Friday, December 14, 2012

Time for a new Environmentalism?

Charmlee Wilderness Park in Malibu, California

That is the question being asked in a popular article over on It seems that “eco-pragmatists” (aka “modernist greens”) are asserting that it is at best illogical and unhelpful to assume that pristine habitats are the only definition of “natural.” At least one even lauds GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and nuclear power as essentially to the continued success of our species. Others think invasive species are not all that bad. I believe the truth lies somewhere between the modern movement and the old guard that still clings to the belief the only good wilderness is….well, wilderness.

Here are the fundamentals that I believe we must collectively address if we are to move forward for a better planet:

  • Recognize that Homo sapiens is itself an animal. That’s right, we continue to ignore that we are animals, subject to the same drives and instincts as any other animal species. We seek to reproduce, limit mortality factors, and accumulate resources. We are also subject to adversity like any other animal: competition, predation, parasitism, natural disaster, etc. Increasingly, as we conquer our natural enemies, we replace them with others of our own species who act as competitors, predators, and parasites in both the literal and economic sense.
  • Agree that Earth’s climate is changing. What else do I need to say? It should be obvious by now, but we must continue seeking changes in natural resource extraction (like slowly eliminating it), and embrace any and all potential, sustainable solutions. We can have wind power without excessive avian fatalities. We simply need the will and the flexibility to follow new innovations, even if we find ourselves already producing some other device.
  • Curb rampant consumerism. Our Western culture must cease to aspire to material wealth. We must revolt against advertising that attempts to convince us we need product such-and-such for our well-being or self-improvement. Self-improvement will come when we downsize our existing material possessions, share what we have left, and focus on physical and mental health. We can raise world standards of living by lowering our own at the extreme end of the spectrum.
  • Assign higher value to all living organisms. We should hold living things in higher esteem than anything else, especially financial profit. We need to properly revere those organisms we rely on for food, and protect diversity above all else. There is a reason there are so many other species on the planet. We just don’t always know the “why” of it. We must also remember that we are living organisms ourselves, and treat labor and consumers accordingly.
  • Establish a spectrum of ecosystems and habitats. Our national parks, for example, should have a mandate to reflect the historical natural spectrum of our lands. Re-introducing species that formerly occupied an area is in keeping with this philosophy. Eliminating invasive species from such areas is equally important. Meanwhile, creating parks at the national, state, county, or city level should reflect habitats that may not be pristine, but have varying degrees of human alteration.
  • Remove barriers to local agriculture. It is appalling that there are still ordinances in some places preventing the erection of community gardens, backyard farms, and other means of self-sufficient food production. Our government has no responsibility to protect agri-business at the expense of the citizenry. Most of our future advancements in agriculture will come through experimentation at a smaller scale. Meanwhile, local agriculture may buffer us from the impact of large scale droughts and disasters on much larger farms (if one can still call agri-business enterprises “farms.”).
  • Reduce federal budgets for weaponry. Homo sapiens has proved again and again that its greatest capacity is for destruction. We no longer have the luxury of invading other countries, in any sense. See “assign higher value to all living organisms” above. Yes, there may be need to deploy troops to make peace in places of conflict, but we have to eliminate all nuclear weapons at the least. I would gladly pay more in taxes for DISarmament.
  • Cease an “Americentric” approach to domestic problems. The U.S. has an enormous ego problem. We can no longer dismiss the successes of other nations in solving common problems like unemployment and substance abuse. “Our way or the highway” is an attitude that leads to failure. There is no shame in adopting the ways of others when those solutions are demonstrably successful.

Perhaps one of the good things that will come from rising fuel prices (as a result of dwindling oil supplies) is that people will be forced to look at their immediate surroundings and lifestyle and realize that they need to appreciate what is close to home. I hope it doesn’t come to rationing and other extreme measures before we come to our senses, though. I truly believe that biodiversity begins at home. So does conservation, sustainability, and environmentalism.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Red Bull Rampage

My wife likes to turn on the Today show in the morning while we have breakfast. The trivia that passes for news is usually only mildly annoying, but one story today set me on fire. Reporter Jenna Wolfe covered the “Red Bull Rampage,” an extreme mountain biking competition in what I suspect used to be a pristine Utah landscape. I am not sure which turns my stomach more: the event itself, or the fact that NBC is glorifying this destructive spectacle.

Here in Colorado Springs I see firsthand the deep gullies and gashes eroded by mountain bikes. While most of the riders are courteous and careful when it comes to sharing trails with pedestrian hikers, the damage done to the soil is appalling. I will still grant them the right to ride on trails in an urban or suburban setting, but to carry out their freewheeling in wilderness (officially designated or not)? No way. I have another solution, which I will discuss later.

Back in the day we used to call extreme sports participants “daredevils.” We could still call them that today, but the emphasis should be on “devil.” We could also call it “wreckreation,” because that is what is happening to the environment in the wake of tire treads, litter, and other negative impacts. Erosion, siltation of streams and other water courses, and destruction of wildlife habitat is what you get out of repeated abuse by trail bikes, motorized or pedaled.

In any event, you are defacing something beautiful. There is no other word to describe this competition except “vandalism.”

Then there is the scenic aspect. What was once something sculpted completely by wind, water, and geologic upheaval is now scarred permanently in the name of “sport.” I find it ironic that this is billed as a dangerous sport, yet people with pick-axes and shovels carve out “routes” for the bikers to use in the Red Bull Rampage. In any event, you are defacing something beautiful. There is no other word to describe this competition except “vandalism.” You might as well ride over the paintings in the Louvre. It is just as disrespectful an act, if not moreso, to scribble permanent tracks over a landscape eons in the making.

What would I do instead? I would hold events like this in landscapes already compromised by human enterprise. Abandoned open pit mines come to mind. I can think of one in Bisbee, Arizona that would be ideal. Think about all the upsides to this. You can make a course as difficult as you like. You can have emergency medical personnel and transportation standing close by in the event of a horrible accident. Your closer proximity to a city or town would generate revenue for that municipality. Abandoned mines, old landfills, and other parcels of land already scarred by human activity abound on this planet. There is absolutely no need to exploit pristine wilderness.

I plan to write to NBC News to protest both the story on this morning’s Today show and their plan to air the Red Bull Rampage event in its ugly entirety next month. This is not sport, and we have to stop glorifying it as such. Push for alternative locations for such things. Take a piece of land that is beyond repair and hold such competitions there. Everyone can be happy if we put our minds to it. We conquered Nature long ago. What we are doing now is tantamount to torture. There are international agreements against torturing human beings. Maybe we need that kind of accord to protect Mother Nature, too.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Election 2012

The importance of exercising your democratic responsibility to vote this November 6 cannot be understated, but you also have my sympathy for how increasingly broken our public institutions are becoming. A President, a congressman, or any other elected official alone cannot begin to repair problems that have been decades in the making, and largely out of their legal control anyway. The political process needs reform, no doubt, but we also need large cultural shifts to make America the nation it could (and should) be.

It may surprise you to learn that I am not going to be overtly endorsing any candidates in this post. That is because it is more important for me to get you thinking outside the (ballot) box. I trust you to vote with considerable deliberation, and I’m confident that we share respect for each other’s beliefs.

