Sunday, July 31, 2005

And which would you choose?

My recent discovery that I have some hearing loss caused me to think about a car wreck, long ago. I can't remember the year offhand, but I remember the time of year; it was August during the annual Perseid meteor shower. I was disappointed that the peak was during the daylight, an invisible bombardment; under the unseen crackling lights, sands of a broken comet were being gravitated clean by recurrent decades of our summer passage.

I had bought groceries and had loaded them into my old red Volkswagon. Driving home from the grocery store, I remember seeing, out of the corner of my eye, a car not stop at a stop sign. The realization that it wasn't stopping was the only thought I had time for; then I was whirling around in the air after a terrific impact, and then I was staggering out of my car which had been totally demolished.

I was surprised that I could walk. I was covered with blood but I somehow knew I had not been really hurt. My car looked like it had been dropped out of an airplane. The blood gushing from my scalp mixed with the milk and orange juice gurgling with galoop galoop galoop noises from the wrecked car. There were smashed bananas all over the street. The Pontiac I had run into had stopped, with hardly a dent in it. My knee hurt pretty badly as I hobbled over to the other car. People had come out and were standing in their front yards, staring. The driver of the Pontiac was an old man breathing from a tube connected to an oxygen bottle. His passenger, a middle-aged woman, said, "He has emphysema," like that was what we were talking about. He looked OK, but did not say anything, and did not get out of the car.

I walked over to an onlooker who was standing on his front porch and said, "Can I borrow your phone?" He hesitated. I said "Sorry about the blood." He said "Sure", and showed me inside. I called a friend to pick me up.

A cop pulled up. The first thing he said was, "Do you want an ambulance? I can call one for you," because I looked like I needed one, and I said no. The old man just sat there the whole time. The cop walked over and wrote him a ticket. His daughter drove him home in his own car. My car was hauled away by a tow truck. It was the only serious wreck I had ever been in, and I wrote down all my impressions as soon as I got home from the emergency room where my friend took me to get my scalp and knee sewed up.

But this is not a story of my car wreck. The people who came out of their houses said it made a tremendous heavy-metal WHAM! But my awareness of what was going on was entirely visual and tactile and I did not have any impression of a noise. Except for the silent internal "oof" that occurs when your body runs into something too hard.

Why should one's consciousness select for visual awareness during emergencies? I suspect it is that eyesight is the most important thing for primates when it comes to saving themselves. On the other hand, it may be that my experience is unique, and that other wreck victims hear noise.

When I was in Paraguay I found out that, in response to the strangely artificial question, "Which would you rather be, if you had to choose, blind or deaf?" most of the Paraguayans polled would rather be blind. This struck me as peculiar, and so I occasionally asked Americans and only one said he would prefer blindness to deafness, and he was a professional musician. All the others preferred deafness, although sometimes they would think about it a while, reconsider, and change their answer. I don't know if Paraguayans hear during car wrecks.

I'd prefer not to choose, but at this point in my life, if I had to...I'd flip a coin.

That night I remember thinking about the rocks overhead decelerating into long splinters of fire, then quenched in the moonlight. Where do the ashes of meteors go? We probably breathe them all our lives.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Friday cat blogging

Cat multitasking. Grendel sleeps and claws his scratching post at the same time.
Grendel claws his scratching post while sleeping
The reason for this behavior is that the scratching post is actually a 3-tiered home-made edifice covered with cast-off carpeting from behind a carpet store. It has ledges to sleep on. Grendel prefers to sleep and claw on the ground floor; Gray prefers the upper stories.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

A few words about the Austin American Statesman

I cancelled my subscription to our truly bad daily newspaper, the Austin American Statesman, about a year ago. I forget which straw was the last. Austin is a liberal town. The Statesman is by any reasonable standard conservative in its editorial policy, and better-safe-than-sorry in its news reporting. They are entitled to their conservatism on the editorial page, of course, but I don't believe they are entitled to ignore the Downing Street Memo, or to have joined--on their "news" pages, no less-- the big Republican sing-along leading up the the Iraq War. All I can say in their favor is that they are better than Fox News. But that's not much, is it?

Now I learn on the web that they have censored the latest Doonesbury comic strips. Why? Because it might offend their masters. No, that's not what they said. They said they don't believe in bad language.

Please. Give me a break.

