Monday, December 19, 2011

Oh, Royal Tannenbaum

Today, on this cold and blustery upper-Michigan Monday, my intrepid mama and I crunched out into the far reaches of the back woods and cut down a wee Christmas tree. Well, the little guy is more of a sapling than a tree-tree, more of a Charlie Brown than a General Sherman, but still. This was my first tree-cutting excursion in many years, and, being the soft-hearted ninny that I am, I was predictably conflicted. I mean, no question, no question, real trees are far more magical, special, and deliciously-scented than their Made in China alternatives... but it does feel like a huge luxury/waste to cut one down just to tart it up with glitter and bling for a few weeks before literally kicking it to the curb. And yet our little, ultra-local tree was one of many in a thick patch of forest regrowth that probably would have been out-competed eventually. Anyway... We gave thanks to its brief but wild life before crouching down in the cold, and working a small saw clasped in a mittened-hand.

As we walked back to the house carrying the tree and a bouquet of red willows, I started thinking about the tannenbaum tradition. And so, after a little interwebbing, I bring you some random yule-tree factoids:

- The first known Christmas tree was decorated in 15th-century Livonia (now Latvia and Estonia) by the dubiously-named Brotherhood of Blackheads, who sound like your typical bachelor-merchant group of sketchy dudes executing bizarre night-rituals while, let's face it, likely wearing funny hats. But to be fair, the tree-honoring tradition was probably co-opted by the Christians (like so many holidays) from some tree-hugging, dirt-worshiping pagans doing their freaky Solstice dance, while yes, wearing funny headgear.

- The German word for Christmas tree is not in fact, Tannenbaum. Apparently that describes just your average fir tree doing its thang. No, the Germans call their Christmas trees "Weihnachtsbaums," which to me sounds a bit like a sticky nocturnal digestive situation.

- Artificial trees first arrived on the scene in the 19th century. They were made of the most obvious evergreen-needle substitute around: goose feathers dyed green.

Don't get me started on the jazzy firewood brought to Britain by farmhands looking for free beer from sexy farm wives, aka the Yule Log.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Zebras Are Reactionaries

Well, when it comes down to it, I'm not convinced that Simon and Garfunkel knew all that much about zoos. . . Reproductive behavior may back up the claim that hamsters turn on frequently, but giraffes seem pretty sincere to me, and elephants are anything but dumb.
Still, things happen, and there is a lot to learn at the zoo. There is a lot to feel at the zoo. For me, its primarily internal conflict.

I do not say "zoo" as if they are all created equal, for of course they are not. I say zoo because for me, there is really just one zoo. Little ol' Henry Vilas Zoo, frequent backdrop of my childhood. Vilas is a small neighborhood zoo in Madison, one of only a few free zoos in the country. My grandpa used to take me there as a little girl for free Shriner camel rides on Sunday mornings. We'd stand in line until some old guy in a fez tossed me up on a dromedary as it ambled by in a well-worn circle. I'd pretty much never set foot in a church in those days, and this seemed like a totally reasonable worship-substitute. He took my mom there when she was little, too, to visit the elephants. Back in the 60's area children collected spare change for months, eventually raising enough money to buy Winkie, a replacement for the beloved Annie the elephant who died a couple of years prior of a foot infection. Winkie was well-loved and received many gifts, including a twenty-pound birthday cake every year. Then one day she grabbed a popcorn-wielding girl, pulled her through the bars, and stomped her to death. My mom remembers that happening. Apparently Vilas also housed the notorious Susie the Smoking Simian around that time. She was a rhesus monkey who picked up a bad smoking habit from her previous private owners, and generous zoo patrons were kind enough keep her well-supplied with cigs. So, yeah. Quality.