It surprises me to reflect that I have probably worked (been employed in the traditional sense) more consistently under Republican administrations than under Democratic leadership in the White House. I also find I have far more anxiety over our nation’s foreign and environmental policies under Republican leadership. Still, I think that most economic prosperity has little to do with legislation. As a consumer, I certainly appreciate regulations that protect me from contaminants in my water and food, and pollutants in the air that I breathe. Since I greatly value wildlife, I appreciate the maintenance of existing parks and refuges, and the creation of more. My creative side applauds all financial support of the arts, and innovations in sustainable energy and agriculture. I am grateful that I am in good health, and fall under my wife’s insurance coverage, but I have close friends who are not so fortunate. They have pre-existing conditions that until “Obama-care” prevented them from being properly insured. This issue alone is fodder for another post, so I will stop there.

Three cultural conditions exist right now that do trouble me. They are: Wasteful consumerism, the blurring of boundaries between church and state, and the worship of Wall Street.

The average middle class household doesn’t take home the income it used to. That is an undisputed fact, when one adjusts for inflation and looks back at our historical wage-earning power. Unfortunately, we are also more irresponsible than ever in how we choose to spend that income. One may even argue that there really isn’t even a middle class at all anymore, because much of what we purchase we go into debt to pay for. We aren’t “keeping up with the Joneses,” we’re burying ourselves under credit cards. I wonder how much tax reform, wage reform, and opposition to unions there would be if everyone only spent what they actually had. It would become instantly obvious how much of a gap there is between the rich and the poor. “We can’t redistribute wealth!” you say. What do you think Wall Street does?

Ah, yes, the stock market: Legalized gambling at its finest, for only the highest of high rollers. It is the engine that redistributes wealth to those who already have enough disposable income to invest. Wait, I’m sorry, many corporations also robbed retirement accounts to continue their illusion of profitability. Employees, consumers, and all too often the environment, suffer to appease the almighty shareholder. This is the one institution that needs reform above all others.

Lastly, we are experiencing a resurgence of Christian fundamentalists attempting to impose their values on all citizens through legislation and funding (or de-funding) avenues. The problem is that, for better or for worse, our constitution and Bill of Rights guarantee us the freedom to sin. Not that we should, of course, and not to say there are no consequences for our sins in terms of prosecution and incarceration to name just two, but it is pretty explicitly protected. Some misguided folks might equate that freedom with “pursuit of happiness,” but I wouldn’t go that far. I am sorry that “God” and religion have become synonymous, though, because the higher power I believe in is far more inclusive and tolerant than many of “His” Christian believers.

There you have it, my two cents with room to expand in later posts. What do you think? Do we achieve most of our personal and collective success in spite of government intervention? Are we too rigid in our adherence to current government revenue streams (taxes)? How do we overcome the grandiose expectations we have of both government and the marketplace? We need to begin a dialogue, not another debate, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Tragedy of AOD

A horrible problem in the world has reached epidemic proportions without anyone seeming to notice. It is insidious, and accounts for a declining intellect, social stratification, and rampant misunderstanding. We are all guilty of spreading this contagion of the digital age, and the sooner we find an antidote the better. I am speaking, of course, of AOD, better known as Acronym Overload Disorder.

The final straw for me came on Sunday, September 23, when a good friend listed her morning bird sightings in such truncated abbreviation that I had no clue what she was talking about. That is because I am a “fringe birder,” one who sees birds as a lovely complement to the more important insects. I would never be so rude as to assume that anyone would know what I meant if I said “There goes a TTS (Two-tailed Swallowtail)!”

This demonstrates the social stratification element of acronyms. We want to be the ones “in the know,” members of the exclusive club that can refer to things in shorthand with the confidence that other members of the club will recognize what we mean (wink). It is a way to create cliques. We all know how beneficial cliques are.

I realized how tragically hip I myself had become when another good friend mistook the “LOL” in my e-mails for “Lots of Love” rather than “Laughing Out Loud.” Indeed, we can trace our dependence on acronyms to the phenomenon of texting. From there it has spread to Twitter, Facebook, and e-mails. Maybe its origins go back farther than that, though.

When did we first start referring to Burger King as “BK,” Kentucky Fried Chicken as “KFC?” I confess that I don’t use “BK” when talking about the restaurant because it always reminds me of the “BTK” serial killer (Bind, Torture, Kill). Burger King should have thought of that, actually. We call Weapons of Mass Destruction “WMDs,” as if that somehow softens the thought of bombs detonating and killing innocent people.

There is also something of a generation gap created by the fast-evolving shorthand of texts, compounded by auto correct features of “smart phones.” Parents are often mystified by the messages sent by their children. That is the point, of course. What teenager wants to be sending a “sext” with a PLOS (parent looking over shoulder)?

Words have always been powerful, but the new shorthand is perhaps even moreso by literally excluding so many from the conversation, or the public discourse. I remember news broadcasts in my youth that referred to a hot topic of the day: euthanasia. I wondered what all the fuss was about regarding children in China. Today, I don’t even have a reference book that I can refer to for acronyms because they are created almost daily.

Obviously, this trend toward truncated language is a symptom itself of a society that puts a premium on speed, hurtling ever faster into tomorrow. That may be the biggest tragedy of all. We need to take time to slow down, observe where we are personally and as a species. We don’t need everything, right here, right now. We certainly don’t need to know every little detail of your day, Twitterholics. We’re losing sight of what things are truly important as everything becomes trivialized through social media.

RU RFLYAO yet? Oh, sorry, that’s “Are you rolling on the floor laughing your ass off, yet? I rather hope not. Remember, this addiction to abbreviations is an illness. That is why I am contemplating founding a non-profit aimed at curing our society of AOD. You can begin sending money now, if you like. I will happily see to it that funds are dispensed in the most effective manner possible, ASAP.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Stroke

Warning: This post includes my blunt opinions about the current state of human sexuality in the United States. Frank language can be expected.

Sunday, August 19 of this year changed my life. While taking a leisurely walk around a pond with me, my wife suffered a stroke. We didn’t diagnose it as such on the spot. She had tingling in the left side of her face and arm, and she wanted to lean to the left when walking. She felt a little light-headed, too. I thought that maybe she was having an allergic reaction to something she ate for lunch, or was dehydrated and overheated. I had her sit down, drink some water, and tell me more about how she was feeling.

”Do you think we need to go to the hospital?” I asked.

”I don’t know.” she responded.

”Are you thinking it might be a stroke?”


We wasted no time in getting her on her feet and back to the car. I’m embarrassed to admit that I haven’t driven in a city since 1999 in Cincinnati, and I was pretty panic-stricken even back then, so Heidi drove us both to the hospital. She was admitted into the ER quickly, and then into the hospital’s neurological services unit. We were there almost exactly 48 hours while she rested and hospital personnel did tests.

Heidi is young, only 41, and the idea that she had experienced a stroke left us dumbfounded. She is not overweight, does not smoke, gets regular exercise (at her job as a zookeeper; and keeping me in line at home), and has no other pre-existing conditions that are known to aggravate a stroke.

