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Ansel Adams Wilderness Trip Autumn 2016


Backpacking tool kit

In the past eleven months we have seen the Paris Agreement (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), the Antarctic Protection Agreement (Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources) while at the same time the variety of environmental disasters from species extermination to melting ice caps has continued apace. American anti-environmental politics in this election cycle has deteriorated from absurd to farcical (or vice versa). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife (dis)Service continues to keep species such as the American Pica from receiving Endangered Species Act Protection. Given all this, months ago I quit making editorial comments. What is the radical natural history writer to do?

Give up on politics at the moment for a return into the heart of wild nature.

In September, I took a break from my primary research on Ernest Thompson Seton to assist in research on John Muir. For decades fellow radical naturalist Bob Hare has been inspired by Muir’s accounts of the Sierra Nevada, and for several years has been systematically following Muir’s routes through the Range of Light. See: Wilderness Adventures with Bob Hare.

I occasionally join him in the adventure, including this year for a few September days exploring the Ansel Adams Wilderness (west of Mammoth Lakes, California). One of our destinations this year: Lake Catherine, a jewel of a lake, outstanding even by the standards of a region known for its outstandingly gorgeous lakes.

Venturing from Taos, New Mexico, to Sacramento, California, thence across Yosemite and southward to Mammoth Lakes, we packed supplies and gear for a six- night trip.


Our goal–going beyond the distant peaks

Sept 28. From Minaret Vista (near Devil’s Postpile National Monument) we looked out over the San Jauquin watershed to Mt Ritter and Banner Peak (the high points right of center) the stone pillars below which Lake Catherine glistens in the sunshine or glowers beneath storm clouded sky (although first we had to get there).



Bob at the base of a large juniper


Typical trail passage

We are both photographers so stopped frequently to pose in front of trees, on trails, etc.



Still a ways to go

We took so long to reach Thousand Island Lake (Banner Peak and Mt. Davis in the distance above the lake) that I thought we had taken a wrong turn. Our path-finding skills have not diminished, but more than forty years on from our first backpacking trips together, either we walk more slowly or the upward tilt of the trails has increased.


Trail by the lake



Finally made camp as the wind gradually increased—a harbinger of what was to come.


Sunrise photo suite

dsc_7858 dsc_7845dsc_7860dsc_7865

Sept 29. Morning sunrise photography occupied us for some time.


Island Pass images


That morning we headed north and uphill intersecting the Pacific Crest Trail for a hike over Island Pass and to the overlook of Waugh Lake in search of places from where Muir made sketches. Late afternoon we returned through an unrelenting windstorm that did not cease for the remainder of our trip.


Ascent of North Glacier Pass


Looking down to the lake


And looking up…


Sept. 30 From our camp at Thousand Island Lake we hiked up North Glacier Pass on the north side of Banner to where it became a Class 2 climb—talus mixed with large boulders.


Amazing lake


Bob at top of pass

After nearly having been blown off the rocks several times we reached the top of the pass and the unforgettable view of Lake Catherine. (I wonder for whom the lake was named?)


Much steeper than it looks

Bob continued down to the lake and beyond in search of another Muir sketch site (detailed in his blog). At 1:00pm, he promised to return in 2 ½ hours. I retreated over a hundred feet back down in the pass to get out of the worst wind, covering myself with a poncho as wind shelter. He appeared above me at exactly 3:30pm.


Sunrise on Banner


Thousand Island Lake, wind swept

Oct. 1. We still had half the planned trip remaining, but high elevation snow and non-stop wind changed our plan. We headed down to Garnet Lake.


Beautiful trail from Thousand Island to Garnet Lake


Garnet Lake reveal

From Garnet Lake, we climbed down through a hundred feet of rock gully back into the San Jauquin valley finding a long abandoned (and occasionally entirely absent) trail for our return. Our research continued for a few more days—a story for another time.

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Framework Convention on Climate Change

DSC_5428 Sun Dog

Adoption of the Paris Agreement

December 12, 2015

In combating climate change, the Agreement emphasizes “should” rather than “must,” which is to say that it is voluntary. It calls for recognition of social justice, for sharing technology, and for wealthier countries to support appropriate development in less wealthy countries. Environmentalists (including me) will fault the agreement for not being stronger. At the same time, however, it does establish an international moral imperative to combat this grave danger that threatens us all.

