage point from which to pass a night in the North Cascades.

I don’t want to want to own the mountains.

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(But I do kind of want to be in that lookout during a lightning storm. Wouldn't you?)

(But I do kind of want to be in that lookout during a lightning storm. Wouldn’t you?)

 

rainoverthere

Another Promised Land

After Ross and I left Chicago I pined for certain things: the sanguine splash of cardinals in the trees; the husky downtown smell of raw chocolate on the verge of becoming sweet; the screech and flinty spark of a nighttime El train passing overhead on ancient, dangerously frayed tracks. I even missed the shock of skin meeting air on gelid winter days.

It took a long time for those aches to ease. I’ve told you before that I didn’t feel at home in Berkeley right away. I used to look out of our living room window at a towering pine in our neighbor’s yard and think: You don’t have to love this place all at once. Love a single branch of a single tree, and see where you get.

I started with a single branch of a single tree (a lovable pine, and today I am fond of all of it), and I got—you may tell from the throb of the heart on my sleeve—to a love that has been utterly, unexpectedly, enormous. I have lived for some time now with the knowledge that neither the borders of Berkeley, nor the outline of the Bay, defined my home.

I didn’t feel this way about Massachusetts or Illinois—but California? California is my kingdom. We’ve logged 54 hikes in the last year here, and many hundreds of miles. I’ve camped from the desert to the mountains to the sea, and driven along more twisting, narrow roads-with-a-view than I can count. The entirety of this skinny kicking leg of a state feels like it belongs to me.

I have been very happy to live here, is what I am saying to you.

And now that I have said it I will say one more thing, which is that I will also—and this is the God’s honest truth—be very happy to leave.

Here Be Announcement!

Ross and I are moving to Seattle in a few months. He’s finishing up his post-doc, and a new job is calling that has taken him a long time to choose. It is the perfect job for him right now, except for the fact that it will take us away from the place that has become our promised land. I know he has been afraid that this will break my heart—that we are moving from sunshine to rain.

But there can be more than one promised land in a lifetime, and we are still young, and there is plenty of space in this world for the two of us to disperse a little further. (And Seattle is a particularly beautiful place to stretch into, by anyone’s standards.)

I am starting a little bigger this time around. I already love the entire waterfall whose ragged spill you see below. I already love the mountain from which it flows. I already love every drop of rain in the sky, as long as it is raining over there. We’ll see where I get.

cascades

rainoverthere

P.S. In case you were wondering about my plans, there are a few excellent ecology programs in the Seattle area, and I will be ready to apply this December. It’s true that not being able to cast a net across the whole country will constrain the grad school application process somewhat, but I’m very grateful for the opportunities I’ll have where we are.

(Another slug, photographed on a different day, standing in as our featured image.)

We Knew Him

Power is a strange and misunderstood thing. We tend to think we have very little; we tend to believe it is by rule or nature wielded by others over us. When we grasp it we do so with fervor, as if it could slip from our grasp. It is true that those who hold power are often masters, or monied, or men. But the word is smaller, too, and some of what it possesses is mere ability. To be powerful is to do what is possible for you.

Several years ago I passed some time as the editor of a smart, quirky, now defunct online science magazine. One of our problems was a near total lack of money and therefore a dearth of regular contributors, but I did occasionally receive queries of varying quality. One letter arrived from a Portland-based freelance writer on a Friday afternoon in October 2010. The poor woman who wrote it had been misled by a pamphlet to which she subscribed into thinking that we were a children’s magazine, and both the email and her cheerful, pun- and exclamation point-filled 660-word submission were entitled “A Slug is Not a Bug.”

There was something of a supplication in her tone that I have not forgotten. She entreated me not to dismiss her subject, despite its lowly stature in the world. She assured me she had done her research. She hoped I would read the entire article.

I wrote back politely, explaining that we did not publish material written specifically for children, and that was the end of that. But oddly enough I have thought about her email several times in the intervening years. She was professional, this woman—or anyway, as professional as she had learned so far to be. She was as hopeful as I was myself. I have no doubt she wanted more out of her life. To be a children’s writer; to be published. To be taken seriously. I have had so little power in my life, it has seemed to me. But there were things that were possible.