What had changed in the previous three months was that she had begun taking oral contraceptives. The blood work on Heidi is still pending as I write this, but nurses and doctors all concede that the birth control pills probably precipitated her stroke. The high estrogen levels in “The Pill” are firmly linked to not only an increased risk of stroke, but also breast cancer. Heidi was taking these drugs as much to alleviate heavy menstruation as to protect us from an unwanted and/or risky pregnancy.

One of the nurse practitioners that talked to us said that if it was up to her, no woman over forty years of age would be prescribed oral contraceptives. No woman who smokes should ever get birth control pills, regardless of her age. Yes, the warnings surrounding oral contraceptives are explicit, but chronically downplayed by both the pharmaceutical industry and the medical community. Why do women have the burden of birth control in the first place?

Here’s the thing. Our patriarchal society continues to assert that men have a right to sexual intercourse any time they want, on whatever terms they so desire, without taking any responsibility for the potential consequences. Gentlemen: Last time I checked, aside from potential allergy to latex, there were no side-effects to wearing a damn condom! Are you really willing to subject your loving partner to potentially lethal or life-altering damage for the sake of your carnal desires?

We need a fundamental cultural shift in the U.S. that demands men take responsibility for their actions, especially when it comes to sex. Lately, there seems to be movement in the opposite direction, seeking to rob women of the few options they have to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancy, or even the opportunity to seek counsel, receive proper medical exams, and access to birth control in any form.

At least some of the roots of the problem can be traced to how we bring up our sons. The “rites” of manhood now seem to be “losing your virginity” and “getting a car,” not necessarily in that order. That sense of entitlement has got to go. It needs to be replaced with a reverence for women; and we must substitute selfishness with a code of sacrifice and toleration of deprivation. Native American rites of passage have much to teach us in this regard. Fasting, solitude, self-reflection, and testing one’s physical limits are at the core of what it means to be a man in those cultures.

Putting more women in places of power couldn’t hurt, either, provided that those women embrace the feminine qualities of compromise, empathy, compassion, and patience that seem to be missing from their male counterparts. Unfortunately, the feminist movement seems to be telling young women that to succeed in a man’s world one must act like a man. Nonsense.

I hope that I am not a lone voice in the wilderness here. Demanding accountability from men should not be simply a legal and liability issue. It cuts to the heart of who we are, or who we can become, as a society. Yes, we are animals, and subject to the same instinctual influences as any other creature; but, we also have the capability of understanding the consequences of our actions. Do we have the will to use that foresight?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Places Rated: Best and Worst Cities for Nature and Outdoor Recreation

I’ve been fortunate to have lived in a handful of cities in the United States that are truly “nature-friendly,” putting a priority on urban greenspace and wildlands. I have also lived in and visited cities that were not so eco-savvy. I would like to start a public ranking of cities based on criteria I shall explain here.

Meanwhile, I must issue a disclaimer that this is not currently a part of the official Places Rated books and website. In my humble opinion, it should be, and that is one of my goals.

What parameters am I using to come up with my rankings? One is number of parks per capita. This is already known thanks to the Trust for Public Lands, and as of 2011 Madison, Wisconsin is number one, followed by Cincinnati, Ohio. St. Petersburg, Anchorage, and Buffalo round out the top five.

Beyond simply parks, I take into account total greenspace, climate (Does the weather encourage people to go outdoors?), biodiversity, accessibility beyond personal transportation (Does public transit serve parks? Are there trails for bikes and pedestrians between parks?), urban planning, and diversity of funding for purchasing, developing, and maintaining parklands.

I can only speak to the places I have lived, so I hereby invite others to chime in with an assessment of their own hometown, based on their personal experience.

My personal rankings for Best Cities for Nature are (drumroll, please):

  1. Cincinnati, Ohio
  2. Colorado Springs, Colorado
  3. Portland, Oregon
So far, my “Worst” list has only one city: Tucson, Arizona. You can read some of the reasons for my opinion in my blog entry ”The Trouble With Tucson.”

Now for a quick summary of why I hold the other three cities in such high esteem.
#1. Cincinnati, Ohio. I moved to Cincinnati in 1988 and resided there through most of 1999. I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of relatively undisturbed greenspace for such a historically old city. The geographic location, situated on the Ohio River opposite northern Kentucky and adjacent to Indiana (the Miami River separates the two states), means very high biodiversity in the region. Eastern deciduous forests in general are rich in flora and fauna, but there is both a northern and southern influence here. The only habitats missing are non-riparian wetlands. Ponds are mostly on golf courses here, and artificial impoundments built for recreation do not support as much wildlife as natural lakes. Most city parks are easily accessible by public transportation. County parks are, unfortunately, not served by buses, with rare exceptions. The privately-owned Cincinnati Nature Center requires membership, and/or fees for entry. I have a real problem with that. Still, Cincinnati and Hamilton County love their parks and are dedicated to maintaining and even expanding them.

#2. Colorado Springs, Colorado. I moved to “The Springs” in October of 2011, but I can already tell that this city is special. Nowhere have I found park accessibility to be this easy. A system of regional trails would let me hike to Wyoming or New Mexico if I had a mind to do so. Buses serve most city parks or get you within spitting distance. The topography of the city, which ranges from high plains to high peaks, means an enormous diversity of habitats and therefore high biodiversity. I have found insects here that are common to Arizona, Oregon, and Ohio. Again, the only habitats lacking are standing waters, and there are fairly decent facsimiles of natural lakes and ponds anyway. A combination of government agencies and non-profit organizations are dedicated to preserving parks and securing new lands, too, though budgets are very tight here. Over 300 days of sunshine each year guarantee ample opportunity to get outside. Parks get an incredible amount of use, and trails have a lot of traffic, especially on weekends. Not only are hikers, runners, dog-walkers, and horse-riders likely to be encountered on the path, but mountain bikes as well on some trails. This multi-use mandate is something of a drawback in my own opinion as a wildlife-watcher, but it means high use and therefore a high priority among government officials. I’m a long way from having exhausted all the wild areas Colorado Springs has to offer, and that alone is exciting.

#3. Portland, Oregon. I spent the first twenty-seven years of my life in Portland and have been spoiled by that fact. Portland has raised zoning and urban planning to an art form. Bond issues for parks pass overwhelmingly when put on the ballot. Despite the truly rainy climate (not quantity, but sheer number of wet or dreary days), people go to parks in droves. Portland would be at the top of my list were it not for the dominant coniferous forest habitats that have such weak biodiversity. I found open areas like Oaks Bottom and Powell Butte to be more to my liking than Tryon Creek State Park (yes, there is a state park in the city limits!), or Forest Park. Still, parks are linked by the “40 Mile Loop,” or soon will be, as envisioned by the Olmstead brothers who conceived of Portland’s park system over a century ago.

