Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Animals We Are

After the Kaufman Field Guide to Mammals of North America was published, it occurred to me that every mammal field guide I am aware of makes one glaring omission: it fails to include our own species, Homo sapiens. This may seem irrelevant, but stay with me a moment and see if I don’t make some thoughtful arguments.

I talked to Kenn Kaufman briefly about this, and his opinion is that people already recognize their own species, so there is no need for a redundant identification entry in a field guide. Fair enough, and the idea does seem ludicrous when one thinks of it that way. I know that I personally have never mistaken a human being for any other kind of animal, even sports team mascots in costume.

My point is something else entirely. We collectively do not consider ourselves part of the animal kingdom, and that is a huge mistake. It is why we ignore climate change, are slow to address pollution issues, and why we are so insensitive at times to other species. Ironically, those very same anthropocentric and self-centered attitudes we have confirm our animal nature.

Every species acts to maximize its own reproductive potential and minimize its mortality factors. Every species wants to eliminate other species competing for ‘its’ resources, and is vulnerable to habitat destruction. Sound familiar?

Ok, fine, you say, but how exactly could you even illustrate a field guide entry for Homo sapiens without having to slap a “Parental Advisory” sticker on the cover, or face lawsuits over racism. Simple. You render each gender as a silhouette, and maybe include faces of different ethnicities as well. I think it would be a good idea to help remind ourselves how diverse our own human family really is anyway.

The distribution map would, obviously, cover most of the planet. Illustrating habitat might be more difficult. We vary from highly urban to remote wilderness, and colonial to tribal to isolationist.

The bottom line is that we need to celebrate our “animalness” as much as we do our separateness from nature. Maybe even more so in this day and age of sustainability and professed environmental awareness. What better way to nudge us in that direction than to have our own entry in a field guide, right next to squirrels, bats, wolves, whales and dolphins?

To be an “animal” should cease to be an insult, too. What else would you want to be? A fungus? I don’t know, maybe I am way out of line. Given the conservative political climate, I’m surprised there has not been a movement to change our scientific name to Hetero sapiens.

Saturday, January 23, 2010


The recent storms that migrated here to Arizona from southern California have produced heavy rains in the valleys, and heavy snow in the higher elevations. Even the Santa Catalina Mountains, of only moderate altitude, got their share. I took these images from my apartment complex in midtown Tucson, looking north.

I find it rather amusing that there are palm trees in the foreground, and scenery more reminiscent of Colorado in the background. One of those two seems to be misplaced, maybe Photoshopped into the frame. Nope, it is all real.

My friends in Massachusetts would kid me about the snow when it fell during my stay up there, seems as how unaccustomed to precipitation I was. I'm actually no stranger to the white stuff, and quite enjoy it, especially away from an urban setting.

I remember when my Explorer Post, which kept me out of trouble during high school, had a weekend up near the timberline on Mt. Hood in Oregon. We stayed in a two-story cabin you had to reach on snowshoes at that time of year (April). We entered on the second floor. It was delightful: warm during the day with bright sun, the snow crystals gleaming like diamonds. Camp robbers (birds called gray jays) stole our pancakes, literally right out from under our noses, but we laughed.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Squirrel Appreciation Day

Thanks to my more savvy friends on Facebook, it has come to my attention that yesterday (January 21) was “Squirrel Appreciation Day.” Who knew? How do people learn of these things anyway? Why on Earth would anyone proclaim a day for squirrels?

I guess when you are unemployed, things like “Talk Like a Pirate Day” and whatnot seem pretty trivial. Well, this year there is the massive earthquake in Haiti, too (and I’d really be surprised to find out there is an “earthquake appreciation day”). Come to think of it, the weather lately has not been friendly to many organisms, least of all squirrels that must have their acorns buried under several feet of snow in many places.

It turns out that we have Christy Hargrove, a wildlife rehabilitator in Asheville, North Carolina, to thank for this day of Sciuridae recognition. The inaugural tribute was in 2001.

The National Wildlife Federation was on top of the event this year, issuing a special message on their website. Humorist Dave Barry also commented on his blog.

Don’t get me wrong, I do find squirrels to be admirable, and certainly entertaining. They may be the only form of mammalian wildlife in our inner city parks, and their adaptability is a lesson to us humans, too, in learning to make the best of where we are. Hm-m-m, what would an unemployed squirrel do?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Premiering Tonight!

I have the privilege tonight of attending a local event celebrating the national premiere of the new television series Meteorite Men, starring Geoffrey Notkin, the gentleman for whom my friend Leigh Anne DelRay works. The program airs on the Science Channel at 9 PM EST. Please check your local listings.

I would be remiss in not mentioning Geoff’s partner in space rock sleuthing, Steve Arnold. The two make a great team, educating the audience in an entertaining fashion without going totally over the top. No death-defying stunts, but plenty of adventure, and contagious enthusiasm for finding these fallen pieces of our universe.

