Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The price of geographic ignorance

It's finals week at Eastern Kentucky University. The students in my Geology 108, Plate Tectonics intro geology class are spread out at long tables, pouring the sum of all knowledge onto their exams.

This is an introductory, general education class.Most students are sophomores or juniors-- majors in criminal justice, nursing, fire control, or other fields not remotely concerned with continental collisions or divergent margins. So I've tried to impart life-skills, or at least tidbits of geologic information that will be interesting or  even useful in the future. Rather than memorizing Bowen's Reaction Series, we've emphasized earthquakes, especially the recent tragic events in Nepal, including emails from a Tibetan friend who lives there and is very very frightened. We've considered places they might wish to travel to. The history of the Appalachian Mountains. The threats of the nearby New Madrid Fault Zone. Fukushima. Krakatoa. Cascade Volcanoes. Yellowstone. Hawaii. Iceland.

And with every subject, we've looked at maps of these exotic places.  Or at least, I thought we had looked at maps.

Their final exam included a list of ten locations that we had studied. Nepal, the Himalayas, The Cascades, Andes, Japan, Krakatoa, Iceland, Yellowstone, San Andreas, and the New Madrid fault zone. They had to state its geological significance. And locate it on a World Map.

Yellowstone is evidently on the East Coast, probably in South Carolina. Iceland is that big continent-thing west of New Zealand.  Nepal is just south of Tokyo.  Or north of Italy.

Some people who I shared these "maps" with thought they were funny.

They are not. To consider it unnecessary to know anything about world geography, or to consider such ignorance amusing, is be co-dependant with a most unattractive American hubris.

Admittedly, not every student made such egregious errors. Some nailed all the locations. But far too many displayed a cavalier ignorance of domestic and global geography.

This willful ignorance of other places arrives at college with them -- as much a part of their baggage as sneakers, cell-phones and high-school memorabilia. It was as true (though to a lesser extent) at the high-achieving, high-priced private college I taught at previously, as it is at Eastern Kentucky University-- a school whose students come from some of the most impoverished counties in the U.S. And we are complicit in student know-nothing attitudes. College may provide remedial writing and remedial math. But there is no remedial geography.

There should be.

Knowing geography is a matter of national security. Of food security. It evidently matters little to many students that thousands of people are killed in earthquakes halfway around the Earth. But perhaps it would be helpful to know where Cuba is, or North Korea. To know where California's drought-stricken vegetable farms are. Or how much of Kansas (Is that near Florida?) and its wheat fields the XL pipeline might besot with crude. Visualizing where things are globally also provides a sense of how diverse our planet is. How distant or near our kin might be. And how events elsewhere might impact us.It informs both humanitarian and political decisions.  Can an electorate -- or worse, a legislature--that thinks Nepal is just south of Germany, and Iceland is west of New Zealand, which it also thinks is Japan,  make wise decisions about global trade, environmental, and military/security  issues?

The personal pride in knowing things has abdicated to  the smartphone and the internet. Want to know where Nepal is? Google it. Or just ask Siri. Want to know how to write a correct reference for a paper? Scan the barcode of the book, and voile, it's there on your tablet.  No need to clutter your brain with knowledge of how to do anything. We should engage these tools in the classroom. But our mind is our greatest tool; using our brains is what made us human in the first place.

As I told the student who boasted that she didn't need to know anything about references anymore because her smartphone could write them all correctly, someday we will just have a scanner implanted in our finger, a lens set into our eye, and a chip in our brain, and we won't have to know anything.  I give us until about 2050 for this to actually happen.

That will, in my Neanderthal view (6% genetically!), mark the beginning of the end for humanity, if not for humans. The world of Ex Machina looms. To be human, to be more than machine, we need to be connected viscerally to the planet and one another.  To know, when the smartphone buzzes a USGS large Earthquake notification,  whether this means a local or distant disaster, or no disaster at all if is is far from populations centers.  To know, when there is an oil spill, whether it is on our collective doorstep.  Is deforestation in Thailand anywhere close to the deforestation issue of Brazil? If sea level rise threatens Bangladesh, is that anywhere near Florida? Or Kansas?

The old "better parenting" public service announcement  adage used to motivate 1960s-1980's adults to  care better for their children-- "It's 10 o'clock, do you know where your children are?" can also be applied in a broader context-- not just for the care for our children, but care for the planet, and all humans and ecosystems on it.  "It's 2015. Do you know where anything is?"