Your turn! Tell me why your city should rank high or low using the criteria of parks with wild areas, urban planning, park use, biodiversity, climate, accessibility, and funding. I look forward to your replies, and will post the longer, more thoughtful ones as guest blogs.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Sinton Pond Open Space

Wetlands here in El Paso County, Colorado are few and far between. Consequently, a handful of artificial lakes have been created for recreation and wildlife. One of the more interesting of these is Sinton Pond Open Space in Colorado Springs

At only thirteen acres, the property actually consists of two ponds. The larger, an impoundment of a natural spring, is full of small freshwater sunfish, and possibly other species as well. Above the big pond is a smaller one, likewise with a few fish, but with more emergent vegetation and better shaded by large cottonwood trees. Here’s a view of that smaller pond. The property abuts Sinton Dairy, which is what you see in the background.

Sinton Pond is pretty much surrounded by industrial enterprises and at least one office park , yet it is a magnet for birds, insects, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals. You also get a nice view of Pikes Peak during the winter months when foliage on the cottonwoods doesn’t hide the mountain.

Since I could find next to nothing on the history of Sinton Pond, I’ll concentrate on the diversity of animal life you can find there. Birdwatchers won’t be disappointed as there are many birds that utilize the pond and the surrounding landscape for feeding and nesting. We found this family of Mallard ducks on one trip there.

With the help of a crow or raven I managed to spy a Great Horned Owl on my most recent visit. One of my scenic shots has a falcon in the distance, too….

Reptiles and amphibians are pretty prolific, too. I nearly stepped on this Western Terrestrial Garter Snake as it sunned beside the trail near Monument Creek, which flows right by the pond.

Both the native Painted Turtle and the non-native Red-eared Slider can be seen basking on logs or other debris in the big pond, especially in the morning.

I was thrilled to find a Northern Leopard Frog on my latest trip, seeking refuge from the hot sun beneath a tangle of brush along the margin of the big pond. Leopard frogs have not fared very well because of drought and the increasing populations of the Bullfrog.

Naturally, I am looking mostly for insects, and there is no shortage. Many butterflies find abundant flower nectar and larval foodplants in the area. I was surprised to find a Questionmark butterfly on June 8, and even more surprised to find it was still there as of July 20! I was downright shocked to glimpse a Giant Swallowtail, also on June 8, though I don’t have a picture to prove it.

The Monarch finds plenty of milkweed here, and a variety of skippers can be seen on almost any visit. There are open areas of varying quality in terms of vegetation, and shady groves of spruce and other trees, and different butterflies prefer different degrees of sun and cover.

Any wetland is likely to attract dragonflies and damselflies, and there is indeed a good variety of odonates here. Big darners (family Aeschnidae) are constantly on the wing, while skimmers (family Libellulidae) of all sorts perch and patrol the shore and adjacent fields. Vivid Dancers, bluets, and forktail damselflies can be found by the score.

I recommend Sinton Pond Open Space to both residents of Colorado Springs and visitors as a place to enjoy hiking, walking, biking, fishing, or just plain relaxing. The site gets a fair amount of traffic (no pun intended, despite the fact that Interstate 25 is about one block to the west and a major rail line about a block to the south), but it is still a relatively quiet place for contemplation and peaceful enjoyment.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Spider Sunday (via "Bug Eric"): Stovetop Spider

Talk about a sense of misplaced. I was making a sandwich for lunch the other day when I was abruptly distracted by an arachnid on the stove. It was mildly startling, but my first thought was “What is that?” My first suspect was a running crab spider in the genus Thanatus, but something wasn’t quite right. I didn’t have my reading glasses handy, so naturally I reached for my camera.

I snapped an image, zoomed in on it, and knew immediately that this was a lynx spider in the family Oxyopidae, genus Oxyopes. The battery of long spines on each leg helps differentiate lynx spiders from similar-looking spiders in other families. So does the arrangement of the eyes. How this one got inside I have no idea, though I remember seeing one right outside the back door last fall….

Unless this specimen represents a new species, or a significant range extension for a known one, then it must be the Western Lynx Spider, Oxyopes scalaris. They very grizzled (mottled gray) appearance is one in a dizzying array of color patterns exhibited by this species, which ranges from southern Canada to Mexico, and coast to coast. It is most common in the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific coast states. It is downright scarce in the Great Plains, perhaps owing to its preference for woody shrubs and trees.

The Western Lynx Spider is not terribly large, mature females measuring 5.8-9.6 millimeters in body length. Males range from 4.7-6.1 millimeters.

In some parts of its range, O. scalaris can be found principally in pine trees in pinyon-juniper woodlands. Elsewhere, it is associated with sagebrush habitat, chaparral, or deciduous forests. Mine may be the first specimen recorded on a burner, and it was kind of scary how well it blended in with the rust spots.

The Western Lynx Spider is an ambush hunter, sitting patiently on stems or leaves and waiting for potential prey to come within striking range. Despite their small size, the spider’s eyes are very adept at detecting motion, and most insects that venture near don’t stand a chance against the arachnid’s lightning-fast reflexes. The hapless victim is quickly seized by the spider’s first two pairs of legs. Those long spines help ensure there is no escape. At night, the spiders protect themselves from their own predators by suspending themselves from foliage on a silken line, snoozing in mid-air.

The life cycle of this species is fairly well known, but there is little about it that is spectacular. Mating is a brief affair lasting only a few seconds. Records of egg cases are uncommon, but one sac contained 45 embryos. The egg sac is produced in early to mid-summer, securely fastened to a plant, and is guarded by the female until the spiderlings hatch. This species overwinters in older immature stages.

Clearly, my kitchen-inhabiting spider was outside of its comfort zone, not at home, home on the (Radar) range. I bottled it in a vial and released it a day later in a nearby field filled with grasses, yucca, and scattered elm trees. I sincerely hope it feels more comfortable there, secures regular meals, and reproduces.

Sources: Brady, Allen R. 1964. “The Lynx Spiders of North America North of Mexico (Araneae; Oxyopidae),” Bull. Mus. Comp. Zool. 131(13): 429-518.
Cutler, B., D.T. Jennings, and M.J. Moody. 1977. “Biology and Habitats of the Lynx Spider Oxyopes scalaris (Araneae: Oxyopidae),” Ent. News 88: 87-97.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Conserving Creation

One of my posts awhile back was lamenting the conspicuous absence of the “church” in advocating environmental conservation and protection of endangered species. It seems only fair that if I complain I also offer a potential solution. Perhaps a new, faith-based conservation organization is in order, or at least a non-profit that works to hold religious institutions accountable for their role in supporting or undermining The Creation.