*******

Ross and I had a gorgeous day today up in Marin County, hiking 11 miles along a coastal trail in Point Reyes National Seashore. The ground was exploding with the purple of Pacific Coast irises and the air with wrentit and golden-crowned sparrow song. The sea below the bluffs crashed ecstatically onto the shore. It smelled like fenugreek; it smelled like ocean. It smelled like wild mustard, steaming and vegetal. We found the flat imprint of the shell of a marine mollusc on one half of a broken stone. We talked about the future and the beautiful possibilities Ross’s career success is about to provide us with.

We also met a slug. We met this particular banana slug (Ariolimax californicus), eating steadily away at what I think was a large leaf from a stinging nettle (Urtica doica)—more power to it.

We stopped to check it out. We marveled at the fact that we could hear the leaf disintegrating between its rasping, toothy mouth parts. I took a video. Slugs are so cool, we said to each other, nearly simultaneously, as we stood up.

About 15 minutes later, as we returned from the mid-point of our out-and-back hike, we saw the slug again. It was no longer eating. It had clearly been stepped on, no doubt by accident but extremely decisively, perhaps by one of the merry pair we had just seen wielding hiking-poles. The slug’s head, eyes, and part of its mantle were crushed and softly fissured. I did not take a picture.

*******

This is a strange post, and not the kind of strange I had intended. Not exactly a memorial for a single particular slug whose last minutes on this earth we happened to witness today. It has an odd humor, perhaps. But so many things are possible: To dash another’s hope or recognize it. To be the accidental cause of a small cessation of life. To be most excellent, despite one’s size, at excoriating the same Urtica leaves that stung Ross’s bare legs all afternoon.

The Nearer Your Destination

In the vocabulary of rock climbers, a problem is the physical space between where you are right now and where you’d like to be in just a little bit. A solution is any one of the set of ways in which you might traverse that space. The joy of climbing, you immediately understand, lies in both problems and solutions: A particularly beautiful solution requires an especially interesting problem.

I wouldn’t call myself a rock climber, but I’ve done enough of it in the gym to have collected a small stockpile of techniques—I have a sense of how to stretch, and twist, and push on, and pull with, various bits and pieces of my body in order to make a seemingly inaccessible position accessible. I have a sense of how to approach the physical mass of a rock face, how to see hand-holds and foot-holds and how to exploit my contact with the rock itself so that friction and reaction forces give me extra leverage.

Ross and I let our Berkeley rock gym memberships lapse quite a while ago, but we like using these skills to scramble. If you’ve never heard of scrambling you can think of it as the middle ground between walking, which generally requires no skill or equipment—and technical climbing, which requires both training and gear. Yesterday the two of us spent a few hours inhabiting that middle ground in Sunol Regional Wilderness, a gorgeous park that lies just east of the Calaveras fault (part of the San Andreas fault system) and is blessed with an abundance of otherworldly blue-green serpentine and rich brown-black basalt rock erupting at intervals out of rippling hills. We scrambled in the sweet, clear waters of Alameda Creek, which has so many good-sized boulders in it that you can go nearly a mile straight through the creek itself and only occasionally have to hop over to one or the other bank. We scrambled up Rock Scramble Trail, whose nature does not belie its name.

I was having bouts of lightheadedness that day, on which more in a moment, but the weather was fine and the problems were interesting and the solutions satisfied. The daily push ups I’ve been doing for a few months helped me strong-arm my way up at least one rather tall boulder. I made a couple of singularly enjoyable moves that involved getting nearly horizontal, hands pressed to one whorled stone surface and boots pushing back against another. I got sweaty and I slipped and I ate a fly, and I thought: I wouldn’t mind it if the world were all boulder.

The lightheadedness was a thing of some note, though thankfully it was not only mild but almost enjoyable, in the way that, if you’ve ever gone under, the first flush of anesthesia hitting your veins can make you understand why “giddy” has two meanings. Sunday was the first time I became aware of it, though it’s continued through today and I imagine it may take a little while to subside. About ten days ago, I don’t mind explaining, my physician and I agreed that it was a good time for me to start transitioning off the medication I’ve been taking for the last 14 months. I was given a list of “discontinuation symptoms,” some of which were moderately terrifying and most of which I have very luckily avoided. But I’m pretty sure that this is where the lightheadedness came from.

The only other effect I am experiencing as a result of going off the drug is also of some note.

