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Monthly Archives: September 2008

(Originally published in On The Natural back in January of 2008 )

I grew up in rural central Indiana in the middle of fields that were planted with corn, peas and soybeans. After my brother and I left home, my parents decided to move for a variety of reasons. Not the least of which was the fact that it took a lot of work to keep the three acres of land where we lived in good shape.

They relocated to a housing development closer to town. Now when I go home for Christmas it’s to a much larger house on streets lined with young, weather-beaten saplings. I like to go out walking in the cold air when I’m there. It’s gray, wet and chilly — a pleasant break from the sunshine of Los Angeles, where I’ve lived for the last decade.

The area around their housing development is mostly under construction: Farmland and forest that is being turned into tidy neighborhoods with names forcing awkward connotations of the rustic idyll that they are replacing, e.g Brittany Chase, Hunter’s Glen, Cobblestone Lakes, Corduroy Farms. My walk this year took me past mud fields, drainage ponds inhabited by muskrats and herons; solitary lampposts, dormant construction sites and half-built houses. Some of these will no doubt be completed, while some of the prefabricated mini-mansions will sit empty for years (just waiting for a family of upwardly-mobile exurban squatters, perhaps) as the housing market in central Indiana is not immune to the economic shifts in the larger US real-estate market. These are some of the pictures that I took on my walk on the day after Christmas, learning to use the lovely camera that my mom and dad gave me.

Thanks, as always, to my parents for hosting me over the holidays.

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Ken Layne, the editor of Wonkette — a satirical political blog refreshing for its vicious and usually hilarious contempt for politics — mentioned in a New York Magazine interview last week that he lives on an “abandoned horse ranch” out in the Mojave somewhere. And he writes a column about it for the LA Citybeat alt-weekly. It’s done in the Ed Abbey tradition, as Layne fantasizes about shooting ATV enthusiasts, looks at the housing crisis from the perspective of ex-urban meth-mouths and watches desert cottontails frolic in the sunset. Good stuff: DESERT RATTLER.

The June 9 2008 Expedition into Debs Park got off to a rousing start, as my companion’s dog Baroo did purloin a Hot Dog from some fishermen. They were using the Hot Dog for bait, and it was working. They hauled a tiny ovular fish from the depths of Debs Pond. The fish’s future was uncertain as they were going to give it to some other guys fishing on the far side of the pond.

Afterward we looped around the hillsides, and began another ascent to the pond. It was here that we did see many snails in their coiled cylinder shells, expired and dried, ascent up crispy stalks of dead grass frozen in the sunshine.

It is of such equiangular spirals as we see in their shells that Roman poet Pliny saw “magna ludentis naturae varietas” (the vast variety of nature at play), a quote that I came across while browsing D’arcy Wentworth Thompson’s 1942 biology classic On Growth and Form. Thompson:

In the great majority of cases, when we consider an organism in part or whole, when we look (for instance) at our own hand or foot, or contemplate an insect or a worm, we have no reason (or very little) to consider one part of the existing structure as older than another; through and through, the newer particles have been merged and commingled among the old; the outline, such as it is, is due to forces which for the most part arte still at work to shape it, and which in shaping it have shaped it as a whole. But the horn, or the snail-shell, is curiously different; for in these the presently existing structure is, so to speak, partly old and partly new. It has been conformed by successive and continuous increments; and each successive stage of growth, starting from the origin, remains as an integral and unchanging portion of the growing structure.
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(The last of the archival stuff from my soon-to-evaporate Uber blogs. This one’s from June 12 of 2008.)
Oh isn’t it lovely for Businessweek to show us what green entrepreneurship is really probably gonna look like. A voracious corporate raider buying up Texas water rights and building wind farms. Then using his lobbyist pals to create autonomous utility companies that get to try and exercise control Houston’s water supply. A future Lord of Thunderdome, as it were.

Read on in Businessweek.

Originally published June 2008 on The Uber Index

Plants can recognize their relatives, in some cases better than animals. Certain parasitic species can “sniff” out the chemical benefits of their neighbors, and then in turn make decisions about their future hosts based on what they smell. Continuing research into such botanical arenas is not only fascinating to readers beyond the audience of the journal of the United Kingdom’s national academy of science, but it also has the readers of those journals up in arms.

Science has its methodology of observation and experimentation, which moves slowly by design in order to provide accurate, reproducible data. But when the findings from such studies are as fascinating as those discussed in the New York Times story below, it’s inevitable that writers, artists and even scientists will start to imagine all sorts of possibilities for plants, calling it consciousness, sentience or just intelligence.

This tends to put a twist in the panties of a lot of mainstream scientists. Which seems like a good thing to us, as such flights of fancy have inspired the work of visionary ecological thinkers from Amazonian shamans to Goethe to Michael Pollan. We’d also say that a lack of imagination when it comes to botanical science is partly to blame for the fact that its taken Western science centuries of plant research to recognize such profound things about the organisms that comprise 90 percent of the Earth’s biomass.