To that end I propose the following mission and goals for churches when it comes to these issues:

Mission: Hold religious institutions accountable for their actions (or lack thereof) that impact the natural environment and the other creatures that inhabit the world.
  • Recognize that as children of God, humans are endowed with the responsibility to protect, conserve, and manage the remainder of the animal kingdom (and plant kingdom) in a manner consistent with the desires of the Creator. Noah may have been the first wildlife conservationist, and he may be seen as a role model for the church’s approach to modern wildlife conservation.
  • Include in worship services prayers for the healing of the environment in the aftermath of human-initiated ecological disasters (oil spills, deforestation, slaughter of endangered species, etc). It would not hurt to make it routine to simply pray for the welfare of all non-human animals and their habitats.
  • Make ecological sustainability an overriding priority in all missions, both foreign and domestic. Aid to the poor should include lessons in sustainable practices, especially in regards to agriculture.
  • Church grounds shall reflect respect for nature and an enhancement of native habitats whenever possible. This means planting native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers, providing nest boxes for breeding birds, and limiting the amount of acreage devoted to lawns. Community gardens, when on church grounds, shall be managed with limited use of chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides.
  • Community service projects shall include clean-up and maintenance of local parks, waterways, and other areas critical to native wildlife and plants.
  • Teaching of Creationism shall include modern stories of wildlife conservation to illustrate the ongoing need to be responsible stewards of the planet Earth.
  • Church congregations shall be encouraged to donate to conservation and environmental organizations.
  • Sermons based on the accomplishments and philosophies of Noah, St. Francis, and other notable religious conservationists should be incorporated into worship schedules whenever appropriate and possible.
  • Strive to reach out to scientists who may be schooled in the teachings of evolution, but who share a commitment to creating a healthier planet Earth through wildlife conservation and sustainable energy, agriculture, and environmental policies. Cooperation, not conflict, should be the order of the day. Science and religion have complementary roles here.

Scientists, for their part, should recognize the power of the Church to mobilize their congregations. Creationists could be, and should be, powerful allies in creating an ecologically-sustainable future for mankind. This will not happen as long as arguments rage over how Creation came to be. We can agree to disagree, but we must share responsibility in mitigating the continuing degradation of Eden.

One final thought: I would be all in favor of requiring a course in world religion for all high school students. It might go a long way toward correcting stereotypes, and fostering a better understanding and respect for the belief systems of others. Such a curriculum would also be the place for discussing Creation tenets.

I welcome your comments, opinions, ideas, and input about the above. I am only one mind, and I have surely overlooked something important here. I am also a novice when it comes to the Bible and all other things religious. Please forgive any inadvertently disrespectful rhetoric. I assure you that I hold everyone in equal contempt. I mean “esteem.”

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Waldo Canyon Fire

I am still in relative shock and denial over what is going on just across town here in Colorado Springs. We are facing a wildfire that threatens the entire northwest quadrant of the city, plus the Air Force Academy, Monument, Palmer Lake, Manitou Springs (where Heidi and I were wed), Woodland Park, and several other small communities. All of those locations have either been evacuated or face imminent evacuation as I write this. A total of more than 32,000 citizens have been displaced so far.

The images here are from late Sunday morning, June 24, when the fire was just a tiny, reasonably tame thing. It has since ballooned into a monster, especially as of Tuesday afternoon, June 26. That is when a thunderstorm to the northeast of the fire produced an “outflow” of air that changed the wind direction and intensity. A sixty-five mile per hour gust drove the flames into Queens Canyon, funneling the fire right into the subdivision of Mountain Shadows. The aftermath has revealed many homes and other structures destroyed.

I feel strangely detached, having moved here only last October. Still, I do know some people who have been evacuated. Heidi, my wife, knows far more and is devastated emotionally. Physically we are fine, though we have simultaneously experienced a record-setting heat wave here that finally broke today. The air quality ranges from tolerable to heinous, depending on the wind direction. I itch all over and haven’t worn my contact lenses for two straight days. It is useless, if not downright idiotic, to go outside if you don’t have to.

Many places I have been visiting in search of wildlife and wildflowers are either closed, threatened by the fire, or already burned. City bus service was suspended today. The television is, understandably, non-stop news reports on the fire, those fighting it, and those affected by it. This is my reality right now, with no end in sight. The fire remains only five percent contained. Officials predict it will be at least the middle of July before it is fully contained. We are hoping the annual monsoon storms are on time, if not a little early.

Colorado Springs is one of the top ten cities in the nation for “urban-wildland interface,” making us extremely vulnerable to disasters like this. Now, if rain does come, there is nothing to absorb it. We will face flash floods as a result. Meanwhile, thunderstorms devoid of rain threaten to fan the flames with more wind gusts, and/or spark more fires with dry lightning.

Those inquiring about our safety (Heidi and myself), and the condition of the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo will be relieved to know that our residence is on the east side of town, south of the fire; and that the zoo is also far south of the blaze. Firefighters are unyielding in shielding the south side of highway 24 from the fire. Should it jump that roadway (which is currently closed to all traffic but emergency vehicles between here and Woodland Park), all bets are off.

Interstate 25 marks the eastern boundary of the fire so far, and indeed it has not reached that freeway. Assuming the grasslands of the high plains are as equally flame-prone as the drought-stressed forests, then we need to keep the fire at bay along that boundary as well.

We, as a city, county, and state, appreciate the empathy and sentiments expressed from around the rest of the country. We return those thoughts to those facing catastrophic excesses of rain from tropical storms and thundershowers (Florida and Minnesota). I’ll keep you appraised as best I can on the situation here as it unfolds.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Nature, red in tooth and claw

That phrase from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem In Memoriam A.H.H., published in 1850, certainly communicates the frequently savage nature of….nature. These days, however, we do not want to be confronted with the reality of predator and prey. I found that out last week while at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo here in Colorado Springs. The shocking carnage took place outside of cages and enclosures, which was perhaps even more surprising to zoo guests.

I was on my way back to my wife’s building, Primate World, when I encountered what I thought were three screaming Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels racing down the hill right toward me. They veered off down another path. My initial thought was that I had no idea ground squirrels were that territorial. Then I saw the last one in line. It was not another ground squirrel. It was an adult Long-tailed Weasel, Mustela frenata. My jaw dropped. A zoo staffer grinned and said “That was a weasel. He wants him some chipmunk!” I told him I noticed that, but didn’t correct his identification of the prey.

One of the ground squirrels had the smarts to sit down right at the intersection of all three paved trails, literally plastering itself to the asphalt. I looked down the other path and noticed the chase was still in progress. I ran after them, hoping my camera had just enough battery life to eke out another picture.

By the time I caught up to the weasel, it had caught up with the ground squirrel, seizing it by the throat in front of several astonished members of the public. A mother and son encroached right on the predator and its victim. The son actually kicked the weasel, apparently hoping to save the doomed squirrel. I pushed him away, but must have looked like a crazed member of the paparazzi myself, frantically trying to focus my camera on the unfolding drama.

The weasel, unfazed by any of this, ran back uphill, maybe right between my legs, before aborting his trip and diving into a crevice in a rock retaining wall. All I got was a blurry image of weasel rear (see below).

I was forced to remember my initial purpose of borrowing batteries from my wife, and headed back again toward her building. Along the way I met with a horrific scene by any standards. Yet another ground squirrel was barely twitching in the middle of the path, with an enormous bloodstain behind it, quickly evaporating in the late morning heat. Parents were mortified and tried to find a zoo staff person to clean up the crime scene.

Once I got batteries, I headed back out, and optimistically surmised the weasel might come back for the ground squirrel it left for dead. I was right, but zoo guests had surrounded the now-deceased rodent to “protect” it from the weasel.

I found it mostly useless to pontificate on the fact that this is how nature works. At least one person agreed, but even he defended those who did not want their children to witness such brutality.

”Oh, no, Al-vin-n-n-n-n!” mocked one adult.

