In the Presence of Time

I moved my sleeping roll and pillow to the back of my truck as the small oak tree cast thick shade over it in the mid-day sun, and it was much cooler than my tent. The shrike, back in its roost in the short tree, let out the occasional screeching call. I pulled the shell closed to keep out the black flies and I laid back with my beer and book and read for a while until I fell asleep, where time passed but had to presence.

Wind rocked the truck as I rested, and a sudden gust eventually woke me from my nap. I sat up for a moment and rubbed my eyes. The others were either sleeping or reading in their tents and I had plenty of time left in the afternoon to think and let the internal dialogue take my mind away. I crawled out of the back of the truck and found a cold beer in the cooler. I noticed the shade had moved off the cooler and so I slid it a couple feet back under the tree shade where it would last another hour or two. The shrike next door startled again, possibly from its nap too. I sat in my chair and let my mind wander – about time and how we pass through it.

Time is a fickle dimension in which we move.  As we move through time, our mind, our thoughts, our experiences influence the rate at which it passes. I thought about how I missed my family, my wife, friends, dogs. When the hours of the day are spent lying awake in the heat of the day, time passes slowly and with painstaking realization of separation from what I love. I relished the trip we made to visit Sunny’s mom for her birthday. I had been tired and working all day, but drove to Folsom for her surprise party. I wanted to be there – wouldn’t miss it for all the wealth in the world. I remembered leaving at 5 a.m. the next morning to get home, pack, and drive all day to go do field work. I remembered how quickly the time went by while we drank wine and beer and ate food and visited while the sun set over the American River and the nuthatches visited the feeders off the porch. We watched and the moments there in the last golden hour of the day passed. Almost like I just dreamt it and woke suddenly, it was done. Seemed unfair – that time spent in good company passes so quickly, while time away, the times when we recognize the importance of those relationships seem to pass slowly. Irony in the way we want more time when it passes so quickly, but when alone time passes slowly and we are forced to face the reality in which we exist. We never get time back. Enjoy all the moments, fast or slow.

So I sat on my chair and dug my feet deep into the cooler desert sand beneath and watched as the eastern sky turned pastel purple as the sun set. In the eastern edge of the valley, a peak covered in boulders caught the last rays of sun. How long had those boulders been there? What time had passed in their long and stationary presence? That slow and steady giant stood sentry over the valley as I sat from my diminutive position. The moments passed, I was unconcerned and in the moment. I watched until the first stars began to shine and then the milky way. I finished my beer slowly and crawled back to my tent for some more sleep before the night’s round of work would start. The shrike called one more time from its roost deep in the foliage of the oak tree and I faded to sleep under the dark sky and lost track of time once more.

 

Questioning…

We were given an assignment in my research design class. Contemplate nature, our surroundings, and come up with as many scientific questions as possible and write them down – similar to a brainstorming session. The objective is not to come up with all great questions. Rather, by asking many questions we will likely ask 1 or 2 good ones. Once we had our questions, we were instructed to take our ‘best’ from which to generate several hypotheses and predictions. This exercise is important as one of the most difficult tasks for a scientist is generating good questions. I liked the assignment and decided it seemed like a perfectly good blog post as well.

I gathered a notepad and pen and journeyed out of town into the desert near Pyramid Lake in northern Nevada. I found solitude and inspiration in the view from the craggy hilltop where I settled in to my writing. I began to consider the idea of stochasticity and its role in generating patterns we see in nature. I began to think of concepts in astrophysics and what is understood of the formation of solar systems, galaxies, and ultimately the universe. Just after the big bang all matter that now exists in the universe was distributed homogeneously. Very soon after this, ‘primordial fluctuations’ produced density variations (i.e. heterogeneity) in this matter as it began to expand outward (and continues to do so!). These variations ultimately produced all the structure we observe in the universe today. There is no singular reasoning behind the placement of objects in the cosmos. Rather, it was stochastic processes early in the development of our universe that gave rise to the structure we see now. If we replicated this process many times over, we would likely find different outcomes each time.

This led me to think of the role of stochasticity on earth in the way environments, ecosystems and biotic communities form on earth. In particular, Hubbell’s neutral theory and functional equivalence in trophically similar species. In a nutshell, similar species are likely to share many common features and the success of one over the other is due to stochasticity rather than deterministic processes.

These two examples (the formation of the universe, and neutral theory within biological communities) are similar in their dependence on the role of stochastic processes in producing the structure and patterns we find in nature. Furthermore, we may find deterministic processes in the very same structure and patterns that have risen from these chaotic beginnings.

After a while of pondering these and other things, I starting to write down all the scientific questions that came to mind. They did not all have to do with stochasticity in nature. In fact, many had to do with entirely different concepts. Here are a few for example:

What role does the microbiome play in successful colonization and persistence?

To what extent do chemical landscapes dictate the movement and establishment of organisms?

And, here is one that I had fun with so I couldn’t leave it out!

How many definitions exist for non-native, or exotic species? And, at what scale may these definitions break down? Example: A careless astronaut finds a plant-like species on another planet and it finds its way back to Earth where it miraculously propagates in the Hakaluki Haor marshlands of Bangladesh. How may this lead us to re-evaluate our definition of “non-native” species?

If you care, the full list of questions is here.

The question I chose to elaborate on of course dealt with stochasticity in nature:

What deterministic and/or stochastic processes give rise to where and how ripariansystems develop?

To set up the question, I got cosmic again and tried to formulate a thought experiment:

Imagine a Martian landscape with mountains rising miles into the air and vast alluvial fans below. Presently, no water flows on the surface of mars, and no plants or living organisms exist. Let’s imagine that water and life suddenly appear on the planet. Let’s go further and think of a large body of water on top of a Martian mountaintop. As the water begins to find its way down the mountain it will begin to carve out water courses. These water courses may grow larger as more water flows through, and some may even connect giving rise to even larger water ways, eventually becoming large creeks and rivers. If we were to recreate this scenario 1,000 times, we would likely find differences in the pattern and process each time. The question deals with the very beginnings of these ‘novel’ water courses. Why does water flow one way rather than another? What factors play a role in this? In an attempt to work through this set of questionsI can think of a few testable hypotheseswith associated predictions:

  • The placement of plants on a landscape will influence the establishment of water courses.
    • Early colonizing plants that can survive with little water will establish a community. The roots and structure provided by these plants reduces erosion and forces water to flow in adjacent channels. In effect, these early colonizing plants are the first inhabitants of a newly forming riparian ecosystem.
    • More plants will continue to establish the newly forming riparian ecosystem, thereby reinforcing the effects against erosion.
  • Engineered topology and geology will influence the establishment of water courses.
    • A subtle difference in the topology of a landscape will lead to the movement of water courses in one direction over another.
    • Similarly, differences in geology and the resistance of substrate material to erosive forces will lead to the distribution of water courses.
  • The amount of water released will influence the establishment of water courses.
    • A small but persistent amount of water will provide different outcome from a deluge of water.

 

  1. Why riparian ecosystems? Riparian means essentially “along a riverbank”. Riparian ecosystems are home to a large number of species across the globe. Since water is essential to life on earth, it is no coincidence that riparian systems are such cradles of life. But since water exists with or without life, it allows us to ask questions about the behavior of water with and without the influence of living organisms acting upon it.
  2. Among many other things, the scientific process relies on questions and hypotheses. A question is simply what it sounds like. For example, your car won’t start in the morning to go to work. A question would be: Why will my car not start?
  3. Hypotheses are more involved than just asking a question. Formulating a sound hypothesis is also very important to scientific pursuit. A hypothesis is a proposed and testable statement made to answer a scientific question. The key here is that it must be testable; experiments are used to test hypotheses. This is one area that clearly delineates science from pseudo-science. The corresponding hypothesis to our above-mentioned car problem could be: If I put gas in my car it will start. Can you think of any alternative hypotheses?

Why I Don’t Eat Mammals: Part 2

What is Alpha-Gal

After the second bout of a horrible allergic reaction, I began to seriously consider the possibilities. The first incident I thought was a reaction to legumes – I had eaten a handful of peanuts only 10 minutes prior to the symptoms. I had heard of the sudden onset of legume allergies in adults. But, after the second incident I seriously began to consider the possibility that I had this new “red-meat allergy”. Upon reflection, both times I had eaten red meat (any mammal meat). This may seem a desperate correlation, but I had severely cut back on my meat intake. In fact, the two times, months apart, I could remember eating red meat during this period, I had these reactions. Furthermore, the reactions occurred several hours after eating red meat – a phenomenon of this allergy.

First documented in 2009, alpha-gal induced allergic reactions were reported in 24 cases (Commins and Platts-Mills, 2009 and 2013). Commins and Platts-Mills papers include a lot of medical jargon, descriptions of other closely related allergies, and explanations of experiments and assays performed in the study of this relatively new allergy. I will spare you those details and attempt to distill the most important points.

