Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Father wolf brings a gift



I am back to Park Ranger work at Yellowstone, this time at Norris Geyser Basin, in time for the centennial of the National Park Service (1916-2016)!

On an off-day last week, I awoke at 4:15 AM, and drove my Subaru across winding roads, past towers of steam and fields of grass and sage. The roads were mostly empty (too early for even the tour buses) and the sky turned from grey to pink to blue. My destination was Slough Creek, at the edge of Lamar Valley, where my contact Rick McIntyre waited, seated upon a stool behind a spotting scope, with crowds of wolf-watchers around him. Rick is a Biological Science Technician at Yellowstone, and has been out at the break of dawn to watch wolves and record their ways, seven days a week, for the past 16 years or so. I sought Rick’s wisdom in preparation for my evening program about Survival Stories from Yellowstone, which features, among others, Wolf 755M, now the alpha male of the Wapiti Pack in Hayden Valley, who has lived through hell and back. 755M and his mate the great huntress 06 had a den of pups in 2010, in the same location now occupied by newer generations. From our perch on the ridge, we not only spoke of the legends of elder wolves, but also watched the nascent lives of young wolves—legends in the making. We watched the den of the Junction Butte Pack. We saw their alpha male trot back to the den, with a bison skull in his jaws. Found on the plain, this skull would make a fine chew toy for his pups. We later saw a family reunion; canids young and old joyfully wagged their tails. We saw bison chase wolves, and wolves chase bison. No violence occurred, but the relationship between the great herbivores and carnivores is often tense. Wildlife biologist and wolf project director Doug Smith made an appearance at the overlook as well, and joined us in watching the unfolding story of the Junction Butte Pack through the scopes. With the den in clear view, we had a rare opportunity to see the wolves grow up, one that would prompt enthusiasts to travel around the world for a glimpse through the scopes. For me, it was a trip of one-and-a-half hours in the early morning, with a weary day to follow; even though I normally arise early, this trek challenged even my circadian rhythms!

(Of course, remember that I write this blog from the standpoint of a private citizen, who coincidentally happens to also work for the National Park Service.)

Monday, May 9, 2016

A Three Toad Day

I joined my friend, Ranger Lesley McClintock, for a lucky day at Colorado National Monument. Lesley—alongside a seasonal ranger and a loyal band of volunteers—delivered and an environmental education field trip to second grade students (from an English-Spanish double immersion school), featuring hikes through the No Thoroughfare Canyon Trail, along the stream. Lesley showed her ability to interpret the science and wonder of insect life cycles and cryptobiotic soil, in both languages. In this living desert, there are the bright red flowers of claret cup cacti in bloom, and the green-and-yellow sheen of collared lizards basking in the sun. We passed a few clusters of toad eggs, and some tadpoles, along the route. A young boy pointed out to me a spider stretched horizontally on its web just over the water’s surface. After thinking it was first an insect, then an exoskeleton, I looked at it from very close up—yes, it was a spider. I congratulated the youngster on his sharp eye, then noticed more such spiders along the way.



When we arrived at the first pool, our destination, magic happened. Two Woodhouse’s toads drifted below the water’s surface, in their mating embrace. I posted myself next to them, as a sort of toad guardian. The kids were sufficiently preoccupied with the business of eating their lunches that they did not come to join me at first. Soon, a small band of boys and girls came closer, and exploded with excitement at the sight of the amphibians. The toads then swam to three feet farther away from us, where they met shade by the steep bank—presumably where they felt safer. I had to deter the excited youngsters as they attempted to poke the critters with sticks; they didn’t mean harm, but did seek a sense of agency from making the animals react. A trill noise happened at regular intervals. Following the noise, we spotted another Woodhouse’s toad perched on the rocky bank, his balloon-like vocal sac filling with each call. 


I explained to a boy, “He is singing because he is looking for a girlfriend.”

The boy asked, “Does the one in the pond already have a girlfriend?”

“Yes,” I answered.

Some of the girls were amazed to learn that the larger toad in the pair was the female. A girl asked me if the mother toad will come back to check on her eggs after she has laid them. I had to explain that in an amphibian’s world, every little egg and tadpole must fend for themselves, with no help from their parents. (I didn't go so far as to explain that eating one's sibling is common for the tadpoles of some species, including the next one we met.)


On our side of the shore, an awkward and pudgy elfin creature came shuffling along. I took a close look, and a huge and vaguely familiar pair of alien eyes stared back. It was as if the pictures I had seen in field guides and museum exhibits had suddenly sprung to life.

“It’s a spadefoot toad!” I declared, seeing this critter in real life for the first time. The amphibian was rather scared by the children who wanted to pick him up, held back by rangers. He tried to climb a crevice in the rocks, but fell, and tried to climb again.