Well, there was one problem right there. Most people mistake Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels for chipmunks. I honestly can’t blame them in this case because these were young squirrels, not much, if any, larger than a chipmunk. Adult GMGSs are substantially larger than their similarly-striped cousins.

Before I continue, I must admit that there are animals I don’t like much, either, namely crocodilians, lions, and praying mantids. Watch any television nature program about those creatures, and the graphic scenes of predation are the only scenes. It amounts to unintentional propaganda against predators that makes us feel sorry for the prey. Still, I am well aware of the necessity of these apex predators to the health of an ecosystem. I don’t know that your average person is equally attuned.

Most people never get to see a weasel. Until now, I was under the impression they were extremely secretive animals you barely got a glimpse of….if you were lucky. Not one other person I encountered during and after the events I’ve described felt the same way. At least they did not communicate that emotion. My good luck wasn’t over, either. While the others stood guard over the “chipmunk,” I noticed the weasel had returned, threading its way through human legs and diving down a burrow on the other side of the split rail fence. I decided it was bound to come out again.

A crew of two came and unceremoniously disposed of the GMGS, and the party of bystanders broke up. I was about to give up on the prospect of the weasel ever surfacing again when….Voila! Up it popped with yet another ground squirrel in tow. It paused at the mouth of the tunnel allowing me to fire off a few shots with my camera as it licked the bloody throat of this latest victim. Eventually it grabbed the squirrel and dashed back across the path and bounded up the rocky slope above, eventually disappearing. By now I had understood that the weasel was either caching its kills or feeding its offspring, or both.

The weasel actually came back again, dragging out another carcass, but that was the last I saw of it.

So much for a “teachable moment.” Apparently parents, when given a choice, will shield their children from reality. I wonder if these same mothers and fathers will let their kids play videogames with explicit human-killing-human violence.

I won’t let the zoo off the hook on this one, either. The folks who picked up the ground squirrel were robbing the weasel of its prey. They were robbing zoo guests of a quick lesson in ecology. This is at least the second time such a drama between weasel and ground squirrel has played out at the zoo recently. No mention on the zoo’s blog. Lots of neat recipes, though. No interpretive signs explaining the Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel is not a chipmunk….and that guests should probably not be sharing their food with those rodents.

What opinions do you have? Should a zoo “sanitize” the visitor experience? How do we reach people in a way that does not insult their intelligence, but also doesn’t shy away from the hard truths of how nature works? I’m eager to have a discussion here and look forward to your comments and exchanges with one another.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Life-changing Events

Ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted to announce that on Sunday, April 29, I will be marrying my fianceé, Heidi Genter, here in Colorado Springs. It promises to be a momentous event, and I am looking forward to it. It also means my priorities will change drastically.

I will not be able to guarantee regular posts to either of my two blogs (Bug Eric is the other) from this day forward. Last minute errands will take up most of the next two weeks. I am also working on a couple of projects that have guaranteed income potential.

After the wedding, our priorities will be merging our two households, and finding a more regular income-generating job for me. As the weather continues to warm, we will be taking advantage and going afield as often as we can.

In short, "real life" will be largely replacing the virtual one I have been leading the last several months. This does not mean I plan to give up putting new content on my blogs, but it will be on a as-I-can-do-it basis. I appreciate your understanding. Thank you.

Monday, March 12, 2012

God and Rhinos

It was not without a great deal of deliberation that I decided to write this and make it public. Personal struggles with faith, consciousness, and current affairs are always a bit of a risk when one dares to dislose them. The potential pending extinction of the Earth’s remaining rhinoceros species has finally given me the sense of urgency and will to confront the conflict I have between religion and Creation.

Let me say first that I have faith in God. I would also like to believe that I respect the beliefs of others, be they Baptists, Hindus, or Muslims. I personally know individuals of many faiths, and relate well to them. We learn from each other and sometimes challenge each other’s tenets. What I often have a problem with is the church in the institutional sense. The church holds great power, and does great things for humanity at a community level. National campaigns in the political arena are often effective, and missions to impoverished foreign lands bring relief to untold thousands. Where the power of the church is conspicuously absent is in advocacy for protecting the remainder of Creation.

Rhinos are facing the kind of violent assault usually reserved for wars of human genocide. Indeed, that is what species extinction amounts to: zoological genocide. The carnage even threatens those individual animals at zoos. What do people have against rhinos? They covet the rhino’s horn.

In the Middle East country of Yemen, rhino horn was polished and fashioned into ceremonial dagger handles. These curved knives, called “jambiya,” are presented to pre-teen boys as symbols of impending manhood and devotion to the Muslim religion. The use of rhino horn in daggers has been outlawed since the 1980s, and the black market there has largely dried up. It is the long-held belief of Asian cultures that rhino horn has medicinal properties that is at the root of the current spike in rhino poaching.

Rhino horn allegedly relieves everything from pain, fever, acne, laryngitis, and anxiety to rectal bleeding, rheumatism, gout, food poisoning, headaches, and boils. It is also thought to cure “devil possession,” smallpox, typhoid, and snakebite. Recently, rumors that a Vietnamese government official used rhino horn to cure his cancer sent demand, and prices, for horn through the roof. A horn can now fetch $33 to $133 per gram. This is close to double the price of gold, and sometimes exceeds the value of cocaine.

This utilitarian view of wildlife is nothing new of course. The problem is that with endangered species it is an unsustainable enterprise. The only sustainable value of wild animals is probably ecotourism. Without rhinos in Africa, ecotourism takes a hit and things slip back into valuing all wildlife as a dead product.

Scientists and game reserve managers are doing their best to defend their own rhino populations from poaching pressures, but it is not enough. Zookeepers engage in an annual event called “Bowling for Rhinos,” in an effort to raise much-needed funds for continued conservation. The Christian church….

Ah, yes, where is the church? Busy saving human souls, no doubt. Maybe they are ministering to incarcerated poachers. What we don’t see are prayer circles for rhinos. We don’t see ecological sustainability as a leading goal in missionary work. Why not?

I know plenty of individuals, including my own fiancée, who are religious and ardent supporters of wildlife conservation. It is the institution of the church that is not. I suspect that much more effort goes into trying to defeat the teaching of evolution in schools. Perhaps that is the real problem. No good Christian institution could possibly work in concert with a scientific community that believes in evolution.

Personally, I don’t care which philosophy one subscribes to: Genesis or Darwin. What both sides can say with certainty is that we are losing pieces of the Creation rapidly, due to humanity’s continued negative impact in this Garden of Eden. We can no longer afford the luxury of continuing to argue about how every species came to exist.

According to the Bible, we are supposed to be stewards of this Earth while we are here, not hell-bent on attaining immortality once we make our final exit. We will get our just reward if we are just in our care of the Creation. Scientists and theologians can complement each other instead of excoriating one another.

What about you? What can you do? Yes, you can support conservation efforts with your monetary contributions, but times are tough for folks financially. How about this: When you count your blessings, count rhinos, tigers, elephants, whales, and all other wild creatures among those gifts. Looking for something to pray for? Bless the beasts and the children, for don’t we want our sons and daughters to be equally blessed with wild animals?

