Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The "History" in "Natural History"

Much is made of the need to conserve wildlife and preserve wildlands for the sake of future generations. I would argue that there is just as strong a need to be good stewards of the planet for the sake of past generations. We talk of “natural history” with an emphasis on “natural.” We practically ignore the “history” involved.

Here in the United States, we have a legion of icons who built the foundation for our modern environmental movement. Do we owe them nothing for their unique visions, legislative action, scientific research, and passionate protests? What about artists like Ansel Adams who brought images of wilderness to the masses who had never seen Yosemite? Aldo Leopold gave us a “land ethic.” Rachel Carson cautioned against the indiscriminate use of DDT. We would not be where we are today were it not for the likes of these heroes and heroines.

We can erect monuments to such people, honor their work in film documentaries and written biographies, but what better way to leave a legacy than to insure their efforts were not in vain? Yes, more wilderness has been preserved, more parks created, and more species discovered, but then there are challenges like the reintroduction of predators into parts of their historic geographical ranges.

The debate over wolf introductions is incredibly volatile, but I have heard no one speak of how doing so would bring history back to life. The national park system, at the very least, should be dedicated to preserving a historical spectrum of habitats and ecosystems. There is Colonial Williamsburg, there are civil war re-enactments, and countless other examples of “living history” in the human context of the term. What about the history of wildness?

Recreating in a museum diorama that which used to be is not enough. Resurrecting the mammoth, or even the Passenger Pigeon, may be a bit too much, as we also need reminders of our extreme human mistakes. Still, I feel impoverished that I have been deprived of even the opportunity to see a Carolina Parakeet, a Great Auk, or a Sea Mink. The California Condor once flew over the Columbia River, according to Lewis and Clark. We should consider restoring its presence there.

Once my own mentors pass away, you better believe I will remain dedicated to making sure their voices carry on, that their fights go on. I owe it to them. Another natural landscape destroyed by needless development, a dam, or pollution? Not on my watch. Allow another species to go extinct due to human greed or neglect? No way. I’ve got your back, John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, Bob Marshall, Dian Fossey. Your missions didn’t die with you.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Birding While Black

© m.inmagine.com, Cupid Alexander (model)

The other day I found myself inside a Barnes & Noble, and picked up the latest issue of Orion, the quarterly nature magazine. One of the first articles that caught my attention was a one-page piece by J. Drew Lanham entitled “9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher.” At first I thought it might be a comedic or satirical treatment, but it became very clear very quickly it was a rage against the status quo when it comes to “minorities” in a traditionally White recreational and citizen science pursuit.

I hope I am forgiven for laughing quietly to myself over a couple of the rules: “Don’t bird in a hoodie. Ever.” And “Nocturnal birding is a no-no.” They would be hysterical suggestions were they not a reflection of our tragic and obscene stereotypes of African American culture. And of course we are all too familiar with the horrific outcomes those assumptions can lead to: Shooting teenagers who can’t possibly be up to any good if they are in the “wrong” attire in the “wrong” neighborhood at the wrong time.

Dr. Lanham, who is a professor at Clemson University, goes on to express rightful indignation over the reluctance of the birding community at large to embrace diversity, and how the “they all look alike” bias of Caucasians toward Blacks spills over into a hobby that likes to consider itself more refined and sophisticated than average street folk. The Focus on Diversity pre-conference at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival is a landmark start, and Lanham has been actively involved in the event for its three years of existence.

We also need diversity in leadership positions. This also applies to the female gender. A recent blog post by Brooke McDonald, entitled “The Field Glass Ceiling,” revealed a mostly unspoken uneasiness felt by many women in the birding community. I am being polite, actually. Unspoken disgust is more like it. The dismissive attitude of some male birders is appalling. There are many accomplished female birders and ornithologists who could be outstanding ambassadors for the birdwatching community.

I must admit that, for the longest time, I myself stereotyped birders as mostly overly-affluent snobs who looked down their noses at anybody else recreating in the great outdoors. My attitude has been adjusted in the last decade or so, and not forcibly so. Kenn Kaufman gently nudged me to look beyond “bugs” again; and Jeffrey Gordon brings a welcoming persona to his role as president of the American Birding Association. The “new” generation of birders has a sense of humor, a sense of responsibility to bird conservation, and increasingly reaches out to young people. They even look at insects every once in awhile!

