Archive for the ‘natural science’ Category

Back from Bend

November 5, 2007

The four-day trip over the mountains to The Nature of Words in Bend was both exhausting and rewarding. Quick precis: Great weather (mid-fifties in the day, high-twenties at night, clear and sunny), great workshops (I took three, and picked up tips in each one) and readings (heard seven terrific authors), enjoyed the company of my dear friend Ruth, met up with old friends I haven’t seen in awhile, made a few new ones. I particularly enjoyed the poets there, my former mentor Pattiann Rogers and former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser. I admire the poetry of each, and hearing them read it and discuss poetry in the workshops was a great experience.

We took a short side trip to the High Desert Museum south of Bend. What a great place. I really enjoyed the raptor house. I made a few attempts to communicate with the owls. I’ve learned many of their calls here from being kept awake at night and having to figure out what was keeping me up. In several cases, I got their attention, but they didn’t seem to have much to say to me. I think my accent might have been poor, because they looked at me the way the French do when you’ve just butchered some attempt to speak that language. Also got up close and personal with two bald eagles. We see them here in the winter, but generally not from 6-7 feet away.

A sign at the museum advises visitors that the only birds kept here on display are those with some injury or defect that makes it impossible for them to survive in the wild. This seems like a nice solution for all.

But I’m glad to be home. The weather here is gorgeous now, too, which probably means that I’m going to have to work outside today. It’s as if October and November flip-flopped this year. We had November rain last month and now we’re getting Indian summer.

If you can get outside somewhere where there’s little or no ambient light in the early morning (before dawn–I hear some of you saying “”ugh” as I write this), it’s really worth the trouble. Right now, about 5 or 6 a.m., a brilliant Venus is climbing the sky toward a crescent moon and the Gemini twins Castor and Pollux. It’s pretty spectacular and worth getting out of bed to see.

Got a great letter (a real letter) from Phil, my blog friend in Cornwall. He’s vacationing in Cyprus, so now I have a wonderful collection of Greek stamps.  Considering how much of our history is captured in personal correspondence through the centuries, I can’t help but wonder what we will use instead. I somehow don’t think that archives of e-mail will be as accessible. This feels like one of the downsides of our technological advance.

But I’m dithering, and I have some things that must be done now that it’s really daylight.

Life in the country, contemplating birds

October 25, 2007

It’s gorgeous and sunny here, and I probably should be out doing some of the things that need doing in the yard, but instead I’m trying to complete a writing assignment and using this as an excuse not to do so. Also, it’s very cold out there for a wimp like me (hasn’t yet hit 45 degrees today), so it’s also more fun to be in here keeping the fire going.

I’ve been thinking a lot about birds this morning, probably because that’s what I’ve decided to write about, if and when I ever get around to writing it. But so much of what we conjecture about our world here revolves around observing the wildlife.

We didn’t get our usual sunny October. It started raining around the first of the month and, with a break of a couple of days, has rained pretty steadily since. This is what we all call November weather. But somehow the birds knew it was going to happen. The hummingbirds and swallows migrated nearly a month early this year, just disappeared the way they do, headed for South American or the Mexican Riviera to ride out the winter in a less cold spot. And I saw the first bald eagle of the season this morning, also about a month earlier than I expected. They winter here and fish the river, and in January they’re very common. But not in October.

A big old ruffed grouse, the biggest we’ve ever seen, was hanging around the woodshed yesterday pruning and eating the twigs from some brush. It was so large I thought at first it was a rabbit, but then I got the glasses and got a better look.

Haven’t seen the cougar again, which is fine with me, but the fact that it made an appearance so close to the house has everyone a little ruffled. It makes you pay attention (and carry a pistol) when you’re out walking around. Logging has reduced their habitat, and with the new restrictions on hunting, the populations are exploding, so I expect we’ll see more of them.

Tonight feels like black bean soup with vegetables and sherry to me. I think with a big plate of Southern-style hot biscuits it will suit my mood perfectly.