Will it be enough to save remaining wild nature and the larger part of world civilization? Implementation of the agreement is likely to be slower than needed. But how could 190 countries have come up with a better plan? Short term interests of corporations and the politicians they buy is as strong as ever.

Still, maybe, perhaps, if we’re lucky, maybe the United States of America will take the lead as its used to do in the 20th century when faced with global challenges.

Here are some highlights. For the full document, go to:

Article 2

This Agreement, in enhancing the implementation of the Convention, including its objective, aims to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change, in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty, including by:

(a) Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change;

(b) Increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development, in a manner that does not threaten food production; (c) Making finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development.

Article 4

  1. In order to achieve the long-term temperature goal set out in Article 2, Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty.
  1. Each Party shall prepare, communicate and maintain successive nationally determined contributions that it intends to achieve. Parties shall pursue domestic mitigation measures, with the aim of achieving the objectives of such contributions.

Article 6

  1. Parties recognize that some Parties choose to pursue voluntary cooperation in the implementation of their nationally determined contributions to allow for higher ambition in their mitigation and adaptation actions and to promote sustainable development and environmental integrity.

Article 8

  1. Parties recognize the importance of averting, minimizing and addressing loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change, including

extreme weather events and slow onset events, and the role of sustainable development in reducing the risk of loss and damage.

Article 9

  1. Developed country Parties shall provide financial resources to assist developing country Parties with respect to both mitigation and adaptation in continuation of their existing obligations under the Convention.

Article 10

  1. Parties share a long-term vision on the importance of fully realizing technology development and transfer in order to improve resilience to climate change and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Article 21

  1. This Agreement shall enter into force on the thirtieth day after the date on which at least 55 Parties to the Convention accounting in total for at least an estimated 55 percent of the total global greenhouse gas emissions have deposited their instruments of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession.

<Will it be sunset, sunrise, or something in between? Aylmer Lake sundog, Summer 2015. dlw photo)

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Ethnic Cleansing Goes Mainstream: Donald Trump and Our Christmas Wish

SAM_3532       I recall a movie from the Cold War days. A device was discovered that had the power to make bad people disappear. After giving consideration to the merits of this power, it was used to make all the Commies disappear—Russians, Eastern Europeans, probably Chinese. Those who remained on earth rejoiced at the triumph of our way of life. Getting rid of those we don’t want around is more messy than making a wish.

The Donald wants all the “Mexicans” (short hand for Latin American civilization) to go away. His proscription for doing this is ethnic cleansing—forced deportation. His political opponents have not called his plan ethnic cleansing, but they should since that it what it is. The mainstream media has failed us by not applying this obvious labeling.

What does this have to do with radical natural history? I’ll get to that, but first, more examples of magical wishing from this week’s news:

Fox News wants Starbucks and its non-Christmas promoting red coffee cups to go away. Violent Shiite groups want violent Sunni groups to go away (and vice versa). Many Israelis want Palestinians to disappear (and vice versa). The Koch brothers, ALEC and other right wing anti-American groups want democracy to go away. The Catholic Church wants media coverage of their pedophile scandals to go away. Sagebrush Rebellion conservatives want public access to public lands to go away.

Carbon companies and their hired politicians want environmentalists and solar energy to go away. Big Pharma wants the movement for patient’s rights to end. The Prison Industrial Complex wants the opponents of mass incarceration of poor people to vaporize. European conservatives want Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraqi refugees to go somewhere else. The Chinese government wants all other countries to give up their right of free navigation over wide parts of the Pacific Ocean. Nearly everyone of any sense wants Putin to go away.

Back to natural history: Fish and Gave authorities in New Mexico, Wyoming, Oregon and other states want wolves to go away. A majority of humans, in claiming all natural resources and physical space for themselves want, in effect, for wild nature to go away

It is the same mindset that wants to get rid of “Mexicans,” wolves, nature, or whatever. And the harder we all work on getting our wishes, the closer we come to making all those wishes come true. We’re well on our way.

(I managed to gain special access into The Donald’s soul and was rewarded with the picture that leads off this essay. For Sci-Fi fans, recall the Krell of Altair-4.)