Doonesbury is not really important, but Turd Blossom is. So I felt the need to respond to a self-serving apologia for this stupidity, which they offered to the world in a "blog" published by the editor and managing editor themselves (Rich and Fred). I sent the following remarks to the blog comments section. So far, they have not approved my comment for publication. Perhaps they will break precedent, and publish it. Or perhaps not. But, having a blog of my own, I will at least put it up here.

Dear Rich and Fred:

You people are such a profound disgrace to journalism.

You are a disgrace on large matters, like your total, 1000 percent abdication of the slightest journalistic commitment to truth in your failure to even _glance_ at the lies that justified the Iraq war, and now, in backing away as fast as you can from the Downing Street Memo and followup revelations that a real press in another country has uncovered of the proof of those lies. (Your slogan, of course, is "that's not news!" Right. The biggest news since Watergate is "not news" in your newspaper.)

And you are a disgrace on small matters like your unwillingness to print the word "turd" in your, God bless my soul, "family" newspaper, even though it is not only incredibly apt, but is as well and in fact the actual nickname in the White House itself for Mr. Rove. Your pusillanimity is astonishing.

I would cancel my subscription except I already did.

I frankly hope you people go out of business and leave the field to the Chronicle and the bloggers. The real bloggers. The world, and the people of Austin, will be better off.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Mountains and rivers sutra, again

For a while now I have been occupied trying to salvage old photos, mostly color slides, faded, that have been stored in bad conditions, and some of which, regrettably, are water-damaged. I have far more than I can scan, but I have been scanning the ones I like, and putting the rest in archival storage sheets. Slow going, and it has interfered with my blogging, I suppose.

The batch of photos I just went through were from New Mexico. I have pictures of myself with a bunch of archeologists. I forget now why we were camping with them up in the wilderness above Three Rivers, where there is a big prehistoric rock-art site.

But I remember that it was a summer night and we were anticipating an eclipse of the moon. We had our tents where a bright cold creek smashes out of the high pine forests and slows as if surprised at the sudden change, on its way down into the desert sand where it disappears a few miles from a crazed and heat cracked lava flow which lies at the very bottom of the desert floor. Beneath an alligator juniper I watched Venus, which seemed big as a pearl, and Saturn light up above the gunflint cirrus sunset, and I nibbled on trailmix while the archaeologists got drunk and told extravagant stories full of baroque detail about heroic excavations of the past and the fearful hardships of the present one.

Bats laced the evening air with squeaks.

So I told the story of an earlier night in a tent, in Big Bend in Texas, when I was camped with my girlfriend near the Rio Grande at Big Bend National Park on the hot June night after Robert Kennedy was killed, when we had been forced to sleep inside a tent because of the disturbing feeding habits of the large white bats eating Junebugs. The bats would flop fearlessly down on the ground right beside you to nab their prey, and I had visions of being awakened by a Junebug crawling over me and a bat choosing to flutter down and eat it right at that moment. So, we crawled inside the tent and we didn't get much sleep inside the sweltering tent that assassination night with the occasional thump and scuffle of a bat against the tent fabric. In the morning we found Junebug legs in little double threes clinging to the netting of the windows, signs of an alien world traced like a code on the most intimate and human of habitations, our tent.

The archeologists scoffed, that's nothing, they said, and began telling stories of more painful and/or horrific bug or bat adventures.

During that eclipse night in the White Mountains, later on, the moon got darkened from the lower left, and finally at about 11 o'clock it was entirely a luminous orange-brown, Halloween colored, and all the stars got brighter. It presented the "illusion" (as compared with the flat diskness of the regular full moon) of being really spherical, and it hung in the claws of Scorpio like a kumquat. I went to bed, lay in my sleeping bag and watched the moon and listened to the coyotes sliver the night with their thin yelps, yip yip yee-ip, and I imagined them silhouetted on rocky outcrops slicing out their cries. Crying thoughts of sheepkilling and bone-gnawing.

The next morning I walked up the creek. I had read that Indians never slept by a mountain creek, because of the noise, like traffic; they liked to hear what was going on. The creek noise drowns everything else out. I took a bath high up in the Douglas fir and ponderosa forest to get the desert dust of the day before off, and the snowmelt water hurt and made you numb almost instantly. I bathed in it about 15 seconds, making gutteral shouting noises. Then I kept walking up to the tree line. Up at the top of this space I looked out over the distant bolson, where the stream disappeared, down below at the bottom of the empty sky. Quite a view, but the dip in the creek had taken my breath away already, and you can only have your breath taken away once per walk.

