Monday, May 18, 2015

Be wary of animals large....

I asked my supervisor at Yellowstone Park her opinion about solo hiking. She said that she did it regularly, and called it a “calculated risk.” The next day, I was out alone, hiking stick in hand, wide-brimmed hat on head, in a lodgepole pine thicket, after a meadow. I had my canister of bear-spray clipped to my hip. I had sent my friend Lesley a last minute text message about where I was going, which I consider as passing with a “D” when it comes to notifying an outside party of one's travel plans. I had hiked solo in black bear country countless times, but Yellowstone is also home for the larger and less predictable grizzly.

As I went, I spoke “Yo whazup bears, I be passin' through.” (They normally walk away at the sound of a human voice.) It felt odd, talking to myself, and the one-sided conversation was hard to maintain. I passed a wetland where the chorus frogs sang  their continuous “Creek-eek.” There were many patches of snow among the fallen timber.

In the forest, it was scarier. I glanced about, wondering what lurked in the shadows under the trunks. My senses heightened halfway to the level of a deer, the ever-vigilant prey. My imagination turned a small branch breaking in the wind into the footfall of a massive animal; a crunch of rocks under boot became a bruin's grunt; a boulder into a hairy beast. Then I came to an indisputable sign of the grizzly bear—tracks in the mud, with long claws prominent.

I splashed through some muddy trail to Cascade Lake, my destination. I turned around and headed back.

I strode faster on the way back, my confidence increased. Still I periodically checked for my canister of spray, and made my voice quietly heard to the trail ahead.

The next morning, in the shower, I felt a little bump somewhere on my buttocks. After out-ruling potential scabs or zits, I knew what I had to do. I grasped the tick with my fingernails at the front of the head, and ripped it out forcefully, some skin along with it. With abdomen full of blood, the critter slipped out of my hand and down the drain of the sink. With its little legs waving, I failed to identify the type of tick, but regarded it as certainly larger than a deer tick. Now, a week later and with no symptoms, I am in the clear.

However, the irony was not lost on me. While I was distracted by the thought of large and fearful mammals, a silent but deadly beast, the miniature septic tank, easily crawled up my pants leg. A tick check the same day as my woods walk would have saved me some blood and concern.

Precautions for bears and sharks are important. However, the deadliest animal in the world is the mosquito, for its spread of disease. Ticks rank second as disease spreaders. Bees are another force to be reckoned with, as 53 people per year in the US die from allergic reaction to their stings. We can share the wilds with all these creatures, with the right precautions. Enjoy the woods, my friends, but be wary of animals large and small!

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Ravens in the Steam

Another vignette from my visit to Yellowstone last year:

“The ravens were everywhere. They watched from trees, soared above on ebony outstretched wings, owners of the domain of yellow rocks. Along the “back basin” of Norris Geyser basin, a group of three ravens cackled and cawed and croaked, in a three way dialog of some kind. Perhaps gossip about the goofy bipeds who pass in the thousands by day, and point their gaping cameras at the steam.”

This year, I have moved in to Yellowstone for the next five months. My inaugural field sketch, below, I made at Norris Geyser Basin. New stories await!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

CAVE Exodus, the freeing of a trapped Spider

It has been a trying winter at Carlsbad Caverns. We recently had a collective going away party for the last five seasonal rangers to go off to their new parks and new adventures. They asked us each to give an informal exit speech. Reluctantly, after urging from my peers, I stepped to the “podium.” A slightly-edited version of what I said:

“As you all know, my childhood hero was Spider-Man. I wanted to be Spider-Man: to scale sheer walls, to swing from webs, catapult myself from a web-slingshot, and kick-out villains with both feet. It never quite happened.

But when I arrived for work at Carlsbad Caverns for the first time in May 2013, I learned that my proving ground would be Spider Cave. I was nervous. I had been on one wild cave tour before, when I was twelve. That was long ago. Had I become claustrophobic? There was only one way to find out.

I emerged from Spider Cave covered in red dirt, having belly-crawled through the narrow passageways, with the red crusts of corrosion residue all over the walls, the ghostly calcite formations—the gnome and the Medusa room and the pirate ship. I emerged victorious—I had survived Spider Cave. Therefore, I must be a Spider-Man!

Later that summer, I delivered my first bat flight program, at the amphitheater overlooking the natural entrance to Carlsbad Cavern. I spoke of the Batman symbol and Native American stories of bats as heroes, and the heroic feats that real bats perform, such as keeping insect populations under control. And the bats emerged, the counterclockwise spiral cloud, which has graced our landscape in summer evenings for many millennia. The people watched in awed silence as the bats filled the purple sky. They flapped and whizzed around me, inches from my nose and 500 feet overhead. And so I was Batman.

At what other job do you get to be BOTH Spider-Man and Batman?