Back to Birding While Black. I do think that there is genuine concern over the lack of minorities in one of the most popular of all outdoor activities; and that sympathy extends beyond mere "tolerance" and politeness. The challenge lies in how we communicate better, and not sound patronizing or stereotypical. That applies to all parties involved. We need to get out of our comfort zones to accomplish real integration, but the rewards will be well worth the effort.

Note: A Google image search for "African American bird watching" turned up few results. The above image came from a "African American binoculars" search.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Crowdfunding


Image © Under30ceo.com

Crowdfunding online, through such avenues as Kickstarter and GoFundMe, has become all the rage these days. I was recently confronted by a situation that caused me to reflect on what I think of this new enterprise when a friend, who has relocated to Chile, broke her hand and needed surgery she could not afford.

I have to preface any further comments by noting the fact that my friend earns her living with her hands. She makes jewelry, and very good, unique jewelry at that. It was not an option to go without surgery and risk being handicapped for the remainder of her life. Obviously, even if she had health insurance, it likely would not have been honored in a foreign country.

So, I truly admire her creativity in appealing to her friends, actual and virtual, through Facebook. She set a goal, provided secure avenues for donations, and gave regular progress reports. I felt somewhat guilty for not sending funds myself, but I am without a regular income and nobody and no causes have received my financial blessing in quite some time.

At least I knew this was not a scam, which, unfortunately, cannot be said of everyone. It pays to do your homework on projects and people who you do not know personally. Witness the dubious validity of the ”Poverty Thoughts” essay.

What else figured into my decision not to give? I had not really thought about my philosophy toward crowdfunding until this circumstance presented itself, but I realized that I think crowd-sourcing should be about something beyond yourself. Funds raised should go to a greater good, a service or product or other creation that benefits more people than the individual seeking money for it.

I know plenty of people with outstanding ideas for which they lack financial backing to execute. Crowdfunding would be a great approach. Authors and musicians who have trouble getting contracts with publishers or recording studios can finally produce material and get exposure through crowdfunding. Indeed, that strategy also builds an audience for one’s work because they are aware of the process, even if they do not donate outright.

Is crowdfunding the future of artistic and creative enterprise? Perhaps it is. Anything that can legally allow for a person to become their own boss, or otherwise liberate themselves from the corporate-driven business world, I am all in favor of. A marketplace that is driven truly by small businesses, not by those of the Wall Street variety, is going to be more responsive, vastly more accountable, and hopefully a kinder, gentler economy.

Back to my friend in Chile. Her surgical procedure was successful and her physician is delighted with the progress of her healing. Someday, I hope to be in a position where I can make a tangible contribution to such friends in need, not sending only love and “good vibes.”

Friday, October 25, 2013

Let's Draft Congress


Image © CNN.com

I think it was during the last presidential election, with concurrent elections of senators and representatives, that I suggested to my wife that we should draft congressmen and elect people to go fight in wars. At the time I was joking, but the idea is growing on me with every 60 Minutes story of congressional abuse of power. If we truly want a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, then we the people need to step up and into positions of leadership.

The overwhelming problem, it occurs to me, is the co-opting of our congress by corporate interests that have only the interests of profit and shareholders at heart. That status quo is more than endorsed by both the Democratic and Republican parties. We need senators and representatives more connected to the average person.

We have had outstanding public servants in the past, but many of them have resigned in disgust over the current in-fighting between political parties and their various factions. There is little evidence this will change without a complete overhaul in how we go about choosing members of congress.