Another spadefoot toad appeared and went swimming in the pond, and inquisitively approached the mating Woodhouse’s toads, as though unaware that he was of a different species. The spadefoot wasn’t too graceful in the water either, for their home is the earth. They are supremely adapted to the desert, spending up to a year at a time buried underground. When spring rains come, they emerge, gorge themselves on insects (a biologist observed a spadefoot eat 55% of his body weight in termites in a single night); partake in mating orgies wherein females can lay 3,000 eggs; and return to their earthen home. They can go from egg to adult toad in two weeks (or sometimes as little as nine days)--for in the desert, the water may not last. Inside the earth, they absorb water from surrounding soil. When the ground turns bone-dry, so can the toad. They can survive losing up to 60% of their body’s water and stay alive. Generally, amphibians can perform extraordinary physiological feats, as a result of their dependence on moisture, and adaptation to places where it can evaporate or freeze.



On the way back, we came upon a red-spotted toad in the stream.




Wildlife watchers at Yellowstone seek out a “three dog day,” which means observing at least one fox, coyote, and wolf on the same date. At Colorado National Monument, we had a three toad day. Considering the resourcefulness needed by amphibians of the desert, using the night time, the shadows, the puddles, the subterranean zone, sleep during drought and frenzy during rain—it’s a comparable spectacle.

I am not sure which species of Spadefoot toad we had. Lesley and I traded the camera back and forth, causing confusion over who took what picture, so we are claiming joint credit.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Gibbon




I was impressed by the gibbon's athleticism and agility when pitted against a pair of young tigers--like a real-life Spider-Man. And so I captured the ape from India in my sketchbook. Stay tuned to this blog for more beasts of the field and tree.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The wolf who fought for the working class


It can be demoralizing, that in so idealistic a city as Portland, Oregon, there are still so many people sleeping in doorways and begging for change. And the number has increased significantly in the past year. It is a dark side to Portland's status as a happening place, and the mass migration of people (including many young seekers and professionals) to the west coast. As cities like Seattle, Portland, and San Fransisco grow in population, housing prices go up, and the poor folk are priced out, to go sleep on park benches and shiver through the rain. In Portland, rents went up by more than 15 per cent in the past year, while most people still make less money than they did before the Great Recession. Capitalism is a brutal game. (While I was working on this blog entry, the state of Oregon passed legislation to raise its minimum wage, which is an important first step to remedy the situation.)

Although we may not be homeless in the streets yet (in many cases saved by our parents), many people in my "Millennium" generation have been stung by the scorpion of this fierce and rigged economy. (In one dramatic example, A Yelp! [$1.37 billion company] employee was forced to live off of brown rice and with no heat, thanks to low pay and high rent in San Fransisco. When she shared the truth on her blog, they fired her.) Maybe that's why we are willing to consider progressive reforms from a true visionary. Today, we have a socialist candidate with a chance of winning the Democratic nomination! Bernie Sanders has gone from protest candidate to real candidate with amazing rapidity. Although Bernie calls himself a Democratic Socialist, Noam Chomsky describes him as a decent and honest New Deal Democrat. Many of the programs Sanders proposes, such as universal health care and tuition-free college, already exist in much of the developed world. Only the highly conservative political atmosphere of the United States (where Republicans are far right and Democrats are right-of-center) are his plans perceived as extreme left.


In times like these, we should revisit and remember the literary work of another noted American Socialist and visionary….. Jack London! Today, most people associate London (who lived from 1876-1916) with only a fraction of his literary accomplishments. While his stories about struggle and survival in the Klondike (e.g. The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and "To Build a Fire") are significant, Jack also did so much more…. He wrote over 50 books, including novels and collections of essays and short stories, in settings ranging from the South Pacific seas to a post-apocalyptic San Francisco. He was a pioneer of science fiction, worthy of placement on the same bookshelf as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Jack was quite attached to the symbol of the wolf (and was himself nicknamed "Wolf" by friends) and intrigued by the power and violence of nature. However, at heart, Jack was more of a sociopolitical writer than a nature writer, with the call for a socialist revolution to save people from poverty and injustice driving his pen across paper. He ran for mayor of Oakland, California on the Socialist Party ticket twice.

Like many kids, I thrilled to Jack's Klondike stories. I began to discover his broader scope of work when I was sixteen, and saw The Star Rover on the shelf at the public library of Morgantown, West Virginia. I read the tome, and was awestruck. From there, I started trying to read all of Jack's books. (Maybe someday, I will complete that project.)


