Monday, June 20, 2011

You Got Me Buggin'

Looking for a summer thriller for the beach? A shiver-inducing read that will keep you up at night? A tale of murder and intrigue? Another reason to hate those mosquitoes swarming your gourd at this very moment?
Look no more.

Peep my latest book review for Portland's
The Oregonian.

Amy Stewart
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
$18.95, 272 pages

"Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W.C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue." This is not the colorful marketing slogan for an off-brand Texas hot sauce. It's pain connoisseur Justin Schmidt's description of a yellow jacket sting, ranked 2.0 on his Schmidt Sting Pain Index. And it doesn't actually sound so bad when compared to the "pure, intense, brilliant pain," of a level 4.0 bullet ant bite, akin to "fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel."

Intrigued? Read on.

For every human on Earth there are roughly 200 million insects. "We are seriously outnumbered." Amy Stewart respects that. She understands that insects do good. She knows they are integral parts of the food chain, that they pollinate the plants we eat and keep soil healthy. She knows we could not live without them. But she didn't write a book called "Wicked Bugs: The Louse That Conquered Napoleon's Army & Other Diabolical Insects" to extol their virtues. She wrote it to chronicle their most dastardly deeds. She wrote it to make you shudder and itch as you learn how the smallest of creatures can decimate forests and crops, collapse cities, thwart armies and inflict horror-movie levels of pain, suffering, festering disease and gruesome death upon millions of humans, while changing and shaping the course of history. She wrote this book to scare the bugs out of you.

Stewart is not an entomologist, but she is a consummate storyteller with a curious mind. Well-researched and written with characteristic wit, whimsy and reverence, "Wicked Bugs" is the perfect companion to her sordid 2009 best-seller, "Wicked Plants." Accompanied by Briony Morrow-Cribbs' gorgeous entomological etchings and drawings, the book is arranged in alphabetical order by species, and then divided into five dubious categories: Horrible, Painful, Destructive, Dangerous and Deadly. Each brief chapter offers up some fresh new hell.

And rest assured, there is something for everyone. Hypochondriacs will be pleased to know that those chronic headaches could be caused by a tapeworm curled up like a tumor inside their brains. World War II buffs will be delighted to learn of Japan's aborted operation "Cherry Blossoms at Night," which would have released plague-infested fleas over California. Science geeks will chuckle at the image of Darwin stuffing a bombardier beetle into his mouth for safekeeping when his hands were full. Engineers will be impressed by the degree to which termites weakened New Orleans's levees before Hurricane Katrina.

So this summer as you unpack your picnic basket in a haze of bug spray, just remember that mosquitoes have killed more humans than all wars combined. And for that, they probably deserve a little begrudging respect.  --Kathleen Yale

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Smokey and the Bandits

This summer I embark on my third year working on the Northern Divide Grizzly Bear Project  in Glacier National Park, aka The Greatest Job in the World. The project has been ongoing, in one incarnation or another, since 1998. It started out in Glacier, but now encompasses nearly eight million acres around the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. Our current objectives are to:

- Evaluate the efficacy of monitoring grizzly and black bear population trends using noninvasive hair sampling.

- Estimate population: (1) growth rate, (2) abundance, (3) distribution and relative density, (4) gene flow and genetic structure, and (5) apparent survival rates.

- Provide area-specific information on bear population status.

Noninvasive sampling methods involve collecting data in such a way as to not annoy, molest, stress, or piss off the wildlife in question. This could mean observing behavior from a distance, studying tracks, collecting shit, or nabbing hair in the woods. Nerdy lab-rats can extract DNA from hair follicles and tell us who is who in the bear world, down to the individual level. And so we are professional fur burglers. For reasons that are still unclear, bears love to rub their backs on trees, power poles, fence posts, wooden bridges, etc. I get it. It probably feels pretty damn good, and I bet it isn't easy to book a massage when you are a 500 pound grizzly bear. In previous seasons we identified trees that bears had already enjoyed rubbing on, and we numbered them and added four foot-long strands of barbed wire to the trunks. Now we can walk through millions of acres of habitat from Glacier to Missoula, and check thousands of trees for bear hair. We will do this all summer, hitting each tree three times, no matter the weather, no matter the state of our creaky knees, blistered heels, wet feet, or bruise collections. And, by and large, we will be grinning and grateful, even while grimacing, to be out in the hills, quietly following North America's biggest and baddest carnivore.

The crew completed a week of training a couple of days ago.
Collective highlights/items of note included:

- Snowfield and creek-crossing training in the cold, cold rain.
- Infamous the-woods-will-break-you-if-you-aren't-careful cautionary slide show of woe.
- One black bear and two grizzly sightings.
- Graham diving over a six-foot campfire and being caught by the crowd.
- Rotten fish grinding.
- Unknowable quantities of PBR and whiskey consumed.
- Salad with every meal.
- Rain every day.
- Sunset on Lake McDonald.
- Late night mission to make growly bear noises around the new interns' tents.
- Hair samples!
- And, because I was there, a mini-MJ dance party at the bar, just to wrap it all up.

Looking forward to an exceptional season.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Time to Dust Off the Old Bear Suit

At long last, I'm finally back in Montana.
Here is a little preview of what I'll be doing for the next two seasons.

More details to follow...for now, you figure it out.

The Emerald Isle

Caps for sale

Gypsy Wagons

Just some kid

Phantom velvet

A fine seat for a masochist
Stone shrooms

Bring us one
One guess

Bunratty Castle, still looking good
Try walking down these stairs in metal boots

Crossing the River Shannon

Doolin Town in Dingle

I bet she has a hard time clapping

Famine Hut: starving with a great view

Woolly Tocks

Bringing business to the Aran Islands

Sunken chapel in an old cemetery

A fine and private place

A labyrinth of rock walls

Aggressive snorggling

Really letting the place go

Ubiquitous Vans shot

Hobbits were here

What are you rooking at?

Give thanks and praise

Oh, Mama


Someone needs a comb

One of the forty shades of green


The hippies were here!

The Burren

The Irish burn peat instead of wood

Save the date!

Seaside charm

The deep green sea

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Cliffs of Insanity

Last week we visited The Cliffs of Mohr on Ireland's western coast. You may recognize said legendary cliffs from the 1987 classic The Princess Bride, in which a particularly hearty Andre the Giant (as Fezzick, the mostly gentle giant from Greenland) scaled these walls by climbing a thick rope, while carrying the swarthy Indigo Montoya, reluctant Buttercup, and abusive shrimp, Vizzini. An impressive feat, to say the least. More recently, You-Know-You thought this sea cave was the perfect place to hide his locket Horcrux. In reality, these cliffs are an intense geological feature made of Namurian shale and sandstone, and currently a finalist for the Seven! Nature! Wonders! Of the World! The cliffs are home to more than twenty different species of birds, including those bad-beaked puffins. Mohr is also subject to some fierce, fierce winds. Many people have actually been snatched by this angry air and gusted right off the ground. Over the edge. To their death. Yeah, so don't mess around.

A rich dude named Cornelius build this mini-castle to impress the ladies. True.
Mermaid Stonehenge?
For creepin'
At their maximum height these bad boys rise 700 feet from the water.
Breaking the law in multiple languages