Alpha-gal, or galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose is a carbohydrate, which is, in biochemistry, is a group of compounds that includes sugar. Organic sugars of several varieties are found in fruits, vegetables, and other foods. Alpha-gal, is a common component of the cell membranes of many mammal species, excluding old world primates and humans. So, if you are reading this, you do not have naturally occurring alpha-gal coating your cell membranes like a sugar dipped lollypop. Under certain circumstances, outlined below, alpha-gal can cause the body’s immune system to develop a novel antibody, IgE.  Antibodies are what your body produces to defend from outside pathogens (i.e. bacteria, viruses , etc…) The overproduction of antibodies in response to certain stimuli is what often causes various forms of allergies. The alpha-gal allergic condition – delayed anaphylaxis to mammalian meat – requires the development of the IgE antibody.

As best as scientists who study this can tell, it starts with ticks and land mammals. In the United States, the culprit is the lone star tick (Amblyomma americanum), common throughout the eastern US. As an ectoparasite, these ticks make their living sucking blood from hosts. These hosts may include all kinds of animals such as lizards and birds; however, frequently their host is a mammal including rodents, deer, dogs, cats, and humans! We’ve all had experiences with ticks if we’ve spent any substantial amount of time romping around in the forest.

Once a tick has found a suitable host, they can remain attached for up to a week. The lone star tick is a generalist feeder, taking advantage of any number of hosts. Also, they require at least three hosts to complete their life cycle from larvae to nymph to adult. During this period, these ticks likely will take up residency in various mammalian species. Now we get back to alpha-gal; during this period ticks are likely to ingest a fair amount of mammalian blood and, guess what, the carbohydrate alpha-gal along with! Once a tick gets to a point of host switching, they already have this carbohydrate in their bloated gut. The tick then searches out a new host to become an adult, produce more little baby ticks, and complete its life cycle. If you find yourself ambling in the woods, in the right part of the country, you are very likely to find yourself eventually playing host to one or more of these little blood suckers.

Once you are ‘bitten’ by a tick, the process begins. We’ve all used straws before and know how easy it is to reverse flow, even for a split second, and eject some of our own saliva in the drink. Well, imagine ticks doing a bit of the same. Except, they may actually eject a little more than just saliva. Having blood, and quite possibly, alpha-gal in their guts from previous hosts, they can purge a little of that into your own blood stream when attached. What happens then?

To answer that question, let’s back up a bit. Remember, alpha-gal is found in all non-primate mammals (i.e. cows, pigs, deer ,etc…). So, we have all ingested alpha-gal containing foods in our lifetimes – providing we have eaten mammal meat at some point. So why aren’t we always breaking out in horrible allergic reactions? Well, it has to do with our body’s immune system.

In a non-afflicted individual, alpha-gal containing food is broken down through various processes in the digestive system. Eventually, the alpha-gal itself may even be released through the intestinal walls. However, your body breaks all this down, harvests energy from the meal, excretes excess waste, and you happily go on your merry way.

Now back to the tick bite. Once the tick has bitten and, if, it releases contents including alpha-gal in your blood stream, your body sets of an immune response to fight against this foreign substance. Inflammation, irritation, and itching are all common symptoms. This is actually what happens most times we are bitten, stung, or poked by a plant or animal. Think of a mosquito bite. However, in this particular case, our body may develop an immune response to the foreign substance, alpha-gal. Think of your immune system as having a memory. Our body has now seen this foreign substance from an external wound; it now has learned to respond to it whenever it is found.

As an afflicted individual eats a burger, or steak, or anything with mammal meat, the alpha-gal released during digestion into the blood stream sets off a systemic (whole body) allergic reaction. I had hives from my head to my feet. Of the many peculiarities, the allergic reaction may take 3-6 hours to set it (Commins and Platts-Mills 2013). This was one reason why early in the history of the condition, many doctors dismissed patients concerns that they may have a food allergy to meat. Food allergies commonly only take minutes to set in, not several hours. And, while the cause of this allergy is becoming better understood, little is known about some of the details. Why the delayed allergic response? Can the allergy wear off given enough time? How many people does this allergy afflict?

Commins and Platts-Mills report that many patients develop allergic response to ingested mammalian meat 3-6 hours after eating, and that the role of lipids in the food may produce this pattern (2013). Alpha-gal containing lipids in the meat are not immediately released upon eating, and can take several hours to be absorbed. Other interesting patterns deal with the timing and severity of the allergic reactions. The study found that some patients could tolerate small amounts of meat (e.g. a single strip of bacon) with no response. Large amounts of meat (e.g. double burger) could cause severe reaction and even affect several organ systems (Commins and Platts-Mills 2013).

Furthermore, the timing and severity of tick bites may influence the severity of the allergy. Patients with recent and higher doses of tick bites (i.e. more bites, more reaction to bites) were more likely to develop delayed allergic response to mammalian meat (Commins and Platts-Mills 2013). This provides evidence for the possibility that the allergy may wear off over time; providing you stop getting bitten by ticks, and thereby exposed to further alpha-gal. However, much is still unknown and proper diagnosis and caution should be used.

Finally, how many people may have this condition? This is a hard number to come by. It was first described in 2009 from 24 cases (Commins and Platts-Mills 2009; 2013); however by 2012 it was evident that the total number of cases was likely in the thousands. Furthermore, because the condition has only recently been described, it is likely that many cases when undiagnosed over that last several decades. The true number may forever evade us. Further complicating the matter is that the severity of reactions differs among many people; some people may never develop strong allergic responses. Others, perhaps vegetarian, pescatarian, or who don’t eat any mammal meat, may never discover they have the condition.

As the condition becomes better understood, it may become more easily diagnosed. My doctor ordered the correct allergy tests, and with a small vial of blood, was able to diagnose the condition. In popular culture it has even received recent attention. The October 27, 2016 episode of Radiolab covered the story of Amy Pearl who developed alpha-gal allergies. I highly recommend the episode as it is both educational and humorous!

Why I Don’t Eat Mammals Part 1: http://wp.me/p4iZnM-4m

References:

Commins SP., and T.A. Platts-Mills. 2009. Anaphylaxis syndromes related to a new mammalian cross-reactive carbohydrate determinant. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 124(4): 652-657.

Commins SP., and T.A. Platts-Mills. 2013. Delayed Anaphylaxis to Red Meat in Patients with IgE Specific for Galactos alpha-1,3-Galactose (alpha-gal). Curr Allergy Asthma Rep. 13(1): 72-77.

Tales From the Field: Tara and the BYU Crew of Lytle Ranch

I’ve known Tara since high school and we ended up in some of the same classes in college. When she finished she started teaching Biology at our high school and at age 22, she was often confused for a student herself! After several years and completing a Master’s degree, she decided jump back in for a Ph.D. Her research landed her at BYU’s Lytle Ranch in a quiet little southwestern corner of Utah near the Arizona and Nevada border. The ranch is near Mesquite, Nevada – in middle-of-nowhere desert terms. I’d spent several years as a graduate student and research technician with the United States Geological Survey and had fallen in love with the place. So naturally, when Tara loosely invited me to visit her research site, I jumped at the chance. I never need much prodding to ramble through the desert, and so when on a trip to pick Sunny from the Las Vegas airport, I made sure to spend a couple extra days to drive up I-15 to visit.

Late April showers turned to deafening thunderstorms on the way out. The storms gathered across the desert range and reached their crescendo atop lofty peaks far in the distance…torrents of rain from dozens of miles away, with lightning added for effect. Who needed the movies when you had this! I exited the freeway in Mesquite and passed along some old haunts before rejoining I-15 on the north end of town. The rain had thoroughly wetted things by now and I wasn’t moving too fast. Passing along the Virgin River overpass about ten miles from town, I looked for the old swimming hole we’d visit mid-summer for cooling off. There’s whole stories could be told from that spot tucked discreetly under the I-15 overpass. I kept going in the rain.

Shit. I said to myself as I passed the exit for old highway 91 in Littlefield, Arizona. As I scolded myself for missing the turn – I always thought I knew this place like the back of my hand – I passed the next exit too. Well, suppose I’ll just turn around at Cedar Pocket in the Gorge.

Eventually I ended up back in Littlefield and made the turn onto highway 91 and passed through the little village of Beaver Dam. I laughed as I passed the old Dam Deli and Dam Bar. A hole in the wall stop we used to go for cold drinks. A little Mexican woman used to sell homemade tamales out front in the summers out of a cooler. The highway heads north from the interstate and stays in that forgotten corner of Arizona for about ten miles until it passes into another forgotten corner of Utah.

“I guess I need to replace my windshield wipers,” I told myself as rain poured in sheets. Distant headlamps of cars glared off wet pavement.