The Road is a great one to read aloud by the fireside. In the first chapter "Confession," a teenage boy wanders the streets and bangs on doors. After instantly "sizing-up" the respondent, he invents a story--often purporting himself as an orphan on a trek to meet his big sister and her family, with many variations--as means of clutching hold of their heart-strings and procuring food hand-outs. The boy is Jack London, who notes that "to this training Of my tramp days is due much of my success as a story-writer." In the next chapter "Holding Her Down," Jack freeloads on trains for cross-continental travel, and performs death-defying feats of athleticism in evading the guards who seek to throw him off. In subsequent chapters, Jack describes his horrific time in prison for vagrancy--the experience which led him to turn to socialism, as well as pursue an education and a writing career.

After his prison stint, Jack returned home to Oakland, crammed the contents of four years of high school into one-and-a-half years of intensive study, did well on standardized tests and was accepted into the University of California at Berkeley, did not graduate, and went on more adventures such as gold-prospecting the Yukon. He submitted many manuscripts to literary magazine, taking artistic and philosophic inspiration from Rudyard Kipling, Edgar Allan Poe, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche, and above all his own life experience. His first pro sale was the science fiction short story "One Thousand Deaths" to The Black Cat. His big breakthrough was his second novel, the overnight bestseller The Call of the Wild, published in 1903. This work catapulted Jack from obscure scribe to international celebrity. From then until his untimely death in 1916, he received pay and fame for his writing comparable to today's Hollywood actors.


Jack could describe a fight with primal force. The boxing match described in his short story "A Piece of Steak" stays with me as though I had both seen in on a giant IMAX screen, and experienced it in real life, at the same time. In his sociological science fiction novel The Iron Heel, Jack brings forth the same primal force to describe heated debates between his working-class socialist hero Ernest Everhard, and the businessmen and academics who expunge the merits of capitalism. Ernest is a charismatic warrior, who wins people from both the streets and the lecture halls to his cause. And he wins the heart of Avis Cunningham Everhard (who narrates the novel.) Ernest leads a socialist revolution, but the Oligarchs crush it, leading to a nightmare future, under the Iron Heel. Avis Everhard ends her narration in mid-sentence and hides her manuscript in an oak tree when the fascists come to take her away. 700 years later, after many more failed attempts, the socialist revolution succeeds, leading to "The Brotherhood of Man." And as luck would have it, someone discovers the Everhard text. A future scholar attaches numerous footnotes to give context to his audience. In 1907, this was a very unusual structure for a novel! Today, we have seen many works of science fiction and speculative fiction that use fake documents to lend credibility and believably to the imaginary world--Watchmen, Foundation, The Handmaid's Tale, Unstable Molecules, The Massive, and Tarzan Alive!, to name a few. War with the Newts by Karl Kapek was an early example of this technique. And London's work was earlier.

Furthermore, The Iron Heel (1907) is the first of the modern dystopian novels, predating 1984 (1947), Brave New World (1931), and Fahrenheit 451(1953) by decades. And certainly predating We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1921), which is sometimes erroneously credited as the first dystopian novel. George Orwell acknowledged that he took a great deal of inspiration from Jack London, and that The Iron Heel had a direct influence on the later and better-known dark vision of the future.

Inevitably, readers of The Iron Heel will see parallels with their own contemporary times, whether its the 1980s or 2010s. The connections are as obvious today as ever, as a Democratic Socialist (Sanders) faces off against an opponent who is basically a Fascist (Trump) for the office of president. Movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Fight for Fifteen are reminiscent of the worker's revolution which Jack London hoped and fought for. 


In the penultimate year of his short life, Jack London finally wrote the book he had been reaching for since the day he decided to become a writer: The Star Rover. While The Road succeeded resoundingly as an adventure story, it did not fully deliver on communicating the social evils Jack saw and experienced as a prisoner. In The Star Rover, Jack more powerfully describes the hell of prison at the turn of the century. His protagonist Darrell Standing is partly based on the real San Quentin survivor Ed Morrell, who had been a guest of honor at Jack London's ranch. In a mix of fact and fiction, London includes Morrell as a character too, who talks to Standing by tapping messages in Morse code, across the walls of their prison cells. Locked in solitary confinement and tortured by means of a straight jacket that produces angina, Standing learns the art of astral projection….. and his spirit escapes to wander the stars! He returns to past lives and lives them again, as a rapier-duelist, a seal-hunting sailor, a Chinese nobleman, and a witness to the crucifixion of Jesus. I cannot put into words the effect that this work had on me when I first read it, the power and wonder and fear and dread of it all. Curiously, most readers in Jack London's own time felt differently--The Star Rover was met with low sales and denunciations from critics, and was overall the least popular of all London's books. (Although it was still made into a silent movie in 1920.) The tome has enjoyed a revival in recent decades, with printed additions by publishers ranging from Prometheus Books to Valley of the Sun, with accompanying interpretations by the reincarnation researcher Dick Sulphem and the literary scholar Leslie Fiedler. It was a book ahead of its time. It is uncertain whether Jack London really believed in reincarnation, but it's fiction--George Lucas is not obligated to believe in the force.

