Tuesday, December 31, 2013

For auld lang syne

Fast away this old year passes, and as it comes to a close, the last of "The Old Guard" died.  Margi was our last cat from the 20th century, and we had her euthanized yesterday morning since her kidneys had failed and she was starting to have serious trouble moving and eating. She had a good life as cats go, and lived to the grand ol age of 21. She did complain a lot about moving, but always claimed the bed wherever we went. She now joins the rest of the gang of cats she shared most of her life with: Sunshine, Muffin, George, and Pumpkin.

Good bye, Margi.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Urge For Going

See the geese in chevron flight flapping and racing on before the snow
They've got the urge for going, they've got the wings to go
They get the urge for going
When the meadow grass is turning brown
Summertime is falling down and winter is closing in
I'll ply the fire with kindling and pull the blankets to my chin
And I'll lock the vagrant winter out and bolt my wandering in
-- J. Mitchell

Pipe Shrine Spiral
It's amazing to realize another year at the Four Corners has passed.  It was a strange ending to the season; I only felt half present on the hectic last day of work.  I looked for the ravens that had greeted me many years ago, but they were elsewhere.  So at the end of the day, I went to the south wall of Pipe Shrine House to see the stone spiral, and then hurried on to watch a cold sunset over Point Lookout.

We had a short break before moving, so I took the chance to return to Silver Mountain.  The last of the aspen leaves were falling, and the overgrown path to the old mine near tree line fit my mood.  From there, it was a steep hike up to the ridge where the frosted summit waited.  Strange to think I will likely never stand on this mountain again.

We took our last weekend to do the Great Circle drive around the mountains.  Scotch Creek, where we began our season, was again covered with a dusting of snow and ice forming along the rocks in the stream.  Since the trails were going to be muddy at altitude, we instead went to a small park south of Ridgway along the shores of the Uncompahgre, where a magnificent eagle statue was frozen in mid flight.

Silver Mountain

We then spent a nice anniversary evening at a bed and breakfast in Ouray called the Secret Garden.  The room was so comfortable, we slept in late and missed our morning hike.  We stopped at Jackson Lake to dig snow out of the grill at the picnic area and roast some hot dogs, as a meek attempt to appease my need for a campout on our last weekend.  At least the ravens in the cold mountains took notice of our activity!
Scotch Creek and the Coming Winter

Then it was packing up the house and driving to visit family in Conifer.  The 125th anniversary of the Geological Society of America was being held in downtown Denver, so I had to peek in for a few days to attend talks on paleoecology, evolution, meteorology, planetary geology, and dirt.  I learned of species that have come and gone, climates that have come and gone, and even National Monuments that have come and gone (have you ever heard of Fossil Cycad National Monument)?
GSA 125th Meeting

Again, before I was ready, it was time to hit the road one last time for the final journey back to Texas... where Jury Duty, Dentists, and broken appliances await my return.
Good night, Sleeping Ute.

Monday, October 7, 2013

United We Stand?

Have you ever wondered what it's like to work hard on a job where you're consistently asked to take on more responsibility and accomplish the same amount of work with less resources, only to be told you're "non-essential" and your career and all that it depends on is placed in limbo?  In case you haven't, I've included a graphic photo to show what it does to morale and productivity. 

Non-essential government worker receives furlough notice

Last Tuesday, I listened to the sound of trees dying as printers across the country delivered approximately 1.6 million pages of furlough notices to 800,000 "non-essentials" and begun the cycle of wasting time, money, and resources; both public and private.   As I drove through the entrance of Mesa Verde National Park, watching our Law Enforcement rangers turn back confused campers, I began thinking about the campground, restaurants, lodge, museum stores and the private workers who are now jobless with all the food lost as waste.  It occurred to me that this scene was playing out across the entire country;  experiments ruined, research and work left unfinished as their season ends, projects delayed or canceled, grants frozen, contracts lost... Perhaps the best example I know of and care about is MAVEN, the latest spacecraft ready for launch to visit Mars.  If it misses the launch window this November, the cost of delaying it for 2 years for the next possible window would cost $50-$100 million. 