The 10 miles or so from the highway to the ranch was bumpy from spring rains and occasional traffic. In an effort not to wake everyone, I stopped just before dropping down the switch back to the ranch and pulled in to a clearing protected by juniper trees. I settled in, sipped my cold drink and watched the storm clouds unfurl as stars began to shimmer and eventually the Milky Way too.Version 2

In the morning I boiled water for coffee and listened to Heriberto’s whistling ascend through the tree canopy below. As ranch caretaker, he and his wife spent all of there time there, even when just the two of them. He’d mastered the art of self entertainment. The birds had been long at it since 5 a.m. and his whistling added to the chorus. I poured coffee into my mug and drove down the hill to the ranch.

Not sure where to find them, I poked around a bit for Tara and her crew and eventually ran into Heriberto. He was a stocky built and tall Mexican. Rounded features accompanied his friendly face and his mustache was tightly trimmed over his mouth. His greying hair was just visible from the edges of his leather cowboy hat.

“They usually head into the field around 8 a.m. But they come back for lunch,” Heriberto said in his thick accent as he turned from his conversation with a couple birders.

I spent the morning hours ambling around the ranch and finding old spots I’d visited on previous trips years before. Looking at a map, I realized the Utah/Nevada state line was only a couple miles west of the ranch. I followed the dirt road from the ranch as it ducked into riparian woodland and crossed Beaver Dam wash a couple times. I continued on as it made a couple switchbacks to the top of the canyon rim where it opened onto upland desert scrub spotted with Joshua trees and sagebrush and the road trailed off into the distance somewhere in Nevada.

Sometime around 10:00 I wandered back down the canyon rim to the ranch. A Summer Tanager had my attention and I stood staring through my binoculars into the large cottonwood tree that kept the bunkhouses in shade for much of the day. Just then I heard a truck come down the lane and a loud RAT-A-TAT as it crossed the cattle guard. I looked down from the tree and saw Tara in a tie-die t-shirt and ball cap sitting in the passenger seat of the first of two trucks. Behind her in the back seat sat three younger looking girls – undergrads working on her research for the summer.

“Danny! I wondered if I’d see you here,” Tara smiled from the truck window.

“Well, I figured I’d find you. I left you a phone message a few days ago, but knew you’d likely not get it,” I sidled up to the window.

“Everyone. This is Danny, my old friend from high school…The one I was telling you about the other day,” Tara said to the others. “This is Bailey, Becca, and Ashley,” she gestured to the back seat. “And this is Josh,” she pointed to the driver.

“I suppose I just missed ya’ll this morning on your way out. How was the work this morning?” I smiled at everyone.

“It was great, sorry you missed us. We finished some transects up on the rim that we started yesterday. We bailed when the thunderstorms came in. Hey, we’re going to Mesquite for lunch, if you want to join?”

I decided to stay behind for more exploring while they took a couple hours in Mesquite for lunch and supplies. I found the pond where we removed bullfrogs once for a field trip in my herpetology class. It enjoyed a canopy of cottonwood and willow trees and the yellow warblers, like little golden balls, chased each other through the open air over the water. I found a picnic table and read my book as the birds began to settle in for the afternoon. Around 1 I ambled back to the bunkhouse in time to find them all piling gear into the 4-wheeler and side-by-side. Tara was loading her things on the back of the 4-wheeler with Josh to go collect some gear. The afternoon air stirred and was thickening and anvil topped thunderheads loomed high above the distant horizon.

“Danny, wanna go with the girls to collect the Shermans?” Tara asked. “We left the trap line out and just need to go pick them up.”

“Yeah, sounds fun,” I looked over to the girls as they were putting on rain ponchos.

I brushed a strand of hair that blew into my face and pulled myself into the back of the side-by-side with Ashley. Becca sat in front of me in the front passenger seat.

Bailey pulled herself into the driver seat. She was athletically built and had long brunette hair. And an infectious smile. She turned the ignition and with serious demeanor, as if a natural born racer, took off up the dirt track. The throttle lurched us forward as she steered around the gate and around the switchback toward the top of the canyon rim. All the while I attempted to hold myself, white-knuckled, upright in the backseat. After a few moments of this, I realized the thing probably only went 15 mph and eventually this settled my nerves. But between the wash-boarded dirt road and sound of the motor, one would only guess.

“So, you’ve been enjoying working out here with Tara?” I yelled over the motor to Ashley.

She looked over with questioning eyes. I leaned a little closer and repeated.

“Yeah, I love it out here,”  she hollered with a smile.

We had now climbed out of the canyon and were perched on the upland desert with 360 degree views around of the desert. Mountains rose gently from the desert floor and into the sky where the afternoon thunderstorms still gathered. As we walked along the desert floor – plants verdant from spring rain – purple and yellow flowers of Krameria and Coleogyne blossomed from the lush green foliage.  Then, the red berries of Lycium. And all along were the mascots of the Mojave Desert, the Joshua tree. Like a Dr. Seuss creation, their short bent forms rose from the desert floor and white fruits began to develop on their outstretched arms. Aside from the few most common of plants, I’d realized how much of the desert flora I’d forgotten so I stopped at nearly every plant and asked the others for the name. They’d been hard at it most of the year with plant ID, and so rattled off names almost unconsciously, and where they didn’t know the exact species of some of the less common forbs, told me their field name they’d devised. We continued this for a while as we collected the small metal traps along the way and all the while discussed botany, ecology, and science in general.

I was now walking with Ashley behind the others. She had blonde hair and fair skin. Her brown eyes revealed her deep thought and contemplation. She spoke with depth and clarity.

“What do you like most about science?” she asked.

A bit of a broad question, I thought for a moment.

“I suppose…What I like most is the never-ending nature of it. The more we learn, the more we realize we don’t know,” I smiled. “I suppose, we may never run out of questions to ask. So long as we keep an open mind.”

We reached the end of the trap line and each of us, arms full of traps, turned and walked back. They asked me about graduate school and how to prepare and what classes are best to take. I didn’t really feel that prepared to answer those kinds of questions. I suppose I didn’t think I had all the right answers but I answered with what I’d learned over the years as we loading back and rode off back toward the ranch. The clouds had started to break up and it almost seemed like whatever storm was brewing had begun to dissipate. But, being spring, and being the desert, we didn’t count on it. As we road, West Mountain rose out of the desert in the distance and with the clouds rolling over, it looked even larger and even more isolated.

Back at the bunkhouse, we reconvened with Tara and Josh and made one more trip to Tara’s experimental plots just above the ranch on canyon rim. From atop, the sandstone bluffs rising from below were now glowing red in the evening sun. The Beaver Dam wash was evident below in its green ribbon of riparian vegetation.

“So what’s your 30-second elevator pitch for your research?” I gave Tara a shit-eating grin.

“I hate that question, everyone always asks that.” She smiled while unloading gear. “I am studying competition of invasive species after abnormal fire events in a desert ecosystem.”

Wow, I thought. She’s got that down.

Specifically, she studies post-fire invasion and competition of non-native grasses; Red Brome (Bromus rubens), Cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), and Schismus. Her work employs a menagerie of fine-scale vegetation monitoring, precipitation experiments, and other ecological field techniques. All, very obviously time consuming and critical to her research.  I looked out at the large experimental plots, their size quite breathtaking.

“So what exactly is going on in these?”

“Each of these experimental areas are split into quadrants, for a full factorial study on the effects of fire an small mammals on post fire completion of invaders.” Tara said as she pulled on a spool of wire.

Version 2I looked out across the huge installation, astounded by the amount of work it must have taken to just set up. Each large fenced area was split into four smaller segments. Two segments were burned, and two unburned. Likewise, two had been fully removed of small mammals while the other two hadn’t. This provided a simultaneous look at the influence of both presence or absence of fire, and presence or absence of small mammals. What seemed like on paper a simple design, stretched out before me into what looked like work for 10 full-time workers. Tara and the others were now busy mending holes in the fences that were meant to exclude small mammals from the plots within. I had been tasked with cutting lengths of wire for the repairs.

“What has been the most frustrating part of graduate school so far?” I asked Tara.

She looked over at me as I struggled to clip a piece of wire from the spool. “Ha!” She looked out at the others patching the fence, and beyond the desert fanned out almost endlessly. “There is so much work out here for the 5 of us. What’s frustrating is the lack of a sufficient number of field technicians to keep up with it all. We are up at dawn and work till sun down everyday.” And with that, she turned back to the fences and the others.

Beyond the bluffs of the ranch and to the west the sun began to approach the horizon, stretching our shadows along the desert floor. The mountains to the east glowed red boding us good evening as we finished mending the fences and stashing the equipment for the week.

And so there we were, working hard and knowing it was hard work. But that it was in a place so beautiful meant something. And what it meant was different for each of us, but we all knew we loved that place and so all the hard work and the years and lines on our faces from the sun were more than worth the price.  As we road back down from the rim, rain clouds gathered again – portending another stormy night over the Mojave Desert.

