Saturday, December 27, 2008


Now that I've started this blog, the sensible thing seems to have more people read it. My first, naive assumption was that I would blog, and the world would flock to my door. Well, the coffee's on, and I'm still waiting.

What I am discovering, much to my horror and astonishment--and perhaps wonderment too--is that the world is a lot more connected than I ever imagined--but that getting connected, as in the days of yore (that would be about 1990) -- still requires effort.

But I'm getting there.

In one swell foop yesterday I discovered Facebook, FeedBurner, and Picassa. I now have a Facebook page (With, might I add, FIVE friends!). Soon you'll see the results of bigger, better blog delivery, courtesy of FeedBurner, as soon as I figure out which RSS service will work best. My photos are getting spread all over the web like cheap spaghetti sauce on a two-year-old's face. I'm sure there's more websites to enhance connectivity. Just let me work out these, get giddily back on my feet, and I'll be working the connectivity angle again.

There are surprises in this connection bit, discoveries of part of your past that loom like ancestral DNA. In my case, it's discovering two childhood schoolmates who at the time seemed like the last people on the planet who might adopt technology or have a clue what it was.

But type in Thomaston High School on Facebook, and there they were. Both left school before graduation. One because of boredom perhaps combined with economic needs and the other because of an ill-timed pregnancy. But there THEY were on Facebook, large as life.

The people who weren't available, or who wouldn't admit to their connection with Thomaston, were the ones seemingly bound for success. And maybe they were, with no looking back. Or maybe they have already moved on to a higher plane of Internet consciousness.

I'm looking forward to hearing back from these two. I bet their adventures in life top their better-heeled classmates. If not, they should.

So, on to more connections. Social websites, RSS feeds, Pingshot, BuzzBoost, and FeedFlare.

Who knows what other lost souls have been resurrected in cyberspace. The exploration continues!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

When Zero Isn't Nothing

I don't need to tell you that it's cold. Just look outside the window. Or go out there. This winter Dave and I have donned our arctic-certified North Face down-stuffed coats for the first time since we bought them 5 years ago. In the week, the temperature has flirted with zero six times.

But we are the lucky ones. In an increasingly snow-bound world (there's no apparent end to the storms lining up to dump on us.....) we can go inside at will, stand by the fire, brew up a cup of hot chocolate, and sleep warmly at night.

Yesterday the dogs and I went for a romp in the snow. Kyla--the ever-optimistic border collie -- led the crew, bounding over a snowy lump of sagebrush, and disappearing into a deep swale of drifted snow on the other side. We dusted ourselves off, made doggy snow-angels, got in the pickup, and 4-wheeled it home.

Not everyone, or all creatures, have this luxury. On the drive home, I noticed the birds, hunkered down and miserable, clustered together on branches and phone lines. There were a few rabbit tracks. Not much else. Despite my vows to economize this year, to spend no unnecessary funds, I found myself at Bi-Mart, plunking down the $20 bill I'd been hording for a special occasion, to buy a bird feeder, bird seed, suet block, and suet cage. This morning the birds who have found it are a bit happier and so am I.

The winter chill means hard times for wildlife--part of the winnowing process, but a sad one, made especially difficult by our diminishment of wildlife habitat, and intrusion of what little is left. Our snowy walk yesterday was taken at Yarrow--an un-inhabited subdivision stymied by the mortgage crisis and local crashing economy, where pavement and development in the ironic pose of "greeness" has pushed ever farther into wild places at the edge of town. Where will the jackrabbits and coyote move once the economy recovers and people, dogs, and cars inhabit the place?

Zero is something. Not only in diminished temperatures, and diminished habitat, but in diminished economic resources to protect habitat, and rescue creatures in need--humans as well as wildlife. That $20 was well-invested. But it also means no treat of a lunch for two at the local, organic foods restaurant/bakery that needs the business, no $20 donation to the local food bank. The local economy is thinner, and zero is a significant number. For all of us.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Winter and Technology

It's dark outside. I'm draped over my coffee cup, the dogs are draped over the sofas, and snow is draped over everything else. Winter is here and it's not going away anytime soon.

The bright spot of the day happened at 6:15 AM. The world is not going to end after all, despite the constant updates from Channel 6.

Hope arrived in a small, white car without four-wheel-drive or even chains as far as I could tell. Headlights loomed on a vehicle driven erratically, weaving back and forth and stopping periodically as it approached. It slid to the curb in front of our house, stopped for a moment, and then, wheels crunching ice-crusted snow, drove on.

It was the newspaper delivery, the guy with the Bend Bulletin, a person to whom, in this economy, a few extra bucks from this delivery might mean everything.

At that moment, it suddenly seemed that life was possible again, that we could emerge from our snow-laden warrens and get on with things.

Somehow, I don't get the same feeling reading The Oregonian or the Bulletin or even the New York Times online.

At a time when the print editions of newspapers are an endangered species this was a timely reminder that the old-fashioned, hands-on paper is a lot more user-friendly, a lot more human, than that bright, electronic product that shows up on-line with the ease a mouse click.