Then in elementary and middle school I used to take my little sister there. One summer I think we walked to the zoo almost every day. Our house was close enough to hear the lions roaring for their dinner on quiet afternoons. I'd push Isa in her stroller up the hill, through the shady oak park with the mermaid fountain, through the back gates. I'd save some of our snack money to buy her those toxic animal statues pressed in wax that smelled like hot crayons. Once we got one of every color balloon, probably to milk them for helium later. In the winter my family would walk to the frozen lagoon to ice skate, and when the ice was thick enough you could skate over and climb up the snowbanks to the goat enclosure. In college I observed animals there for ethology classes, watched them pace. Once I called out to a lone badger, and she called back, and we talked that way for a long time. The zoo was where it was at.

So when I was in Madison for a few days last week, roaming around town alone and on foot, I decided it was time to visit my old zoo. Mid-afternoon but already dusky, breath steaming in the cold air, hands wrapped around a cup of peppermint tea, I pushed through the gates framed by a bright welcome sign. The place was all but deserted . . . somehow the absence of so many small, grubby hands and frazzled parents left the space heavy with a sense of both pathos and peace. Vilas has improved their enclosures tremendously over the last ten years, (and no smoking monkeys in sight!), but even with the changes, it still felt like a time warp. I quietly watched the chimps from behind a fake plastic plant, crouched on the thin carpet. I waited for the tiger. I winked at the seals. I pressed my palm flat against the glass while a pair of otters zoomed passed in a swirl of bubbles, diving again and again.

I am not advocating for zoos here, nor am I condemning them. Vilas is sad for all of the obvious reasons, but it still has value. It still means something to me. After years of studying animals in their natural environments, it does make it even harder to look at the zoo residents. And yet, sometimes when I am out there in the wild, following tracks in the mud or shivering from the cold leaching through an icy metal scope, I do think about my old zoo. And I can't help but wonder if part of the reason I am who and where I am today doesn't have at least a little something to do with the zoo.

Don't stop 'till you get enough:
If you've got a little spare time, perhaps while baking dove-shaped sundries, listen to this interesting Radio Lab Podcast about zoos. Learn about zoo history and reform, and how even small improvements to enclosures can get animals' brain synapses to bloom significantly in just a few weeks.

And if you have more than a little spare time, peep these thought-provoking essays from Orion Magazine about a conflicted orangutan and a brainy octopus.

And then watch this short and moving video about Isa Leshko's work photographing Elderly Animals.

Friday, November 18, 2011

How To Be Alone

This sweet little video came out over a year ago, but I still enjoy watching it every now and again for all the good reminders. Between traveling and hiking alone so much this past year, I've learned a lot doing everything she mentions here... cafes, dinners, movies, exploring cities, county walks, dancing... Spending time with yourself can be a beautiful gift.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Mayor of Tuskaloosa

So the other night I got a message from my friend and roommate, Dan, that he was coming home from pool league with a surprise. Immediately I asked if it was a puppy. Or a trophy. Or a puppy-shaped trophy. These are my standard responses when the word "present" or "surprise" is uttered. Sure enough, about midnight he walks through the door with a dog. Well, a mostly-dog. Apparently he'd seen the black and tan mini-dachshund run across the highway and zip right into a bar called The Stonefly (this is Montana) while he held open the door. This was not the first time this has happened, this week, at this particular bar. (Yeah, um, Montana.) Anyway, long story short, Dan brought him home, bathed and fed him, and he's been here for the last few days, clicking around the house. *Interesting side note about dachshunds--originally bred short-legged to dig out unsuspecting badgers with their mole-ish paddle paws (the mini versions tend to go after rats and prairie dogs)--the famous German breed was referred to as "liberty hounds" by allied forces during World War I, much as delicious sauerkraut was dubbed the wholly unappetizing "liberty cabbage". I find this fact amusing, ridiculous, and kind of awesome all at once. But, as usual, I digress.