Islands in the Sky

The two men perched on the ledge, now in silence, as long sharp lines of shadows cut through the red Wingate sandstone. A pair of vultures lazily circled nearby in silence and the mountains, uncaring, rose against the sky to the south. On their peaks snow reflected the late morning sun. A bird song rose from the canyon below that moments before had been the echo chamber of a din of explosion and profanities and mumbling. But now it was silent again and only the two of them on the ledge.

“She’s kinda a bitch,” a voice, tinged with a southern drawl, cut the silence. The tall, skinny man grappled with his thoughts as his long hair, matted with sweat, lofted in the breeze.

“What the hell man? Fuck you too, Aaron,” a voice spat back with a wheeze. What’s that about anyway?” it managed.

“You said you missed her. Said you always feel a longing when something shitty happens,” Aaron rambled, a cigarette tacked to his lip moved along with and flung bits of ash.

“Oh…,right,” he lifted his head again returning from a daze. “What you mean, she’s a bitch?”

“Ah man…” Aaron’s left arm only moving slightly, returning the cigarette to his stubbly face. He pulled long and hard at the cigarette. “Fuck…went out. No more lighter either, dammit,” he weakly flung the thing from his long scrawny arm into the abyss. He knew he’d need a bit of a rest now if he wasn’t able to finish the smoke.

“Hey, Aaron…Liza’s not a bitch…Why you think she’s a bitch?” he responded to silence.

Aaron rested his head now on the sandstone and although it wasn’t comfortable it was better, and cooled his head where it touched. He watched the sweat move off his face and, as it percolated into the stone, it released the smell of iron on the wet rock. He remembered missing that most when after moved away. The smell of the stone after rain. Really, just the smell of the desert after rain when the creosote and stone and sand, all like potpourri, filled the air. He remembered first coming back and, after it did rain, laying in the sand, rolling around. Then sticking his nose on different plants and surfaces and taking long breaths. He had missed it for too long.

“I had a hard time with her at first is all, Matt,” he returned from dazed silence. “She’s a bit of a food Nazi. I made homemade biscuits and gravy one morning…” He started to trail off.

“I don’t know what the hell you are talking about,” returned Matt in a raspy voice.

“I made biscuits and gravy from scratch,” continued Aaron in his drawl. One morning after we’d all been up late drinking. You know what she said? Before even taking a second bite? She didn’t say thanks. No pleasantries…No gesture of gratitude…She said, ‘the biscuits are too dry.’ That was it. What the fuck. Biscuits are too dry. That’s what the gravy is for,” he started trailing off into silence once again.

“Jesus, man. That’s your problem?” heavily breathing. “You know she went to school to be a cook. She can’t help but be critical, dude. She had to learn all that shit in school. You’re a real fucking baby, you know. I don’t even remember…When was that?” He wheezed once again.

“Hell if I remember exactly when it was. Maybe five years ago. Remember, it was the night we all ended up at your parents’ house cuz they were out of town. Ethan was there too, and then you got Samantha to come over. It was a big deal cuz he finally got laid that night. Remember that?”

“Oh yeah, he was all smiles and giddy that morning,” he smiled.

“Yeah, well, we were all pretty ripped that night but somehow I managed to get up around 6 the next morning. I felt like shit, but I was also feeling ambitious so I made biscuits and gravy for everyone.”

“Haha…yeah, I remember that now. Oh man…” Matt attempted a laugh and winced instead. “So she said the biscuits were dry, huh?”

“Yeah, yeah. Whatever. I like her now, though. I don’t think she’s a bitch. Haven’t for a long time. Maybe at first, but she’s cool. OK,” Aaron said.

“Well, why’d you say it? Huh?” Matt wheezed again. His lips were white with sweat and his body and biceps were wet too.  His hair was short, but even it looked matted down with sweat. He would have slouched if he could, but he couldn’t. He lay instead. His chest heaved up and down and the hairs on it beaded sweat. His eyes were still circled in tan lines from the winter.

“I was trying to evoke some kind of inner fire; I guess…” Aaron responded. “Buddy! We got two legs and maybe two good arms between us to move this fucking piece of shit rock off. But, we’re gonna have to fight for it. I was trying to engage your inner hulk. You been pretty dedicated to making all those muscles. As good a time now as ever to put them to use,” he summoned whatever euphoria he had left.

“Well, Liza’s not a bitch,” Matt assured once more trying to muster energy.

“Yeah, well, I still think she’s a food Nazi,” he grinned back.

“I guess I’ll let you have that, you son of a bitch,” He grimaced as he tried for a smile.

“OK. You ready for a try here. You’ve got brawn, but you’re also pretty fucked and looks like pinned pretty well against that slab. How much of your arm you got?” Aaron thrashed to free up his leg.

“Uh, let me just…” Matt fussed around and twisted his body a bit. “Ouch, dammit.”

“I heard a pop, what the hell was it? You OK?” Aaron now had a bit of his leg free.

“Shit. I think I dislocated my shoulder,” Matt shook his head and let it hang down. He continued, “What’s the point anyway? My harness is fucked dude. The rope is ripped in half.” The frayed end of rope dangled limply over the ledge. He stared blankly at the useless piece of cord then turned his gaze slowly out over the edge. They were only a couple hundred feet from the ground, but the talus cone stretched on for several hundred feet beyond into the desert floor below so it felt like being one thousand feet up. The sagebrush below looked happy, he thought. It all looked ideal. The red sand stretched out for miles, punctuated by only sagebrush and ribbons of green where washes still released what water was left from winter snowmelt. Even the snow, trapped in isolated nooks of north facing drainages looked copacetic. The breeze was just enough to cool, but not too much and the vultures continued to ride lazy circles higher into the sky.

Matt continued from his horizontal position after a pause. The boulder had him pinned into a soft corner at the base of the slab rising from the ledge. Only a few more inches and he would have been sliced in two.

“Even if we get out from under this we can’t get off the fuckin route. Plus, we’re probably screwed anyway. I think I’m bleeding inside. Do you feel that way?” he mumbled.

“I feel OK,” Aaron lied. “Don’t think too much. Let’s just get out of this problem one step at a time. All we need to worry about now is getting this off us. OK. Now listen. You’re much stronger than me, but you’ve maybe only one leg to use now.  I’ve got the advantage of a good arm and one leg, even with my puny ass. I think this boulder is balancing somewhat so we may be able to roll it off. It looks like your right leg is somewhat mobile, yeah?”

“A little,” said Matt. “My other leg is stuck under the boulder. Luckily it didn’t smash but it’s pinned down too tight to move.”

“Alright. So can you manage a knee bar with your good leg? If you can get a knee bar, you may be able to push out on it.”

Matt struggled to lift his leg into position. He wasn’t sweating now…Too dehydrated. He could feel the soft sandstone under his back and he could smell it and he knew it was still wet from when he was sweating. He grunted and managed to get his leg wedged into the small space between the boulder and wall. He could feel his temples beating now. It reminded him of when he was a little kid running around outside in the summer before dinner. When he had to come in, he’d stick his head in cold water in the sink then look at the mirror. His face all beat red and sweat dripping and he could hear his heart beating inside.

“That’s my boy!” Aaron attempted a holler as he watched a few feet away. “How’d that feel?”

“Aaron…”

“Yeah”

… …

… …

“Matt… MATT!”

“Huh,” he flinched up. “What.”

“Shit, you scared me. Thought I lost you there. You feel alright?” Aaron’s voice shook.

Matt looked over, glazed eyes, “Hey, Aaron.”

“What?”

“You think we can have a beer when we’re done here.” He let out a pathetic chuckle.

“Yeah buddy. Hell yeah! Let’s get his thing off us. Alright, I’ve got a leg and an arm free. On the count of three I’m gonna push with them against this load of shit like a fuckin tweaker. You have to do the same too. OK. With your knee bar,” Aaron said, returning some confidence in his voice.

“OK, Aaron,” he wheezed again but this time without any sound of strength left. “You’re a real piece of work. A beer…I think I have a beer in my bag…” He trailed off again as his head dropped.

“Matt.”

…. ….

“Hey, Matt!”

.. .. ..

“MATT!”

“Matt! Buddy…Hey Fuck-tard, wake up! I don’t think she’s a bitch…The biscuits probably were dry,” his voice now faltering. “Wake up. We just need to get this fucker off us is all. Then we’ll go get a beer.”

The sun had passed over noon now. Shadows short but still sharp along the red sandstone. The desert fanned out below and scarce water revealed itself in narrow strips of green that either dissipated or joined larger veins of verdant desert life. Across the valley the desert slowly rose again and slowly turned from red to green where it climbed into the foothills. Beyond, the La Sal Mountains rose into the sky like islands. And they all had snow above a certain point, but Mount Peale, being highest, had the most.