One has to be part scientist, part historian, and a world traveler to be a meteorite hunter. It also helps to be creative, inventive, and a mechanic to fix the vehicles that inevitably break down in the course of rambling across all kinds of terrain.

Geoff and Steve are doing for meteorites what I want to do for urban wildlife. All of us have lived vicariously through National Geographic, Nature, NOVA, the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. We’ve been down the Amazon several times over, and have about had our fill of lions and tigers and bears (oh, my!), but we certainly haven’t explored beneath the soil for meteorites, or made a discovery-filled trek through our own backyards and city parks.

Who knows, Geoff and Steve might dig up a meteorite in your backyard at some point in the course of their own show. Did I mention that it also helps to know how to research ownership of property, and negotiate with landowners to be a meteorite hunter?

Please join me in congratulating these two fine men on achieving a dream two years in the making. Follow their exploits via Geoff’s blog, also: Meteorites: They Came From Outer Space. They may be the hardest working scientists in show business.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Diamondback Bridge

In keeping with my pursuit of animal-themed art here in the Old Pueblo, I bring you probably our most famous public art landmark, the Diamondback Bridge.

You have my apologies ahead of time for the poor images. I shot these late in the afternoon, but the landscaping around this bicycle and pedestrian overpass has also grown up a great deal and now obscures parts of the span.

The Diamondback Bridge, often mistakenly referred to as the “Rattlesnake Bridge,” was conceived and designed by local artist Simon Donovan back in 1997. It stretches 280 feet over Broadway Boulevard, just east of downtown Tucson. Well, depending on what your own research uncovers, it could be as long as three hundred feet.

The cost of construction was 2.3 million dollars, or 2.7 million if you consult another source. The artist’s fee of $24,000 covered the concept and “oversight” of the construction process. The San Francisco firm T.Y. Lin International did the actual fabrication and building.

Donovan was a stickler for detail and accuracy, replicating the serpent’s belly scales with precision in, well, scale. Each ventral segment is exactly two and one-half feet wide.

The engineers balked at this, insisting that the workmen would have great difficulty in negotiating such closely-spaced objects. Donovan was equally insistent on keeping the spacing to his specifications, and his wishes prevailed.

The project was completed in spring of 2002, with the grand opening on May 23rd of that year. It has since garnered a total of nine awards, including the American Public Works Project of the Year in 2003, and three engineering awards.

Not that the bridge has not had its share of critics. The most legitimate of those arguments cites the placement of the span. It really doesn’t go anywhere, dumping pedestrians and bicyclists at no particular destination. The immediate neighborhood is not all that safe, either.

Still, there is no disagreement that the design, execution, and overall appearance of the bridge is unique. The “tail” of the bridge even features a motion-sensor that sets off an amplified recording of a real rattlesnake’s alarming rattle. At the other end, the snake’s eyes light up at night.

Be sure to make a point of visiting this landmark the next time you find yourself in Tucson, and then you can come to your own conclusions.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Outdoor Wreck-reation

I had an interesting conversation the other day with an old friend who lives in an exceptionally scenic part of Oregon that is a Mecca for outdoor recreation, especially at this time of year. As she put it, many people want to be outdoors for “exercise,” while she simply likes to be outdoors. I’m reminded of how often different forms of outdoor recreation conflict with one another.

Why has our American culture not outgrown its need to conquer nature? That desire has, if anything, actually increased in the last two decades with the obsession of “extreme sports,” many of which are winter pursuits such as snowboarding. So popular are these activities that they have spawned events like the Winter X-Games, telecast on ESPN. It is arguably the celebration of what I call “stupid risk,” situations we create needlessly that make us appear superior to others. The stock market may be another manifestation of this, but I digress.

Mount Airy Forest, a large city park in Cincinnati, Ohio, was like an eden I could escape to when I lived there, but once in awhile I found the peace and solitude interrupted by someone on a mountain bike tearing down the trail. While I am not opposed to trail riding, be it two-wheeled or equestrian, the two should be separated. I would not go snowshoeing on a downhill ski run, for example.

One traveling at a pedestrian pace is usually interested in the journey, while those careening over hill and dale are, at least to my mind, destination-oriented, fitness-driven, or speed-obsessed. When I’m afield, I want to see wildlife, and anyone making excessive noise and moving at the speed of a predator is going to frighten most birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians into beating a hasty retreat.

There is also the question of what is appropriate recreation in sensitive habitats such as wetlands and sand dunes. Marshes, bogs, swamps, and dunes are no place for off-road vehicles, except in emergencies. ATVs continue to destroy these wildlife habitats, however.

We already have skate parks for skateboarders, so why not turn open pit mines, closed land fills, and other real estate already severely compromised by human activities into playgrounds for motorcycles and ATVs? Confining recreational traffic to such areas would allow for supervision of users, on-site first aid for those involved in spills, and emergency transportation on stand-by in the event of a more catastrophic accident.