Wildlife, and getting wilder

October 8, 2007

I went to Salem yesterday to sort through some things with family, and so I missed all the excitement.

Ben was working in his office and looked out the window (early afternoon) to see a mountain lion strolling across the meadow about 50 yards from the house. !!!

We know they’re around here. We’ve heard them mating, and I’ve seen two cubs in the last three months while on the road. This one, Ben estimated, was probably about a year old, bigger than the cubs I’ve seen but smaller than a mature lion. To have it close to the house in broad daylight was a little scary. Ben’s right, I need to dust off my .38 special.

Our wildlife here is generally pretty reserved and people-contact-averse. I prefer it that way, I must admit. We don’t keep animals, but several of our neighbors do. The deer have been a little sparse this year (very scarce now that hunting season is on us–I’m not sure how they know, but they seem to), so I suspect the lion was looking for something to eat. The neighbors are now officially alerted.

My DSL has been down for two days. I hate working by dial-up, but at least I can still get online. The DSLAN is down for the whole valley, so I can’t even take it personally.

Blood on the moon

August 29, 2007

Early, very early, this morning, with a aid of a little piece of modern technology called an alarm clock, I rousted my poor tired body from bed to view the total lunar eclipse that the sky offered up.

I have seen a number of eclipses: two solar (one full, one partial), and now two full lunar eclipses. It is not surprising that in other cultures they have been viewed as miraculous and portentious events. And this was the first I have ever seen in absolutely clear skies.

Over the months, I have become fully indoctrinated into country living, rising most of the time with the light and going to bed generally not too long after the dark creeps in. I may sit up and read for awhile, but most often, the total dark is the signal to call it a day. In the winter when nights are rather long, it’s not uncommon for me to get up in the dark, use a flashlight to get downstairs, turn on NPR to see what’s happening elsewhere, and snuggle up in one of the recliners, still in the dark.

It’s been so long since I used my alarm clock that when it went off at 2 a.m. I didn’t at first know what it was. My mind was sorting through a large group of possibilities, most of them involving things like smoke alarms, UPS alarms, and the like. Then I realized it was my little 12-time-zone battery-operated clock. So I got up.

The first time I saw a total lunar eclipse I was living in San Rafael, California, and the event occurred at a much more civilized hour–about 9 p.m. The moon turned blood red and angry. Very little else in the sky was visible–too much ambient light.

My neighbor Kenny tells me he saw a picture of an eclipse in Germany in which the moon turned blue. He tells me it depends on the composition of the atmosphere in the viewing area.

But I didn’t know other colors were possible, so I was expecting and found a red moon. But this moon wasn’t an angry red. It looked sad, if anything, a soft rose that I associate with pensiveness and even mourning.

But when the last bit of white faded, the sky lit up like a Christmas tree. It was one of the more amazing celestial sights I have ever seen, this sad (blue, if you will) rose-colored moon amid stars that were as bright as any I’ve ever seen.

And so many of them. If you live in a city, or even a small town, you may never have really seen the night sky unless you like to go out camping in the mountains or desert. Even then you have to be willing to extinguish all of your camp lights, set up camp far from anyone else, and be patient long enough for your eyes to adapt to the dark. Then you can see the sky, a night sky you’ll never forget.

The dark adaption is important. There is a chemical that floods the back of your eye when it is exposed to white light to reduce the impact of the brightness. When white light is absent, the chemical gradually subsides and you see better and better in the dark. The process can take 10-30 minutes.

But it’s worth the trouble. There’s nothing else that I can think of that gives me a truer picture of my place and relative importance in the universe than a view of an unobstructed night sky with a little learning to understand what I’m really looking at. It’s truly humbling.

I was moved by this sad moon, and I’m glad I got up to see it. I’m not sure how anything watching the mess we are making of our world these days could not be sad. But last night’s moon, like a mourner at a funeral, helped spread the grief. 

Birding update

May 12, 2007

I see I forgot a couple of things in my last post.

Also ubiquitous are the Stellar’s jays. As I think I’ve noted before, they are particularly bright and beautiful this year. They are also particularly friendly, and they hang out around the house in ways they have not done in the past.

