Sunday, January 1, 2012

Connectedness and complexity

In Science, when I was a kid, you studied One Thing At A Time. Geology. Biology. Oceanography. Meteorology. True, they all had engaging specialties like Volcanology or Entomology, but they were still nicely autonomous. You grew up to be a Geologist. Or a Biologist. At Oregon State, the Geologists rarely spoke to Oceanographers down the hall. Things were Clearly Defined. (This, until the 1960's, extended to matters of race, and until the dawn of the 21st century, seemed to apply to matters of sexuality as well. The great unraveling of strict categories is perhaps more universal than the labels of scientific disciplines.)

With greater scrutiny, (and greater understanding) the complexity of the world around us is more apparent. Now we have the highly respected field of paleobiogeochemistry, and many others that reflect the intricacy and connectedness of planetary systems.

Two recent discoveries epitomize this. First, the trigger for many major earthquakes, including the 2010 Haiti devastation, is fingered as tropical cyclones by University of Miami marine geophysicist Shimon Wdowinski. His proposed mechanism is something of a Rube Goldberg process: cyclone saturates land, uproots trees, and otherwise destabilizes large portions of the surface. Landslides and floods ensue, changing the weight distribution of landmasses above a major fault. This shift places new stress on the system, and it responds, voile' with a sometimes significant temblor. This does not happen overnight. Wdowinski finds that two to five years transpire between major cyclones/rain events, and the subsequent quakes--which often occur on unknown faults. But it is one more indicator of how closely systems on the planet are connected--and often large systems at that. A new field--geometeorolgy looms.

Then there are the magnetic bacteria in Death Valley's Badwater -- the lowest place in the Western Hemisphere. (photo above) More properly, they are called magnetotactic bacteria. They spend their lives like miniature, living compass needles, swimming north and south, following the Earth's magnetic field through life. These organisms actually produce the mineral magnetite--their own compass. The ones in Death Valley breathe sulfur rather than oxygen and produce a magnetic iron sulfide (greigite). Life, adapted to a world without oxygen, and forever following a magnetic field, seems not only bizarre, but also another example of interconnectedness--organisms that depend upon geophysics for their survival. Who would have guessed. (Of course, we also depend--or at least depended in pre-satellite eras--on the magnetic field for guidance and navigation--but not to the same degree of compulsion!)

I look forward to the new discoveries of 2012--perhaps more interconnected than ever.

PS: I may be changing my blog from Blogger, which seems a bit antiquated and unconnected, to support from Wordpress. See you more often in the year ahead!

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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Learning from the Solstice

In what seemed a cruel tease, the sun bathed Walla Walla (and Palouse Falls, left) in full force on the shortest day of the year. This after weeks of sunless, soul-less gray fog, a refrigerated purgatory that was too warm to sustain hoarfrost's sequined flocking, and too cold for anything else. In the still, shrouded air, nearby mountains vanished. Proximal hills were the only thing in view.

Perhaps the blessing of this quiet landscape was just that. Closeness. A forced intimacy, like sitting in a small restaurant with only one other patron. You begin to notice things. The odd rhythm of his chewing. A piny odor that transcends your beef stew. In an occasional surreptitious glance, there is the uneven parting of his graying hair, a day-old shadow of a beard, a worn copy of The Grapes of Wrath that he appears to be reading. Perhaps you start a conversation. Perhaps you find things in common. Perhaps you get to know someone in shared isolation who you otherwise, in a crowded cafe, would never even meet.

The fog-bound hills are sort of like that. You notice the curves of plowed and planted wheat, now panting for lack of moisture in a record-dry Fall. The tracks of coyotes and field mice. A single star-thistle poised to conquer new territory. A boulder, just slightly too big to remove from the field, that has occupied a hilltop for 15,000 years. A patch of blue-bunch wheatgrass clinging to a steep, but mercifully uncultivated, slope. You begin to see the place in its details. You begin to make friends. And on the darkest days, cold, fog-bound, and foreboding, friends are good to have.

