Wednesday, May 28, 2014

When Time Runs Out

On May 20, 2014 I chaired a session on groundwater wetlands at the Joint Aquatic Sciences Meeting in Portland, Oregon in the western US. We had about 125 participants in our gathering. In the numerous other meeting rooms surrounding us over 3,000 professionals and their students had gathered to listen to and share their knowledge of freshwater systems and organisms. Not all that far away, several hundred miles to the southeast, the waters in the Colorado River, the life blood of the western United States, continued to decline. In 2014, Lake Powell, behind the Glen Canyon Dam would only rise to about half of its holding capacity. Further downstream, the water in Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam would be even lower.  Below the lake, men and women were tunneling to build the lowest possible drain to suck whatever water remains in the bottom of the lake just above the ooze and the mud.  The water of Lake Mead feed Las Vegas, the city maintained by the scions of organized crime…the city that should never have been. In the South Pole one of the great ice sheets was melting. We wouldn’t use that freshwater to replace what the skies and clouds no longer produced. Instead, it would contribute to rising sea level changing the very outline of the coasts of many areas on the planet.  Back in Portland, while the flow of knowledge and the peculiar culture of the people of science swirled around me, I wondered what could be done about the condition to which my generation and the generations before me had brought to this world. Was it possible that all of this incredible knowledge and intellect could be harnessed to address and solve some of these staggering challenges?  It is possible but not probable.  After all, the newspaper that morning  announced that over half of the citizens in the US denied that there was any problem at all and those deniers included the unfortunately or intentionally ignorant legislators in the State assemblies and the US Congress.  We seem to have moved beyond our ability to restore those systems and balances so critical to a healthy functioning planet and now we will have to pay the piper. (Ironically, while my colleagues and I were meeting, Portland announced a water emergency in the city. They hadn't run out of water but some form of fecal coliform bacteria had entered the water supply.)

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Alone III

Continued from the preceding post

There is something about being alone in the desert. As I said in an earlier posting, sometimes I had company when wandering the desert and sometimes not.  Traveling with a companion seems to fill those spaces in our spirit where we may not go very often.  But the doors to those spaces are open when you are alone. When you can see to the horizon where no structures and no indication of human occupancy or industry mar the view, you are alone. Where there is no other obvious animal life but a bird flitting across the dirt track you are driving on or a feral horse or burro standing on a low ridge in the distance, you are alone. I have often wondered if my observations were more acute and my science more precise when I was with others in the desert or alone.

One day a group of us were in Ash Meadows visiting with a ‘desert rat’ who had an old trailer there.  He was actually an engineer who treasured the solitude of the desert and who withdrew to his trailer and shade tree whenever possible.  This was the day that we heard that the US Congress had appropriated the funds necessary for the government to purchase Ash Meadows as an addition to the National Wildlife Refuge System.  I was surprised at how mixed my feelings were.  On the one hand, I was exceptionally pleased that the rich biodiversity would finally have lasting protection from the threat of exploitation or developers and agriculturists that had, for so long,  hung like the Sword of Damocles over this precious resource, this laboratory of evolution and biodiversity. On the other hand, I realized that the edgy days I had so enjoyed had come to an end.  Shortly after the purchase I left Nevada for another kind of desert…a desert of the spirit known as Washington, DC.


Saturday, March 1, 2014

Alone II

Continued from the preceding post

But most of my work focused on Ash Meadows including that strange rift in the crust of Earth called Devils Hole.  Back in the day, there were several ways to reach Ash Meadows. One route took you through what is now the Las Vegas bedroom community of Pahrump.  Another route was to drive north of Las Vegas for an hour or so, past Area 51 (with all of its reputedly strange goings-on), and turn left at the crossroads of Lathrop Wells almost across the street from the brothel with it’s deep red light. From Lathrop Wells the route takes you toward Death Valley Junction, with it’s unique opera house.  Just before you reached the Junction you would turn left again and head out across the desert at the cement factory.  Only in Nevada do you give directions by referencing Area 51 (As Agent Mulder might say, ‘The Truth is out there.’),  a brothel, and a cement factory. But this was the area in which we did some very exciting biology and conservation.

Strange things happened in that patch of desert in those times. Like the time that another student and I were driving into Ash Meadows from Pahrump only to be stopped by a Deputy Sheriff who refused to let us past because there was a body in the road. It was a man and he had been shot. We could see the body there in the dirt of the road with blood staining the gravel.  There were those in Las Vegas then (and I suspect even now who solved disagreements in a terminal manner).Shifting into four wheel drive, we circled the place of execution bumping through the sagebrush and across the stone-hard caliche.  As we came onto the main dirt and gravel road and drove on, I remember wondering how the man had died.  Was it quick or had he laid there bleeding his life out all alone in this this great, seemingly empty stretch of high desert …violent death in a land so filled with life. 

Continued in next post

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Alone I

Not long ago, a younger colleague asked me to reminisce about the years I spent wandering around the deserts of southern Nevada and southeastern California.  Questions like this sometimes make me feel even older than I am.  When I think about it, however, I’m now into my seventh decade and much of what I took part in has become a page in the history of an exciting story in conservation biology.  In fact, for that region of the world, the period from the late 1970’s to the mid-1980’s were epochal for the dozens of species of plants, fish, and invertebrates living in the high desert area above Death Valley know as Ash Meadow. 

Even as late as the 1980’s Ash Meadows and the surrounding area was still pretty wild.  I spent the opening half of that decade working on my first graduate degree at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and then working for the University as a Research Associate.  There were times when everyone else was busy and I would take a university vehicle, if one was available, or my own vehicle and, alone. I would drive northwest of Las Vegas toward what was then called the Desert Game Range or Ash Meadows or down to the floor of Death Valley or even further north toward Beatty and the Armargosa River and, on some days, east and then north to Hiko and Crystal Springs and the White River Country.  Pupfish, springfish, and poolfish, and their habitats…during those years I joined them wherever they were found.
Continued in the next post

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Hard Water

Hard water, rich in calcium and magnesium, is the kind of water you buy an expensive machine to chemically change so you can use the water in your home and not damage the pipes or the applicances.  But there is another kind of hard water and the hardness is not necessarily in its chemistry but rather in its physics. This kind of hard water comes in different forms from tiny stinging pellets that fall from the sky to clumps the size of baseballs that can injure and even destroy to sheets that coat other physical objects turning them into strange shapes.

In early January 2014 this kind of hard water covered much of the eastern and southeastern regions of the US, transforming extensive areas into slippery, dangerous places. The danger is the pragmatic aspect of this kind of hard water while the sculptures created by freezing are the aesthetic even artistic expression of the altered reality of water.  The forms that ice takes can be staggering in their strange and cold beauty.  The ice redefines reality turning it into something different but still reminiscent of other times, of warmer times.

Reality is not quite as fixed when things turn to ice. Water oozing from seeps and springs, that once dripped from rocky faces, becomes translucent steps of icy stalagmites. Waterfalls freeze in from the margins transformed into increasingly thin ribbons. And rivers, thousands of miles from the frozen Arctic and Antarctic host new islands of moving blocks…of ice. And reality is redefined.

Perhaps the most fascinating icy redefinition of reality occurs when the limbs and twigs of winter grey trees and shrubs become coated with sometimes shimmering and often translucent crystal coatings. Fascinating that is unless the coating becomes to thick and another kind of hard reality reveals itself.