By my senior year of high school, Jack London had become much more than the topic of my final project in English class. He was a literary hero of mine. I too hoped to be an adventurer and storyteller (through both words and pictures--comics--in my case), and to fight for marginalized beings (in my case, I was especially concerned with animals and plants, Mother Earth's world.) And I am not the only Studlar upon whom Jack's work had a profound effect. My big brother Carl was attending Wittenberg University when I was still at Morgantown High School, and when he came home for Christmas Break, he caught hold of my library copy of The Star Rover. He too was left in awe, and he too was soon reading more of Jack's work. This fueled a yearning he had been developing to go out and experience true adventure. To escape the sanitized and protected world that privileged people inhabit, and not just to climb rocks with the high tech gear. Eventually, he found the adventure he sought by joining the Peace Corps, and served for two and a half years in rural El Salvador. He survived amoebas and parasites, and left his village El Matazano with many improvements, including a computer lab at the public school, to prepare students for work and life in a high-tech world.

Today, our world evolves rapidly. I too can be affrighted by new online worlds and forms of virtual reality, and how they will change the direction of ourselves and our society. However, one thing is clear. Older forms of virtual realty--in this case, prose--continue to affect and direct what we do in the real world!



***********

Recommended:
"Jack London and Science Fiction" by Clarice Stasz

Review of The Iron Heel by Ben Granger, Spike Magazine

Because Jack London has been deceased for over 70 years, his entire body of work is in the public domain and can be freely copied and shared. Some of his works can be found here. Or if you're like me and you like paper, visit a public library.

The photos and book covers are also in the public domain, with the trains image in the Library of Congress collection and boxing image from the Imperial War Museum. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

A Year for Parks

The year 2016 is the one hundredth anniversary of the National Park Service! For the past few years, the NPS has teamed up with the nonprofit National Park Foundation to promote this centennial. The promotional poster below (composed by their graphic artists) is neat and befits the event well:


The year to celebrate public lands began with men in cowboy hats challenging the very concept of federally-managed public land--in the form of the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon by an armed militia led by Ammon Bundy. Apparently, the Bundys have a utopian vision of a world where the Grand Canyon of Arizona is a giant uranium mine, and one can no longer hike and fish in the National Forests of Oregon, without fearing gunfire from the logging companies to whom ownership of the forest has been transferred. For the record, I put my boots on the ground and markers on the paper in opposition to Y'all Qeada, in a protest at Holladay Park in Portland, Oregon. (The Audobon Society, Center for Biological Diversity, and others worked to organize the event.)


There may be more challenges to public lands, and more armed crazies to come. At least one of my fellow seasonal rangers has told me she is nervous about returning to work at Yellowstone. In response, I noted that national parks carry many calculated risks, including earthquakes, lightning strikes, and falling trees. The Yee-Hawdists are another one, but we must temper our imaginations with reason. The leading causes of death in national parks are drowning and automobile accidents. (And no public employees were harmed physically in the Oregon standoff.) And, of course, terrorists seek to strike terror, so we must not allow them to scare us away.

Now is a great year to flood public lands of all types with your support.  I especially recommend going and playing in some of the not-quite-as-famous gems (such as Crater Lake, Timpanogos Cave, and Chaco Culture.) Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon will be PACKED this summer, so if you go, make good use of the early morning and late evening.

Recommended: Comments by Tim DeChristopher (who went to jail to protect public land) on the Malheur standoff.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Spinosaurus!




On a visit home for Christmas, I riffled through a pile of National Geographic's, accrued from the past few years. The issue with Spinosaurus on the cover caught my attention. I recalled how I had thrilled to pictures and stories of dinosaurs in my youth--including some Nat Geo's from the 1980s and '90s! In an instant, my child's sense of curiosity and wonder came back. Spinosaurus has dethroned and replaced Tyrannosaurus Rex for the title of largest carnivorous dinosaur, as measured by body length from tip of nose to tip of tail (fifty feet for Spiney, forty for Rex.) In habits, Spinosaurus resembled a modern crocodile, spending most of its time in water and some on land. Fish were probably its primary food, along with other aquatic life, such as turtles. Nature is a harsh and unforgiving place for the hunted--or for the hunter who doesn't meet his dietary quota and starves. I tried to faithfully represent the ancient reptile in this drawing, although he's not around anymore to give me a critique. Ah well, if he were around, he'd probably be more interested in my warm flesh than my drawing! 

Happy New Year, World!