I have noted it in a conversation with Ross, and today in a letter to my dear friend Sarah, but I find it difficult to note it here, for some reason; perhaps that it requires telling you about one of the parts of myself I find the ugliest. The past 14 months have been good ones, and because of that and possibly because, I now realize, of the medication I’ve been on, this ugliness has not manifested itself very much at all. But it surfaced this past Saturday, while I was studying for an upcoming physics exam and struggling to call upon the concepts and equations I’ve been learning quickly enough to solve my list of practice problems in a reasonably finite period of time. And it surfaced on the drive back from Sunol yesterday, when I made several wrong navigation moves in a row on a busy highway.

Ugliness, in this case, is a sudden, blooming unhappiness—a kind of black choler rising in me like a force of nature—or at least, that is how I thought about it for most of my life. Ugliness is the choler itself, which is usually triggered by the sense that I’ve done something wrong or that something has gone wrong. It is also a secondary sense of outrage and panic about being infected with this feeling, and the desire to cut it out of myself as expeditiously as possible. And it is the almost automatic projection of both of these unhappinesses onto someone else, preferably in a way that has them wronging me—so that even if I have to be miserable, it doesn’t have to be my fault.

I was alone when it happened on Saturday, so Physics Itself took the brunt of my projected unhappiness, which was quite mild anyway and fortunately didn’t last very long because I had to shut my books and head off to meet an old friend. I noticed the choler, though, because it had been so long since I had felt it. Huh, I thought. It’s you. I haven’t missed you. It felt, a little, like a slipping.

On Sunday, of course, Ross was next to me in the car. It wasn’t exactly pleasant for either of us, but I’m very glad to be able to tell you that even without the smoothing benefits of a serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor, and even though I could feel the ugliness growing like a little massif between my ribs, the whole thing blew over within a couple of minutes. My old friend hasn’t changed, but I have. After an initial convulsion of frustration, I clued Ross—who’d been, understandably, mainly focused on helping us navigate safely home—in on what was happening with me. It took several minutes more before I could say I was no longer angry, or unhappy, or vehemently desirous of not being in the wrong, but I didn’t push those things onto him and I didn’t gorge myself on them.

There was a space between where I was right then and where I wanted to be in just a little bit. There was a set of ways to traverse that space. And I don’t know if it was beautiful, but I found one.

Not all the rocks we scrambled in Sunol had taken their place there as a result of the tectonic forces at play beneath our feet, but this is true of a lot of the park’s most remarkable and interesting problems. Because the fine-grained, iron-rich basalt that dominates the ocean floor is heavier than the the phaneritic (large-grained), silica-rich granite that makes up most of the Earth’s land masses, an oceanic plate will slip-slide below a continental plate when the two have a contest of borders. Down in the mantle, the subducted basalt will melt, be reformed, and alter in character before some of it is unearthed by other geologic events.

Zeb Page, a petrologist at Oberlin whom I do not otherwise know, has won my heart by pointing out that these rocks represent the only material in the world that was once subducted but is now available for study. This is rock that came from the depths of the Earth’s core, became part of its skin, was pushed back under for a second spell in that fundamental forge none of us will ever see, and then returned again.

And we get to climb on it. We get to practice getting nearer to our destinations—even if, after all, Paul Simon was a little bit right about that slipping and sliding thing.

 

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Five Minutes and a Hair Dryer

In the five years I’ve been skinning I’ve acquired a good many life lessons from it, which is on the one hand a surprising thing to say about the process of removing all of the soft tissue and some of the bone from a bird’s body and replacing it with cotton wool, thread, and a wooden dowel, and on the other hand entirely unsurprising, since we all learn from the things we spend our time working hard to get better at.

I thought about one of these lessons the other day, when I took these pictures:

Wet Bewick's wren

dry Bewick's wren

The photograph on the top shows a study skin of a female Bewick’s wren (Thyromanes bewickii). Underneath it is the same specimen, five minutes later. The only difference between them is the time I spent drying.

I know this doesn’t sound like much of a life lesson yet, but here it is: Embrace drying.

When a bird is wet—in life as in death—it looks like crap. The barbs and barbules that give feathers a smooth, tight weave when they’re properly preened crumple and stick together. Down turns into a kind of sludge. So for a long time I tried to avoid getting my bird’s feathers wet as I was working, even though I had to use water to keep its skin moist. I have no idea why, but I had somehow collected the ridiculous and unquestioned notion that if a study skin was going to turn out well, it had to look good all the way along.