Too often we hurry past the proximal landscape. Too often we ignore the details of place. We miss the connection. We ignore the stranger at the next table. We study The Environment as though it was a ravaged place in China or The Amazon, or a vanished Kentucky mountaintop. But what is truly important (not to say that China or The Amazon or Kentucky mountaintops are not important) is the landscape we can touch. A place we can develop a conversation with, a lasting friendship. The coyotes and field mice and starthistle and bluebunch. The connection to place, and, importantly, the system that keeps place intact and functioning. We live here. We depend on here. We should get to know who lives here, that stranger at the next table who can enrich our lives, if not our souls.

Now that the sun is out, I can see the mountains. But my eye is drawn to these silt-laden hills more that it was a month ago. I have learned to see them for themselves, rather than only an accessory to a grander scheme. The shortest day of the year can provide the longest of lessons.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The world through a new lens

I don’t get out much these days. Landscape photography, with its solitude and long explorations of craggy peaks and wild back-country, is on hold. There are more important cares at hand.

But there is no antidote to the compulsion to photograph. So my interests have turned, instead, to things closer to home. The roses and sunflowers in the garden have gotten a workout. And I’ve started going back to my photo-journalistic roots, shooting events—gatherings, and fund-raisers, mostly. Consider them a human landscape.

Back in March, I ordered a new lens for portraits—Nikon’s new flagship 85mm f1.4G.

This lens had a reputation for exceptional bokeh—the capacity to blend or obscure background into a soft blur, while keeping the subject in sharp focus—especially when shot wide open. The earthquake in Japan closed and then slowed production at Nikon’s Sendai plant where this lens is made, and so it wasn’t until last Friday that this new vision of the world arrived.

Cameras and lenses are funny things. They shut out the distracting world around you, and truly allow you to focus on the subject at hand. And your view -- that part of the world that you engage with as a photographer -- is determined by your choice of lens. This is really an analogue for how we interact with the world without a camera. We can view life thru a wide-angle lens, of a whole society or an entire event. Add a sort of polarizing filter that cuts down on diffracted, disorganized light, eliminates the fuzz of multiple and conflicting beliefs, leaving one, organized direction of light to clarify our worldview. Or we can put on the portrait lens, open it wide to eliminate the background of other people, and focus on just one person or idea. And there’s always the option to stop down, change to a smaller aperture, and see the single person subject in the context of their background and society. (But don’t make that aperture too small, because beyond f11, if you try to clarify and sharpen that background too much, make everything in sharp focus, understand the entire world in one shot, the whole image will get fuzzy due to diffraction….and just too much to think about.)

I’m happy to report that the Nikon 85mm f1.4G lens worked like a charm at Saturday's gathering/photo-shoot. This is a fully professional piece of glass—it is solid, serious, and weighty, well-balanced on a D3x, and cradles naturally as into an extension of the left hand. This is important if you are going to spend several hours roaming an acre or two of lawn and party, stalking young children, quiet couples, and older adults. It is not as heavy, or seemingly as fragile, as my old favorite for portraiture, Canon’s 85mm f1.2. It is more inviting to hold than its predecessor, the older Nikon 85 1.4D. The only flaw in the Nikon’s design seems that the tiny switch that turns off the autofocus function is easy to trigger inadvertently, which caused a momentary panic when a perfect shot presented itself. But manual focus is quick and easy. Got the shot anyway. The autofocus on the lens seems slow in comparison with smaller aperture landscape lenses like the 16-35mm f4, or 24-70 f2.8. But the 85mm is moving much more glass, and it is quick enough and completely silent.

Importantly, it seems to know what needs to be sharp. Never once did it autofocus on a nose. It went straight for the eye. Bokeh? At 1.4 to 2.8, superb. Backgrounds melted into creamy, buttery, non-diostracting softness. Beyond that, not much different than other lenses. Sharpness? In the center, extreme. Edge-to-edge? That remains for an actual landscape, or perhaps the famous brick wall shot.

Someday I’ll try landscape portraiture with this lens and its creamy bokeh--a focus on a single stone, or a pattern, at a deliciously wide aperture, to the exclusion of everything else. This is contrary to the instinct of geologic photography, which generally tries to tell landscape stories by keeping everything in focus. But from time to time, it’s well to heed the lesson of a new lens—to open your mind and eyes wide, select just one thing, blur out the rest of the world, and revel in the person and moment at hand.

Images: All with Nikon 85mm 1.4G on D3x.