Jim by creek

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Sunday wildlife

Birds get scarcer, or at least harder to see, hiding from the midsummer heat in Austin. But insects seem to thrive in the heat.

Here is a yellow-billed cuckoo, well camouflaged in the leaves of a hackberry tree near Onion Creek
Coccyzus americanus

And Sunday's insect, a dragonfly, is a male eastern pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis), resting on a horse path, also near Onion Creek
Erythemis simplicicollis

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Orwell sighs

The ACLU has been trying to get public access to the visual records--the photos and videotapes--of our torture of Iraqi prisoners. The government, of course, does not want to release these records. The government originally argued that our version of torture was not a violation of the Geneva Conventions, but then argued that to release the evidence of torture to the public _would_ be a violation of the Geneva Conventions.

In other words, waterboarding and siccing dogs on naked prisoners is not torture, and hence not a breach of the law or our treaty obligations, but letting the public see what we are doing is a human rights violation.

Sometimes its almost impossible to anticipate the degradation of language and thought this administration is capable of.

Apparently there are some thousands of these documents, according to the New York Times. The judge in the case has ordered the release of 87 photos and 4 videos. In doing so he rejected the government's strange and sudden concern for, um, human rights.

Good for him.

So what is the response of the government? Defiance. They are refusing to turn over the court-ordered materials.
In the letter sent Thursday, Sean Lane, an assistant United States attorney, said that the government was withholding the photographs because they "could result in harm to individuals," and that it would outline the reasons in a sealed brief to the court.

We are expected to believe, as Americans, that Mr. Lane's actions have nothing to do with the political fortunes of George Bush, Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld.

If these materials do get eventually released, what are the chances that it will be on a Friday afternoon in the middle of an important breaking news story? Quite high, I think. (I do find myself hoping, optimist that I am, that that news story will be the resignation of Rove and Libby over the Plame affair. I can dream.)

Jane Mayer has written an article in the New Yorker on the genesis of our torture chambers. I haven't read it yet, but apparently she believes it sprang from a perversion of cold war psychological research intended to help American prisoners resist torture. This research led to a military program called SERE, or Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape. Some of the behavioral scientists involved in this program used their knowledge of how to resist "coercive interrogation" to actually scientifically refine and improve on existing coercive interrogation methods--or, as we say in English, dream up more useful torture techniques. Those techniques (as we now know) range from physical torture, like waterboarding, to sleep deprivation, food deprivation, exposure to extreme heat and cold, hooding, loud and continuous noise, sexual humiliation, and manipulation of religion (e.g., "tell me who your leader is or I'll piss on the Koran.") The overriding goal was to create complete fear and uncertainty.

The use of these methods was first approved by Donald Rumsfeld's office, according to Ms Mayer, and pioneered at Guantanamo. Prior to that, interrogation was governed by the US Code of Military Justice. Then General Geoffrey Miller, the first commander of the Guantanamo prison, was sent to Iraq, to oversee the application of the same methods there.

So it was systematic. The only aberrations may have been that some interrogators were so dehumanized by their job that they went beyond the carefully calibrated techniques the psychologists had designed. Thus, they occasionally beat prisoners to death. A fundamental flaw in these careful calibrations is that they are perfectly designed to turn our interrogators into good Nazis, and it is not really surprising that they have worked as designed.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Friday cat and butterfly blogging

Here's Gray in one of his favorite crouching spots.
Gray crouching

And here's another Tawny Emperor, on a wall, much the worse for wear.
nicked Tawny Emperor on a wall

Thursday, July 21, 2005

How the Devil guards his treasures

I've been using my new scanner to digitize slides and negatives I haven't looked at in years. Mostly we took slides of prehistoric rock art. So I have been going through lots of those. I have no hope of scanning them all--I have several thousand. I don't know why we took so many rock art photos. Kay and I hooked up with other people interested in recording this stuff, mostly members of the El Paso Archeological Society. Sometimes a bunch of us would organize expeditions to go out and try to photograph large sites fairly completely.

I think the underlying motivation was a feeling that all of it was bound to be bulldozed, vandalized, stolen, or otherwise destroyed, and we wanted to see it before that happened, and for what it was worth maybe document what was being lost.

Ours was a minority viewpoint. We were not always welcomed by the people who lived near the rock art sites.