I propose that from local school boards on up to the federal level, we consider drafting people into those positions. At least draft two or three candidates for each position. Law enforcement officials, mayors, governors, and the President of the United States would be elected in pretty much the same manner as they are now, with appointments to Cabinet positions at their discretion. The benefits of drafting others to serve would be many-fold:

  1. No campaign costs. There would be a huge savings in campaign costs, and no need to campaign for re-election during the term you are serving. The media would be forced to do its job of researching a “candidate,” and learn that person’s values, employment history, and educational background. I should state that any person drafted would have the right to refuse service, much like jury duty.
  2. Redistricting would be rendered obsolete. Both political parties frequently attempt to secure domination in congressional districts through redistricting, changing the boundaries of the congressional district to include neighborhoods heavily weighted in favor of their party. This practice would be rendered moot if we draft candidates randomly.
  3. More diversity in political views. We are much more likely to get independent voices into public office by drafting people than by electing people because the current two-party system dominates through the financial backing of wealthy individuals and corporations (even certain non-profits). People who ally themselves with the Green Party, Libertarian Party, or some other affiliation, if any at all, would finally have an equal chance at getting into office. Yes, that would be a blessing or a curse, depending on one’s current affiliation.
  4. The infrastructure is in place. We already have the infrastructure to make this work. We also have the flexibility to create a hierarchy in the selection process. Perhaps we would start with those registered for unemployment compensation. Certainly the unemployed would have far more empathy for the middle-class than our current “leaders.” We definitely want to limit the pool to those who are registered to vote and who have demonstrated active participation in our current political process through a consistent voting record.
  5. More consensus in decision-making. I honestly believe that a body of average citizens is better at reaching a consensus on a given issue than are the elitist people currently in office (at least at the federal level). Again, I make the comparison to a jury. Sure, there are “hung” juries, but they make a more honest attempt at reaching agreement, and there are no corporate-driven agendas to fuel the fighting. The goal is justice, pure and simple. The current goal of congress is to provide security and profit to corporate interests.
  6. A more literate and informed electorate. Simply the fear of being drafted to a public office and appearing incompetent may be enough to drive the average Joe into learning more about our form of government and the responsibilities it has to the citizens. Once put into play, a draft system would also demand that citizens keep up to speed on things to insure accountability of their servants in office.

This idea of a political draft is certainly not flawless, but if it even generates a discussion on how we can refine our current system and put power back in the hands of the public, I’ve accomplished my mission. Our country and its citizens are too important to allow the continued gridlock and excesses that we see in today’s government.

We cannot continue on our present course of keeping the status quo. We know the hazards of natural resource extraction, for example. Clean energy cannot wait. We know there is “equal opportunity” in rhetoric only. We know we need to set a much better example for the world, while understanding there is no shame in borrowing ideas from the states, or even other nations. We should be fearless, but not reckless, in innovation, and fund basic research to make that innovation happen.

If public service is no longer something anyone aspires to, then it is time to turn the system on its head so that it at least has a chance at commanding the respect it once did. History can repeat itself in good ways as well as bad ways.

Monday, September 9, 2013

but Syriaously....

I have had it with politics. Were it not for politics I might consider running for office, but alas it is a cruel game now and our government leaders, or what passes for them, do not command the respect they once did. Today I find myself confronted by two political dramas that illustrate how damaging and wasteful the political process has become.

Here in Colorado we are holding a recall election for two state representatives. The recall was initiated by a group that disagreed with the legislature’s support of strong initiatives for firearms regulations in the wake of the Aurora, Colorado theatre massacre. From what I understand, national groups then jumped on the bandwagon and funneled money to solicitors for gathering the signatures necessary to warrant a recall election.

Farther down the road, the proponents of the recall whined that they needed more time to generate alternative candidates to add to the ballot. The court(?) granted them an extension, but that meant that there was no way to qualify this as a mail-in ballot election. Not only that, but normal polling places were not going to be used, either. It was highly confusing unless you paid careful attention to the news and to your mailbox.

Meanwhile, the propaganda generated by both sides was obscene, both in content and sheer quantity. What a waste of trees to print this vitriol. We also had two door-to-door visits from young people reminding us to vote and who to vote for.

Recall elections should be reserved for extreme cases of abuse of power; and not because you don’t agree with one decision by your elected representative. I would like to think that I would vote against this particular recall regardless of which political party affiliation the incumbent had.

But seriously, there is another issue of national and international significance capturing our collective attention right now: should we launch strategic strikes against Syria for their use of chemical weapons on civilians? Public sentiment seems to be very much against this idea, but the opposition comes from two very different perspectives.