I’m not a great fan of jays. They raid other birds’ nests, make a lot of noise, and are generally obnoxious. But for some reason, I’m enjoying ours this year.

But more than that, in my last post I dealt entirely with the visual.

I forgot to mention the pileated woodpecker that is driving us all nuts. He seems to stay across the river. But he’s been laughing at some particularly raucous joke almost non-stop for two days. He moves up and down the terrain, but he keeps laughing.  Remember Woody Woodpecker? He sounds just like that. It’s amusing at 3 p.m., not so great at 6 a.m.

While I’m talking about sound, I forgot to mention the baby red-tailed hawks. They’re flying, and you can’t help but notice. They fly along with this sound that is either “help me, help me” or “look at me, see what I’ve learned to do.” Either way, it’s interesting.

Some reasons to like trees that have nothing to do with global warming

May 1, 2007

Let me begin this post with an apology to Jenny. She has waited so patiently for pictures of my trees, and I know she’d really rather see the exotics I purchased recently.

But Jenny, by the time you asked for pictures, most of them were already planted, and being a foot or so tall in their great big anti-beaver wire cages, there isn’t much to see. I tried to take some pictures, and even I went “ho hum” at the results.

However, I am going to post some pictures of a few more mundane varieties and hope they aren’t as mundane in New Zealand. And what these trees have in common is that they were each basically sticks a foot or less tall when I planted them. So I have great hopes for my new ones.

 This Western Red Cedar was my first “rescue” effort. I rescued it from an office building landscaped lot. It was a volunteer from God knows where. There weren’t any cedar trees in the immediate area. I looked at it and realized that the maintenance crew was just going to yank it out next time through, called the management company and asked their permission to dig it up. Granted. It’s now about 14′ tall and very pretty just off my back deck.

Western Red Cedar

Western Red Cedar is what is known as a “climax” species. It will grow in virtually total shade and eventually take over the forest. Before the big fires of the 19th and 20th centuries, much of western Oregon was covered with giant cedar trees.

This mountain ash was a seedling from a tree in a house we once owned. It is now nearly 20″ tall and has beautiful white flowers in the spring followed by brilliant red berries.

Mountain Ash

This is a redbud tree (actually two planted in close proximity). The Arbor Day Society sent me this one when I sent them a teeny bit of money.


Here’s a closeup of the blossoms:

Redbud blossoms

This Japanese red maple is a very slow grower. I took three seedlings from a house we lived in. The tree there had been planted when the house was built about 90 years ago and was nearly as big as the house. A friend called it “the sort of tree you would buy a house just to get.” That’s pretty much how we felt about it, too.

Japanese red maple with rhododendron

This tree opens a purple red, gradually becomes green and bronze, and in the fall turns neon red. It is truly spectacular most times of the year.

There are lots of reasons I’m feeling very friendly toward trees today. Not the least of them is that I’ve spent most of the last three days gardening. Ben tilled about half the load of BS into the garden. I got all that stuff I bought planted, and it’s supposed to rain tomorrow, so I actually put some seed in the ground, too, so nature can water it for me.

As I was cleaning up, Ben showed up with some dahlia tubers that a neighbor sent down, so I had another 45 minutes or so of planting and digging to do. I’m dog-tired, and I can’t help but contrast the amount of work the garden takes to get a great reward with the teeny amount of effort it takes to grow fine trees here in my sub-tropical rain forest.

But now I read that planting trees in the northern latitudes actually contributes to global warming because they absorb sunlight. I’m going to ignore that little piece of information and keep planting them.

Oh, and one more reason to like trees: Last winter we had to take down some of the fir trees Ben planted more than 30 years ago. They had taken out the power lines (we don’t care, but the rest of the valley sure did) and were threatening the little cabin across the river. A logger friend came down and cut them for us. The power company repair crew offered to knight him.

Today the company that bought them picked them up to take to a mill. These are the first trees Ben has logged that he actually planted. It was a full truckload.