Not that there aren't advantages to technology. But it marks a different style of personal communications. Email is not a letter. Facebook is not a visit. Twitter is not a phone call. And is not really a newspaper.

I suppose the same was said when paper, or maybe papyrus, was invented. Not the same as the old stone tablets. You don't need a whole village to deliver the newspaper.

Still, in a time of cold and darkness, those early morning headlights brought cheer and a human presence, hope for a brighter day, and the certainty that, with a bit of determination, anything is possible.


Friday, December 19, 2008

Rural Economies, Methane, and the Little Ice Age.

Two stories on climate change graced the news today. One, perhaps more anthropology than physics, linked the conquests of Pizarro, Coronado, and other 15th and 16th-century New World "explorers" with the Little Ice Age. The other announced the not-too-cheerful news that methane is leaking from the Arctic sea floor in increasing amounts.

In these seemingly disparate tales there's a message for us. (Of course there is. There are messages in most things, everywhere if we take the time to look and think, no?)

First, the Conquistadors. We know that it was the diseases Europeans brought to the New World, as much as their new weapons technology and "Give-us-the-gold NOW" plunder that decimated Native populations. War by virus, as pointed out nicely in Jared Diamond's Guns Germs and Steel, is nothing new, but it was a major factor in de-populating the Americas, especially the lush landscape of central and South America.

Stanford University geologists Richard Nevle and Dennis Bird used charcoal from lake-bed sediments to document forest fires over the past 5,000 years. Presumably, the work of clearing forests for agriculture then was similar to today. Forest clearing by immolation. Fires lit by humans opened the land for crops. And the Incas, Mayans, and others, with large and growing populations, needed lots of crops. Its estimated that 100 million people or more inhabited the Americas in 1492, with the majority in Central and South America.

At least they did until European viruses wiped out more than 90 percent of native populations, with the greatest impact in MesoAmerica between 1500 and 1700.

That coincides with the "Little Ice Age", time of extraordinary ice and snow in Europe, hard times and scarce food.

Nevle and Bird link the depopulation of MesoAmerica to brutal 16th and 17th century European winters. (Fitting, if un-intentioned revenge). With fewer Native Americans to keep cropland open, and less need for crops, forests returned with a vengeance. Forests sequester carbon. And that additional carbon, sucked out of the atmosphere, combined with other factors that included increased sunspots, sent the global climate into an icy tail-spin. Only with the development of the industrial revolution did carbon dioxide return to the atmosphere and turn off the air conditioning.

And now, of course, we are back to doing the rainforest immolation thing, adding still more carbon, and decreasing the carbon up-take and sequestration capacity of tropical forests.

That brings us to the ominous news that methane--a far more "effective" greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide-- is beginning to leak into the atmosphere from the Arctic sea floor. The last time this happened, 55.1 million years ago, is known as the "Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum," a time of an extraordinary spike in global temperatures driven first by bursts of methane from the sea floor of the northern oceans (and ultimately by volcanic CO2 added later).

This is not your normal methane seep. "The concentrations of methane were the highest ever meassured in the summertime in the Arctic," according to Igor Semiletov of the International Arctic Research Center. "We found methane bubble clouds above the gas-charged sediment and above chimneys going through the sediment," he noted.

To me, this is like that relatively slow -but-ominous leak you get around the nail in the tire. Drive a little farther at freeway speed and there's a blowout--with potentially disastrous consequences. My Toyota pickup has a nice safety feature--a little light that tells you when air pressure is low--or imperceptibly lower-- in a tire. The tires may look just fine. But the little light tells you there's a problem. This summer the little light came on somewhere in the gorge between Portland and Hood River. I stopped. The tires all looked fine. But, being a chicken, I paused in Hood River to get the tires checked out. The left rear had a three-inch-long nail embedded in it--a tire itching for trouble.

That methane leak in the Arctic, increasing in intensity, means it's time for us to pull over and change the tire. Or at least take it into Les Schwab for a fix. Before there's a blow-out.

But how do we do this? We can't stick a silicone plug in the Arctic Ocean.

Well, hark back to the cause of the Little Ice Age. The regrowth of forests. Carbon sequestration the old-fashioned way. This method--uptake by plants--is SO old-fashioned that it worked nicely in the Pennsylvanian, 320 million years ago to trigger Late Carboniferous Ice Ages. And it's partly responsible for ending the tropical globe and bringing ice to the Antarctic 34 million years ago, as vast planktonic blooms sucked carbon from the atmosphere and stowed in in the sea floor.

Suppose, just suppose, we restored forests. Even forests in the Northwest, even Westside Forests. Suppose we made restoring ecological health to these lands an economic priority. Suppose there were tax incentives not for just using the land for agriculture, but for how much carbon you could store. Suppose a vigorously growing tree was a valuable as a tree taken to the mill. Suppose the health of a forest floor or a grassland--both of which can sequester huge amounts of carbon--were as valuable as the livestock grazed there. OR more valuable.

