Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Pika and the Pony

I will soon post another entry inspired by my travels in the southwest. In the interim, I return mentally to the Pacific northwest, and share a drawing which I created on commission. My friend Brad (of Homestead and Seattle Urban Farm Company fame) hired me to draw this as a gift to his wife Erika, for their first wedding anniversary. It depicts the spirit animals which each companion assigned to the other. As an Outward Bound guide who is at home on rugged alpine slopes, Erika is a pika. (I took some artistic license and made her a giant pika.) As an organic farmer who pulls weight much greater than his stature would suggest, Brad is a pony. The drawing was a hit with them, especially Erika. Afterwards, Brad shared with me some “bro” advice: "You should be sending mad art out to all the ladies at all times, in my opinion." I won't dispute his wisdom.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

In the Footprints of Seldom Seen Smith

Edward Abbey was born in Pennsylvania. At age eighteen, he went on a westward trek, by foot, bicycle, and train-hopping; cross-continent to California, and then east to the southwest. When he landed in the four corners area, he knew he had found home.
Interestingly, my journey has some parallels with his. A child of the eastern United States (Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, Vermont), I too take awe and inspiration in the great size of the west. At some undefined point on the westward drive, the landscape opens up, the sky and the earth become larger, and one can see for vast distances. Somewhere in the deserts of Arizona or New Mexico, the red monoliths and orange plateaus appear. And the giant cacti and snow-covered mountains. And the oil wells, some with their wasteful flames of natural gas atop, burning day and night. And the haze in the air from coal mines, hidden from sight.

I have been in the southwestern United States for most of the past two years, and have generally been on the western side (coast or inland) for the majority of the past seven. The east still feels like home to me, and probably always will; the west is an alien landscape of wonder, and I am an astronaut on a long journey.

Although my compass may point in a different direction from Ed Abbey's, I have nonetheless come to inhabit some of the same haunts, and even work for the same institution (the National Park Service.) Anarchist rebel Abbey spent some years as a Ranger at National Park Service sites including Arches, Organ Pipe Cactus, Lassen Volcanic, and Everglades.) And last spring, I got to know the direct action branch of the environmental movement, for which Abbey is the spiritual and philosophical founder. His novel The Monkey Wrench Gang—featuring four renegade idealists who decide to preserve wild nature by ripping up highway survey markers, sabotaging bulldozers, and blowing up automated coal trains—is one of the very few fiction books which had a direct and measurable impact on the real world, as radical environmentalists like David Foreman sought to emulate the tactics of Abbey's characters. The resultant movement of Earth First! brandishes on its website artwork based on the original cover to Abbey's book, even today, 38 years after its publication. Abbey's character George Washington Hayduke, the muscular, binge-drinking green beret veteran who applies his combat training to save deserts from "progress," is a character of mythic proportions. And the verb “to monkeywrench,” meaning “to conduct righteous sabotage” (derived from the title), has become a permanent addition the English language. Real monkeywrenchers, like Abbey's characters, follow a strict code of no violence to people; they destroy machines (and take inspiration from the Luddites.)

To be clear, there is more than one kind of direct action—the activist can wreck bulldozers with corn syrup or block their path with her body. The direct action groups which I visited and worked with (such as Mountain Justice) do not engage in property destruction, only civil disobedience. 

And if we're lucky, the forces earth and sky can conduct some direct action of their own. In a vivid early scene in Abbey's book, Seldom Seen Smith (a tall slender “Jack Mormon” and monkeywrencher) rediscovers his religion when he stands before the Glen Canyon Dam. He gets down on his knees and prays to God to send an earthquake, to fix this “temporary plug” in the beautiful Glen Canyon. He receives no answer.