Aaron remembered discovering Ed Abbey in college before he’d been to Moab for the first time. He read Desert Solitaire one spring break and remembered Abbey’s lone ascents in the La Sals and glissading down. He remembered how he’d imagined the scenery before he had ever been there. The mountains didn’t seem as high in his imagination. The red desert against the azure sky too. He always thought the imagination would overestimate reality. But he remembered the first time he rolled into Castle Valley in his parents’ old van that he had borrowed one summer after classes. He remembered the mountains seemed to rise out of another land far away, and went all the way to the clouds. And the blue sky pierced between the lofty clouds and where the clouds were low on the mountains the mountains looked even bigger still. And all this. All of this was beyond the valley itself. Cast beyond the towering pinnacles of Castleton Tower, Sister Superior, The Rectory. All these sitting atop a talus cone that climbed hundreds of feet sharply from the deep red sands of the desert below.

A canyon wren was singing somewhere below and he could hear it. He always liked that bird’s song. Like a waterfall, its whistle cascaded down from the canyon walls. It sang again. He liked the way they would announce themselves. He remembered exploring canyons alone and the only sound for hours was the silence throbbing in his head. Then, he’d hear the buzz of the canyon wren warming up. Somewhere up the canyon walls out of sight. He’d hear it again. Then it would let loose with its cascading whistle and it would echo down the canyon walls bouncing off the smooth red sandstone. Then again. It would continue for a few minutes before the silence resumed and he could only hear the throbbing of his heart in his head.

The canyon wren carried on for several minutes. Each cascade of notes bouncing around the rocks below and Aaron kept listening for it. He looked out toward the low ridge at the end of the short slot canyon they had hiked through that morning when the sun was just rising. And though he couldn’t see it, he looked to where the car was parked.

“Hey Matt… Let’s go… Let’s get that beer,” he tried again for a response.

“Matt….matt…” his voice quivered into silence.

He leaned back again. His body cooled by the rock wet from his sweat and he rested his head against it, breathing in the smell of the wet rock again. He rubbed his face in it and where it made his face wet, the breeze cooled. He looked at the boulder. Like a small car it sat heavily. He remembered his geology class in school. Geological processes play out on a time scale far beyond the scope of a mere human life. Fuck if that wasn’t the case, he thought. He’d remembered reading about this chockstone in a guidebook when he was planning his first trip to the desert. Large chock stone, third pitch up is solid. Would require earthquake or other geologic calamity to remove. He laughed a little and then winced. Geology is a prick, he thought. Like a slow giant, moping about. It stays put for years. People build homes, cities, highways off its dependability. Then when some sudden event occurs, they write it off as some slow moving geologic event and it doesn’t seem so bad because usually it just destroys a landmark. Or a lonely road. Or something nobody ever cared about but maybe a geologist. But that’s the real bitch of it, he thought. Geology doesn’t care where someone or place may be. It doesn’t care what time it is. It just happens suddenly and nothing anyone does can stop it.

He kept breathing in the smell and it gave him some comfort. He blinked his eyes and they readjusted on the sky above and he saw the vultures again as they circled higher on the afternoon heat. Another breath of the wet sandstone by his face. His heart throbbed now in his head and his temples pulsed with its rhythm as he breathed in again.

The canyon wren sang again in the canyon below. He didn’t remember hearing it when they passed through that morning. But it pierced the silence now with its cascading trill. And again. Then silence. Then one more cascading, tumbling whistle.

Then the silence again.  He felt it in his head. He tried to remember if it sang that morning but he couldn’t. The silence pounded. It throbbed in his temples and he could feel the heat in his face. The heat and the silence throbbed and he rested once again on the wet stone and felt the coolness flow into his body.

 

Regarding the Raven’s Wing

“It’s not that hard?” The man sighed as he combed his hand through his loose hair once more. He placed his worn jacket across his legs and folded his arms.

“You’re too idealistic. I can’t see how you can possibly enjoy a place like this.”  The woman spoke in dignified tones as she pursed her lips and placed her handbag on the seat next to her. Her hair looked recently washed and had been left to dry in the cool spring air.

The train attendant passed through the car and checked for tickets. “Ma’am, do you have your ticket?”

“Yes,” she responded in a tone of superiority. “It’s in my bag.”  As she sorted through her bag, she made sounds of annoyed frustration.

“Ma’am, if you don’t have a ticket, you may purchase one at this time.” The attendant suggested dryly.

“No, it is in my bag, just let me find it. Just hold on!” her voice rising.

“Sir, do you have your ticket?” the attendant turned to a man in the seat across the aisle from her.

He produced his ticket from his shirt pocket. The attendant nodded at the paper slip and, after tearing off the end, handed it back.

“Hey, there… For her ticket.” He said calmly as he handed the attendant a 5 dollar bill.

“Yes.” The attendant nodded and left the two alone.

The train started to turn to the north providing a look across the valley from the man’s window. He looked out at the mountains to the west, and surprising himself, he realized he remembered their names. Vivid memories came back of winter alpine ski tours. He couldn’t recall the last time he had strapped into a pair of ski boots.

“Well, it’s not difficult.” He expressed again, although his attention was still out the window. Sunlight from the opposite side of the car illuminated his face, highlighting his beard.

“What was that?” she said tersely.

He looked away from the window now. “What?”

“You just paid the attendant for my ticket. Why? I have money, you know.”

“Yeah, well, so do I. I was trying to save you the embarrassment of not having a ticket.” He smiled.

“But…I had a ticket.” She began tearing her purse apart again. “I know it’s in here. I put in in here.” She demanded of her purse.

“Well, did you have a ticket?” he asked rhetorically. “You seemed pretty preoccupied with your phone earlier. Whoever you were talking to, you seemed pissed.”

“What are you talking about? That idiot on the phone…Please. And yes, I have a ticket. Why wouldn’t I have a ticket? she asserted.

“Idiot…hmmm. A new guy, huh? I don’t know the guy, but yeah, he sounds like an idiot.” He smirked.

“Well, I assumed you didn’t have a ticket, because I saw the scene you put on back there. You were really something else on the phone. Your arms waving around. Really quite a sight. You should have been there,” he was in story mode now. She hated story mode. “Right as you stepped to the machine to buy your ticket, your bag flew off your shoulder as you made one last phenomenal gesticulation. When you reached down to pick it up is when the train blew the horn. You rushed to the door and barely got in. Still on the phone, mind you. From what I could tell, you were too pissed at the ‘idiot’ to realize you never even bought the ticket. That’s why I think you didn’t actually have a ticket.”

“Well… well. La ti da!”

“I was just glad to see you made it. I was sitting in here wondering if you’d even show. By the time I finally saw you run up to the gate, I had just about written you off. Punctuality never was your strong suit. But, I’m glad you made it.”

“Well, thanks but no thanks.” she rolled her eyes and looked out her window.

For what? Thanks for what?” he seemed confused.

“For the ticket.”

“Oh, right.” you’re welcome.

By now, the train was nearing the south end of the valley. Next stop. Draper Station. Please remain seated as the train comes to a stop. The voice on the intercom said in a robotic voice. The train jolted and started to slow. A couple bikes clattered together in the rack – someone didn’t strap their’s in properly.

“I always liked when the train conductor actually announced the train stops. Gave a certain air of humanity.”  The man said in a reminiscent tone.

“You know, I never could understand how you could like it here.” The woman scolded. “The church runs this whole place. Everyone is so goddamned happy all the time, like a cult. Too happy if you ask me. No one should be that happy. And… To top it off, you can’t even get real beer here.”

“Colorado has similar beer laws, you know.”

“Oh, god. You are always defending this place. Well, Colorado has legalized marijuana.”

“Utah legalized same-sex marriage before Colorado.” He fought back.

“Yeah, well. The pious right who run this place refused to issue licenses and so the state went a year without issuing same-sex marriage licenses.” She raised her voice. “You try to defend this place…I have no idea why. It’s all religious nut jobs and their weird happy families.”

“Well, some religious nut jobs and weird families. It’s just not as bad a place as you make it out to be. Sure the religious right stopped issuing marriage licenses to gay couples as they tried to fight the ruling. But, it still happened here. It happened, because a group of activists fought for it to happen. It’s an exciting place to be. I’d rather be here where there are battles being fought than some place where everyone mindlessly drones along with the social tide.” He lectured.

“Yeah, well, maybe you should just move back here then.” She said.

The train had come to a complete stop. A few people walked thru the back end of the car to exit. One woman removed her bike from the rack. A young father entered the train car with a toddler. He helped the awkward boy to the front end of the train and thru the door to the next car. The train doors closed again and the two were alone again. Please use caution as the train accelerates. Next stop, South Jordan Station, announced the automated voice.

“Why don’t you move back?” she asked him. “You don’t have any family in Mississippi. Do you even have many friends out there? Are there even any woman that you are interested in dating?” she interrogated him.

“Blah, blah. God, you really know how to carry a conversation.” he quipped. “Maybe I’m not done out there yet…” He trailed off.

“Done? With what? Starving as a teacher at a pathetically small community college in a town that no one West of the Mississippi has even heard of? What time are we supposed to be there?” She redirected.

“It’s not pathetic.”