”Rhino Horn Use: Fact vs. Fiction”
Gwin, Peter. 2012. “Rhino Wars,” National Geographic Magazine, March, 2012.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Red Rock Canyon Open Space

Almost everyone has heard of Garden of the Gods, a city park in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Just a few blocks to the south is its poor, neglected stepsister, Red Rock Canyon Open Space. I had the pleasure of hiking in this 787-acre park last Monday, March 5.

I did not even need a car to get there. Mountain Metropolitan Transit has regular bus service (Route 3) that gets you within easy walking distance. Ok, so you do have to cross a busy highway….but it is worth the exercise, fuel savings, and hassle of driving yourself. There is ample parking for those who do take personal vehicles, though.

I was a bit unnerved when I immediately encountered this

right outside the Port-o-Let. Coyotes, bears, bobcats, and the odd mountain lion are not unheard of in these parts, but no large carnivores, sasquatch, or mountain men were found inside said bathroom facility, so I breathed a little easier after that.

This is a popular park for walking your dog (it has an off-leash area), jogging, mountain biking (it features fenced-off “freeride/skills park” with challenging jumps, ladder-drops, and a teeter-totter), rock climbing, and hiking. You are going to run into many other recreational users any day you visit Red Rock Canyon, so don’t expect to have the place to yourself. Keep in mind the sandstone ridges also amplify, echo, and broadcast your voice. Even a fairly quiet conversation can be heard halfway across the park.

I did manage to avoid many other hikers by heading down the most northerly trail that eventually takes you into a narrow arroyo. At one point sheer slabs of red sandstone erupt from the streambed.

The canyon is deep enough that some if it remains in constant shadow at this time of year. Snow was only beginning to melt in some stretches. The trickle of water was enough to attract butterflies on this warm (68°Fahrenheit) day. Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) and Hoary Comma (Polygonia gracilis, below) overwinter as adult insects, and they frolic on days like this.

There is plenty of bird life to be seen here as well. I observed the usual Black-capped Chickadee, Northern Flicker, Downy Woodpecker, American Robin, White-breasted Nuthatch, Black-billed Magpie, Western Scrub-jay, American Crow, and Dark-eyed Junco, but also a Townsend’s Solitaire and Spotted Towhee. The real treat was seeing a Great Horned Owl in flight, being pursued by every jay in approximately a two hundred mile radius.

The history of the park dates to between 70 million and 300 million years if you consider the geologic and fossil timetables. Depending on which of the formations you explore, you could conceivably find anything from fossil leaf prints to dinosaur tracks to prehistoric shark teeth (Milito, 2009).

Human occupation is evident from about 7,000 BC. The proximity of the area to Fountain Creek meant there was good hunting. Utes were the Native Americans who found the rock formations (called “hogbacks”) made a natural fortress. Fast forward to the late 1800s, and the area was exploited for raw material used in the construction of Old Colorado City. The Kenmuir Quarry was perhaps the largest operator, cutting huge blocks of Lyons sandstone for a nearly nationwide demand (Ellis, Don). The scars still remain, of course, and Manitou Springs and Denver are among the nearby recipients of the quarried stone.

There were also gypsum mines here; and two mills that processed gold ore mined in Cripple Creek from 1886 into the early 1900s. John George Bock began purchasing the property in pieces during the 1920s and 1930s, willing it to his sons upon his death. The family had intended to develop a convention center, golf course, and high-rise buildings, but ultimately managed a couple dozen trailer parks, two gravel quarries, and a 53-acre landfill.

Only very recently did this heavily industrialized site become a recreational resource for the Springs, having been purchased by the city in 2003. The landfill remains off limits to the public. Not so the steep cliffs, where one is allowed to climb with permits. At least two parties were actively ascending bolted sort climbs during my visit.

There is good signage throughout the park, but one still has to be careful of veering off on “social trails.” These impromptu trails are unofficial and can get one lost if they are not paying attention. Interpretive signs at the parking lots and major features give one a glimpse of the human and natural history of the area. Overall, the park is well-maintained and remarkably free of litter. Even most of the scat I encountered was from native mammals, not domestic canines.

Oh, you’d still rather see Garden of the Gods? No problem. There are spectacular views of those hogbacks from Red Rock Canyon.

I look forward to returning to this park repeatedly. There is permanent water in the old gravel pits, which is a scarce commodity for wildlife. I saw a couple Mallards dabbling in one of the ponds on Monday, and suspect there will be frogs, dragonflies, and other aquatic life come spring.

Meanwhile, there are enough trails to give one weeks of enjoyment, depending on how far you wish to wander, with scenic views galore and a variety of habitats to explore. Do come visit, just don’t forget your sunscreen like I did.

Sources: Milito, Sharon. 2009. “A Survey of Fossils and Geology of Red Rock Canyon Open Space, Colorado Springs, Colorado,” The Mountain Geologist vol. 47 no. 1: 1-14.
”Red Rock Canyon Open Space,” City of Colorado Springs, 2009.
Ellis, Don. ”The Red Rock Quarries,” Friends of Red Rock Canyon, p. 25

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Leap Day 2012

February twenty-ninth comes around only once every four years, so we should probably make the most of the “extra” day. As luck would have it, the weather was just gorgeous here in Colorado Springs. The high for the day was 58° F, with occasional light breezes. I decided to explore one of the urban trails and was glad I did.

Murray Boulevard runs north and south in front of my apartment complex, and I can walk south for about a mile when it intersects the Homestead Trail paralleling the west fork of Sand Creek. Sand Creek is dry most of the year, and much of it is channelized, but wildlife seems to like it anyway. One of the first birds I saw when I set foot on the trail was a new one for me: a Townsend’s Solitaire. I thought it was some kind of flycatcher, but Jeffrey Gordon, President of the American Birding Association, was kind enough to correct me from the image (below) I e-mailed to him.

The Homestead Trail is short, and soon intersects the Rock Island Trail at Constitution Avenue. Here is the view you get looking west down the Rock Island Trail. Pretty nice, eh? Yes, that is Pike’s Peak in the background.

Most of the trails in the city are paved, in order to better accommodate bicycles, runners, and the handicapped. Many people also use the broad paths to walk their dogs. Where trails intersect streets, there are usually underpasses for pedestrians so that one does not have to cross traffic. The traffic signals also tend to be unusually long, so the underpasses help you maintain your pace and momentum.

The warm weather made for some surprising entomological encounters. I stopped to photograph a plant, and heard the unmistakable sound of a grasshopper making a crepitation flight. Certain adult grasshoppers can generate in-flight noise at will. The sound has a crackling quality and is easily audible, sometimes downright loud. It took me awhile, but I finally tracked down one of these insects. It turned out to be the Speckle-winged Rangeland Grasshopper, Arphia conspersa. Here are a pair of males:

Back in November I had seen nymphs of this species. I wasn’t expecting to see adults until April or so. Maybe this mild winter has accelerated their metamorphosis. I also was shocked to see adult Podalonia wasps out looking for cutworm caterpillars already. One was digging a burrow, which means she had already secured her prey and stashed it somewhere.