All this waste is in the name of politics; essentially shredding mounds of cash for no results.  Now threats of a default loom, sure to spark instant inflation and likely the next recession, causing a much larger budget hole than anything being debated... wait, debate sounds like too rational of a process... anything being rabidly thrashed around in the dysfunctional pit of politicians known as Congress.  An article by MarketWatch sums up my opinion perfectly.

Seventh Falls, Silver Creek

Despite this stink of politics tarnishing the season, I have attempted to use the time given to enjoy a few more unexplored corners of the area.  A bushwhack up a mossy mountain creek rewarded me with 7 waterfalls, some with snow and ice from last week's weather.  My goal was Silver Mountain, but too much time wandering the creek and the sun setting early, I decided to turn back rather than get caught in the dark.

The aspens seem to be having a dull show this year at high altitude, but the oaks and willows of the canyons look stunning.  A few juvenile hummingbirds are still around, but soon they will be gone, and so shall we.  Two more weeks and we drive off to Denver to spend a week there, and then back to Dallas.

Bear Creek Canyon

The garden is done for the year, so the last of the meager harvest is just a few peppers, tiny tomatoes, and 2 small pumpkins.  Tonight, I hope to catch a few more bright fireballs of the Draconid meteor shower in the crystal clear night skies we've had the past few days.

Last of the Summer's Harvest

Monday, September 9, 2013

Coyote Camping FTW

So there I was...  following game trails on a hot, august afternoon, trying to find my way across Wildhorse Mesa on tribal land to reach a wildfire.

I was part of a type-2 crew that was organized to fight a few wildfires that cropped up in the Four Corners area.  Most of the full-time wildland firefighters in the area were deployed to big blazes burning in Oregon, Idaho, and California.  Our crew of 9 only had 2 full time wildfires, 3 members of the Mesa Verde natural resources department, 1 archaeologist, and 3 auxiliary members of the Ute Mountain Ute fire department.  Each of us carried a full line-pack with over a gallon of water, and I swapped with another guy carrying a shovel with 3.5 gallons of water on the end and a chainsaw.

We bushwhacked up a canyon and passed the empty windows of several cliff dwellings.  Most of the ancient Puebloan sites here have not been visited in a long time, since the Ute Mountain Utes typically only allow access to some of the more showy and accessible ruins.  We also passed by a wonderful sandstone arch that had a scattering of pottery sherds lying enigmatically on the ground.

Hiking back up to the final mesa to reach the fire really tuckered the crew out, but the wind had settled down and allowed us a chance to battle the 1 acre blaze.  Our closest air support was the Wyoming border, so we were essentially on our own.  We made decent progress putting in a control line around the main fire, and our Law Enforcement lookout posted on the adjacent mesa noticed that there were two spot fires just below the mesa rim.  We split into 2 groups to hit those spots.  The one we worked was on a steep slope that allowed burning logs to roll down, so we dug in a cup trench and lined it with rocks to stop the slop-over.

We were all hot, tired and sweaty as the sun went down.  We had no camp gear, and the canyons were too steep to safely bushwhack 5 hours at night by headlamp -- even if anyone had the energy to do so.  So we camped as the coyotes do, finding a cozy spot in the deep duff of an old Utah Juniper, and went to sleep watching distant lightning flash in far-away Arizona.

One perk of setting up a spike camp with no gear is that its considered a hardship (rightly so), and we actually got paid to "sleep".  I think I managed to doze off a few times, and at least 2 of the Navajo sleeping near me were able to get some sound sleep.  Whatever rest I received was enough, because I was able to shake off the soreness and hike out without too much complaining.  After hiking out and drinking our fill of warm water stashed at the truck, we stopped at the Far View terrace for an ice cream cone.  I recall a story by another Tom from Florida about the psychological importance of ending a tough experience with a pleasant one, as it softens the memory.