“I said pathetically small.”

“I know what you meant… And we were supposed to meet them at 7. She’s bringing her boyfriend.” He looked away and rubbed his scruffy face. Minutes passed in silence as he continued to look out the window. He noticed an Ebay campus just off the tracks. Well lit and thoroughly modern looking. He remembered when Salt Lake Valley was smaller, more simple. Now tech start-ups and software companies were sprouting up all over, and plenty of new college graduates to staff them all twice over. When he left twenty some years ago, he’d heard of the internet. Now, it was the reality of the whole valley. He saw Kennecott Copper mine tucked in the mountains southwest of the Valley. The scar had grown too. He’d heard you could see it from space now.

As if uncomfortable with the long silence, she returned the conversation. “What are you waiting for? You think you actually will save a whole community out of poverty with your history lessons? You think any of your students will remember you in ten years? Even 5? When they are on their Nth child, living in squalor living off government money.”

“Why is everything always so fucked with you?” He returned from his absent gaze out the window. “Rather than embrace the possibility that maybe one, just one student comes away from school thinking they CAN make a difference…That they can do something more with the hand they were dealt. Rather than consider that maybe that one kid is worth all the others who will never care, you just relegate them all to the ‘trash’ pile. Sure, plenty of what I teach falls on deaf ears. Most of what many teach probably falls on deaf ears. But I don’t teach because I want the whole world to listen. I just hope that maybe one student has a better life. Maybe not because they took my class. Or because something I said. But, because maybe they had just enough encouragement. Just enough helpful teachers that they stuck with it. No one person is going to make the whole difference; it takes many people to make the difference.”

“You graduated with honors. You had scholarships…fellowships. You could have had your pick at faculty positions at academic institutions…” She harped.

“And what. Teach a bunch of spoiled middle class kids, who also don’t care much for learning. More concerned about the weekend party. Whose getting laid by who. You know I was never sold on ‘Academia’.

She rolled her eyes and turned to look out the window. Silence again. The snow was all but melted from the towering yosemite_valleypinnacles of Lone Peak. She remembered climbing the peak with Owen the first summer they met. She had only been climbing a few months and wasn’t sure she could do it, but with some gentle prodding, he convinced her. She felt safe with him then. And more importantly, carefree. She could do anything. They went to Yosemite that next spring after spending the winter months working on the mountain and training at the climbing gym. After spending a week warming up on smaller crags in the Valley, they climbing The Nose. Then Middle Cathedral, Half Dome, Royal Arches. As spring turned to summer they moved on to higher ground and climbed Daff, Stately Pleasure, Fairview, and other domes in Tuolumne Meadows. She remembered saying “I love you” for the first time from the top of Tenaya Peak. They would share cheeseburgers from the grill and watch the sunset over the superlative Tuolumne Meadow.

Next stop, Murray Central Station. Use caution as the train comes to a stop. She jerked her head at the automated voice and looked back to where Owen was sitting. He was reading a book – The Canterbury Tales. She noticed his hair was beginning to get white in it now. Lines faintly grew from the corners of his eyes. She searched his face for the youth of their past. His shoulders were still broad, making a V to his waist. And his hands. Still powerful. Fingers long and swollen from years of use. Arthritis appeared to have started to take its hold.

What was different now? She thought. Where did it all go. The carefree life we had. Twenty years ago she would have never imagined herself becoming who she was now. A lawyer. A homeowner. Stressed and fried nerves. Two children from two failed marriages. Why had she made life so hard, when it seemed so free and easy.

Owen’s eyes had begun to close. His book fallen to his lap as his head bobbed slowly. She suddenly remembered vividly a climbing trip in Yosemite. A sea of granite stretched out, vertically, horizontally, all around them. Miles of more granite fanned out all around them. She remembered the long splitter crack and the thin face of the route. They struggled. Their only struggle.

On the last pitch, Owen was leading. He was tired and they had run out of water. She should have packed more. He was about 70 feet above her and she no longer could see the him, only feel the gently tugging of the rope as he continued to move up. Everyone once in a while he would yell down, and when the wind wasn’t too loud she could hear him. She slowly fed rope thru her ATC.

They had been climbing for 2 hours now and were 350 feet up the route. Just a little farther. Owen continued up as she fed rope and he slowly came back into view as he began moving out diagonally along a final thin hand crack to the top. He placed his left hand in the crack, his powerful shoulder adjusting the position. Without seeing, she could tell he was jamming his right foot, and his waist was pulled closely to the wall. Then he reached up and locked his right hand into the crack above. She could see the tape on his hands was starting to fall apart. He was struggling to keep his hands in the crack. He always hated thin hands. He glanced over his shoulder and pulled a cam from his harness and battled with it into the crack. His left hand looked solidly placed in the crack at chest height. She slowly fed a little rope as he reached for rope to clip, her calves were beginning to burn. He had the rope within a foot of the cam then suddenly, he dropped it. In a flash, he fell from her sight again.

“Woohoooo!” She heard him yell as she was pulled violently into the wall toward the anchor.

“Owen!” She yelled up. “You OK.”

“Yeah, I’m fine. Just took a bit of a fall. I’m good! Woooohoooo!” He let out a howl.

It was her turn to climb up after him to the top. As she pulled the last piece of gear and topped out, the granite began to sparkle the late afternoon sun. He was sitting on top, belaying through two pieces of gear and a slung horn. He had a smile on his face and his lips were white with chapstick and dried spit. His hair was sticking at sharp angles. His orange fleece had been ripped in one elbow. She topped out and walked to where he was sitting and pulled in close to him. She could smell the granite on him. The musty smell of his sweat too. They held each other close and looked toward the East to Mount Conness. They were tired. Sore. They shared what was left of a peanut butter sandwich. But they were happy.

They sat atop Daff Dome and watched the trees gently bend in the breeze. Thin cirrus clouds punctuated the clear blue sky above. They watched the light change across the high sierra as the sun continued its daily descent into the Pacific Ocean out of sight. They held each other close and looked toward the East to Mount Conness. They were tired. Sore. They shared what was left of a peanut butter sandwich and watched the scene play out all around them. A bird sailed in lazy circles from below them flapping a couple times as it circled over the cliff edge and back again. Then turning gracefully into the slight breeze it perched on a small pine tree growing out of a crack in the stone above them. She looked up as the bird turned its head to one side, then the other. Its eyes fixed on hers. A breeze picked up and ruffled some of its feathers as it hunched slightly. Then, as quickly as it arrived, it sailed off the tree limb and into the breeze, dropping back below the cliff edge toward the forest below.

Why I Don’t Eat Mammals and Have Yet to Try Human: Part 1

A Short Vignette of Not Eating Mammals

She cleared the bangs from her forehead then pulled the pen and pad from her apron pocket. Her wrinkled mouth and stained yellow teeth began to form words.

“You want the bacon on the side?” She inquired, her big eyes probing.

“No, thanks.” I replied, holding the laminated menu card.

“You want a side of ham, or sausage?” She asked, almost pleadingly.

“No thanks. Actually, may I please have a side cup of fruit, instead?”

“Yes, that’ll be one dollar extra. And, no meat?” She pressed once more.

“That is fine, and no meat. Thank You.”

“Okay, so you want a breakfast wrap – with eggs, cheese, green peppers, onions, and NO meat.” She read off her pad confidently now. “And, a side cup of fruit. No meat”

“No meat, Thank You kindly.” I handed her the menu card and smiled as she turned back toward the kitchen.

It was a small cafe, in a small town, in a small county, in the middle of North Carolina. Supposedly, pigs outnumbered humans by almost 10 times. Pork and beef were staples of local cuisine and not partaking was difficult at times – unfathomable to many locals. Repeatedly explaining why I didn’t eat red meat had grown old. So, I had decided that it should be perfectly acceptable to just say “No meat, please.”

“I have an allergy to meat.”

“Just red meat. Yes, pigs too.”

“Yes, I know that pork is ‘the other white meat’”.

“I am actually allergic to mammal meat. Pigs are mammals”

“I can’t have deer, bison, goat, lamb, pig, cow, etc…

“I can however, eat primates and humans. Not allergic to people, I can eat human if I please. Desperation just hasn’t reached that level yet.”

This is what it was. Explaining how I could not eat mammals, other than primates, and humans, as if that would ever be an option.

Poultry and Fish.

I could eat poultry and fish and I was perfectly OK with this. People would ask sympathetically, “aren’t you sad you can’t have meat?”

“No.”

“Bacon? You miss bacon?”

“Not really. Too fatty. Never cared much for it.”

Now, if I had been inflicted with a bean burrito allergy, or hummus allergy, or allergy to peanuts, I would have been horribly distraught. Perhaps my lifelong affinity for these food groups assisted in my apathy for a mammalian meat allergy. I simply did not give a shit and I figured my colon, heart, and many other vital organs may thank me in thirty years. Or, perhaps they would thank the ticks.