Spiders were also on the prowl. I spied a ground crab spider (Xysticus sp., family Thomisidae), and a running crab spider (Thanatus sp., family Philodromidae) scouring the surface of the soil for potential prey.

Beetles, too, were out and about. A Eusattus darkling beetle was scrounging for detritus, while nearby a tiny ground beetle (Carabidae family) was struggling to negotiate the shifting, sandy soil to get out of my footprint.

Going west, the Rock Island Trail eventually dead-ends at the Shooks Run Trail. As one approaches that point, the Rock Island Trail enters a heavily industrialized brownfield area frequented by the homeless (and a melanic squirrel, see below).

The Shooks Run Trail travels south, and meanders through the “Old North End” of Colorado Springs. This is an eclectic mix of old homes, new homes, and periodic commercial enterprises. Imagine my surprise at coming upon an antiquarian bookstore, right off the trail! I was delighted to find Doug Clausen, the proprietor of Clausen Books, to be friendly, informative, and, most importantly, negotiable. I left with a collection of small entomology books for a pittance. I’ll be back.

Farther down the trail I happened upon Dog Tooth Coffee. How sweet is that? A bookstore and a coffee house? Heaven. I left Dog Tooth with a mocha “Snow Dog,” one of those blended ice drinks with lots of calories.

Just behind the coffee house was a cohousing community called Casa Verde Commons. This unique, tiny neighborhood features a wonderful community garden, among other sustainable attributes. I am pleased to see that Colorado Springs has such innovative social enterprises.

Next week the weather is supposed to be even warmer, so I will have to find other trails to follow; or go back down these. Here’s to you finding your own paths of discovery in the coming weeks and months.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Weston Bend State Park

Thanks to my fiancée and her family, I am becoming acquainted with some wonderful parks and refuges in the vicinity of Leavenworth, Kansas and nearby areas across the river in Missouri. A recent visit at the end of January and beginning of February included an afternoon hike in Weston Bend State Park near Weston, Missouri.

Considering that our primary reason for this trip to Leavenworth was for the aftermath of a family tragedy, time spent in the quiet of a deciduous forest on bluffs overlooking the Missouri River was a perfect antidote to the stress surrounding funeral planning; and the cozy claustrophobia of too many well-meaning friends and family in one house.

The area has a rich history. Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery reached the vicinity of Weston on July 4, 1804, reporting evidence of a Kansa settlement on the opposite bank of the river. The Kansa were one of several indigenous tribes that first occupied this region. The Lewis and Clark expedition returned two years later, finding fur traders navigating the Missouri.

Agriculture is the current industry here, with tobacco farming leading the way. The park itself even includes five old tobacco barns. One of these has been transformed into a covered shelter available for rent by park visitors.

Weston Bend is a relatively young state park, established in 1980 by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. The amenities accommodate everyone from casual hikers to campers (traditional or RV) with hot showers, modern restrooms, and even laundry facilities available. The trails meander up and down ravines and along ridges. A lookout offers spectacular views of the Missouri River below, and five or six miles into Kansas on a clear day.

While human visitors are made to feel welcome, so are other creatures. The park is now recognized as an “Important Bird Area” (IBA) by the National Audubon Society, part of the Iatan/Weston River Corridor, a very popular stopover for avifauna during spring and fall migrations. The annual ”Wings Over Weston” birding event will be held at the 1,133 acre park on May 12, 2012.

Park trails are well-marked, with ample ample signage interpreting the local fauna, flora, and historical elements that make the park unique. There are enough warm, or at least tolerably cool, days for one to experience the park at any time of year.

Even in the “dead” of winter one can spot a variety of birds, insects (like the green lacewing below), lichens, and fungi. In the absence of the animals themselves one can find signs of life like the chiseled holes left by Pileated Woodpecker; or the abandoned galls of wasps on oak twigs. Beautyberry (Callicarpa dichotoma) lends a colorful accent to even the dreariest of landscapes here.

I am already looking forward to coming back to Weston Bend State Park, when the forests and bottomlands are greener and even fuller of wildlife. Be sure to add the park to your own itinerary whenever you find yourself in Kansas City, St. Joseph, or Leavenworth. You will not be disappointed.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Two Flukes' Up

The other night Heidi and I went to see the movie Big Miracle, about the rescue of three Pacific Gray Whales off the coast of Alaska near Point Barrow. Surprisingly, this was not a cheesy film with a completely gift-wrapped ending. Considering how many interest groups and characters were involved in this story, based in part on the book by Thomas Rose, director Ken Kwapis managed to create a seamless production worthy of viewing for both entertainment and an education in sociology.

Rose’s non-fiction book was originally entitled Freeing the Whales: How the Media Created the World’s Greatest Non-Event, and indeed, whales routinely die from the predicament of a prematurely freezing ocean each year. What made it newsworthy was simply the fact that there was a nearby satellite transmitter. The 1988 story quickly went the analog version of “viral,” and the media descended on Point Barrow en masse to cover the action.

The actors could have played their roles in a stereotypic way, but in most cases they managed to avoid that trap. Drew Barrymore plays an appropriately angry and suspicious Greenpeace activist. Ted Danson is an understandably eco-illiterate oil baron who initially engages his company in the “rescue” for public relations reasons. Newcomers Ahmaogak Sweeney and John Pingayak play an Inupiat pre-teen and his grandfather, respectively. They stole the show, playing sympathetic indigenous people with wit and wisdom.

Maybe the only characters that were disappointingly self-serving were the media reporters that got the whole circus started in the first place. John Krasinski and Kristen Bell are newspersons mostly obsessed with their own career advancement throughout the film, though Krasinski is also the ex-boyfriend of Barrymore’s character and is thus somewhat ambivalent about pursuing a future in the “lower 48.” You have two guesses as to how that relationship ends in the movie.

Ironically, an actual romance evolved in the true story, and was also played out in the film. Air National Guard Colonel “Scott Boyer” and Whitehouse West Winger “Kelly Meyers” (Dermot Mulroney and Vinessa Shaw) portray Tom Carroll and Bonnie Mersinger, who really did fall in love over the course of this adventure. During the credits one sees their real-life wedding photos.

The overarching plot still boils down to the whales, though, and I won’t spoil the ending. However, after all was said in done back in 1988, no one involved can say with any certainty that more than one whale made it out into the open ocean. Beleaguered by its ordeal, who is to say it had the strength to complete its migration?

The lesson to be learned, reviewers will say, is that human beings can overcome their political, ethnic, social, and economic differences to achieve a common goal. The cynic will say that we merely disguise our true motives and we are basically selfish and dishonest animals. Both interpretations may be true, but we also can’t help but take away something new from such a dramatic and tangled experience. I, for one, think we could learn an awful lot from Native Americans. At least they have a deep reverence for the other organisms they share their land (and water) with, even if they do hunt them. I’m not altogether sure our supposedly civilized, tech-driven urban society has a reverence for other human beings, let alone wildlife. I do hope I’m wrong.

The bottom line is that I would recommend the film. There is precious little family fare on the big screen these days that has any substance at all, and this movie should pleasantly exceed your expectations. I give it “two flukes’ up.”