One time--probably around 1975--we went to record the rock art near Stahmann Farms, New Mexico. The figures on the rock were the crudest I had seen, in terms of technique, circles and zigzag lines and dots pecked into the jumble of black basalt rocks that flank the upper western terraces of the Rio Grande halfway between Las Cruces and El Paso.

The boulders were full of rock squirrels, which plunder the adjacent pecan orchards along the Rio Grande which were owned by a wealthy New Mexico family, one of whose sons had guided us to the site. The son was interested in the rock art, but he was also interested in killing the squirrels. "Little thieving rodents," he said, thinking of the inroads they were making into the family fortune, "we've never been able to get rid of them."

This family had some political clout and had gotten a law passed in Doña Ana County making it illegal to stop a car or walk anywhere along the highway where it ran through the orchard. This was so no one could park and pick up pecans that fell on the road. The squirrels, unlike pedestrians, could not be deterred by any law, and they grew fat and prospered in the rocks, despite the fact that the company pickup trucks on the farm came equipped with .22 rifles to shoot at them.

The young man who had led us to the rocks decided not to shoot squirrels that day because several of the women in the rock art group had objected. He showed us around a little, and told us not to go beyond a certain point on the rocks.

"There's more rock art back down the river on the rocks behind our neighbor's land, but I wouldn't go there. The old man thinks he owns those rocks. Actually the bluff with the Indian stuff on it belongs to the state, but he doesn't know it or doesn't care. Hates archaeologists. Gets mad as hell when an archaeologist tries to look at the rock art."

He went away and eventually, later in the morning, our group had carelessly drifted past the forbidden line. We were clambering across the rocks like a troop of baboons, noisy, searching competitively, waving to each other and hollering to come over here and take pictures, as we worked through the boulders finding the faded Indian symbols.

We saw this old Mexican man with a shotgun standing below the rocks. He was shouting. I couldn't understand what he was saying, but I went down with a couple of the other guys. Our group's leader tried to explain what we were doing and why. The old man didn't want to hear it.

"You people are trespassin' on my land. I want you off them damn rocks now."

No one wanted to argue with a man with a gun, and the leader of our expedition shouted to everybody to come down off the rocks and go back to other side of the boundary that had been pointed out to us. People started to come down, reluctantly, and in the meantime I tried to engage the old man in small talk.

"How come you don't like folks looking at that rock art?"

"All these damn people talkin' about art and Indians and crap come in here and tear down my fences and trample my crops."

I looked out across his fields, which had not been plowed or cultivated in several years, or so it appeared. Drifts of dry tumbleweed had piled up against the side of his eroding adobe house.

"What do you grow?" I asked.

"Everything" he said. "Alfalfa. Chiles. Onions."

"OK" I said, "what would you say to letting some of us in some day when you're home, a small group of us, and you can watch and make sure nobody goes where they shouldn't?"

He eyed me with contempt. "Hijueputa! " he said, either of me or the proposal. "I'm always home," he said, "but I ain't lettin' nobody in. And as for that damn so-called art," he said, and spat, "them signs on the rock was put there for bad luck." He paused. "Signs of the Devil, to guard what's there. You know, some people think part of Montezuma's royal treasure is buried back in those rocks. I'm too old to find it. But I ain't lettin' no treasure hunters or for that matter no bunch of so-called archaeologists hunt around. In fact you're lucky I didn't call the sheriff. Just last year a had a couple of foreigners arrested. Man and a woman. Claimed they come all the way from France to take pictures of those goddamn bad-luck signs on the rock, but there ain't nobody in his right mind would believe a story like that. They must have thought I was some kind of fool."

Far as I know nobody ever got to take pictures of the old man's bad luck signs.

signs of the Devil
Kay drawing some hard-to-see signs of the Devil. Often the eye can see them more clearly than a camera can.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Protecting us from terrorism--by keeping an eye on the ACLU

The New York Times has a story today on FBI surveillance of civil rights and anti-war groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Greenpeace.

Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the A.C.L.U. asked "Why would the F.B.I. collect almost 1,200 pages on a civil rights organization engaged in lawful activity? What justification could there be, other than political surveillance of lawful First Amendment activities?"

What, indeed?

A lot of younger anti-war and environmental activists are probably shocked at the FBI investigating them as if they were terror threats. Those of us old enough to remember Cointelpro are not.

Cointelpro, or something like it, was thought to exist by those of us in the anti-Vietnam war movement long before it was finally revealed that it really did exist, and what its name was.