Ticks and the ‘Curse’ of the Red Meat Allergy

Goddamnit, these little fuckers are everywhere. Look.” I pointed at the back of my leg. “Not ten steps into this grass, and here are 7 ticks crawling up my leg.”

“You should shave your legs. Check mine out. No ticks!” Sunny pointed out her shaved and mostly tick-less legs.

“Got one there, crawling up behind your knee.”

“Shit,” she exclaimed as she flicked it off, “well, not nearly as many as you’ve got.”

“I hate ticks. Vile little things. I don’t want to get lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted fever…” I rambled off the various known ailments that accompany frequent tick bites.

swamp_NCAs we spent a lot of time ambling around the verdant forests of North Carolina, these exchanges were common.

A couple months later, we were in Virginia for a friend’s wedding. Great time, drinking, dancing, more drinking, failed attempts at hooking up the best man. The morning after the big party, we decided to pile all the leftover food – sausages, some bacon, ham – into a giant egg scramble breakfast and gorge ourselves one last time over several bottles of champaign. After eating incredibly too much food, and drinking plenty of coffee, we all started to pack up and ready ourselves to depart.

Several hours later, in southern Virginia headed back to North Carolina, I was driving along.

“Sunny, I’m feeling a little weird,” my lips started to itch a little. My scalp too. My arms. My legs.

“What going on there, Holmes? Your face looks red.”

“What the hell.” I was starting to itch all over.

“I’m gonna pull over here and stop at the gas station. It’s weird… I ate a handful of the peanuts about ten minutes ago. Am I suddenly, at the age of 28, allergic to peanuts?” I was thinking aloud to Sunny in the passenger seat. Itching my head and armpits like a monkey.

“Go to the bathroom, I’ll go in and get some allergy medicine.” Sunny was getting out of the car as I made for the bathroom.

I made for a stall and pulled off my shirt and dropped my pants. I had a rash over my chest and arms pits. My thighs and groin too. Around my waist were mottled hives. I put my clothes back on and went to the mirror. My hairline was covered in hives. My lips looked kinda red. Felt puffy too. My fingertips even felt strange.

Then I had a sudden urge to visit the stall again. Dropped my pants and sat down. Not a lot happened in the traditional sense, but it burned like hell. Felt like I had eaten nothing but the hottest Thai food for the last week.

“What the hell.” I thought to myself. I have never had allergies before. This is the weirdest thing.

We got back in the car and I took some of the pills. About an hour later, I started to feel normal again. Puffiness gone, itchiness relieved, I chalked it up to some strange anomaly.


A couple months later my brother came out from Utah for a visit. One afternoon we stopped off at the burger shop on campus before heading toward Dunn, North Carolina to visit a Civil War battlefield.

“What can I get’chya shug?” with the care and compassion only a deeply southern woman of her size can have, she took my order on her yellow pad.

“I’ll have a cheeseburger, please. With fries and a drink.” I rarely ate beef these days, but was feeling hungry.

Ben ordered the same.

Why I Don’t Eat Mammals Part 2: http://wp.me/p4iZnM-b5

Camp Cady Part 3 – The Strange People of a Strange Land

Fitz-bew…Breet…Breeeeet…Fitz-bew…Fitz-bew…’.

Fitz…Fitz-bew…Fitz-bew…Fitz-bew…’.

“You hear that?!” I asked as Sam fidgeted with the speaker.

“Hold on,” he put the speaker in his pocket and readied his binoculars, “OK, where was that bird singing from. His eyes disappeared into his binoculars.

“It sounded like it came from that Goodding’s Willow out there.” I pointed to a tall willow in the middle of a marshy pond. The rising sun warmed my back as I squinted into my binoculars toward the bird.

“Do you see it?” Sam stepped through some low branches for a better look. “These fucking limbs are in the way,” he swatted branches with his free hand as the other continued to hold the binoculars to his eyes. “I see it! He’s about 5 meters off the ground just on the left side of the willow tree….”

I lost focus on the bird as a Zebra-tailed lizard hauled ass out of a nearby thicket of mesquite. My binoculars hanging from my neck, I took chase after it toward a wood pile.IMG_0249

“Hey, Danny. I can see him. He’s flying around on the willow.” Sam was occupied while I lifted pieces of wood and litter from my knees.

“Nice, I’ll be right there.” I hollered from under a nice piece of scrap metal siding, determined to find the lizard.

I had seen the lizard dodge under the debris pile, but no sign of it remained as I crawled along the ground searching. It probably shot out of the back of this pile before I saw. Zebra tailed lizards are damn fast, I thought to myself. Lot’s of places to hide too.

“Ok, so where’s this bird at?” I dusted off my pants as I brought my binoculars back to my eyes and looked over Sam’s shoulder.

“So, what’s the total count here, Sam. I counted 4 WIFL, 3 Verdin, 1 Phainopepla, about 20 tri-colored blackbirds in that flock by the first pond.” I rambled off several more birds that we’d seen as Sam tallied and checked some additional boxes on the data sheet. His focus honed in as his pencil danced along the paper.

“We had a total of 4 Willow Flycatchers! Hell yeah.” We slapped a happy five. The sun was now rising above tops of the cottonwoods to the east and the temperature was rising.

“I’m gonna go find Ronald?” I pulled a water bottle from my bag for a drink and made for Ronald’s house.

It was easily well into the upper 90s now, and the birds were mostly quiet. Except for the occasional murmur of mourning doves throughout the property, it was still. A jet plane passed overhead, leaving a white streak and a soft rumble. I looked toward Ronald’s small white house and far in the back, behind, near one of the tattered old barns, I noticed an RV with a white four door truck parked in front of it. I hadn’t noticed it the night before, or in the morning when we got up.

“Huh, yeah, ok… I’m gonna go read my book.” Sam, distractedly, called back as he bit into an apple.

The sun beat down as a gentle breeze cooled my sweaty skin. As I walked thru the gate on the front lawn, I checked the juniper tree for the resident long-tailed brush lizard I had seen before. No sign of it now, maybe too hot. Ronald’s front door was open, with just the screen door to keep the flies out. The television was on again. This time, a late morning infomercial touting the benefits of an all-natural Ginkgo Biloba derived weight loss supplement.

“You watching this shit, Ronald?” I teased from the screen door.

“Ah hell, Matlock reruns were on earlier, then this crap.” He called thru the kitchen as he prepared a sandwich. “Come on in, Danny. I was out this morning on the other side of the property working on the irrigation for the corn field. Came in for lunch and get out of the heat for a while.”

He slowly stood from his kitchen chair and walked in stocking feet to greet me.

“Who’s staying in the big trailer out behind? Hadn’t noticed it before.”

“Oh yeah,” Ronald gave a sigh and strained his face, “that’s Charles. He stays out here for usually a week or so at a time. He’s a USDA biologist.” Ronald had joined me by the front door now. “He stays out h…..” Ronald suddenly stopped talking and looked behind my shoulder out the door.

I heard a diesel engine pull up to the parking areas just beyond the fenced yard. The ash-throated flycatcher nesting in the porch awning flushed and flew around to the back of the house.

“This is him here. I’ll tell you more in a minute.” Ronald watched as Charles stepped thru the gate.

“Hi there, Ronald. How ya doing this morning?” Charles greeted us from the bottom step.

He was tall, maybe 6 feet, but pencil thin. His short dark hair was covered over by a ball cap with ‘USDA’ printed on the front. He squinted through glasses and made his brown eyes wrinkle at the corners. He wore a long-sleeve field shirt, also labeled ‘USDA’, tucked tightly into his jeans. A brown leather belt cinched tight around his waist and held his pants comically high. He had an overall happy demeanor, if not slightly pitiful as well.

“Good afternoon, Charles. You here for a while?” Ronald stepped onto the front porch. “This is Danny, he is here surveying the property for Southwestern Willow Flycatchers.” He proudly announced as he gesticulated toward me.

“Hi Charles. Jealous of your trailer out back…I noticed it earlier.” I grinned at him.

“Yeah, that’s me back there.” He replied with a toothy grin and adjusted his pants.

“You work for the USDA? What ya do?”

“I work on Raven control.” He started in a dignified tone. Ronald looked uninterested as Charles continued on with apparent excitement. “Surveyors come out and locate Raven nests, particularly the ones that eat tortoises…Ya see, some nesting pairs, not all, but some, will eat desert tortoises. And you know, they’re endangered. So, the surveyors look for desert tortoise shells around their nests and record the location of any that do.”

Looking at Ronald, I could see on his face that he’d heard this all many times before.

“So then,” Charles continued on, “I get all the locations for Ravens that eat tortoises and go…”

“Then he shoots them.” Ronald interrupted.

“Well yeah,” Charles interjected guardedly, “if a pair of birds is known to prey on tortoises, then I shoot them. Only the birds that eat tortoises though. Not all of them eat tortoises.” He must have defended his position often.