On my visit to the Glen Canyon Dam, I hoped to impersonate Seldom Seen Smith in prayer, purely for fun. Being alone and concerned that I might raise suspicions, I decided not to. I had to take humor at the high level of security at the dam. Patrol cars patrolled, and a big white man security guard trailed the guided walking tour I partook in, led by a young lady Navajo guide, working for the Bureau of Reclamation. The guard kept in the distance, just close enough to be intimidating. Before the tour, I had to run to the car to drop off the Leatherman multi-tool and matches which I normally carry. Any mention of bombs or sabotage on the tour, jocular or otherwise, would result in expulsion from the site. I wasn't bold enough to ask if the same rules applied to a mention of the names Seldom Seen Smith or George Washington Hayduke. I wanted to complete the tour, and take in my fill of pro-dam propaganda. The dam was a fascinating window into the post World War II-era, and America's quest to build big stuff, conquer nature, dam 'em all, and reach a new Manifest Destiny. Something you won't hear about on the tour: many of the early battles of the environmental movement, from John Muir's time through the 1960s, were over dams. After a coalition of environmental groups led by the Sierra Club successfully blocked dam projects for the Colorado River by the Grand Canyon and the Vernal River by Dinosaur National Monument, they did not fight the Glen Canyon Dam, as a compromise. David Brower (then-executive director of Sierra Club) still agonized over this decision, decades later. Today, there are fewer dam proposals and more mountaintop removal, fracking, nuclear plants, and oil pipelines. We have moved out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Strangely enough, the bookstore at the dam still had Abbey's books for sale (but not The Monkey Wrench Gang!) Regardless of politics, Abbey is probably the most articulate and oft-quoted scribe of the desert environment. His memoir Desert Solitaire is considered by many to be the Walden or the Sand County Alamac of the desert. Abbey was a great proponent of getting out and exploring and experiencing the wild world, giving him a fan base among outdoor recreationists, whether or not they share his radical philosophy.

Before visiting Glen Canyon, I visited Zion National Park. There, I overcame my trepidation towards cold water and hiked 'The Narrows.' My adrenaline surge overwhelmed my tendency to freeze, and I charged forward, with frequent stops for photos (most of them terrible because of the weird lighting inside a canyon). “This is awesome!” I declared to a young couple of hikers, as we both stood on the dry land of the same rock before the next plunge. I charged onward for hours, through water knee-deep and occasionally chest-deep, and turned around when my adrenaline started to wane.

Edward Abbey articulated well the feeling of being alive and immersed in the great earth, when he described a similar scene, wherein Seldom Seen Smith led a raft trip through a canyon down a river. “The river, the canyon, the desert world was always changing, from moment to moment, from miracle to miracle, within the firm reality of mother earth. River, rock, sun, blood, hunger, wings, joy—this is the real, Smith would have said, if he'd wanted to. All the rest is androgynous theosophy. All the rest is transcendental transvestite transactional scientology or whatever the fad of the day, the vogue of the week. As Doc would've said, if Smith had asked him. Ask the hawk. Ask the hungry lion lunging at the starving doe. They know.” 

As I warmed my feet by the fire, under the cottonwoods of South Campground with the rock monoliths in the distance, I knew too.

Topmost photo taken at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Monkey Wrench cover is copyrighted either to its artist or publisher, low resolution reproduction used here for educational purposes only.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Thor's Hammer and other Indelible Icons

Bryce Canyon National Park has filled me with awe and wonder, with its natural ampitheatre and hoodoos—sometimes they look like the turrets of an epic castle, striated in orange and white; sometimes like an army of stone soldiers, standing tall and in formation. In Pauite legend, they are people turned to stone by coyote for their evil deeds. In geology, they are the result of erosion of the Claron Limestone, primarily water that percolates then freezes (frost-wedging.)

Not surprisingly, I became fixated on Thor's hammer, and wielded my brushes and brush pens and oil pastels to produce a few drawings. Yes, nature meets culture here for me, being that I thrilled to the adventures of the thunder god (especially Marvel's rendition) in my young days and my older ones. How appropriate that the first Thor comics epic I read was “The Flame, The Frost, and The Fury!” (issue #425, by Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz) wherein the thunderer battles Sutur the Flame Demon and Ymir the Frost Giant to avert Ragnarok (the Norse apocalypse.) Plenty of flame, frost, and fury has shaped the landscape of Bryce Canyon!

After bouts of drawing and hiking, I visited the Visitor Center, to discover Thor's hammer emblazoned on various post cards and posters and calendars and tote bags. The icon of Bryce Canyon!