What makes this specific dog interesting are his teeth. His epic, tusk-like snaggleteeth. At first I thought maybe some sadistic person had glued on reverse vampire canines to complete a sick Vampuppy costume, and maybe the adhesive just hadn't worn off yet. Then I thought perhaps he'd been bitten by a crusty old mosquito, recently defrosted from the Pleistocene, and some ancient saber-tooth tiger blood had mingled with his own, resulting in unchecked, mutant tusk-like dental growth. You've seen water deer? Wild boars? Then you've got the idea. Fortunately he retained none of the ferocity associated with these other orthadontically-challenged beasts. Actually, he was kind of a shy and nervous sweetie-pie. With the most unholy, record-breaking dragonbreath you've even encountered. Seriously, I've dealt with a lot of unsavory dead and rotting things in my time, and it smelled like they were all having a party in little dude's mouth.

It is strange to cohabitate with a dog whose name you do not know. We tried guessing at his... Dr. Fang? Mr. McTuskers? Sir Snaggle? Herr von Weinerschnitzle?... none of these elicited the slightest response. Maybe he wasn't so formal. We tried again... Hal A. Tosis? Arnold Datuskanegger? Fritzy? Hey Guy? Nothing.

He went to the animal shelter today. We couldn't keep him here. They said he'd get adopted right away--there being a shortage of small breeds with big teeth in this state and all. I will miss the little guy. It is a funny and wondrous thing, how animals and people flit in and out of our lives. I can remember all of the strays I've fostered over the years, their pasts and futures unknown to me, they remain frozen in time. Whether reunited with loving families or adopted by new ones, I've rooted for them all. And, sucker that I am, I've come to accept that some day when I have a home of my own, I'll probably end up with a mangy pack of tusked and toothless weirdos. Perhaps Herr Snaggle will be among them.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

All the Pretty Horses

She had some horses.

She had horses who danced in their mothers' arms.

She had horses who thought they were the sun and their
bodies shone and burned like stars.

She had horses who waltzed nightly on the moon.
She had horses who were much too shy, and kept quiet
in stalls of their own making.

She had some horses.

(Text from She Had Some Horses, by Joy Harjo. Horses-and mules-from Schafer Meadows.)

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Follow the Yellow-Brick Road

When I was little, maybe three or four, I was obsessed with The Wizard of Oz. Even though I couldn't look directly at the Wicked Witch of the West, I loved the hell out of those crazy sojourners, especially Dorothy and her "boobie-wed-swippahs" I long coveted. There was even a period of time when I insisted on being called Dorothy, and would answer to nothing else as I clicked my heels around the room, singing Follow the Yellow-Brick Road. And although I've had to wait a long, long time, last week I finally did skip along that golden road, though it wasn't fancy bricks that made it glow. It was larches.

I love larches. I love them in spring, when their spindly, nubbed branches start sprouting those soft, bristly tufts of bright green. I love them in summer, how they feel against my palms when I comb through their needles, how they tickle my cheeks. But I especially love them in fall. Montana doesn't offer many hardwoods, and though the riverbeds may shine with cottonwood and aspen, the slopes are entirely coniferous, wholly green. Until they aren't.

Tamaracks are one of only a few deciduous conifers in the world, and we've got them in spades. They begin their slow seasonal undress sometime in October, and by the end of the month the forests are on fire. Individual branches look like frozen sparklers, and when the wind gusts, the needles swirl and scatter like some strange and foreign snow. When the trees are finally bare, a thick carpet glows below.

I have had the immense good fortune of being granted caretaker rights over an incredible home, surrounded by larches. I will be here all winter, and will be thankful for every minute of it.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

October, October

Fall is here! Fall is here!

Walk this way

"Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower." -Camus

Muffled marbled mosaics

I'm trying to break your heart

This sparkler won't scorch

Like pemmican pushed through a Coke can...

Faerie hems, edges, edges, edges

Gotta break 'em off somethin'
Mountain Ash-ram

Silent Creepers

So I've seen about 479 of these little wood chickens this season. Mostly I return their thunderous, spontaneous greetings with a hearty "Ah! Jesus!" and a frantic chest clap, but I do appreciate them keeping me on my toes. For some reason, autumn must have a slightly soothing effect on spruce grouse, because they seem to be more sluggish and less aggressive lately. Maybe its because the kids are all grown up. Or they'd rather be making decorative gourd centerpieces than dispensing random heart attacks. I don't know. What I do know is that they let you get real close. Other crew mates of mine have seen this fact through to the point of bludgeoning, roasting, and ingesting, but I prefer taking pictures...