But washing a bird really helps to remove blood, fat, and dirt from its feathers. And if you commit to the process—a wren might take five minutes to properly dry, a snowy owl upwards of an hour and a half, depending on the temperature and strength of the air stream you use—a good drying can make up for a lot of the things that might have gone wrong in skinning. Maybe you lost a bunch of feathers, or ripped the skin around the skull. A well-dried bird will look like the best version of itself it can possibly be.

If this still doesn’t sound like much of a life lesson, here is a translation: To make something beautiful, be unafraid of making something ugly first.

A corollary: Something you think is ugly might just not be finished yet. It is easy to overlook what it takes to finish.

Either way—you can’t dry what you don’t get wet.

New Year's Eve hike

A Good Year Long Past Due: My 2013

Night has fallen on the first day of this new year, and I am lying on a bed in a Motel 6 in Ridgecrest, CA, with a towel wrapped around wet hair, and there is a part of me that wants to tell you 2013 was the best year of my life.

I hesitate to say those words so baldly, particularly because if the past 365 days lacked one thing it was enough good time spent with my family back home in Singapore. 2013 began with a visit there, but throughout most of January I was mired in the last and deepest phase of what I now recognize as a depression years in the brewing. I was barely able to converse and I’m sure I perturbed my relatives terribly.

I am very, very glad indeed to have been with my funny, forgiving parents, crazy cool sister, and hilariously smart nieces and nephew in the first weeks of 2013. They supported me more than they will ever realize—but in many ways I wasn’t really there at all.

Hard, then, to believe that things have changed so much since then. This isn’t a post about depression (although please email me if you ever want to talk about that) or its treatments (again, please email to chat—I’ve been extremely lucky and am happy to share details). But one reason this last year was so amazing was the simple affirmation it offered: Happiness can, and sometimes does, return like a blaze after it seems to have been lost.

This was my 2013.

Miles run: 251.8
I took the summer off running to rest my bad right foot and ankle, but was able to get back into things in the fall with the help of new shoes and insoles. My dear friend Sarah asked me recently why I run, and my answer was, essentially, to keep my body strong for things I like to do even better, such as the following:

Miles hiked (since April, when we started logging them): 318.2
Ross and I go hiking almost every weekend now, and if you put a gun to my head to make me choose my favorite thing about living where we do, this is what I’d say.

If with the same gun you made me choose my favorite miles, they’d be the ones that led to the peak of Mount Dana in August, at 13,061 feet the highest mountain in Yosemite.

Regional, State, and National Parks visited in California (again, since April): 26
I’ve barely made a dent.

Nights spent sleeping out: 30
Three major camping trips, two weekend trips, and a short-term stint in the field contributed to this figure, which makes me incredibly happy. There are very few things in the world I like more than sleeping and waking up without walls. And a mere three and a half years ago, very few things would have surprised me more than the suggestion that this would someday be the case.

I’ve loved every night out this year, but if I have favorites they might be the one where I got rained out on the sandy beach of the Lost Coast where I was sleeping sans tent and the one, just this week, where Ross and I camped off-trail in the backcountry of Joshua Tree and heard coyote song.

Prerequisite classes taken toward applying for an M.S. in ecology: 3 (+ 3 associated labs)
This grand, terrifying, immensely long-awaited life plan is going so well that I’m going to take another three classes next semester alone. I’m enjoying it so much that I cried the night of my chemistry final this fall, because I was so happy about how the year’s learning had gone and at least partly because it meant I didn’t need to take any more chemistry classes. Fucking cried about that. Good lord.

Marriages restored: 1
Ross and I are closer than we’ve ever been. (Hi, babe.)

Friendships injured and then, I very much hope, reclaimed: 1
T.—I love you.

Phobias overcome: 1
I began the year extremely nervous about highway driving—to the point where I basically couldn’t go anywhere that required getting on or off a highway unless Ross drove me. I am ending it, as I said, in a Motel 6 in Ridgecrest, CA, to get to which I drove three hours in the dark, using six different highways. This means the entire world to me. This means I can take myself anywhere.

I can take myself, for instance, to the parking lot of Buster’s, an abandoned supermarket in Bridgeport, CA. And I will, because this happens to be where the beginning mountaineering course I am taking is meeting this Friday morning.

It is 2014, friends. I am going to climb. I wish you every strength, joy, and luck as you do, too.

New Year's Eve hike

New Year’s Eve hike