Most National Parks have their icons, and normally it is some object with a very distinctive shape. At Timpanogos Cave National Monument (where I worked last summer) that honor belongs to the Great Heart of Timpanogos. Park visitors' preoccupation with the Heart was sometimes a source of frustration for some of my fellow rangers, because although the Heart is majestic, it is a large stalactite, similar to ones found in many other limestone caves. The truly exceptional feature of Timpanogos Cave is its Helictites—very few other caves in the world have them in such number and diversity. The greatest concentration of these is found in the Chimes Chamber; they resemble worms of snakes, and their growth seems to defy gravity. Whatever the merits of the helictites, the Heart's iconic shape has a way of cementing itself in the longitudinal memory of the average visitor, above all other cave features, save the darkness (according to an informal survey.)

Iconic shapes—objects unmistakable in silhouette—must occupy a deep and potent place within our imaginations, perhaps even amygdalas, reinforced by millions of years of evolution and survival. (I wrote about this previously in my post “Silhouettes and Night Encounters.”) Religions have their icons, such as the cross for Christians and the circle for many American Indian belief systems. Many of the most successful characters in comics and animated cartoons have a distinctive shape—Batman, Wolverine, Popeye, Betty Boop, Bart Simpson, Dick Tracy, Calvin and Hobbes, etc. These characters are unmistakable in silhouette—just like the famed icons of the National Park system! These include the Sequoia tree, the Bison, Old Faithful, Wizard Island, Mount Rainier, Delicate Arch, the Three Patriarchs, etc. The park ranger in a flat hat is an iconic character too. I strongly suspect that these ink drawings, ancient rocks, and uniformed public servants all tap into the same deep recesses in our brain. Outlines are all-important to how we see the world—what camouflage does is break up an animal's outline, so they are seldom seen. And so the recognition and memory of distinctive outlines with certain characters or features must have been fundamental to our survival, whether to stay away from a lurking lion or to navigate by sun, moon, and landmarks.

And so I sat on the Navajo Loop trail, and tried to depict every crag and crust and ridge of Thor's hammer, my hands caked in ink and graphite, my jeans covered in gray limey soil. The clouds moved past in the deep blue sky behind the red rocks. Tourists came by, most photographed the hammer, and some photographed me at work as well. To me, the hammer meant power and dominion over the sky and storms. I couldn't help but imagine the sky turned to black, and lighting blasts sent from the hammer, to blast away flying saucer invaders to our world!

Thor (superhero) is trademarked to Marvel Comics. Low-resolution image (as designed by Myriah Hankins--unsure of original artist) is used here for educational purposes only.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Forest Between the Caves

On the border between Laos and Vietnam, there is a cave so large that it can comfortably hold a city block, with 40-story skyscrapers. Inside the cave there is a forgotten forest, full of hitherto undiscovered forms of life. I must marvel at a forest in cave.

In between my jobs at caves of the U.S. National Park system (yes I have been rehired for Carlsbad Caverns for the winter!), I have ventured back to Oregon, to reunite with my ol' friend Lesley and the evergreen forests. So we can call it a forest between caves, from my perspective. Oregon has come to feel like a home of sorts, having worked multiple seasons at Crater Lake National Park (some of them alongside Lesley), and traveled along winding roads to through bucolic lands, and to the coasts, where waves crash and seals bask in the sun. America is still a nation of wilderness (although it is vanishing right as we speak), and Oregon carries grand examples.

Two weekends ago, Lesley and I visited Summit Lake in Deschutes National Forest, alongside her Tsonga comrades Jamie and Eli. Lesley lives like a true Homestead type, and drives like one too, with an old manual-transimission Toyota. It was late and dark when we ventured to the wilderness, along country roads (which had been paved for logging trucks) most of the way. Until we came to the final stretch, a road of rocks and pits. The vehicle bumped a boulder and got stuck. A figure with a flashlight came towards us from among the trees. As luck would have it, it was Eli. We were hung up only 150 yards from the campsite! We shouldered our gear, and walked the rest of the way. Once camp was set up, we returned to the site and jacked up the car, so it wouldn't rest on the rocks. Lesley had a scheme to build ramps of rocks and brush under the wheels and back the vehicle up and off its stone entrapment. I thought we should call triple-A (which I alone among our group had) but we would first have to go somewhere with a cell phone signal, a long drive perhaps.