I think it can be argued that the United States has, since Vietnam at the least, engaged in war only when there was something at stake for itself. The Middle East has always held two things coveted by America: oil, and strategic locations from which other military actions could be carried out. We failed to intervene fully in Bosnia, and in Rwanda, mostly because there were no resources at stake. While we claim to be proponents of civil rights and freedom from oppression, we don’t back up our words with action. Ending genocide is apparently not enough of a principle to warrant military intervention.

So what about Syria? There doesn’t seem to be enough natural resources there to provide incentive to use military force, so Republicans and right-wingers are not supportive of action. Those left-leaning liberals who at least claim to value human life regardless of its religious affiliation and level of wealth, and who do not support war under any circumstances, certainly don’t endorse any action, either. What an odd couple, both sides opposed to military action in Syria for such divergent reasons!

Clearly, there should be global intolerance for the use of biological weapons, and some kind of collective action needs to be taken against the Syrian government. Acting unilaterally is not the way to go. We have lots of work to do at home, though, to educate ourselves about other nations, and brainstorm ways to help prevent the circumstances that lead to such catastrophic attacks in the first place.

I will happily endorse my tax dollars being spent on global disarmament, building ecologically sustainable communities, and creating renewable energy platforms. You ask me to pay for another boondoggle of a recall election, or support corporate welfare for agribusiness and petroleum companies, then you won’t be getting my vote in the next election.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Freedom


Here it is, July 4, Independence Day in the U.S.A. Last Sunday, the pastor at our Lutheran Church gave a sermon entitled “Freedom,” and it got me thinking. We are indeed “free” in many ways, but I also believe we have a long way to go to be free as individuals and as a society.

Pastor Dave (Hall) was astute in recognizing that most of us are still enslaved by our jobs, our debts, our addictions, and other self-imposed limitations. We have freedom of choice, but too often our choices are not in our best interest, at least not in the long term. We are still too concerned with keeping up appearances, and often go into debt to create the impression that we are doing just fine economically. Privately, we worry about the credit monster we have created, and perhaps take up an addiction to help us cope.

Are we not also slaves of politics, our employers, the marketplace, even religion? Do we cling tightly to pre-conceived notions, stereotypes, and outdated beliefs because we fear change or feel threatened by the different beliefs of others? Do we keep working at a job we cannot stand because we must have the paycheck and health insurance coverage? Newsflash: Your employer is not going to be loyal to you if the shareholders or board of directors demand cost-cutting changes.

I think being free means taking risks, thinking outside the box (or cubicle or condo), keeping an open mind, and nurturing empathy. It means sacrifice, deciding what material things you can do without. Freedom in essence, then, is what our society claims to value, but which culture also does everything in its power to stifle.

Freedom is what this very blog is all about: Celebrating alternative landscapes, alternative energy, public transportation, continuing education, public discourse on meaningful subjects. Do I always practice what I preach? Of course not. No one is perfect, but that is not the point. Finding out what works for you is what freedom should be about, even if it flies in the face of convention. Especially if it flies in the face of convention.

Go out this evening and enjoy yourself. Indulge in a baseball game and eat food that is bad for you. My wife and I are going to do so ourselves. We have collectively earned the right to celebrate. Tomorrow, give yourself, your family, friends, and the country a reason to be optimistic about the future. Change what doesn’t work for you and encourage others to be fearless in pursuing their own destiny.

The only thing we should be a slave to is God’s (however you define that) purpose for our lives. You’ll know it because you won’t be able to turn away from it, even if it isn’t the most popular road to success. Especially if it isn’t a popular road. Take care, but take up your cause.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Prospect Lake

I had dismissed Prospect Lake in Memorial Park as just another fake lake in the urban landscape, not worth my time if I wanted to find any wildlife other than Rock Pigeons or European Starlings. Thanks to a Facebook group for the Colorado Field Ornithologists, I found out my assumptions had no validity whatsoever.

About the middle of last month, posts to the group included sightings of the most improbable birds you could imagine: American Avocet, Mountain Bluebird, even American White Pelican. Grebes of at least four species were common. There were pictures of several species to back up the claims.