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Solstice thoughts

This is really the best day of the year. The shortest day. The day when light and sun begin their long slow increase, and the days lengthen. A time for reflection and hope.

Turn on any news channel or news report, however, and hope seems stillborn. We are offered a dismally dismal view of things. We all know this. More and more I have stopped listening to news, even NPR and BBC.

What we need is fair and balanced news. I don't mean Fox.

Consider that humans are one species that shares the planet with about 8.7 million other species. Or that Homo sapiens (perhaps a misnomer) has occupied Earth for a tiny fraction  of the planet's history, while other species (Say, lamprey and coelacanths) have persisted for most of the Phanerozoic, and there are some species of bacteria that have likely been here since the Archean.

So, what would the news be like if we set aside our hubris-driven world-view, and gave proportional time to everybody else?  Or to discoveries that might lead us -- and everybody else into a promising future.  Or just to things that are inspiring and though-provoking?

For example:
New and more precise dating of the Daccan Traps basalts show that their eruption coincided very closely with dinosaur extinction, making them a full partner in the event with meteor impact. (OK, maybe this isn't so uplifting, except that without their extinction there might not be humans.)

Crows are almost as capable of "advanced relationship thinking" as we are, and may exceed dogs, cats, and chimpanzees in this talent.

Bacteria have been found that live deep within the Earth's crust-- which suggests that similar life may still me found on Mars.

Oh, and there's the methane on Mars. And water.

And so much more.

ON this eve of hope, my wish is that somehow we can turn to the news that instills a sense of wonder, not despair.  Maybe not for the whole of the evening news. Maybe just half of it. Let's give the other 8.7 million species their due. 

And have a wonder-full year ahead.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The necessity of wild places

Lexington, Kentucky bills itself as the Horse Capital of the World. Here, a manicured and almost feudal landscape mantles rolling hills. Board fences envelope grassy fields.  Castles occupy hilltops. Ornate barns, spires adorned with galloping-horse weathervanes, suggest that every horse here is, or could be, a Secretariat.

The Kentucky roamed by Daniel Boone has been consumed by gated estates.  Not to mention Walmarts, Petsmarts, and Krogers. While Lewis and Clark might still recognize the Bitteroots, and maybe even the landscape of the Columbia River Gorge--though certainly not the river--here, every vestige of the wild has vanished.

It has apparently vanished in my Eastern Kentucky University intro geology students, too. On field trips, they are aghast at the thought of stepping off pavement and onto an outcrop. Some think it illegal, some consider it immoral, and others are just plain scared. The only student with sufficient chutzpah to scramble up a 5-foot embankment to touch the ancient, slickensided surface of the Kentucky River Fault was a young man who aspired to be a U.S. Army Ranger. I did not compel the rest of them for fear of sprained ankles and subsequent lawsuits.

The loss of the wild, and the emergence of the world through our smartphones has repercussions beyond  the oft-lamented issue of inattention. We have changed the nature of reality, and of our capacity to deal with it. In a way, we are becoming extremeophiles-- organisms "that thrive in physically or geochemically extreme conditions that are detrimental to most life on Earth", according to Wikipedia.  Frankly, I view shopping malls, ubiquitious cell-phone towers, and pervasive pavement as pretty extreme-- and also detrimental to life on Earth in so very many ways.

When we loose touch with the wild landscape, we seem to loose touch with the wild within ourselves. This includes not only risk-taking--from scrambling up a five-foot slope to touch a fault surface, to embarking on a lengthy journey into unknown territory-- but also many capacities that have made life resilient for the past 3 billion years or so: adaptability, curiousity, and tenacity to name a few. It is life connected to only one species, and untethered from its foundations-- the billions of species ancestral to humans, and all their anthropocene kin.

So, what to do, here amid a manicured, de-wilded landscape? Perhaps there is still time to find the wild in little things, from ant colonies to blackbirds.  To change
geology classes into out-door leaning. To take students into the well-tracked, vine-laden woods and ensure that they find wild rocks, and also do something that is innately foreign-- to sit still and listen, look, and smell. That they feel with all their senses-- something that used to be essential for survival. These students, born into a curb-reined world, have little understanding of what "wild" is.

And if they do not learn, and if this generation does not at least appreciate "wild" and all its implications, then how will humanity remember?  Life here is life tamed.  And life tamed seems to be missing its soul.

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!

Labels: , ,

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.

Labels: , ,

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

Labels: , , , ,

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.