Log load

A big load of B*S*

April 28, 2007

I’ll bet you think this is going to be another pseudo-political post (“pseudo” because I do my best to ignore politics, as impossible as that is). But you’re wrong. It really is a post about a big load of bulls***, or probably more accurately, cows*** or steer manure.

I took a bunch of pictures of growing things today, and this will help put them in context.

Ben came home last night with the “exciting” news that Sterling, a neighbor up river, had a big pile of manure he needed to get rid of. “A gardener’s dream,” Ben called it, “aged for several years, nicely composted, ready to go in the garden without burning it up.”

I pointed out that we really didn’t need additives in most of our garden. I had just bought a small bag of sterile steer manure for the brassicas, and I thought it might be enough to feed the corn as well. But Ben was not to be deterred, asked me to call Sterling with my sweetest gardener’s voice and ask him what he’d charge to deliver it. “There’s about two pickup loads there, it’s perfect,” Ben said.

So with some trepidation about this whole thing, I called and arranged delivery.

Today Sterling showed up with about 20 cubic yards of aged manure in his rock truck, about three-four times as much as we can use. But this is Ben’s project, not mine. I was just the negotiator. He’s been moving manure the rest of the afternoon, and he’s arranged to give some of it to our neighbors.

Here’s what our garden looks like:


It’s about 40’x80′. It started out to be 40’x60′, but we added some at the end to put in a mini-orchard. You can see the raspberry patch and a red cherry plum in the foreground. It’s had its first rough till, and by Sunday it will have had the final till and gardening will begin in earnest. And it will have a whole bunch of manure tilled into it.

You can see there’s a substantial fence (8′ tall) around it. This is necessary if we are to enjoy any of it rather than feeding the deer. The vehicle in the middle is the little RTV with a dump bed, parked there so I can load the back with crabgrass and blackberry roots I dug out of the rose bed at the far end. Just behind the RTV is the blueberry patch:

Blueberry bushes

I have six varieties, two early, two mid-season, two late. But they all seem to come on faster than I’m ready for them. Here’s what this year’s crop looks like so far:

Blueberry blossoms

The early berries are the ones that get as big as quarters, and they are my very favorites. This year for sure I’m making blueberry scones.

That’s it for today’s garden report.  I took some tree pictures as well, but this post is so huge they’re going to have to wait for the next one.

Part 3: Globalization, global warming, Toqueville, and democracy as we know it

March 29, 2007

I’m changing the header a little here for those of you who don’t seem to have realized these are different posts. I’ve lumped a bunch of stuff together, because in my mind it’s all connected, but it’s way too much for me to expect anyone to read in one sitting. So I’m trying to break it up a little.

Today I want to expand a little on the topic of global warming.

Earlier this week, I received a presentation from a former brother-in-law about global warming. If I’d liked my former husband as much as I like most of his family, we’d probably still be married. But that’s a story for some other time.

It’s a good presentation. It addresses a lot of the facts and a lot of the possible mitigations. But even though Allan is one of the smartest people I ever met,  I think his approach falls short in this regard: It doesn’t put the issue in the larger context.

“What?” I hear you asking. “There’s a larger context than global warming?” A good question to be sure. But the key of the matter here is in the word “global.”

So much has been written on this topic. Some of it is science; some of it is pseudo-science; some of it is just plain fear-mongering. Like so much of our information-overloaded communications today, it becomes very difficult to sort out wheat and chaff. So, here’s what I believe.

Global warming is real. It has happened before and it’s happening now. Some part of it is undoubtedly driven by the things people do. Some part of it may be natural. Our best guesses about the consequences over the long term indicate that the result won’t be pretty. I wouldn’t be buying a house on the Waldport spit or even a condo in Manhattan right now if I were buying it with the idea that many generations of my descendants will be enjoying it in the future.

Based on what we know about the impact of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, human activity contributes to global warming. The things we do in the pursuit of a better life are having a major impact on our planet. Notice that I didn’t say “negative impact,” although in truth I suspect that is the case. But I don’t know enough to assert that. I do know enough to believe that there is a “major” impact.