Girl: f2.0 @ 1/2000 ISO 250

Megan, Border Collie: 1.4 @ 1/1250, ISO 100

Children & puppy: 4.0 @ 1/750 ISO 250

Woman: 2.8 @1/500 ISO 160

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Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Devonian Death of Diversity

The guy I married is an agronomist. His passion is grass--and all that threatens native grasslands. He's had a lot to worry about, from cows to climate change. But his focus has been, and remains, on the invasives that threaten his beloved bunchgrasses.

Even at age 85, Dave's passion to fight this botanic plague remains undiminished. But for many of us, fighting invasive species seems, well, so 20th century. With a tattered economy, mortgage forclosures, epochal blizzards and a winter deep freeze, who has time to fret about knapweed.

Well, science--and this time it's geology--has given us a reason to take-up the hoes and weed-wackers once again. And this news is as chilling and disquieting a message as geologists can muster.

You might remember from your Geology 201 class that there was a time period known as the Devonian. It is known for giant fish, odd slimy ferns that were the first large land plants, land-pioneering amphibians, and abundant shellfish. It's also known for a major extinction that occurred between 375 and 378 million years ago, eradicating giant fish, lots of mollusks, and making the slimy ferns and amphibians glad they had escaped to land.

But we never really understood the Devonian extinction--the second major extinction event out of only five that have gripped the planet. No big meteorite whacked us. There were no cataclysmic eruptions. Things just faded, like life on a rheostat. Species disappeared. But, unlike a healthy planetary ecosystem, nothing appeared to replace them. It was actually a biodiversity crisis, more than an extinction event, said Alycia Stigall, a scientist at Ohio University.

Stigall took a closer look at the Devonian. She found a world in which invasive species, especially marine species, dominated every niche. The invasive species, the globalized, generic organisms, (the biologic equivalents of WalMart) were so prolific, and seemingly hardy, that they obliterated the opportunities for new, adaptive, innovative species to arise when upheaval or climate change modifies the ecological landscape. (Economists, take note, too...)

"The main mode of speciation that occurs in the geological record is shut down during the Devonian," said Stigall. "It just stops in its tracks."

The consequences? When one of these globalized marine species ultimately failed, the entire marine ecosystem began to unravel, taking other widespread invasives with them, until the seas lost about half of the genera. Coral reefs vanished globally. Giant jawed fish faded from the ocean. Half or more mollusks disappeared. Life in the sea was impoverished, and hanging on by a thread.

Here in the 21st century, 375 million years later, the situation may not seem so dire. But we ARE loosing biodiversity. My bird feeder is full of English sparrows--and so is every other bird feeder in North America. Dave's grasslands harbor cheatgrass, medusa head, knapweed, and tens of other generic invasives that are the sworn enemies of native, niche-filling biodiversity. Some bio-pundits have suggested that invasives would not only fill the native's ecological niches, but ultimately, diversify and evolve into new species. But the evidence from the Devonian argues against this. And indeed, I know of no new knapweeds that we can declare North American natives.

Not that I want to be unduly alarmist in this fading holiday season. Ecosystem collapse? Well, probably not by 2012 and not in my lifetime. But given this new understanding of ecosystem collapse, I'm not putting my hoe away just yet.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Breaking the Block

The only thing scarier than sitting down to write is NOT sitting down to write.

After four years of floundering through a creative vacuum, where having a job seemed more critical than coughing up what ever spurts of creativity would provide--a sort of creative spatter cone approach-- I've refocused, revamped the web-site,, started TERRANES, an LLC to do photography and interpretive work, replaced Canon gear with Nikon, and prepared to leap once again into the creative fray. (Not that working for the PaleoLands Institute wasn't creative--it was just creative in a single direction.) Overcoming resistance requires replacing distraction, excuses, and instant gratification with focus and perseverance. I think I've made the leap.

In this rebirth, there's a more visual person, focused on photography first, the Earth's legacies second, and writing as a way to convey and refine the stories of landscapes. I'll share thoughts on how images can help convey both process and history. I'll post at least once each week.

There will also be a place for dogs. (We need some levity, no? And dogs can be, as Harry Ward Beecher noted, the gods of frolic.)