My favorite Spider-Man story was “If This Be My Destiny....!”, from the original 1960s run, by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee. This tale remains a classic, an influence and inspiration to generations of cartoonists and readers. After a battle with Doctor Octopus, Spidey has recovered a rare isotope needed to cure Aunt May from a deadly disease. But unfortunately, Spidey is pinned to the ground by a block of fallen machinery the size of a building. Cold water drips on his head and soaks his body. At first, he remembers his failures and gives up, and prepares to die alone under the crushing weight. Then he thinks of his family and all the people who need him, especially Aunt May. He musters the strength and will to lift the machine. You can feel the force and the power, as trembling with agony, he rises to his feet, hoists the titanic hunk of metal and casts it backward.

It reminds me of this winter season at Carlsbad Caverns. We went through 'breaking bat' and 'sewergate' and the rest. We faced broken water lines and broken sewers, and walked on iced-over pathways through winter gusts to reach the port-o-potties. We filled jugs with water in White City, and filled buckets from the trickle off the rooftops. We took hell from the powers that be over minutia and things not our fault. And, by strength of this family, this community, we still lifted the machine. We kept Carlsbad Caverns a world-class National Park. A pristine cave and home for bats, and an unforgettable experience for the people who visit. This victory is collective.

Whenever Tales of the Uncanny from About Comics comes out, look for a parody of the lifting scene, written and drawn by yours truly!

Batflight photo by NPS, public domain. 
ASM #33 cover by Steve Ditko, copyrighted to Marvel, used here for educational purposes only.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Bear of the Northern Wilds

A vignette from my Yellowstone trip (with my parents) last year:

At one point along the North Loop Road, we came upon another backlog of cars—elk jam, I guessed. With so many tourists gawking and aiming cameras, we too decided to scoot our station wagon barely off the road, and join them. Some place in the woods, to which all the cameras pointed. One could imagine lines projecting from the cameras, all to converge at a point—on the nose of a small black bear. A young one. He attacked a shrub, probably fruited with currants, from every angle. He reached munched and picked, berries, leaves and all, first from one side of the bush then the other, then above and then below. From any available clearing in the vegetation by the road, the binoculars and cameras pointed and clicked. As thorough as a kid with a bag of M and M's, the bear ate for every last berry, and then shuffled on to find another bush. My mother remarked that when she visited Yellowstone as a child, the tourists would gather by the road to feed the bears bread and candy and turn them into overweight beggars. What an amazing shift between now and then, that we now capture and light up our computer screens with pictures of bears practicing their natural habits in their natural habitats! The young bear is probably out shuffling through the woods somewhere today, with pine smell in his nostrils and food on his mind.

(I don't know the bear's gender, so my male pronouns have a 50% chance of being correct.)

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Big event for this wandering ranger

On the evening of March 22, a few hours before my birthday, I accepted a seasonal Park Ranger (interp) position at the Canyon district of Yellowstone National Park. I will be there May through September.
I never imagined that this would happen.
For all my years of working at national parks and environmental ed centers, I had always assumed that getting a job at Yellowstone was beyond me. In good part, because of the principle of "it's not what you know, it's who you know." This time, said principle worked in my favor!
And, fittingly, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is the subject of an epic seven-foot by twelve-foot painting by Thomas Moran. Moran's paintings, along with William Henry Jackson's photographs and Ferdinand Hayden's geology-based writings, convinced the U.S. Congress in 1872 to declare Yellowstone a national park, the first in the world.
I go to where an artist moved the Earth.
I am no match for Moran, but will share my own humble oil pastel drawing, of the canyon's Lower Falls, drawn from life on my visit last year.
I hope that you all come visit me this summer!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

All-of-the-Above is a disastrous option

I acknowledge that President Barack Obama has done some good things for our planet in the past few months. Three new National Monuments, a motion to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from drilling, and the veto of the bill passed by congress to force the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline. (Everyone please sign the No KXL Unity Letter and demand that Obama reject this horrible pipeline once and for all!) It's a start. But on the whole, oil drilling, fracking, and coal mining continue to expand, with support from the Obama administration and congress. This will lead to catastrophic global warming, and extreme weather events like we can barely begin to imagine—hurricanes and floods and droughts and heat waves and blizzards, all to make what New York and Boston have already faced seem mild by comparison. You and I and your children have many survival ordeals ahead (and some won't survive.) There is still time to greatly reduce and mitigate the amount of climate disruption—but not with an all-of-the-above energy strategy! To echo Naomi Klein, that's like portending to lose weight on an all-of-the-above diet. As such, I felt inspired to draw the cartoon above.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A View from the Guadalupes

I have a lot of creative projects in progress; they simply aren't quite ready to share. In the interests of keeping this blog alive, I present a field watercolor, which I painted on the El Capitan trail at Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The wind blasted and whipped around me as I moved the bubbles of colored water across the page. As often happens, I felt sorry for the majority of Americans, who were glued to their smartphones and not observing the broader world. I even felt sorry for trail runners, so bent on breaking up the trail at maximum speed, that they miss the beautiful landscape it contains. People feel most alive when they are in the present moment, and using all five senses. Meditation helps with this, I am told. Impatient with traditional forms of meditation, painting on a windy hill with a hundred-mile view of mountains and rolling plains can be, for now, my substitue.