Check out that eyeshadow

Feathered boa

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Learning Lessons the Hard Way

Peep this awesome photo sequence of an ornery otter telling a coyote what's up.
Who says lutras can't be badasses? Cuddly badasses.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Whistle Pig

Animal of the Week: Le Hoary Marmot (Marmota caligata).

What you should know:

- Hoary refers to the silvery gray fur which decorates their shoulders, not their promiscuous social lives. Although males do keep harems, so I guess it is kind of a double-meaning.

- They eat grasses and seeds and such. They whistle while they work.

- They're uber-lazy, hibernating eight months of the year, sunning on rocks for the other four. Although sometimes the "wrestle with each other for hours." If I was so fat and furry that is what I would do too.

- They are camera whores.

I'm ready for my close-up.

Friday, September 23, 2011

4 days, 46 miles, 17 crossings, 114 rub trees: Scenes from the Nyack Loop

Home is wherever I'm with you

A procession of professionals

Walking the wreath around Stimson

None but shining hours
After the flood, the flow is steady
Strange flowers smell of nothing

Backcountry kingdom
Raised by racoons

Enjoy your worries, you may never have them again


Short steps, long horns

Thursday, September 15, 2011

I'm Your Huckleberry

Fact! Huckleberries have never been successfully
domesticated. Knowing that you have to get out
 into the wild to gather them makes them all the
more special and delicious.

1. the dark-blue, purple, or black edible berry of any of the various shrubs belonging to the genuses Gaylussacia and Vaccinium. A most tasty delicacy for blue-tongued bears and humans alike.

2. a shrub bearing such fruit.

3. as in "I'm your huckleberry": old-timey smack-talking slang for both "I'm the man for the job" and "I'm the man who is about to hand your ass to you."

4. a rube, bumpkin, or amateur.

5. a blue, bow-tie wearing Southern dawg.

6. a frequently-used excuse for late-summer tardiness while hiking trails in Montana. As in "sorry I'm late, there were huckleberries."

Monday, September 12, 2011

Little Orange Dog

Last week I had the pleasure of hiking with a new field partner, the little orange Monroe T. Scarr, a soft, smelly, and snickering golden retriever extraordinaire. Our stroll up Essex creek on the eastern forest service side of the park turned memorable within the first few hundered meters when we realized the barely-used trail had fallen into a wild disarray of jungle-growth proportions. If your average jungle was largely made up of frosty six-foot-high nettles, thick thimbleberry bushes, and those nasty burr-plants with the greasy black needles.

Still, Monroe is a consumate scientist and stimulating conversationalist, so, slipping, tripping, soaking from morning frost, and explicative hurling aside, it was a banner day.

Here is a random transcript from our walk:

M: Hey, what are you doing? Why are we stopping again?
K: Look, thimbleberries.
M: Yeah, so?
K: They are perfectly ripe and delicious. Here, have one.
M: Meh. I really don't see the appeal.
K: Well, think of how you would walk through a forest if there were little meat baubles dangling over the trail.
M: Hmm. What's a bauble?
K: Alright, a packet--little juicy packets of meat hanging from every branch.
M: That sounds amazing.
K: Yeah, I know. So your meat packets are my thimbleberries.
M: Whatever you say.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering Jake

Jacob RigbyWe had some very sad news in Glacier last week.
Jake Rigby, a neighbor and fellow seasonal science technician fell to his death during a solo, multi-peak, off-trail traverse. The Park had over fifty people out for several days, searching basins and ridges, calling his name. Most of those people are my friends. Most of them knew Jake. It is a heavy, heavy thing.