So we return to the fire cache and begin rehabbing tools, when the chief walks out and says there's another fire in the park.  We all exchange glances and realized we aren't going to get any more filthy, so off we go to Sun Temple ruins in Mesa Verde to put out another fire.  Fortunately, this fire is just off the roadway.  The storm that created it is fortunately still raining on it, keeping it suppressed.  Unfortunately, it is still tossing lightning bolts everywhere, so after hiding in the truck for a little bit, we decide to return an hour later... with a pump truck.  We hose it down with a solution of foam... so much easier than cutting, digging, and scratching control lines.

But no rest for the weary.  The next day we rode down Moccasin Mesa road to fight a small blaze near a beautiful rimrock pour-off at the head of Pine Canyon.  Our archaeologist was excited by the ruins in the canyon below, and there were plentiful lithic fragments and other artifacts in the nearby woodland.  As the 2nd-string militia works through Saturday chasing fires, we were finally called up to the helibase at Mesa Verde to potentially fly out to a remote fire.  Finally a crew arrives from Kentucky to take over operations, ending an exhausting week of overtime... but no fly time for me.

Work has had some fun moments too; working with the Southern Colorado Plateau Inventory and Monitoring group again, which is always a good time to learn new plants; finding new occurrences of rare plants such as Grindella arizonica and searching for populations  of Iliamna grandiflora that hadn't been surveyed in nearly 30 years; and vouchering a new species to the Mesa Verde herbarium of Sanguisorba minor.

All this hiking on the job has made me lazy on the weekends, and the monsoons don't make it any more tempting to reach the back-country.  Instead, we chose an easy hike to Piedra River Falls and a guided tour of lonely ruins atop Chimney Rock National Monument.  Wildlife has not been lazy, with many bears active in the Park eating chokecherries and acorns.  Elk, deer, hummingbirds... everything seems to be on the move now, getting prepared for autumn.  In a way, we are too, already making preparations for our remaining weeks here.  I'll want to make the most of the beautiful a

spens and hopefully some snow-covered peaks.

We just saw Ken Burns's documentary on America's Best Idea, and I realized there are sooooo many National Parks we've never been to.... and ones we must return to....

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Is There an App For That?

Scotch Creek Sunflowers
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity...” 
― John Muir
First Snow on El Diente from The Meadows

There has been lots of research and philosophizing on why the Great Outdoors is good for you.  I recently gave a few cheap shots at my relatives for being a little too jacked into the Matrix, and then stumbled across this article on how sunshine resets your internal clock (while doing a little web browsing for potential grad skool - how's that for irony?).  Alas, my own plans at getting my nieces and nephew a taste of the Rockies and the Canyons of the Ancients mostly fell flat, but it was in part to a family reunion of sorts, but also of the technical distractions that I know (and love, and loathe) so well.

Sometimes I would like to have a cheap smart phone, since there are some interesting tools available, such as flora guides, birds, mammals, stars, and rocks.  I watched in envy as my fire crew boss pulled up the latest weather radar along with a map of the latest lightning strikes in the area, information than can be handy.  However, access to real-time data is fairly limited in these blissfully remote places I like to work and visit, so the temptation to enter the 21st century has not forced me to cough up hundreds of dollars for the latest gadget... so far.
BridgeKeeper of Groundhog Trail

The summer is now winding down, with the alpine areas already having their first snow of the season.  Some of the hardier wildflowers like the gentian, castelia, arnica, and penstemon still have blooms, but the show is mostly over.  Some of the service-berry bushes are already turning yellow at Mesa Verde, and the humming birds and night-hawks are beginning their migrations.
The Forgotten Forest Floor

The visit from family was great, since it's rare to get the bro's together in the same place anymore.  My bro scored me a free ticked to the Clockwork Angels tour, which was awesome.  We made quick visits together to see Cascade Falls in Ouray, the ghost towns of Ironton and Howardsville, and Scotch Creek near Rico.  As always, time flew way too fast and we all went back to our respective hobbit holes.