I awoke and emerged from my sleeping bag at dawn, and crept softly from the tent, leaving Lesley to her rest. I scurried to the woods to dig a hole and use it for excretion. I found a one stick good for stabbing soil and another for scooping, and leaned them by the big tree at the campsite entrance for re-use.

Summit Lake at dawn sported blues to almost rival Crater Lake, and sillouhetted trees, and exuded mist and more mist. Eli also got up early, and when a large pickup truck rumbled down the bumpy road, he seized the opportunity and waved them down. A father and son hunting team, in insulated flannel shirts, were happy to assist with our predicament. They strapped their truck to Lesley's Toyota, of which Eli took the driver's seat, and steered from neutral. Their big engine roared forward and pulled the little Toyota backward, and it was free from the rock. Then I returned to my project of making morning tea, first searching for the various components (stove, pots, tea bags etc) from various places in the two vehicles, and gathering water from the lake to boil. Tea, or anything else, is warmer and better when it takes work to create.

Running by our campsite was a stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail. We followed it for a ways, and then entered the bush. Eli was psyched for an off-trail bush-wacking hike to end in a secluded lake, and Lesley shared the enthusiasm. I was a little reluctant, but did carry a high quality compass, and Lesley brought a topographic map. I also made sure to pack warm clothes and firestarters and a surplus of granola bars, in case we found ourselves in a survival situation. Off we went, among hemlocks and spruces, past piles of bear skat, and weird mushrooms and fungi. Surrounded by trees, and then more trees, and more. It would be an awful place to get lost, with no stream to follow, and no mountaintop views of the landscape as a whole.

We didn't find the lake we sought, and so made a meadow, the site of a seasonal pond probably, our destination. The grass and moss was soft on bare feet, and rejuvinating to the soul. Like Swamp-Thing, I felt that I might regrow my body from out of the earth, and re-emerge in whole. Jamie hadn't trained enough for the hike, and was a trifle sore and ready to turn around after the meadow. Also, we should haul back before dark, and so we left the lakes undiscovered, for now.

It was a winding trip back, walking across logs and through prickly brush. The compasses kept us on an approximately straight line, and we kept watch of our topographic position. I kept expecting to see trail around the next bend, and we kept walking through more trees. The process continued for miles. Finally, to set feet back on the trail was a welcome relief. The trail felt like a familiar small town, the mark of civilization. We had experience some wild and raw nature; I would tell Tom Brown Jr. that I am learning.

That night, we made a campfire on a peninsula, and cooked and ate a blessed mixture of pasta, tomato sauce, potatoes, cheese, and vegetarian chili. The potatoes baked in classic fashion in aluminum foil on the coals, and removing them while facing the heat took the full combined efforts of Lesley and Eli. We joked and laughed and told survival stories. I was sorry to leave the wilderness the next day, but carried the memory of life in its pure form, in touch with the earth, with all senses engaged, where one must use one's hands and wits to stay alive. Maybe next time I'll reduce my amount of high tech camping equipment, and feel the wilderness in greater purity. But when I return to caves, my assortment of headlamps and flashlights--aka 'golden sticks'--will be indispensable.

Image Credits:
'Ross and Lesley' and 'Ross in Grass' by Eliahu Naftali
'Fire' and sketch of the nighttime trees by Lesley McClintock
'Summit Lake at Dawn' by Ross Wood Studlar
© to respective creators.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Sasquatch, Our Sibling

I have never encountered Bigfoot. My painting is a whimsical experiment with a new set of gouache paints; and the sasquatch would be a gentler giant. When I was nine or so, I THOUGHT that I detected the American great ape, in the Pacific Northwest. My mom and I went for a short tromp in the woods, and I heared a strange cry in the distance (probably some other animal.) Later, while travelling the roads by car through the small town with parents and brother, I smelled a foul odor (probably garbage.) Still enough to spark a youngster's imagination, just as I liked to regularly declared the blinking lights in the sky from airplanes at night back home “UFOs.”