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November 10 Evening Nature Discussion Group


Third and Fourth in a series of Setonian Evenings

6:30 – 8:00 pm at the Seton Gallery, Academy for the Love of Learning

Tuesday November 10 and Tuesday December 8, 2015  Free

133 Seton Village Road (off the Old Las Vegas Highway)

Host: David L. Witt

As an important participant in the 1930s Santa Fe literary scene, Ernest Thompson Seton held evening salons at his home (Seton Castle) discussing Nature, Environment, Life and Lifecraft. The Academy’s Seton Legacy Project is reviving this tradition with a conversational series focusing on our relationship to the natural world. What “learnings,” warnings and inspirations might we find out there—and within ourselves—with close examination and reflection?

We will explore topics suggested by Seton, starting with readings from his stories. We want to hear your stories as we examine what is important about our experience with wildlife, wild places, and life in general.

Our Setonian evenings take place amid the drawings and books of the Seton Gallery. The setting is informal, a perfect atmosphere for the sharing of ideas and insights. We will start with a topic, but there is no set path—the direction of the discussion will emerge as we go along.

November 10: Connecting Seton to the Academy through Lifecraft

Seton developed a philosophy of outdoor education disseminated through his Woodcraft League. It was about learning and living. Seton’s “Nine Principles” and “Fourfold Path,” for understanding nature and just being in the world appear to complement the “Learning Field” model of the Academy. We will look into the meaning of these.

December 8: The Radical Natural History of Generally True Patterns

Combining the teachings of Seton and Muir with Systems Theory, we find that the dissimilar systems of physics, biology and society work in remarkably similar ways demonstrating our connection to nature (and disproving the prevailing theory of our disconnection). We will consider examples to find which of them may hold up in the real world.


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Lakeside dispatch from David L. Witt/August 2, 2015

{In late July and early August I led an expedition to Aylmer Lake in the Canadian Arctic. We were following part of the route taken by Ernest Thompson Seton and his expedition of 1907. Field notes from the expedition can be found at my Seton website. This essay and others were first published by the expedition’s sponsor, the Academy for the Love of Learning, at the Seton Expedition website.}

Five blue tents are illuminated warm in the sunshine on the remote beach in northern Canada as earlier they had shown through moonlight of the night passed. Or of what constitutes night at 64° North Latitude on August 2nd. The sun sets, then the light briefly transitions to twilight before the coming of dawn again brings the full light of day to Aylmer Lake.

Hours of wind-stillness have calmed a lake so that it reflects the detail of clouds, outboard motors and Cottongrass along the shore. Nothing seems to move on the ground, although time has moved on, this is a new day. There has taken place a passage. How do we go about perceiving it?

First look to the record of the sand. There is the faint presence of Musk Ox tracks, already old. There is a recent record of a Caribou’s oddly shaped track passing west to east on the wet beach; overlaid on that is the subsequent track of an Arctic Wolf passing in the same direction. The most recent track is the huge paw prints of a Barrenland’s Grizzly, this in the dry sand, so it is indistinct. That track in the sand ends in two furrowed sand ridges, a roughly shaped: ( ) with the left part of the parenthesis no more than half the size of the right. This shape suggests that two bodies lay here hours earlier or a day earlier, sow and cub. Immediately to one side are two blueberry infused scat piles, one larger than the other.

The beach sand recorder of wildlife activity is immediately compromised by our presence, marred with an overlay of human footprints. We searched the beach for any sign of danger (i.e., bears) then looked for a temporary tent home sites, then unloaded cargo of food containers, cameras, sleeping bags and such other stuff as seems needed here for a couple of nights. Within a day the number of our imprints seem the result of hundreds of visitor’s restless pacing, although we number just five. The wild ones pass by in a single line and then are gone on. We, relentless, march back and forth grinding nature beneath our feet into ever smaller bits.

Next look to the passage of waves. The lake sleeps for now, glassy calm, but sometimes it rises and washes the beach free of the imprints of those already come and gone since the last storm. The moccasined feet of ancient Indians left impressions that must seem very careful compared to the brutal force of hiking boots. Generations of wolves have stalked generations of caribou. We know this because the wolves left behind, hidden in the short willow scrub beyond reach of waves, bones still white or if old enough, mossy. On this morning there are no new wildlife tracks overlaid on our own. No nocturnal grizzly visit, so we are at ease at breakfast. In a day or a week, or soon, waves will come to erase all that has happened here this past week since the last storm.