Plenty of smart people will argue that ecosystem carbon storage is unreliable, not easy to measure and quantify, and is not "permanent". But what we need now is a tourniquet not cosmetic surgery. We need NOW, not permanent. We need to buy time until GM commits to make the Volt and we all buy one.

And anything will help. Forest and grassland-based carbon will be sequestered for a century or more. (Longer, presumably, than the Volt will last...) And evidently, forest growth turned the climate around in less than a century once before. So why not try this now?

Rural economies are in pain. In fact, more than pain. Destitution is a better word. Surely there is a way to support rural economies, eastside or westside, while moving with them towards a greener economy and cooler planet.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Frolicking penguins, drowning bears

Most mornings I start my day with a cup of coffee and the New York Times on the web. Yesterday was no different. Headlines were as expected, including the heartening news that Caroline Kennedy would seek Hillary's senate seat. Perhaps a return to an old, noble, and inspiring World Order.

Then I noticed the blue-green picture on the side-bar. An image of a heartwarming glass sculpture of a mother polar bear and two cubs standing happily on a stable, solid glassy ice-shelf. Steuben glass. $1975, available at a holiday discount of 15%, for only $1678.75

The description went on to say
Recognized as a symbol of environmental preservation, the majestic Polar Bear is totally adapted to life in the sub-zero artic, often traveling alone over miles of sea ice in search of food or a mate. Mother bears nurture their young through an extended period, teaching them skills needed to survive in an unforgiving climate. The embodiment of power and perseverance, these noble animals are the perfect gift for devoted mothers and all who love nature. Collect all three members of the bear family to arrange on base for changing tableaux of artic life.

It was, the ad mentioned cheerfully, part of the "Frolicking Penguins" series of sculptures.

This is not the Arctic I know today. Polar bears are drowning and dying in the Arctic that I know. There is little frolick in vanishing ice. One day earlier, the NY Times ran an article about biologists who darted a female bear and found that she was lactating--but was also in heat, which meant that she had lost her cubs. The bear was wet. She had swum a long, long distance. Whether the cubs died of drowning or some other cause, we can't know. But we do know they are gone. Bears have been documented swimming 35 MILES from land or the nearest ice.

Nor are penguins "frolicking." Of the 16 known species, 12 are in precipitous decline, including the Emperor Penguin, icon of the Antarctic. In the past 50 years, their populations have declined by 50%. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists three penguin species as endangered, seven as vulnerable, which means they are "facing a high risk of extinction in the wild," and two more as "near threatened.

Please Steuben. The time for cuteness is over. The time to provide a fantasy gift of cuddly, happy bears "to all who love nature" is done. Instead of Frolicking Penguins, try the "Critically Endangered Species" series, or maybe "Endangered by Climate Change but We Don't Give a Damn (as long as we can make money and open up the Arctic to shipping and drilling!!)" Series.

(And, please, Steuben, learn to spell "Arctic".)

Today's arctic, especially for bears and penguins, is a place of desperation. Of drowning cubs. Of starving bears. Of melting ice and rapidly shifting climates.

The Steuben sculpture, including it's "Frolicking Penguins" series, makes a mockery of the pain of the entire Arctic ecosystem. Are these people uncaring, or just plain stupid? Deny climate change all you wish. You cannot deny the stark, painful reality of drowning, starving bears.

Monday, December 15, 2008


That time we longed for on a sweltering August afternoon is here. Outside the world is draped in placid white. The thermometer reads 2. The sound of passing traffic has faded into a respectfully slow cadence. And we wait eagerly for morning light.

Winter has always been a time for reflection. For learning to live with the bare bones of necessity, Christmas shopping aside. This year, the essence of winter lives among us more than any year in my memory.

Stripped to its black and white essentials, the landscape of central Oregon is stark. Sagebrush is skeletal. Rabbitbrush has shed its leaves. Barren stalks of bunchgrass poke above the scant snow.

We are all pretty much down to our essentials this year, hanging on, hoping for spring, and watching the forecast of a long winter, an unimaginable week of freezing temperatures in Portland, a week of zero degree nights here, with dismay. The weather forecast seems no different than the economic forecast. January is so very far away.

But winter serves a purpose. Out on the grasslands the lean times strip away the non-essentials. In the pine forests of the Ochocos, pine bark beetles are dying by the millions. Jackrabbits' tracks lead from snowy bush to paltry forage and back to cover. This time of year reminds us to hold on to what is most essential and let go of the rest.

It is a lesson we can take to heart. An unanticipated gift of the season, this stripping away. This year we are giving only what we can make with our own hands (not much) , and what small donations we can provide to the local food bank. This year we are doing what is most essential. This year survival is part of the equation. This year we are more kin to the jackrabbits than we might care to admit.

Spring will come. Flowers will bloom. Grass will green up. But for now, I'm taking to heart the lesson of winter. Hold fast to what is most dear and let go of the rest.