“Well, gettin hot out. Have a nice afternoon, Charles. See you soon.” Ronald said as he stepped back into the coolness of his living room. Charles gave a sheepish grin and a half turn. Standing between, I could sense the awkward relationship these two had.

On the one hand, Ronald seemed very fond of all the wildlife on the ranch. Even tortoise eating ravens. Besides, ravens were just as much a part of the desert as tortoises. They were simply carving out a living in the unforgiving land.

Then again, raven populations had unnaturally expanded after human development over much of the desert landscape. Charles’s job was as much a necessity as it was a perceived evil. I wasn’t so much against the killing of the birds, but it seemed like a pathetic attempt at mitigating the larger problem of human disturbance across the landscape.  Like bubble gum plugging a hole in the side of a dam. Like a band-aid on an arterial wound. Like spraying cologne on a dirty diaper. The desert, with all its amazingly adapted organisms, was being fragmented, desecrated, and more or less destroyed by society’s thirst for more. More development, more energy, more outlet malls. And now, rather than taking aim at the larger issue, we kill birds.

 I stood there for a moment, contemplating. Ronald had stepped back into the comfort of his house.

“Well, have a good day, Ronald. Nice meeting you, Danny.” Charles was turning back now.

“It was nice meeting you, too, Charles. Enjoy your afternoon.” I called back to him as he climbed into his idling truck.

Trapped Inside the Bubble

The acid trip was finally wearing down, but we were still 2 sheets as a kite and 3 stones to the wind. Six beers and a couple bowls, we’d failed somewhat in our attempt at escaping our nightmare. We stood shoulder to shoulder as we hurled into the fountain in front of the Bellagio.

“Fuuuccckkkk! Oh my god, ggmmmhhhhh.” Elliot’s head launched over the handrail once more as an arc made for the water.

“Hey. mhhhhh. Shit, gmhhhhhh,” I fought the urge to vomit again. “We should get out of here dude. Before cops or security comes. We aren’t exactly low key at the moment.”

“Ya think,” Elliot smirked as he lifted his head back over the railing, his cheeks rosy.

“Let’s head toward the Stratosphere. A little less crowded up that way.

We’d been about 12 hours into our routine trip to Vegas. Four weeks in a row crawling around keying out plants and camping in the desert was motivation for a monthly odyssey to the modern day Sodom and Gomorrah. Generally, it wasn’t so extraordinary; maybe beers at the casino and some poker – never won anything. Sometimes we’d have some blow and see a show. Once Elliot hooked up with some blonde he picked up at The Mirage when he had the molly from his older brother. Made the hotel room awkward that night, but I passed out eventually.

But this weekend, Elliot had a couple hits of dose from his brother in Phoenix. His brother always had good shit. I usually tried to avoid all of it, but it was Elliot’s birthday.

“Here’s to you, you crazy fuck.” I smirked at him as I wiped the corners of my mouth.

“Where are we headed now?” Elliot stumbled behind me.

“North strip. Outta this zone, dude. Folks aren’t gonna want any encores of that show we just put on back there, and I’ve got a feeling we don’t have long before trouble shows up.” I kept an eye on the Boulevard as we passed through the crowds.

Sounds of the ‘porn-slappers’ emanated as we neared the street and turned left toward the north end of the strip. The peddlers clapped papers and ruffled cards in their hands. Mostly people passed by awkwardly, maybe glancing from the corners of their eyes. An overweight middle-aged man discreetly accepted a card and quickly stuffed it in his pocket. All over the ground were cards displaying various lovely ladies of Vegas. Stars and hearts scantily covered the important parts. And these poor men and women, mostly migrants – or so it always appeared to me, handed out entire stacks. I never had the impression they cared much for the gig. I never had the suspicion they really had a choice.

“God, this place is so fucked.”

“Hey, are my glasses on my face?” Elliot was feeling around his eyes.

“No. Jesus, what the hell, man. You stick ‘em in your pocket or something?” I turned to him.

He felt around in his pockets, he fingered through his wavy brunette hair. He squeezed his empty shirt pocket.

“Ah, shit dude. I must have dropped them off my head back there.” He pointed back toward the fountain as his head dropped in defeat.

“Well, fuck ‘em.” A crowd of people were gathered around an officer busy talking into his shoulder. “We should just keep moving up the road Elliot. You have your contacts?”

“No, my eyes have been buggin me. I don’t even know if I’ve got contacts back at camp. Shit.” He blinked around as he realized his condition.

“Well, maybe we can try and find ‘em in the morning. But let’s just get out of here.”

Holy shit, I thought to myself. Everytime I came here, I told myself I hated it. But I always managed to find myself back here again. It was too damn hard to avoid with all these desert field jobs and Vegas was the only place to really stock up on supplies. Last year, I had to drive to Vegas about half a dozen times to shuttle people to and from the airport. I’d been a little more put together then, though. This year, Elliot was a satan on my shoulder.

“You gonna make it along tonight” I asked him hopefully, as we continued down the street under the flashing fluorescent lights of the strip.

A small Mexican woman – a porn-slapper – was being berated by a woman as her husband huddled around two small children.

“How can you do that, you monster! You have no right. I will not hesitate to call the cops you filthy criminal.” She spoke with decided nobility.

The small woman turned away with dignity. 

I always found the variety and people of Vegas intriguing. Young children had plenty to do; roller coasters, arcades, aquariums. And adults could find adult fun too, with or without kids. Preferably the latter. But I always thought people knew what they were getting into when they visited the strip. So it amazed me when parents toted kids along the strip practicing puritanical objections. Likewise, drunken assholes, like myself, were often horrified to see themselves act with such hedonism in the presence of families. Indulgence often beat idealism. 

“Can you make it another half mile?” I asked Elliot, who was managing to hold his head up as he blinked his eyes. “You know, you sure don’t act like a fuckin 4.0 student. You lousy bastard.” I grinned as he shuffled forward. His left shoelace was untied and flopping along with him.

“Where are we going to stay tonight?” He started to yawn. “What time is it, even?”

“Well, it’s just past 10:30,” I looked at my phone. “Not even late by Vegas standards. I figure we’ll see what’s available at Circus Circus. It’s usually on the cheap.”

“You still trippin? Elliot asked. “I’m still feelin it a bit.”

“Yeah, a little. My body buzz is still goin a bit, but I think it may be the beer too.”

“Hey you know, I think I know what happened to my glasses.” He grinned slightly.

“Oh. You suddenly remember now, huh.” I was listening.

“Yeah, well it just sorta came back to me. Back there, just before we started puking, you were off staring off at the light beam from the Luxor – your head in the sky like usual. Well, I found this little plastic tree in a box with some fake grass. Kinda weird I was thinking, fake plants and all, in this very fuckin fake ass place. Why not just plant some drought tolerant halophytes or something real. You know, that can actually survive here. I suppose plastic green shit is more appealing to all these blowhards.”

I continued to listen as we strolled along the strip. We were now at a nice pace and a cool breeze had started in from the west. My sweat soaked shirt was beginning to dry and my mind was becoming more clear.

“Well, anyway,” he continued. “I was down in this planter box, with the fake plants, and I guess I was just tripping really hard. It was getting pretty deep for a bit. I actually took my glasses off and snapped them in half. Weird shit.”

“What the hell!” I laughed out loud. “Good god man, that’s wild.”

“Well, shit I don’t know. I was sitting in that planter box, looking at all those fake plants, and it just seemed to occur to me that maybe my vision was actually fine. Maybe I’d developed an artificial dependance on glasses.”

“You managed to equate fake plants with thinking your vision was actually fine?” I could hardly hold back the laughter. “Wow, I’d love to see inside your brain, man.”

“Yeah, Ha Ha. I needed new glasses anyway. I’ll be ok for a while.”

“I can’t wait to get out of this bubble again tomorrow.” I sighed.

“Yeah, these light bubbles are fucked, dude. They envelope you and you just become part of the noise.” Elliot said. “When we are camping out at the desert at night, the bubble seems so finite and defined. You can see the stars. The Milky Way. The whole cosmos… But when you come here, you can’t see out of it. You’d never know what’s on the outside.”

 “Yeah, on the outside it’s so clear – What’s inside. What’s outside. I like it better on the outside.”

An Ancient

Bristlecone_ridge
Bristlecone Pine, Pinus longaeva.

I moved to Bishop, California last spring and have had the pleasure of exploring the great wild places of the Sierra east side.

We drove to the Methuselah grove one hot summer day and enjoyed a stroll along the ancient woodland. Along a rocky and exposed ridge line, this particular tree caught my eye. Bristlecone Pine trees grow at high elevations and often in nutrient poor dolomite soils. The oldest known living tree dates to more than 5,000 years old! Among their adaptations to harsh environments is the ability to keep only small slivers of wood live – if you look closely, you will see live growth surrounded by dead wood. As far as we could tell, from imploring the trail map, this particular tree may not be among the oldest. But, it certainly has seen many moons!