I also managed a quick visit to George and Pumpkin, along with a short hike along the Navajo Lake trail to see the old Dipper Nest.  Just yesterday, I dodged a few storms to ascend Sheep Mountain and watch a juvenile Bald Eagle shake off some haunting ravens on the ridges below me.  The monsoons have been good this year, quenching the West Fork Complex and giving rise to another fascinating fungal bloom in the woodlands.

Soon autumn will return and with it all the changes that come with the season, both to the wilderness and to my own circumstances.

In the rise and the set of the sun 
To the stars goes spinning 
Spinning 'round the night 
Oh it is what it is and forever 
Each moment of memory aflight 
The arrow flies while you dream 
The hours tick away 
The cells tick away
 - G. Lee

Friday, July 26, 2013

Mesa Monsoons

Storms at Hope Lake trail
The summer rains have begun, a little behind schedule but all the sweeter considering the drought and high temperatures.  The rains contained the West Fork Fires near Pagosa Springs, and brought cooler temperatures to Mesa Verde.  Colorado is experiencing a below average fire season to date.  Whew!

At Mesa Verde, we've begun sampling the Long
Long House Ruins
 Term Fire Monitoring plots.  With 100 plots, it takes some time to complete.  The goal of that study is to understand how the pinyon-juniper woodlands at Mesa Verde are recovering from its large fires.  As I've mentioned before, there is a lot of uncertainty about what seral stages the burned area will grow through, how long each stage might require, and what the species-mix is during each stage.  The classic textbook view of woodland post-fire seral-stages is grass yields to shrubs which yields to forest.

Plants are our Friends
However, the real world is never so tidy, and at Mesa Verde these classic stages are muddled by factors such as fire intensity, future fire frequency, human intervention with post fire reseeding of grasses (at unnatural densities and without forbs), unnatural feral horse grazing pressure, and post-fire recolonization with invasive plants.  These factors may create a new path of seral stages for Mesa Verde, so the climax community may end up resembling something different.  Since Mesa Verde has several endemic plants and that aerial reseeding is expensive, studying how fires and related management plans are changing the biotic community is an important goal.
Coppers feast on Arnica

Many of these factors are active areas of study, as we found out first hand at a visit to Rio Mesa Center -- a new research facility for the University of Utah.  We camped out at the new tents and learned about the current research projects, such as inventorying the plants & animals, reclaiming weedy fields to grow native seeds for restoration projects, and peering into the past to understand the past fire regime.  I met several paleoecologists and they encouraged me to learn more and come visit their department in Salt Lake City.  I've been mulling graduate school in either ecology (systems and/or restoration) or paleontology (evolutionary ecology) for a really long time... this year it seems like the fates are coalescing into new potentials to consider.

So as I walk through the mountains here, I wonder what next year will bring.  Any suggestions for my next career?
Cascade Cascades (yeah, the names here are that original)

Friday, June 21, 2013

On a Clear Day

Sheep Mountain near the old Galloping Goose Trestle

Today, June 21st, is the first official day of summer.  From our house near Dolores, we can use the distant Abajo mountains as our celestial calendar.  Last night's sunset from my observation post in the hot tub, the sun set above the northernmost peaks, the Twin Peaks.  One of my first tasks on the job this year was to scrub the cover for the USGS regional air-dust camera, which looks out over the Carrizo mountains in Arizona.  It's not the best view, but you may be able to catch a portion of our sunset skies from it.
Bear Creek Falls

Summer in the mountains also means wildfire season, and southwest Colorado continues to extend the decades long drought.  The Dark Canyon Wilderness we visited just a few weeks ago has a fire burning we could see from our porch 60 miles away.  The beetle killed fir forest on the west slopes of Wolf Creek pass is doing much worse this past week.  The afternoon smoke plume from 80 miles away looks like an H-bomb was dropped on Pagosa Springs.  That fire has tripled in size each day this week.  With luck, the monsoon rains will start soon and help snuff some of these out.