This place is not often visited by our kind. There were four known expeditions on this beach between 1832 and 1907, plus an unknown number of indigenous tribal visitors before and since. The earliest of these may have arrived several thousand years ago. Archaeologists made surveys here in 1951 and 1982. Diamond prospectors (mining is a major industry up here) have likely walked this shore in search of treasure.

There are five in our party, arrived in two 16’ aluminum fishing boats powered by 30hp Evenrude outboard motors, looking for the treasure of knowledge. I can sit on the sand watching outward toward the water for birds or lean against the boat and watch inland for oncoming bears. Passages may occur behind my back either way.

A mother Mallard Duck appears leading her band of ten little ones out of their Cottongrass refuge and into the deeper water just offshore. They swim with startling speed. I would not have noticed them at all except for a sudden excited fluttering of the entire group for reason unknown to me. They continue to the farther end of the beach out of our way.

Still water marked duck passage, closing behind. Fish surfacing or insects flailing wings show passages of another kind, although for only an instant before non-stormed water returns to its almost glass surface.

Beach tracks by whatever kind of creature will also be eroded by wind, one grain at a time toppled into the crater created by claw or pad or hoof or boot.

One other form of passage is absent in this season but evident as the dominant force at other times: Ice rules here seasonally. Winter ice will encroach upon the beach leaving its own mark by scraping away everything although there will be tracks in the snow for a moment. Glacial ice has in the past and will in the future, as Seton observed, churn the land itself, reorganizing (or eliminating) this beach as well as the lakes, rivers and hills of the north into a new form. Plants will be crushed, animals forced to migrate elsewhere.

The forty-meter hill north of the beach is a sand esker created by a glacier, a place of mounded ground-up rock. On its summit ancient people erected temporary shelter of caribou hide tents held up by poles. They tore rocks from the esker surface to hold down the tent edges, insuring their survival for another night during the long marches across the tundra in the hunt for Caribou. The resulting stone rings, averaging 4.5 meters in diameter, number as many as ten, several still easily discernable, others leaving only faint trace, as the malleable surface of the sandy esker shifts gradually reclaiming its component parts. The rocks are covered with black lichen, a slow growing organism that does not do well with disturbances. Which is to say that the rocks have to remain stable for a long time to support much lichen growth. The passage of the native hunters is long past, but remembered by the stones.

When Seton and his party arrived 108 years ago this month they borrowed (or reused) stones left by the ancient natives, taking several from two adjoining rings, building a cairn-monument to their own fleeting presence. Documented in a photograph as still standing thirty years ago, we found the cairn toppled by another of nature’s irresistible forces, the rodent. In this case, specifically, the “sic-sic” (as it is known locally), Spermophilus parryi, the Arctic Ground Squirrel. This small creature (about the size of a prairie dog but with a long tail) makes its home in burrows. Perhaps understanding the advantage of the protection of a stone castle, the squirrels built their dwelling beneath Seton’s cairn, eventually undermining the pile of ancient tent stones, altering the historical record just as Seton did when he removed them from their ancient rings. (Rodent revenge: Seton’ fellow traveler, Preble, killed several of them to take back as specimens to the Smithsonian.)

Someday the ice sheets will return erasing everything and beginning the cycle again.

<Caribou antler placement by Patty Nagle on Sandhill Bay shore, dlw photo>

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Measurements of Scale

DSC_5385 Views from atop Wolf Den rock outcrop

Lakeside dispatch from David L. Witt/August 1, 2015

{In late July and early August I led an expedition to Aylmer Lake in the Canadian Arctic. We were following part of the route taken by Ernest Thompson Seton and his expedition of 1907. Field notes from the expedition can be found at my Seton website. This essay and others were first published by the expedition’s sponsor, the Academy for the Love of Learning, at the Seton Expedition website.}
When we are faced with the question of how to interpret a new place, what standards of measurement do we use to come to terms with it? In the case of Aylmer Lake this includes consideration of physical dimensions.

Aylmer Lake roughly takes the form of an inverted, although with islands, headlands, etc., lines of sight are not straight. That is, Aylmer is not a single balloon shape, but a complex series of shapes. Keeping that in mind, taking a trip from the north end (Sandhill Bay) to its unnamed south would require a journey of at least 37 miles (60k), although probably longer to account for points, narrows, shallows, etc. The same approximate distance would take you from the east (Thanakoie Narrows) to west (Lockhart River).