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The News from Arlington National Cemetery

On CBS News yesterday
Katie Couric reported
that we were running out of room
for graves
in Section 61
at Arlington National Cemetery
and they were
opening section 62
for those who die in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This suggests that
Arlington is finite.
So perhaps
when we run out of room
at Arlington
this might mean
no more room
for those who
die honorably in battle
and we could all just
stop fighting.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Entropy and Energy

This morning, 50 miles off the Louisiana coastline and a mile below the surface, a rising plume of petroleum continues, unabated by technology. The ghosts of long-dead sea life haunt us. The second law of thermodynamics has sent us a wake-up call.

While thermodynamics seems like a complicated and very scientific item, it is really about the simple laws of how and why things happen. The first law, conservation of energy, is that energy can be transformed, but cannot be created or destroyed. So when I apply energy to the keyboard, I transform that into heat and electrical pulses, which produce letters on the screen, (and more heat). The energy of these keystrokes does not end when I type. It's transformed into other pulses and waves. In extreme cases, as Dr. Einstein found, energy may be transformed into matter--and vice-versa.

Then there's the Second Law -- that the disorganization (entropy) of an isolated system, with no addition of energy, increases over time. Without the input of energy to maintain organization, disorganization increases and ultimately, chaos reigns. Any mother of toddlers or teenagers knows this intuitively. The rest of us seen to need to re-learn the principal from time to time.

The Third Law of Thermodynamics basically says that we can never achieve a state where there is no entropy--that all systems have some degree of disorganization, and some amount of energy--that, essentially, we can never achieve a blissful state of energy-less, perfect organization. (This is known to physicists as absolute zero. Note that this is not your Zen meditation class--this a a very, very cold state, -451 degrees Kelvin.) So, despite Martha Stewart's well-intentioned efforts, we will never be perfectly organized. There is always some force that perturbs things.

It's the second law which is most widely applied and has the greatest import. Without the input of energy, things tend to come unglued. Fall apart. Become more chaotic. Life seems to work toward greater organization, complex systems seem to break down less readily and hence are more sustainable. But overall, unless energy is invested, things come apart.

The Deepwater Horizon comes to mind. Slack off on maintenance, try too many short-cuts, fail to put energy into the system, and chaos ensues. Energy from a different source pushes the entire process in a different direction until an even greater effort (and more energy and more money) begins to change things. Not back to where they were (See the First Law) but toward a new equilibrium.

Just how far away from chaos we move, what kind of new equilibrium we establish, and how much energy we will have to invest continually to maintain that "equilibrium" depends upon how much energy we invest into the system--and how complex a system we weave in its place.

We can re-order things now by plugging the well. Period. And we can continue the rest of the system pretty much as-is. Not a lot of energy. Not much change. But also, according to thermodynamics, it will take a minimal amount of energy dysfunction to once again slip into chaos. If we continue offshore drilling without re-ordering our processes and priorities, if we invest minimal political and physical energy in fixing the system, then we will live with chaos on our doorstep. That's not my opinion. It's thermodynamics.

Or we can truly change the system. Energize a whole new order to energy and our use of it. It is in these convective overturns of an existing system where new orders are established and, for a time, entropy is driven back. This is an opportune moment to demonstrate mastery of the Second Law.

Building the more complex and redundant system of multiple energy sources, including solar, wind, and wave is one option. More complex and redundant systems prove more resistant and resilient to entropy's siren call to chaos.

There is one more element that we should include. In all the cries for energy independence, new drilling, wind turbines, and coastal tide-driven generators, a call for conservation is missing. We seem addicted to growth--growth of population and consumption, the increase of people and stuff, world without end. We are blissfully unaware of thermodynamics--that all this lends itself to greater disorder and greater chaos, unless we apply greater energy to maintaining it. The planet has finite energy resources. Without significant energy inputs to its systems form external sources, even the Earth has, during the past 4.6 billion years, slowed its rotation and cooled considerably. The second law rules.

So if we are to restore order in a post-Deepwater world, perhaps we should push the reset button with vigor. Whatever system of energy regulation and "renewable"/green energy production we establish will tend toward disequilibrium and chaos. Better to push reset firmly and establish a policy system that codifies and rewards energy conservation and grows a resilient and respectful web of green alternatives than one which merely pledges to "meet the energy demands of the future". Entropy is out to get us. We should warily and courageously prepare to battle our foe. As David Brooks noted in the New York Times last week, "This isn’t just about oil. It’s a challenge for people living in an imponderably complex technical society."

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