semper vigilantissimi
A new skill to add to my resume is I'm now trained to serve as a Fire Lookout.  I may fill in for our expert lookout at Park Point Tower, and perhaps  volunteer to work at the Benchmark Watchtower on days of severe weather.  In the past, Benchmark was staffed during the summer  months, but now it is vacant.  Having 2 watch towers cover a region is really important to obtain a cross-azimuth on a sighting, which is used to triangulate the position much more accurately.  Each year, a few more lookout towers are decommissioned.   Most are historic structures with antique equipment (the navy glass at MEVE served in WWII).  Attempts to preserve the old towers in the San Juans has led to novel ways to secure funding for them; you can rent them out as a weekend getaway, such as Jersey Jim Tower!

Another new experience, but much more solemn, was working on a Search and Rescue team at Mesa Verde.  Lost hikers are very uncommon at Mesa Verde, so this was the first time most of us had been involved on a SAR assignment.  We used canine teams, helicopters, and lots and lots of man-power sweeping the canyons where he was last known to be, but after a week still had not found him.
Wasatch Trail

For some weekend R&R, we hiked along Bear Creek (no, the other Bear Creek) from Telluride.  There were still patches of snow by the falls, and especially up along the Wasatch trail.  I wanted to see what the upper falls looked like, so I bushwhacked down an avalanche chute to finally get a good view.  Sadly, even this remote area could become the next victim of sprawl... I didn't realize it during my peaceful hike, but the Wasatch trail is under assault by a greedy tycoon that makes his riches through aggressive and dubious hostage tactics (multiple avalanche chutes imply you'd be a moron to build or stay there).  Further up the trail are some beautiful cascades.  After hiking across a snow field and a rickety, old bridge over troubled waters, I arrived at an old gold mill site now occupied by yellow-bellied marmots.  There were many funky-rusted contraptions on the ground, so I've nicknamed it Steampunk Mine.

Nellie Mine (aka Steampunk), Wasatch Trail

I'd like to close with this quote from the late Dr. Derek Main's dissertation on the Arlington Archosaur Site:

“Come my friends, 
tis not too late to seek a newer world. 
Push off and sitting well in order smite the sounding furrows, 
for my purpose holds to sail 
off the bathes of all the western stars, until I die. 
To pursue knowledge like a sinking star. 
To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield. “

---- Alfred Lord Tennyson

Monday, June 10, 2013

Behind the Bear's Ears

Before I leave the topic of the brave new world of genetic engineering on the back-burner, I just wanted to share an exciting story about using this technology to potential heal our eastern forests: restoring the Chestnut Tree.
Edge of Cedars, ceremonial pottery
Summer has arrived in the Four Corners, and the little bit of snow left on the La Platas is fading fast.  We had ventured into Cedar Mesa country in Utah, and stopped in Blanding to tour the wonderful museum at Edge of the Cedars.  The museum is full of interesting artifacts, including a thousand year old sash made from macaw feathers.  Outside is the ancient Anasazi pueblo, and just beyond is one of my favorite "modern art" pieces.  We had learned of it at a campfire talk in Chaco canyon led by famous Ranger Cornucopia.  He discussed Chacoan archaeo-astronomy, and then mentioned this modern sculpture designed as part experiment.  It stuck in my mind as a wonderful idea, so it was excellent to see it in person:  Inspired by the Sun Dagger and other interesting archaeological sites, an artist had decided to create a modern timepiece using ancient pueblo motifs: meet the Sun Marker.
Sun Marker

This sculpture is designed to get people thinking about ways to mark the passing of time using the sun.  Is it time to plant?  Time to hunt?  Winter Solstice?  When archaeologists discover a potential astronomical alignment within a site, it is sometimes difficult to be certain what ways the Ancients may have used those alignments.  Were some coincidental?  Are the often more to the calendar than meets the eye?  After completing the sculpture, students had found more ways to use the Sun Marker than the artist realized, such as predicting lunar events.