The maximum depth of the lake has not been measured, so that remains unknown. Its elevation is 241’ (366m). Its surface area when full (it’s a bit low at the moment) is over 327 sq. mi (827km/2). The longest straight-line distance I could measure was 30 miles (49k). At the place where the inverted is at its widest, the nearest land is over 3 miles (5k) distant. Water temperature is higher in the bays than in the main body, above freezing, but very cold by my standards.

Imagine the Seton expedition coming paddling through by canoe in 1907 without a clear idea of their progress, which is to say that could not have known where they were or what they might find. No GPS. No rescue planes. All very dangerous compared to our time. Aylmer is not even the largest lake of several around here.

All of which tells us about geography, but does not give insight into meaning. So what other standards of measurement might we apply?

I would measure wind, both natural (headwinds, tailwinds, sidewinds) and the force created by the canoe itself when it is underway. Also consider waves coming fore, aft, and broadside, some big enough to swamp a canoe or a motorized 16’ (4.8m) aluminum fishing boat.

And then there is depth: easily down as much as 400’ (122m) and up to infinity, a constant conscious presence in the wildness. I would add to this the scale of quiet: no motorized or electronic noises, no people, just nature as pristine at Aylmer in 1907 as it was a thousand years earlier. Or ten thousand. There was for them over months of travel a scale of loneliness, far from friends, family, the familiar environment of usual living.

That leads we to the creation of a final most important scale, that of absence. The absence scale is determined as a compilation of all the others – time, distance, area, wind, water, and life as it was once known before this trip. The absence of safety, of people, of familiarity was for the Seton group very high. The absence of any these can also take place in the most crowded city, and maybe there it is worse.

Here in the wilderness absence is felt on a subscale ranging from anxiety to relief. Absence can be terrifying liberating. The meaning of a journey such as the one to Aylmer comes out of where we may be positioned on that scale of measurement.

<Aylmer Lake shoreline, dlw photo>

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Observations on a Place of Contrasts

DSC_4801 Blueberries

Lakeside dispatch from David L. Witt/July 27, 2015/3:00pm

{In late July and early August I led an expedition to Aylmer Lake in the Canadian Arctic. We were following part of the route taken by Ernest Thompson Seton and his expedition of 1907. Field notes from the expedition can be found at my Seton website. This essay and others were first published by the expedition’s sponsor, the Academy for the Love of Learning, at the Seton Expedition website.}

Land and water. Burned forests and ice floes. Endless shore-lines, tiny birds. Mosquitoes, mosquito head nets. Grizzly shattering glass and lunging through a cabin door, grizzly shot dead. A vast bay of the lake, a tiny canoe touching the water-shore horizon line on the other side. This last view, a wolf’s eye view as it might have beheld Seton and Preble on their visit 108 years ago when they met the wind silence of Aylmer Lake.

In 2014 the Northwest Territories experienced, at the same time, its coldest and driest summer in memory. One could have seen from the frozen shores of Aylmer Lake in the third week of July the smoke of unprecedented and ruinous fires in the Boreal forest 90 miles south. This year warmer, with the major fires still to come.

The late summer of Seton’s visit to the lake may have been a cold one; there was no mention of fires; it was certainly storm-ridden, gray-clouded over desolate shore, but also with the tundra’s reddish carpet of grasses, specs of wildflower yellows and blues, the last white remnants of cotton grass. Here on a windy day the human voice is washed away as thoroughly as the clear water wave cleaning the sculpted shoreline rocks.

Of all these contrasts, the one I find particularly interesting is that of talk, no talk. For the four men on that long 1907 trip, endlessly paddling every day week after week (except when in even closer quarters when storm-bound) I imagine there was limited talk. What else could have been left to say after such a long time together? What might have the two white men and two Indians to say to one another that could possibly have been interesting to the others?

I believe they must have gone through long periods when their thoughts were accompanied by nothing beyond the natural silence of a land of contrasts.

<Tundra blueberries, Northwest Territories, dlw photo>

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Understanding Consequences of the Unpredictable

SAM_3442     I subtitled my book on generally true patterns “A New Natural History of Recognizing Ourselves as a Part of Nature.” I used that phrase to express the combination of my observations of wild nature with the useful analysis of systems philosophy. Maybe instead I should have instead used the title of this essay as a better way to describe what the book is about. “Natural history” is an increasingly antique term to a contemporary audience; the very notion of philosophy (systems or otherwise) seems quaint or irrelevant in an age where political ideology (sometimes masquerading as religion) operates as a more powerful force in the world.