But these activities are the direct result of our efforts to chase a more sophisticated, full-of-variety-and-new-gadgets lifestyle. They are the result of our wanting to hop a plane, train, or automobile and be somewhere else whenever we want to. They are the result of the endless pursuit of more effective marketing to consumers. They are, in short, what Toqueville called “the American attention to the short-term gain without regard to the long-term consequence.”

Allan’s presentation is addressed to a sophisticated, environmentally aware audience. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s only a very small part of the whole story.

All around the world, “developing” countries are discovering some of the things that we Americans have taken for granted for decades, if not centuries. And they want them, too. I’m not sure I blame them.

It seems to me that every step that any of us can take to reduce our impact on the planet is a good step. But I don’t think this is going to happen as a result of any major campaign or quick fix. If it is to happen at all, it will happen by making each person aware of the costs associated with his decisions. It will happen by promoting what Toqueville called “the right habits of the heart.” And it will require major lifestyle changes.

It can’t be done by activating the already environmentally conscious folks in the U.S. It can’t be done by legislation even. It’s going to take a global effort and a global awakening. It’s going to take a major shift in how we think about the true costs of things.

Science tells us we are already too far down the path of “negative effects” to avert them completely. But there are things we can do to mitigate the damage. Allan’s presentation addresses these fairly well, I think.

But this is like globalization (see previous post): It’s here, it’s happening, and it will have an impact on you and upon all of your descendants unto generations. There is no quick fix. There is no easy answer. I’d consider it a major step forward if we all started asking some pretty tough questions.

Notes from the arboretum

March 22, 2007

So help me, that still sounds like a really stuffy word. But I got a nice letter today (a real letter, on paper and with a stamp) from Merle Dean Feldman, the nurserywoman I wrote about meeting in an earlier post. She is the one who started me thinking in these terms, and I have come to peace with it, so I will tell you a little more of the story.

When I stopped at Storybook Farm, it was mostly out of curiosity. When Dave, the handyman and subsequently revealed husband of Merle Dean, came out to greet me, he asked me a few questions. When Merle Dean came out, he said, “She has 100 acres of trees,” which is pretty much true. But my trees are in timber forest for the most part, except for the 8-9 acres of somewhat flatland around the house.

Ten or so years ago, a neighbor who grows seedling trees for reforestation gave me some oddball culls from his greenhouses, trees he couldn’t sell but was reluctant to just throw on the burn pile. Among them were a Korean fir and a balsam fir. We planted them and fenced them from the deer. I told Kenny thank you and mentioned that I was sort of thinking of planting as many different kinds of trees as would survive here. Ben and I will not live long enough to see most of them reach anything resembling majestic maturity, but I was rather taken by the idea that some 100 years or so from now, an anthropoligist, historian, or even archeologist would be wandering through our property and ask, “Now how do you suppose a [insert tree name here] got to this place?”

This is not a totally specious imagining. If you wander around this area, there are many places where the only evidence of the homesteaders that used to be here is in the flowers that some pioneer wife planted near the house. Narcissus (daffodils) and day lilies survive the best. They are not native here, so when you see them, you can safely assume there was a homestead nearby. That’s where my field of “wild” daffodils came from.

At any rate, when I was wandering around Storybook Farm, I tried to explain to Merle Dean my interest in trees. She asked, “How long have you had your arboretum?” I protested that it wasn’t really an arboretum, just a bunch of ground with some different trees planted on it. “How long have you had your arboretum?” she repeated. “What do you have there?” She stopped me cold. She’s right. I have an arboretum, and now I have a rather solemn (if fun) responsibility.

This has placed a burden on me, but I realize it’s a happy burden. An arboretum, according to the dictionary is:

“A place where an extensive variety of woody plants are cultivated for scientific, educational, and ornamental purposes.”

[Latin arbortum, a place grown with trees, from arbor, tree.]