However, the Sasquatch recently gained a very credible witness, which has given me pause, and made me contemplate the possibility of large hominids in the bush. Les Stroud (Survivorman) has had two close encounters with Bigfoot. (Survivorman is the best and most authentic television series on wilderness survival, wherein the intrepid star goes out to varied remote parts of the world and SURVIVES, for 7-10 days at a time, truly alone, carrying four video cameras and various tripods, and filming himself on the quest. This starkly contrasts with all other survival shows—such as Man vs Wild—where the guy pretends to be alone in the woods, but in fact has a camera crew, and only stays out for three days at a stretch.) Les Stroud's second brush with Bigfoot occurred during the making of the Alaska episode—the furry beast appeared in a tree, hooted at the lone survivor, and crashed away through the treetops when he reached for his camera. The Survivorman said that he does not know what he encountered, but it was not moose, wolf, or bear. (And he has abundant familiarity with such fauna, having lived and slept among them for years.)

Shortly after watching Stroud's fireside chats, I took the opportunity to see Jeff Meldrum, Professor of Anatomy and Anthropology at Idaho State University, give a talk—at the Salt Lake City Comic Con. Dr. Meldrum is one of the few scientists who gives serious consideration to the possibility of the Sasquatch, and has given close review to the evidence, rather than dismissing it out of hand. He appeared at Comic Con because so many scientists started out as science fiction fans, so he knew there would be an attentive and appreciative audience. Meldrum has extensively researched and taught on the evolution of bipedalism in primates, on various branches of evolutionary tree, including modern humans—and the alleged distant relative of Sasquatch. He has constructed a proposed anatomical model of the Bigfoot's foot and leg. He claims that the Sasquatch's foot is more prehensile than ours, and lacks our rigid arch, giving a distinct flexion curve to the tracks. He has noted this and other anatomical consistencies across many Bigfoot tracks, in many parts of the world (including the information-isolated rural China,) and finds it extremely unlikely that so many common folks could have independently made up the same plausible bipedal ape anatomy. He also points out how the Patterson-Gimlin film is consistent with his model of Bigfoot anatomy, and with the proposed skeleton of Gigantopithecus (inferred by various Anthropologists from limited fossil remains.) Meldrum accepts the convention in zoology that for an animal to exist, there must be a type specimen. He argues that there is compelling evidence for the Sasquatch, therefore a search for said ­specimen is a worthwhile endeavor. And he is not alone: the veterinarian Dr. Melba S. Ketchum led a research project to test samples of hair, blood, saliva, etc from Bigfoot encounters, and concluded that some of the samples did belong to a hitherto-unknown species of ape-human hybrid. (Although these claims have not yet been tested by independent researchers.) Obviously, most scientists disagree with Meldrum and Ketchum. But I must admire these researchers for daring to challenge the status quo, with evidence-based arguments.

In a radio discussion among Les Stroud, Jeff Meldrum, and the Bigfoot seeker Todd Standing, the three contemplate: if the large hominid does exist, what implications would it have for conservation of the American wilds? The great apes are our siblings; and the intelligence of a Sasquatch might be comparable to ours. (Granted, the coal companies in West Virginia don't let a legacy of ravaged ecosystems and people with cancer and birth defects interfere with their profit margin; so the discovery of an endangered and intelligent mega-hominid might have little effect on resource extraction.)