There really is room for everyone to recreate, but we need to be more considerate of each other, and more understanding of each other’s expectations of an outdoor experience. Please, share your own ideas and experiences here.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Giving Blood

I gave blood yesterday at the local Red Cross. I try to make a habit of it, but still find it an irregular exercise in samaritanship. Not enough folks donate, though, and my blood type is highly coveted, so I do what I can. Maybe people don’t know what to expect when donating, and so they are fearful? Allow me to share my own history of experiences and allay any trepidation.

Like most guys, I like to think of myself as fairly tough and at least somewhat pain-tolerant. Fear of fainting or otherwise appearing weak and fragile kept me from donating until I was in my thirties. I was on a temporary job assignment when a couple women co-workers asked if I’d like to go with them to donate blood. I decided I might as well give it a try. They told me that as long as you eat a good healthy meal beforehand, you are not likely to even become light-headed. True enough.

I don’t have a fear of needles, but you do get put through the ringer before you even get to that point. Every time you donate you face a battery of tests including blood pressure, body temperature and, ironically, a prick to your finger to get blood for testing your level of iron. Too low in iron and you can’t donate. The most daunting of all, though, is the litany of questions you must answer.

I suspect that one reason women might not donate is because you have to admit you are over 110 pounds, the minimum weight for female donors. Men face even more ego-deflating questions after “Do you feel well today?” I sometimes find myself reduced to tears when I answer “no” to questions involving my international travel history (non-existent) and, worst of all, my sex life (or lack thereof). I don’t participate in risky behavior with drug addicts, prostitutes, or other men, here at home or abroad; and I don’t sport any tattoos or body piercings (with no plans to be incarcerated, either). How boring am I?

Once it is determined that you really are a mouse and not a man, you are ushered to the room where they do the actual blood-letting, er, taking. You get to recline in a comfy chair, and then recite your name, address, and social security number for the umpteenth time. A technician swabs your arm with iodine (provided you assured the staff you are not allergic to that substance), and an effort is then made to find a vein in the crook of your elbow. That reminds me to do more arm curls at the gym….

Eventually you are encouraged to “look away,” if you need to, so as not to see the medical equivalent of a sewer pipe headed your way. I’m kidding, of course, it really isn’t that bad (or that big). I feel more pain from the stupid finger prick for the iron test. After the insertion of the needle there is little left to do besides gently roll a toy ball in your hand to keep the juices flowing.

When you have passed a pint, the little machine beeps, alerting the technician to disengage you, but not before about three additional vials of blood are taken for testing. Even though you were honest in how you answered the ream of questions, no chances are taken when it comes to blood-borne diseases, and so the vials will be used to test for those.

Finally, you are bandaged and given post-donation instructions that include no rigorous exercise for the next 24 hours, and more than your usual intake of non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated beverages (read “water”). Then you are sent to the canteen for recovery and refreshments. Yesterday I donated “2RBC” or “double reds,” and responded accordingly at the canteen, downing two juices and eating two snacks.

One other thing used to bother me about donating blood: You don’t get to choose who it goes to. Yes, you can help save a life, and it might be a baby, or a cancer patient. It could also just as easily be a drunk driver who wrapped his car around a utility pole, or a gang-banger who got himself shot. Maybe your blood will go to that guy from the Jackass show. You just don’t know. Notice that it doesn’t stop me from donating just the same.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Happy New (Herp) Year

I had the pleasure of starting the new year among friends congregated at the Sierra Vista, Arizona home of Pat Sullivan and Lisa Lee. I got to make some new friends, too, including some of the cold-blooded variety.

Pat Sullivan has a wonderful collection of pinned insects, especially scarab beetles (see ”Bug Rooms”), but he also keeps a handful of live snakes. You can’t help but be captivated by such colorful serpents as this kingsnake.

The last time I saw Pat he had sworn-off keeping venomous reptiles, but he had two on display this time. One was a truly lovely specimen of a sidewinder.
The other was a small but beautiful black-tailed rattlesnake. I have to admit I have a real fascination with the pit vipers, but have a healthy respect, too. I happen to be allergic to horses, from which antivenin is produced. Should I ever be bitten by a rattlesnake I would be in serious trouble! Behind the glass of a terrarium they can be admired closely, but safely.

Among the human guests I met was Bev Wigney, a very accomplished nature photographer who has some of her spectacular insect images in my Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America. We had corresponded over the internet, but it was serendipitous that we wound up meeting in person at the New Year’s party. Bev spends a good deal of time in Bisbee, Arizona, as well as in her home country of Canada. Be sure to check out her own blog, Journey to the Center.

After a night of eating, trading stories, and midnight toasting, some of us tucked ourselves in there at Pat and Lisa’s for the remainder of the night. This was the view I awoke to the next morning. What a way to start the year. I hope that your year starts as sweetly, and that you find 2010 to be exciting and prosperous, but also stress-free.