It was fun playing with the interactive archive at the museum, and the pottery designs are inspiring to me.  Maybe one day I'll take up pottery?  After walking like an Anasazi, we traipsed over to the Blanding Dinosaur Museum.  The entrance is filled with three enormous petrified trees found nearby and one of the largest ammonites I had ever seen.  There are lots of interesting replicas and specimens, including a mosasaur.  However, the most interesting thing was learning about the contentious cladistics behind the evolution of birds.
Cave on Comb Ridge

Off we went to my favorite formation in southern Utah, Comb Ridge.  The previous weekend, we had visited a few granaries, cliff houses, and a huge cave.  Each time I visit, I have a unique experience, as if I'm gleaning a little understanding of the metaphysics of Anasazi life just from osmosis off the fluid sands turned to white sandstone.  I often wonder what these canyons were like before they were ransacked by pothunters, but maybe these little pieces I find are somehow better for myself - leaving room to merge my imagination with history and geology.
Ancient Anasazi Granary

This time at the Ridge, I hiked again past a strange landscape of stones, cactus, and wildflowers that led past a few looted granaries and finally to an expansive overlook.  I gaze out and the sweeping landscape as a wind gust blows my hat off.  I look down to pick up my hat and find a tiny sherd of black-on-white pottery in the red sand.  As I trace the fading pattern, a raven flies over head and "cahs" as he barrel-rolls past me.  I think I'm turning Anasazi.
Comb Ridge, Utah

From there, we drive near the entrance of Natural Bridges National Monument, a place we had visited Auto-tour style several years ago.  This time, we took a dirt road that ends up winding up to Elk Park in the Manti La-Sal Forest and goes right between the Bears Ears.  I recall reading about a big site behind the Ears in the excellent book House of Rain, and sure enough, it's there.  I take the remaining daylight's gift to huff up the eastern Ear to see another wonderful view and unexpectedly stumble across a USGS benchmark.

After logging a few geocaches, we camp out near Butt's Point among ponderosa, aspen, fir, juniper, and pinyon trees all trying to decide who belongs in the forest.  The following day, we make the steep hike down to Three Finger Ruins (named for the massive natural pillars guarding the entrance to the side canyon).  I was running out of time, so didn't make the hike up to the ruins, but on the way, found a spring gushing from the hillside.  Cool, clear water in a desert canyon welling up is nothing but miraculous, so I take several deep drinks (ignoring the modern voice in my head telling me to treat the water) and refill my canteen.  Ancient cultures around the world, even in rainy Europe, considered springs sacred.  Now see this desert spring from Anasazi eyes.
Abandoned Kiva

The canyons now are getting hot as summer has arrived.  In keeping with the Bear theme, we went to Bear Creek in Telluride, Colorado.  More on that trip later.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Welcome to the Anthropocene

Cutthroat Castle, Hovenweep
The open skies and sweeping views of the Four Corners lend themselves to wondering and philosophizing.  When I hike out to the ruins of an ancient dwelling built precariously upon the boulders at the head of a forlorn canyon, the remains of a village abandoned 700 years ago, a common reaction is to reflect upon who I am and where my civilization is going.