In the meantime, tales from the annals of science fiction and science nonfiction have communicated and expressed our closeness to the apes, at a deep level, as only stories can. In the nonfiction realm, Radiolab has produced multiple killer episodes about the hearts and minds of animals—the story of Fu Manchu, an orangutan with a penchant for picking locks, is good one to start with. Then check out "Animal Minds," "Zoos," "Lucy," "Wild Talk, " "the Shy Baboon" and "New Normal?." In science fiction, the Planet of the Apes series (in both its older and newer installments) has been quite effective at making us contemplate the thin line (or perhaps imaginary line) between great ape and human. When the ape-rulers of Earth argue that humans are unthinking brutes because they cannot speak (in the original 1968 film,) it is mostly the same argument that René Descartes ominously made towards animals centuries ago, his flawed logic giving a lasting foundation to western cruelty towards our fellow earthlings. In recent media, Writers of the Future Volume 30 contains a gem: the short story “Animal” by Terry Madden.  In a future earth overpopulated and overrun with humans, a nonstop mega-metropolis, zoologist Mackenzie Guerrero is devoted to the preservation of species, and runs a complex where the last members of extinct animals endure. She must face the closure of her beloved facility, which the government has decided to sell for other developments (and the animals for steaks.) There is little public outcry, since everyone is lost in virtual reality safaris of the mountains and jungles that once were. While the feds claim that the animals will be regrown from frozen embryos at some undetermined time in the future (when birth control measures have returned human populations to pre-2075 levels), Mackenzie has a bolder plan to bring back a great ape--and I won't ruin the surprise. Brilliant speculation, and it truly gives one pause, both a cautionary tale and an uplifting one.

We share the world with thinking, feeling creatures. Not only apes but also elephants and whales and wolves and ravens have shown remarkable emotional bonds and logical problem-solving abilities. If Sasquatch is real, it will be one more to add to this cognitive menagerie. I really hope that we can preserve our furry family, against the forces of population growth, resource extraction, pipelines and oil spills, omnipresent plastic trash, pesticides and herbicides, invasive species, and global climate disruption.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Canyon of Yellow Stones and Waterfalls

At long last, I visited the place of legend—Yellowstone National Park. Among the many awe-inspiring sites was the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

Thomas Moran's epic painting of this great chasm was instrumental in making Yellowstone become the world's first national park. I am no match for him, but still I made the attempt to capture the essence of the Canyon and the Lower Falls, in oil pastels and watercolors.


I am at work on a longer and more complete entry on my Yellowstone adventure, will post when I can. For now, excelsior!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Bats Over the Water

When first I encountered a bat up close—close enough to touch—I rapidly sketched the critter, and wrote beside it “I am amazed by the live bat, how fuzzy its body, how delicate its fingers, and stretched between them—that's real skin! No photograph can capture it, nor can the sketchbook.”

The event was our first bat survey night of the summer season at Timpanogos Cave National Monument, sometime back in June. The Natural Resources staff run the operation, to discover what bats inhabit the canyon and forest. The method: find a quiet spot on the American Fork river somewhere in the National Forest land, and stretch a net across. Wait for the bats to swoop in for a sip of water and get caught in the net; handle with gloves; identify the species, gender, etc; weigh the animal, photograph it, record its echolocation call; then release the furry flyer. Not having had my vaccinations, I just watch (and draw and photograph, as I can.)

I have been to three more bat nights since; all have provided an opportunity to listen to the river and watch the moonlight draw patterns in the ripples, under the canopy of silhouetted trees and rockfaces. As for the bats themselves, the level of activity has varied. On some nights, only a few get tangled in the artificial spiderweb. On the second bat night of the summer, we had a bonanza.

We most often catch the small bats of the genus Myotis (We can generically call this group “little brown bats.”) These streamed in on that special night in June, but so did one hoary bat—a larger and feistier type—followed by another and another. These fellows don't take kindly to being grabbed, and bite and flail, captives to no one, not even the pale-skinned Kaiju. For hoary bats, two pairs of gloves are recommended.

Up close, bats provoke incredulity: so like us, as mammals, and yet so alien—with small size, skin and veins stretched like a latex glove across wings and tail, and a different sensory world by flight and echolocation. What goes on in their little minds is hard to fathom, and that such animals can exist can be hard to believe. We might seem just as strange to them, were they not caught up in the struggle to escape our clutches at bat night. Let us hope that they can continue to awe us, and escape the wrath of White Nose Syndrome.

Back at the studio, I made tribute to the winged mammals on scratchboard. I chose the Townsend's big-eared bat, which we see sleeping or flying about in Hansen Cave (part of the Timpanogos Cave system) from time to time. I intend to create more stories on bats, in words and pictures. I'll make the time somehow.

Third picture (Hoary Bat) by National Park Service, public domain.