That’s our place–a place grown with trees. And to date we have Douglas fir (really a variety of pine, but that’s for another post), noble fir, hemlock, alder, Ponderosa pine, one paper birch (a truly mysterious volunteer up on the hill), big leaf maple, and vine maple. Except for the nobles and the Ponderosa, these are mostly native. To these we have added coast redwoods, sequoia, cedars (an original native but lost in the big fire), Korean fir, balsam fir, Alaskan yellow cedar, Colorado blue spruce, redbud, hawthorne, and pink dogwood. Many of these I planted when they looked something like sticks. They are now recognizable trees. Thanks to my trip to Storybook, they’ll soon be joined by a Japanese spruce (Siddon Sugi), “Blue ice” (a wonderful lacy tree that I suspect is really a cedar relative), and “Heatherbun,” a funny little bushlike tree with wonderful color. Who knows what will be next?

We also have several varieties of apples, ditto cherries and plums, an apricot tree with a weird affliction, and numerous pears. I have a cherry plum that each spring takes our breaths away with its blossoms.

I’m not sure why I’m writing this, but I think a person could do much worse with his life than to grow trees. I think I’ll keep growing them. I think maybe I’ll have an arboretum. I think maybe I won’t even be apologetic about it. . .

Great mysteries: Dark matter, dark energy, and gravity

March 13, 2007

This Sunday’s (3/11/07) NY Times Magazine has a really interesting piece titled “Out There.” It’s a sort of a recap of the current state-of-the-state of cosmologic research. You may remember I recently posted my wild hypothesis that perhaps dark matter is really what we call “consciousness,” or “the soul,” or one of those other terms that we give to things that are demonstrable but impossible (at least at this point) to understand.

I’m going to attempt to provide a synopsis of some of the key points of the article. But it’s only fair to provide the standard warning label:


Here are some of the current beliefs. Since I think it’s impossible to “know” any of this (and I think the number of reversals over the history of natural science bears my thinking out), I am going to lump “facts” and theories together.

Only about 4% of the mass of the known universe is the type of matter we are made of, our planets and stars are made of, and with which we are familiar.

About 22% of the total mass is something currently called “dark matter.”

The remaining 74% is classified as “dark energy.” This isn’t necessarily energy as we think about it but an “energy-like” substance, whatever that means.

The term “dark” in this usage has nothing to do with color or brightness. It refers to the fact that these substances, whatever they are, are nonbaryonic. They do not interact with electricity or magnetism (as far as we can tell), or with photons or electrons, and thus we are unable to “see” them. But they make up 96% of the known universe.

To paraphrase one scientist, we and all of things we know anything about are merely a bit of pollution in the universe. Most of the universe is not only something about which we know nothing but something that we can’t even be sure we know how to know anything about. Time for a cold drink yet?

Then there’s gravity. Gravity is a commonly accepted phenomenon. If you let go of that cold drink, it will fall “down” and spill. But nobody really knows why. What gravity really is remains a huge mystery, despite the fact that it has been an acknowledged phenomenon for several centuries.

The theory of gravity says that the elements of the universe should be drawing closer together based on the attraction of one mass for another. But in fact, just the opposite is happening. Enter dark energy.

Dark energy is a sort of anti-gravity force that pushes things apart. In fact, the universe appears to be expanding, which would indicate that dark energy is stronger than gravity. But no one really understands what either force is.

The universe is made up of many, many galaxies. These galaxies are spinning at a very high rate of speed which should cause the stars and their ancillary satellites to fly off farther from the core based on another principle of physics, the principle of centrifugal force.

 But that’s not happening either. Current speculation says that galaxies hold together because of dark matter. Science has detected “clouds” of dark matter around various galaxies. But once again, no one knows what dark matter is.

Einstein is best known for his “theory of general relativity.” But let’s not forget that he spent the last 30 years of his life attempting to reconcile his theory with the emerging field of quantum theory, without success. Maybe we’re just not meant to know these things. And maybe it’s best that way. It leaves room for poetry alongside science.

I love cosmology, and I struggle with my limited little brain to understand as much as I can. But I think I still prefer poetry.

Now my head hurts from all of this thinking, and I’m going to head off to bed.