The Anasazi ruins of Cutthroat Castle are part of Hovenweep, which is a Ute word for deserted canyon.  These days, only a few miles from the Canyons of the Ancients, dryland farming of beans, sunflowers, and winter wheat again reform many acres that were once vast sagebrush scrublands.  All rivers in the southwest are dammed for irrigation, with cattle ranching and sheep grazing occurring on all lands too steep and rocky for cultivation, including even alpine mountains so remote to be designated Wilderness Areas.  The mountains have supported 200 years of mining and logging, and has changed the composition and resiliency of our forests.  Overgrazing in some areas has resulted in desertification and disruption of soils, causing dust storms to transport topsoil vast distances.  The locals here have even adopted a Dust Bowl era cliche' when the strong south winds blow, "I expect Arizona is coming to visit today."  Open pit mines of copper, uranium,  palladium, and molybdenum  near the Four Corners can be seen from space, as well as our brilliant night lights powered by the coal that leaves tell-tale traces of mercury, sulfur and nitrates in sediments.
Tortured Utah Juniper and Cryptobiotic Soil

Some of this man-made geologic epoc, termed the Anthropocene, is really interesting to see in satellite images; particularly time-lapse LANDSAT images, such as urban development, disappearing seas, island building, forest clearing, and a plethora of other signs of human "progress".  Considering most of these images are less than 25 years old, it is stunning to witness the scope, magnitude, and pace of change.  However, these changes have been happening in North America since the Holocene.  In the book, The Call of Distant Mammoths, the extinction of most of our large mammals and their predators are linked to the shockwave of human expansion radiating from the Bering Land Bridge, which is stunning to consider how low the population density that can accomplish such irrevocable loss.  Soon, a new stasis of North American biota was achieved, such as the expansion of great grasslands aided by the frequent fires humans intentionally set.  This would soon change again as the next migrants arrived in North America, the Industrialists, and set in motion the next wave of extinction events that are still in progress.
Mariposa Lily

These new changes to the landscape, such as farming, logging, roads, and concrete do leave a geologic imprint that will be recorded in sedimentary layers for eons.  The predicted moderate sea-level rise is much more notable, but it's not as if Florida hasn't been submerged before just 20 million years ago.  Impressive (frightening?) as these facts are, they pale in comparison to geologic changes such as the Great Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway, Ice Ages, Lake Bonneville Flood, or the Laramide Orogeny.

What is more subtle yet powerful than geographical change is the recent fossil record of the biosphere.  Not only is our biosphere changing in species composition and radical ecosystem shifts, but with the advent of the 21st century technology, we now have the power to shuffle 4 billion years of evolution, opening up an incredible potential and a new Pandora's Box.
Cutthroat Tower

I just finished reading a book called "Frankenstein's Cat", which briefly presents several new bio-technologies that are rapidly developing and, in my opinion, will be the next technological revolution with the potential to change our way of life and the world as we know it.  The book discusses current technologies including cloning, wiring the brains of mammals with micro-circuitry to become remote controlled toys and tools, and the big game changer... genetic engineering.  The author briefly describes a few pros and cons of these technologies, but more importantly, wants us to think hard about how we want to use these new technologies.  Is cloning species to prevent extinction good (especially if the habitat has been lost)?  How about cloning extinct species (particularly if their extinction was directly caused by humans... like Neanderthals)?  How about cloning your dead pet for fun, or a prize steer with robust traits for profit, or your Supreme Leader?  How about tweaking modern elephants to resemble their long-lost cousins and help them stave off the next potential Canfield Ocean cycle?

Scarlet Cup Cactus

And cloning is the least complex of the moral and secular problems.  Pharming goats with genes spliced from bacteria to produce cancer drugs, GMO crops with genes from pigs, jellyfish, or even synthetic genes to resist drought, disease, or trademarked herbicides?  How about corn with human genes?  How about splicing in the FOXP2 gene to dolphins and creating a new evolutionary path for civilized cetaceans?  How about gene therapy to cure diseases, increase longevity, or make your next transhuman child "advanced"?  So much potential and topics that it's easy for someone like me who cannot even clearly define my own ethical standards to animals to wallow in a mire of hypocrisy.  Perhaps the best thing I learned from Frankenstein's Cat is that it is normal to be stuck in the troubled middle, where rational thought and emotions blend together in contradictions.
Anazasi were awesome architects

Every week a new article or radio broadcast makes me ponder this huge quagmire all over.  Clearly, I need a walk in the glow-in-the-dark woods to help me see more clearly.  The home I currently live in is built next door to some long-ago crumbled Anazazi ruins, I wonder who/what will be living here in another thousand years?