In the late sixties, we had tumultuous meetings during the terminal stages of the SDS when the SDS had become riddled with factions, each with an uncompromising ideology and an equally uncompromising agenda. Maoists would sit in one section of the auditorium, Trots in another (actually there were several flavors of Trotskyites, who hated each other with the special hatred the orthodox have for heretics), anarchists in a clump (you'd think they'd be spread out throughout the room, and you'd be wrong), a few forlorn Stalinist down in front, and the rest of us throughout the room, though the left side of the room was always more packed than the right.

We always speculated, after meetings, as to who the FBI agents were. Usually they were 10 years too old, we often hadn't seen them before, and often suggested actions of dubious legality.

Anyway, by the late sixties, it was hard to plan even a march or demonstration because of internal friction in the meetings--name-calling, provocative proposals, and endless ideological posturing. We (my friends and I) assumed that the FBI was fomenting this. We were about 50 percent right. The rest of it was genuine ideological craziness.

In 1968 the SDS blew apart completely. The Weather Faction went underground, the Maoists kept the name of the organization, which in fact was after 1968 essentially defunct, and the rest of us went on with our lives.

In my case, my life at one point involved being part of a small group, all of them my friends, who decided to buy space on a billboard on I-35 in Austin, opposing the war. We needed what in our world was a lot of money, which we were trying ineffectually to raise. One day a big guy about 40 years old showed up at our meetings, saying he was interested in helping out. Fine. So he came to a couple of brainstorming sessions, which consisted of our beating our heads against the unyielding wall of our poverty, and he seemed to be part of the discussion. But then he came up with a great idea. Sabotage.

There was a billboard which we had been thinking of buying space on which had an army recruiting message on it. If we can't raise money to put our message on it, he reasoned, why not burn down their message.

We didn't tell him the time or place of our future meetings.

We got a commitment of enough money to create the graphics and rent space on a small billboard outside of Austin. But the owners of the billboard would not sell us space.

I have no way of knowing if our agent-provocateur was working for the FBI or not. But it certainly fit right in with what was eventually learned about Cointelpro.

I guess we're going that direction again.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Bug Sunday

Here is a male robber fly, an efferid species, possibly Pogonioefferia nemoralis. This one is an inch and a half long. Robber flies are serious predators, or to use the scientific term, ugly customers. Some of them will knock down and eat dragonflies.
Robber fly

Below are two specimens of the widow skimmer dragonfly, Libellula luctuosa. The first is a female, with gold markings on the tail, and the second is a male. His tail is white when seen from above, like the common whitetail male, but has different wing markings.

Female widow skimmer
Widow skimmer female

Male widow skimmer
Widow skimmer male

Finally, a checkered setwing, Dythemis fugax, probably a female or young male.
checkered setwing

All bugs depicted were found either in my backyard or not far from my house.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Lightning and salt

It rained a couple of nights ago, for the first time in a long while. I was looking out my window at the lightning display to the south, dark clouds lit up with intermittent shudders of light, and it reminded me of El Paso. Kay and I lived there in the 1970s. It hardly ever rained in El Paso, but when it did it was spectacular. At night, from our house which was near the east side of the Franklin Mountains, we would be able to see distant thunderclouds, vaguely mushroom shaped, occasionally illuminated internally by lightning, like giant Chinese lanterns, over the Quitman Mountains 80 miles to the southeast. We could go out onto the front porch every once in a while to see if the storms were coming our way.

I remember once such a storm had finally gotten to town, and the wind blew a drift of rain through the window onto us as we slept, and we did not close the windows when we awoke being rained on, but stayed awake surprised and chill in our sheets watching the lightning sizzle and sparkle; the downpour so thick that we couldn't exactly see the bolt but instead a tremendous guttering dazzle and simultaneous wall of shock-wave decibels.

Wow. We thought maybe the lightning had struck the mulberry tree. (It hadn't.) Eventually we had to close the window.

Nostalgia for desert rain.

One day after it had rained in the desert I remember driving up toward the Guadalupe Mountains. The sky had cleared, and had re-acquired its summer dizzying emptiness, full of nothing but heat, and remote views of streaked boiling silver mirages below the occasional jutted mountains, and the blank horizon was hazy and yellow.