I didn't really know Jake, but I had seen him around the neighborhood during the summers. By all accounts he was a very good, very kind man--a house teeming with interesting books, an adventurous spirit, a love of strange music, and of big mountains. We are all of us here kindred spirits, bound by a love for this place, by a certain lifestyle. This could have happened to any one of us. I don't know how to think about these things... what to do or say or feel to give or receive any small comfort--beyond to think that his heart must have been filled to bursting with the beauty of the day, and to hope that death is but another wondrous journey. And, more than that, to know that he will be remembered. And that he will be missed.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Magical Mystery Kind

"What if you slept? And what if, in your sleep, you went to heaven and there plucked a strange and beautiful flower? And what if, when you awoke, you had the flower in your hand?
Ah, what then?" -- Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Friday, August 26, 2011

Hissing Fauna Are You the Destroyer?

You know, working in the field isn't all chasing butterflies through fields of flowers at sunset. There are blisters. There are ungodly smells. Mosquitoes. Wet feet. There are back pains. There are knees which crunch and crackle.

This hitch's mini-hazards feature incidents in which I...

(1) Had to cut sap out of my hair.
Bears like to rub on fir trees. Firs trees are sappy. Ergo biologists who fiddle with fur on fir are also sappy. I'm not sure why I didn't look for ways to remove said sap (peanut butter? mayonnaise?) before just clawing at it for hours and then bringing a knife to the fight, but, whatever. Now I have a (stylish?) sideburn curl in manner of 20's French flapper girl.

(2) Was nearly attacked by a salty bird.
Bobby and I were hiking down a trail, minding our own damn business when this brown hissing maniac came crashing out of the woods. By the time we realized it was a grouse we were already backing up. By the time it started charging at us full speed we were already running down the trail, shouting, and looking for sticks with which to beat it.
(Note to animal lovers: even though these heart attack chickens suck, I have not beaten any with sticks, or feet, to date.)

And speaking of being assaulted...
(3) Was stung in the eye by a mysterious winged insect.
Again, minding my own business, hiking out of the glorious Fifty Mountain meadows with Coy after four days out, when out of nowhere this kamikaze bee or bee-like creature jets directly into my face, gets caught between my sunglasses and eyeball where it madly buzzes and slams against my face, ultimately stinging me just below the eye. Naturally this swelled up nice and pretty. Luckily, we stopped for lunch soon there after, where I was able to put a slice of still night-chilled cucumber on my eye, in manner of zany backcountry spa treatment.

And speaking of being stung...  
(4) Was bitten, stung, and soundly violated by a host of vicious nettles.
For real. Those hairy green bastards got me good. Again and again. And it wasn't even the stinging and resulting diseased-leg look that was the worst of it. No, the worst was when I nearly scratched my legs bloody while being kept up all night long with the diabolical itching. All. Night. Long.

5) Was coerced into drinking beer out of a funneling-device shaped like a boob.
What can I say... It was a relic from a recent bachelor party, and apparently I cannot resist peer pressure. Prior to the boob-tubing incident I literally jumped off of a bridge because, you know, everyone was doing it.

 I love summers in the field.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A River Runs Through It

A few weeks ago I had the distinct pleasure of spending five days floating about sixty miles on central Montana's Smith River. The Smith is a tributary of the Missouri River, and runs through the appropriately named Castle Mountains, carving through miles of steep limestone cliffs which cast shadows like stone walls.

Like any respectable river trip the journey involved constant fishing, campfires every night, the consumption of untold quantities of cheap beer (sometimes for breakfast), water, water everywhere, night bacon, eagles, flocks of cliff swallows, epic squatters, rattlesnake paranoia, the loss of a wedding ring, the finding of a wedding ring, frisbee dives, cliff jumps, swimming, sunburns, sore arms, and a lot of burritos.

My sweet ride

Unfortunately the bidet was not working

Apparently they let Canadians on the river, too

Cliffs of insanity

Beautiful, glorious, blah blah blah

Old friend


They do things a little differently down here

Swallow condominiums

Cave break

View from petroglyphs

Say wha?!

Yes, that is fire roasted night bacon



Water beefalo


Blinded by the light

Hoss is so free right now