So welcome to the Antropocene and the brave, new world that awaits us.  After all, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself (and perhaps mutant-cyborg-sentient-terrestrial-jellyfish Overlords).

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Happy Earth Day!

I can tell spring has arrived this week.  Violet-green Swallows are circling the ponds and rivers, perfectly timed to catch the first round of bugs.  Waterfowl are on the move too, and we saw Canada Geese, Northern Shovelers, Cinnamon Teals, Common Mergansers, and Buffleheads.  A pair of red-shafted flickers were nest-building in the snag of an old cottonwood along the Dolores River, and a Bald Eagle Flew far overhead.

old growth pondorosa

Here's an interesting art project to celebrate Earth Day and remind me why I'm out here:http://www.lostbirdfilm.org/
This afternoon, I was privileged to watch a swan reach orbit for the first time!
To celebrate, I went for a hike up a ridge, past a raven's nest, to a sandstone arch near Taylor Creek to watch the moon rise in the window of rock.
On certain nightsWhen the angles are rightAnd the moon is a slender crescent

It's circle showsIn a ghostly glowOf earthly luminescence - Earthshine

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Fantastic Fourth

My fourth season at Mesa Verde National Park has begun.  Between politics and career decisions, it was not a sure thing.  All my co-workers from the past two years have also moved on, so I am the only returning employee.  The crew will have the same structure as last year, 3 experienced technicians with 1 college-grad. We also should have a vegetation ecologist to lead the group, but a hiring freeze has kept that position empty.  I'm hoping I know enough from past experience, even though I am not formally trained as a botanist. 
My new crew starts next week.  I began work with a little lead time to plan our work and organize some training.  I hope one day to have time to visit the brand new visitor center.

This year, the San Juan snowpack is down 30% from normal, but recent snows are slowly reducing the deficit.  Last year, the spring was very warm and dry, so the already low snowpack faded too fast and Colorado experienced the 2nd worst fire season since 1960.  New Mexico and Arizona also had bad fire years, with the Gila Wilderness burning many acres.  The prescribed burn I attended at Zion last year was postponed due to exceptionally hot, windy weather and the Front range in Colorado had a prescribed burn that rekindled with tragic results.

It's a tricky problem, since continued fire suppression in some types of forests can increase the chance of severe fires.  Combined with the past decade of warmer than average weather causing insect damage and drier forests, the severity of fires in the Rocky Mountains continues to be a looming threat each year.  So far, the Four Corners is off to a slightly better spring than 2012, but New Mexico and California have much worse snowpack deficits.

This weekend, we went for a short hike up the old Pinkerton Trail that follows Scotch Creek.  Snow still lined the road, so it was a game trying to stay on the packed ski-trail so we wouldn't bust the crust and end up post-holing.  A short hike up, and we were rewarded with a gallery of majestic rock formations (and cold feet).  We drove up to Trout Lake, which always looks like Alaska this time of year, and then watched the winds whip snow of the summit of Sunshine and Mount Wilson.

Sunday was a nice lecture about photographing astronomical events that are tied to archaeological sites; such as the Lunar Standstill events at Chimney Rock, the Sun Dagger of Fajada Butte, and fascinating alignments between the sun, moon, and Great Houses.  I learned many new things, like the siting of Yucca House National Monument can view the winter solstice rise from Sleeping Ute's big toe.  Like a good puebloan farmer, I planted my crops (most inside in seed trays, except for frost hardy spinach).  There's occasional mule deer in our yard, so I have a feeling that I won't get much to myself.

Speaking of astronomical events, I hope to catch a glimpse of the comet to the west tonight.  This week, Antares might make its inaugural flight.  My brother is busy as a beaver building the Orion spacecraft, which now has a scheduled launch date too (Sept 2014)!  I expect tickets to the launch.