But that time, or maybe it was another time--it was years ago and memory gets non-sequential--the yuccas were in bloom, seemingly all the yuccas at once from El Paso to Carlsbad. The individual flower of the yucca resembles a waxy white lily, and each yucca flower stalk bears hundreds of flowers, a stalk three feet high with a foot-thick mass of white lilies growing out of it, tall incandescent candles in the dust of a desert where otherwise in the summer the plants and rocks all seem like papier-mâché props in an abandoned museum diorama slowly turning into powder. The yucca plant itself is sometimes overborne by the weight, and will lean permanently and crazily, or even topple over with the wind. The Indians ate these flowers.

In the direction of Wind Mountain on the New Mexico state line I saw a herd of antelopes strolling among the chollas and yuccas. Chollas are a kind of opuntia cactus, shaped like giant antlers. Here and there on these eolian plains there were forests of them, like skeletons of small trees.

The Mescalero Apache wandered like the antelopes among these blighted spine-forests; this was the south end of their homeland, called Siete Rios, Seven Rivers, by the Spanish, who knew of it only as a mythical place like Cibola; none of them had ever seen it.

It turns out there are no rivers at all there, only some intermittent streams coming down out of the high snows and spruce forests of the Sacramentos dim to the northwest, to end in a long dry lake bed, a lake of alkali and salt, no water.

The Apaches were eventually forced to live on a reservation in the high timberlands of the Sacramento Mountains.

Nowadays, Texans drive hundreds of miles to ski on the Apache reservation, where the Indians are now happy to stay and count coup on Dallas car salesmen and computer programmers who vacation at the tribally owned ski lodge. Do they still sometimes come down to the dry plains, their old home, and experience nostalgia, the sorrow of returning home, and maybe illegally shoot the antelope which dodge through the chollas, I wonder?

I read somewhere that the Apaches suffer from an older nostalgia; all the southern Athapascans have a legend that their people came into this world from a world of ice, in the far north, long ago. This happens to be true, the Apaches migrated down from the Arctic a couple of thousand years ago to wander here in a world pulverized by heat, at the powdery bottom of the seven dry rivers by a salt lake.

The dry lake bed, a dazzle of evaporite stretching 30 miles, was the object of the El Paso Salt War after the Mescaleros had been forced up into the (then) worthless forests of their mountain reservation. The people of the Mexican villages on either bank of the river below El Paso were accustomed to send ox-trains to the salt beds where they would dig the salt which they would transport far into Chihuahua to sell. They regarded the salt beds as common property which could be dug by anyone who cared to brave the dangers of nature and occasional Apaches.

In the mid-1870's an American named Charles Howard, who had come to El Paso from Missouri, gained legal control of the salt deposits, murdered a Piedmontese immigrant named Louis Cardis who had become a leader in the Mexican community and a spokesman for their interests. Then Howard let it be known that anyone who dug the salt without paying him for it would be prosecuted for trespass and theft.

The villagers continued to dig salt. When Howard heard that the village of San Elizario below El Paso intended to send another ox-train to the salt beds, he enlisted the aid of a small group of local toughs hastily deputized as Texas Rangers and set out to stop them. What they met up with in San Elizario was more than three hundred armed men under the command of a San Elizarian named Chico Barela. Howard and the Texas Rangers were besieged for several days in an adobe house. Several men were killed in the fight. The Americans surrendered and Howard and two others were taken to a wall and shot by a village firing squad.

Word quickly got out about the insurrection. Troops from several frontier posts were ordered to El Paso, and volunteers appeared from as far away as Silver City, New Mexico. Soon the left bank of the lower valley was occupied by armed Americans intent on revenge. The soldiers and volunteers murdered several people, but most of the men who had been a part of the rebellion had crossed over into Mexico. The El Paso Salt War was over. Troops occupied the villages for a few months. The occupying Americans began to kill each other and commit outrages against the local population, and were finally ordered out of the area. Chico Barela became a folk hero, and lived out his life somewhere in Mexico. A man named Ford was chosen to administer the salt beds for the absentee owners. At the end of the whole business, people had to pay to dig salt.

I remember looking at the expanse of saltpan, the object of the bloodshed, and wondering who owned the salt beds now. Anyone who might want to dig salt could certainly do so nowadays, and no one would even notice. The salt that people buy in little round cardboard canisters does not come from West Texas.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Friday bird blogging

Here is a white-winged dove, Zenaida asiatica, on a sawed-off branch out back. Its presence is possibly a central Texas manifestation of global warming. When I was a boy, the northern limit of the range of this species was roughly 80 miles south of here. They were common in San Antonio, but unknown even as summer visitors in Austin. Oddly enough, they are not displacing either of our other two large urban doves, the mourning dove and the common pigeon. Whitewings are, however, displacing the Inca dove, a small dove once common in Austin but now seldom seen.