Read on in the New York Times: “Loyal To Its Roots” by Carol Kaesuk Yoon

If you’re into good times in the great outdoors, the place to be in Southern California is the Cleveland National Forest. I did not know this until a couple weekends ago, when a bunch of us Arthur folks — that’d be me, Jay and Eden — headed out to the Santa Ana Mountains that mark the border of Orange and Riverside counties for one of the Los Angeles Mycological Society‘s mushroom forays.

Soon after our arrival (it’s about an hour drive from Los Angeles) we met the dreadlock soldier pictured above, who’s showing off a dried up little morsel of fungus — I forget the actual classification, you’ll have to forgive me — that he unearthed from under an oak tree.

Eden and I turned up this tiny little pleated fellow by rustling around in some damp leaves, not far from where I was goofing around taking pictures of some lichens.

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The first time I walked up Mt. Islip — an 8,000 foot peak in the San Gabriel Mountains, about 50 miles from my house in Northeast Los Angeles — I came down by moonlight sort of by accident. I tend to get a late start on a lot of my hikes, mostly because I enjoy weekend mornings zoning out on my porch listening to Francoise Hardy, drinking a cherry-walnut smoothie and watching my cat Spider run around in the yard.

The trail is an easy three or four miles one way, and I arrived at the top just as the sun was starting to set, barely making out the towers of downtown Los Angels through the orange haze. I hung around on the peak — bald rock with four chunks of cinder block, the foundation of a long-gone fire watchtower from the 1930s — until the light was mostly gone. It wasn’t until I was making my way down in the dusk when it occurred to me that the woods were still crawling with hunters. It was the heart of deer season, November 5, 2006, and the Islip Saddle parking lot had been full of pickup trucks and camo-sporting Latino dudes hanging out with their freshly-killed deer carcasses rather than the usual crowd of white granola-types and their Subaru Outbacks.
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The moon came up over the mountains about an hour after dark, illuminating every crooked branch of the trees on the fire-scarred ridgeline above me. It glowed and sparkled silver on the rock that sloped up from the fire road I was walking, and it shined in the arc of pee that I sent running down the closed, two-lane blacktop highway that I’d followed to the trailhead. (The Angeles Crest Highway has been closed with a heavy gate at mile 64.1 for months now, I think because of some rockslides further east.) I was singing a jolly country song about a guy who killed a woman in Tennessee and was now running for the Mexico border when I realized that two hunters, sitting by the side of the road, had been watching me from a distance as I ambled along, dancing and urinating gratuitously in the middle of the road. Yeesh. “Buenas noches, cazadores,” I said, remembering the word for “hunters” from a tequila bottle. “Uh-huh,” they replied, understandably unimpressed. They asked me if I’d seen their friend, who was long overdue at the parking lot. I told them I hadn’t seen anyone, and walked on.

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The Gabrielino Trail runs almost 30 miles from Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to Chantry Flats, winding its way through the turn-of-the-19th Century human ruins that litter the front range of Southern California’s San Gabriel Mountains. A kind of “hiking boom” in the 1890s had gentleman wood-walkers rambling about these hills with their fancy moustaches and OG L.L. Bean gear, building huts, cabins, bridges and dams.

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Most spectacular among these intrusions into the wilderness is the work of Professor Thaddeus Lowe. An entrepreneur and self-trained scientist, Lowe spent the Civil War years doing aerial reconnaissance of Confederate positions from a balloon. He moved to Pasadena, CA in 1887, started a bank and in 1893 opened a railway that scaled up 3,250-foot high Echo Mountain, where he’d constructed a chalet. Several years later he opened another hotel and tavern on the mountain. By 1905 the mountains had rejected all of these structures, destroying them by way of fire and flood. All that remains are a few cement foundations and an abandoned train tunnel, along with the decaying roadways and stone walls that are peppered throughout this wilderness that abuts the affluent suburbs that spread east along the foothills.

I returned to seek the Royal Gorge on a hot Saturday afternoon, the first weekend of July. The Gabrielino Trail is an easy walk for the first few miles as its an old road. Bridges with truck-weight specifications span the lively creek, thick glades shade the trail and stonemasonry juts out of the hillsides: terraced gardens of agaves that mark old campgrounds and graffiti-marked foundations of what look to be houses. Occasionally the trees are scarred with more graffiti, the older it is the higher it lies on the trunk.

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Another classic from On The Natural:

My first attempt at the Royal Gorge, a swimming hole in the front range of the San Gabriel Mountains of Southern California, ended with me squealing like a pig and scrambling like a goat over the rocks, logs and boulders of Long Canyon. I’d failed to reach the gorge itself; I decided to turn back while suspended on a rock wall over a murky pool of algae-choked water. I’d just hurled my walking stick over the pool and was unbuckling my pack to throw that as well, intending to leap after these accessories and continue the quest. I paused for a minute and watched a California Newt paddling in the muck below. Read More