It is embarrassing to admit that Memorial Park is only about three miles from my home, near downtown Colorado Springs. Yes, Prospect Lake is a large, artificial reservoir, dutifully stocked with trout for fishermen, and with boat ramps to facilitate water skiing, but the water level is low right now, and the boathouse is not yet open for business. I should have paid closer attention.


American White Pelicans

After reading the posts to the ornithology group with my jaw on the floor, I decided I needed to see for myself all the bird diversity. Apparently, on April 19, I was one day too late for the midge hatch that had attracted the large number of birds the previous day. I was still impressed even so. The pelican flock was still there, plus more waterfowl and gulls than I could count. At one point I counted six Ospreys in the air at once. It was like they were lining up and taking turns at the trout….at least until the Bald Eagle showed up and frightened everybody else away.

The land that is now Memorial Park was donated to the city by General William Jackson Palmer in 1890. Prospect Lake was excavated shortly thereafter. Initially, the reservoir was used to supply water to the Evergreen Cemetery, but that need expired in 1950. The water that fills the lake is extracted from the nearby Fountain Creek, a local watershed. A Naval Reserve station occupied the southwest corner of the lake from the late 1940s until the late 1980s. Plans to turn the entire lake over to naval training exercises in 1950 were thwarted by locals who enjoyed recreating on the rest of the lake. The Colorado Springs Fire Department used the armory for training after naval training facilities moved to Fort Carson, but after 2001 all the buildings were abandoned and demolished.

The lake began losing water at a high rate in 2002 when the pipeline supplying the lake was shut off, a severe drought was happening, and the liner for the lake became torn. A movement to add Prospect Lake to the National Register of Historical Places was successful, and spurred action to replace the liner. The lake was refilled and again stocked with fish in 2005, and it remains a vibrant center of recreation today.

The lake is surrounded today by playgrounds, including the state-of-the-art “Swing High” totally accessible playground, plus lawns, ornamental pine, cottonwood, and other trees, ballfields, residential neighborhoods, and commercial real estate. Despite all the hustle and bustle, birds seem to enjoy the area, at least in migration this year.

My own trips to the park on April 21, 26, 27, and 29 yielded a combined tally of the following species:

  1. Mallard
  2. American Wigeon
  3. Blue-winged Teal
  4. Northern Shoveler

    Northern Shovelers
  5. Lesser Scaup
  6. Redhead
  7. Bufflehead
  8. Ruddy Duck
  9. Canada Goose
  10. American Coot
  11. Pied-billed Grebe
  12. Horned Grebe
  13. Eared Grebe
  14. Western Grebe

    Western Grebe
  15. Clark’s Grebe
  16. Double-crested Cormorant
  17. American White Pelican
  18. Ring-billed Gull
  19. California Gull
  20. Franklin’s Gull
  21. Osprey
  22. Bald Eagle
  23. Cooper’s Hawk
  24. Great Blue Heron
  25. Great Egret
  26. Killdeer
  27. American Avocet

    American Avocets
  28. Spotted Sandpiper
  29. Lesser Yellowlegs
  30. Willet
  31. Wilson’s Phalarope
  32. Rock Pigeon
  33. Belted Kingfisher
  34. Downy Woodpecker
  35. Northern Flicker
  36. Tree Swallow
  37. Violet-green Swallow
  38. Say’s Phoebe
  39. American Robin
  40. American Pipit
  41. American Crow

    Osprey
  42. Black-capped Chickadee
  43. White-breasted Nuthatch (heard)
  44. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  45. European Starling
  46. Common Grackle
  47. Brown-headed Cowbird
  48. House Sparrow
  49. Chipping Sparrow
  50. Lark Sparrow
  51. Savannah Sparrow
  52. Dark-eyed Junco
  53. House Finch

I am a novice birder, and I know other species were seen, and have been seen since. Warblers, for example, are only now starting to appear. It just goes to show that you can still be surprised by nature close to home. Really, really close to home.

Sources: Galas, Judith, and Cindy West. 1997. Walking Colorado Springs. Helena, Montana: Falcon Guides (Pequot Press). 233 pp.
Tankersley, Teila. 2010. “Some Interesting Pieces of Trivia on Prospect Lake in Colorado Springs,” Fresh Ink