Actually, ideology is more often a description of transient ideas, subject to whim and fad and expediency.

Pattern-recognition philosophy is altogether different for being based in deep layers of physics and biology. The problem is that whether it be the hopeless romanticism of white supremacy or the insane fanaticism of the misnamed “Islamic State” (or Da’ish as it should be called by the U.S. government) ideology is as temporary and passing as the summer leaves confronting the reality of autumn’s coming.

Understanding the consequences of the unpredictable requires a deeper focus, a higher concentration of physic energy than most of us are capable of in the day-to-day rush of contemporary life. As examples, the American middle class struggles to maintain its economic position in an era of wealth concentration into the hands of a few; the former Syrian middle class struggles just to physically survive one more nightmarish day. Finding the time for finding meaning is not easy.

The way we interpret and understand the world depends in large measure upon the questions we ask. This is made manifest for me from time to time by simple observation. I recently visited the idyllic, somewhat other-worldly village of Carmel-by-the-Sea. (Carmel, California and my home of Taos, New Mexico are both located at Latitude 36° north—if you walk directly west from Taos Plaza you will end up crossing Ocean Avenue in Carmel.) We were driving very slowly along the crazily beautiful and aptly named Scenic Drive, million dollar homes and rocky Pacific shore. Three young resident teen-aged girls (white, very, very privileged) halted their march to the beach to let us pass along the narrow street crowded with the pickups of construction workers imported for the endless home remodeling that characterizes this town.

One of the girls, speaking in a nasty stage whisper exclaimed (about us), “What are these people doing? They don’t even know where they are going.” Her companions concurred. As usual in such moments, even from the mouths of brats, there was an element of truth in this, although not a truth they would have recognized.

The surface interpretation: “What are these people doing?”: We were riding in a car. “They don’t even know where they are going.”: Except that Scenic Drive is one way, west to east, our direction of travel, so we were going from one end to the other (knowingly). So much for literal truth.

But what about this question seen through the filter of “understanding consequences of the unpredictable?” Where are we going? What are we doing? What might be the outcome? Although unknown to us, minutes or years from now there will be an outcome based on the choices or chances of this event. This speaks to the main theme of my book: actions have consequences, although these cannot be known in advance. What we do and where we go with our lives does matter. These are essential questions, even when issued from the mouths of the clueless.

For more, see the section of this site entitled Generally True Patterns.

<Fog, Pt. Reyes National Seashore, dlw photo July 8, 2015>

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Zakaria, Gates and CNN’s GPS (Global Phooey Square)

_1DW4188     In a surprisingly insensitive and insincere interview aired by CNN on May 17, 2015, Fareed Zakaria interviewed Bill Gates. Mr. Gates made three main points during their extensive talk.

1) The American middle class is today better than it was 20 years ago. 2) Solar energy is not cost effective compared to various carbon fuels. 3) “Common Core” standards have greatly improved our education system. Hmmm.

1 Mr. Gates measured middle class progress by increasing access and use of information technology. Self-serving on his part? Recent measures of income growth and household wealth over the past two decades (particularly among minorities and less educated whites) show instead a growth in income inequality leading to a shrinking middle class.

2 Solar energy still costs too much? This depends on your accounting methods. The actual cost of using carbon as a fuel source not only includes getting it out of the ground, but also the expense of maintaining vast military establishments to protect producers from foreign and domestic threats. There is also the cost of the deterioration of fresh water as a result of fracking and oil spills. Mr. Gates also did not include as a cost the damage to human and overall environmental health (climate change, habitat destruction) from carbon fuels. These escalating, possibly exponential costs are impossible for the rest of us to ignore.

3 The blessings or curses of Common Core standards pale before the problem of inadequate funding for child education (based on local property taxes) and the unreasonably high costs of a college education. Middle class kids are being buried by debt or priced out altogether.

Mr. Zakaria called for support of free trade deals. I would like to make him a deal: You can have the latest free trade scheme in return for making sure the wealth created benefits the middle class not just the ultra rich. The likelihood of that particular deal happening, however, is too small to measure.

Mr. Zakaria and Mr. Gates have a wide platform for getting their views noted. By selectively editing out certain facts while fabricating others they can, in the short run, support any conclusion, however nonsensical. The disciplines of both history and natural history suggest that their fabrications will be shown as such in the long run. But it is the short run that worries me. The time we have left to give up the new Gilded Age fantasies to save both ourselves and our civilization seems to be all too limited.

<Puffball as metaphor for the Earth; dlw photo May 25, 2015>

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Sage-Grouse and National Defense Budget


The PBS Nature series aired a program on the endangered Sage-grouse on May 20. The natural history of this bird and other denizens of the sagebrush plains was well represented. The documentary even mentioned habitat destruction by oil and gas interests. Very daring of them. And timely.  This lovely creature is not only under attack by resource extraction, but also the United States Congress. I wrote an editorial on this subject first printed in The Taos News on May 14:

The United States Senate Committee on Armed Services will be meeting later this month for a “Markup” of The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016. The bill that comes out of this committee, when reconciled with the version from the House of Representatives and signed by the President, establishes the budget for much of our national defense.

Included in this year’s bill is a special provision for the Sage-Grouse, an endangered (and spectacular) bird that (for now) lives in parts of Colorado and adjacent states to the north and west. Like the EA-18G Growler and the F-22 Raptor warplanes, the sage-grouse can fly. And while it is an effective system for destroying our nation’s insect enemies, it would seem better suited for the Agriculture or Interior Departments than as part of an appropriations bill for the Department of Defense.

The rapidly declining Sage-Grouse (also known as the Greater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, and its even more endangered cousin, the Gunnison Sage-Grouse, C. minimus) is in catastrophic decline due to habitat loss. They may have once numbered in the millions, but are currently on their way out of existence. Animals and plants is this predicament have in the past found some protection through one of the great pieces of environmental legislation, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) which can help in saving habitat and reducing hunting pressure (while also protecting private property rights).

Instead, this time, the Sage-Grouse has become the latest victim in the culture-war being waged by right-wing politicians against all policies thought by them as “liberal.” As far as I know this Galliforme exhibits not the slightest political inclination, taking no position on the use of missiles or the deployment of aircraft carriers. The male of the species is primarily known for its “dancing,” or mating display. This should find favor with conservatives since the point of the dance is traditional male-female heterosexuality at its finest.

So what is the Sage-Grouse doing hanging out in the same bill with drones and helicopters? Here is where its special status comes about. Republicans have placed this animal on a hit list hidden within the labyrinth of defense spending that specifically exempts the Sage-Grouse from listing under the Endangered Species Act. Without this protection, the Sage-Grouse may be doomed to extinction.This is clever if underhanded: neither Congress nor the President is likely to sacrifice the national defense establishment to save a grouse.

If the Republicans are successful in this they will accomplish two goals. First, habitat that might have been protected to save the Sage-Grouse will not be protected and instead will be open to oil and gas resource extraction. Second, by establishing the precedent of defying the Endangered Species Act, they may also keep other species off the list and could de-listing those already protected. And if they succeed in gutting the ESA, why not move on to similarly decommissioning other environmental protections for clean air and water?

Thus, on the stubby wings of Centrocercus urophasianus, hangs a great weight.

On April 29 I met with Senator Tom Udall, Senator Martin Heinrich and Representative Ben Ray Lujan. I was part of a volunteer citizen group organized by the environmental group, Defenders of Wildlife ( We discussed with these gentlemen (and their legislative assistants) the ESA, sustainable logging in National Forests, and assuring adequate funding for fighting wildfires. Our legislators were cordial and supportive, welcoming to their constituents from New Mexico. All three of them expressed support both for the ESA. We asked that they try to rescue the Sage-Grouse from being lumped in with defense appropriations.


Whether or not they (with our support!) can save the Sage-Grouse and the ESA is an open question since this legislation has never before been subjected to anything like the current level of attack. That the Endangered Species Act is itself highly endangered was an irony made all the worse when the Sage-Grouse exemption from protection passed through a House committee hearing in the same week when I was in Washington advocating for its protection.

If you care about saving the ESA from extinction (and its feathered, furred and leafed constituents), this would be a good time to make your opinion known to the policy makers in our nation’s capitol.

<Photograph turned up from Google search>

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