Why, you may or may not be asking, is this bird called "asiatica" when its range is restricted to parts of the Americas? Well, Linnaeus got in wrong in 1758. According to Choate's Dictionary of American Bird Names, Linnaeus named this bird on the basis of a specimen that came labeled as coming from "Indiis," which was actually from Jamaica in the West Indies. If we follow the rules of zoological nomenclature, an error of this kind does not invalidate a scientific name. So it sticks.

The white-winged dove is now resident in Austin year-round.

white-winged dove

Friday cat blogging

Here is Gray thinking whatever cats think. He likes to rest by the kitchen sink, which is below him on the other side of the counter top. He is the only cat I have ever known who drinks running water from a faucet. He is insistent about it, pushing aside your glass of water with his head if you are getting a drink at the sink. This sometimes surprises visitors.

Gray thinking cat thoughts

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Tawny Emperor

A large limb from an Arizona ash fell down in my yard a couple of days ago. The tree grows fast but is not especially suited to Central Texas, which is too wet part of the year and drier in other parts of the year than its native riparian habitat in the desert west. It's a streambed tree in the desert. Here, it suffers from borers most of the year and drought stress in the summer. Anyway, this tree is diseased, and is soon to be firewood.

I have been avoiding sawing up the fallen limb, about 30 feet long with 2 big branches, because of the heat, which has reached 100+ on my backyard thermometer for several days now. And the humidity is high. But this morning I got out with my chain saw, and set to work. Of course the wood is dry, which makes for slow going. So I was sweating, and chainsawing, and I was soon seeing butterflies.

Actual butterflies.

I was disturbing them. So after a while I stopped to wring out my handkerchief headband which was dripping sweat in my eyes, and saw that they settled back down on the trunk of the tree. Lots of them. So I went in and got my camera, and took some photos. Most of them did not come out--the butterflies have a knack of moving at intervals that defeat the focus-delay on my camera. But here's one.

It was a good excuse to go inside and try to identify it.

I'll finish the chainsaw work tomorrow morning.

Tawny Emperor (Asterocampa clyton) on ash tree
Asterocampa clyton

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Your money or your life

I was reading an interesting article in Today's New York Times (in the Business section, naturally) on cancer drug prices, which have become astronomical for some of the new medications.

In reading the article, you could easily conclude that drug companies, especially the cancer drug manufacturers, price their drugs much the way kidnappers price the release of their victims. In plain English, the drug company version of what the market will bear seems to have much in common with extortion. (The New York Times article describes how it works perfectly, but, with predictable circumlocution, does not actually use that unpleasant word "extortion.")

Given the obvious absence here of competition and meaningful choice, this was not what Adam Smith had in mind.

What will you pay for an extra year of life? Turns out most people will pay a lot, even if they don't have insurance. To the ancient demand of the highway robber, "your money or your life!" most people will reply, "take my money." If cancer victims do have insurance, they are willing to pay whatever the insurance company will countenance. Wouldn't you? Put yourself in that position. The insurance company will pay $100,000. You will live a week without the drug. You will die in a year with the drug. There is even a small chance of long-term remission or cure. What will you do?

I have some experience with this situation. My wife died of leukemia, and underwent some very expensive treatment that kept her alive for about 9 months. There was even some chance of long term remission or cure. But she would have died in a couple of weeks without any treatment. I loved my wife a lot. I personally would have sold my house and paid any money I had, to get her this treatment. I am happy that we had insurance, so that we were not made destitute, as we would have been otherwise. I don't think I am much different from most people.

When people look at this problem, they think that the system is broken (as obviously it is), and at some point, who knows when, though, will have to be fixed. The first thing they think about is rationing, as we see in the New York Times article. That makes some sense, but IMO it should be the second thing we think about.

People accept the prices as a given. They are not. What the drug companies don't want you to think about at all is the out-of-whack part of the pricing--the ratio of the price of the drug to the cost of the research and manufacturing. Much of cancer drug research was, is, and no doubt will continue to be, subsidized by public funds or private foundations. The drug companies parasitize on a great deal of such basic research and patent the end result, and then are in a position to extort money from the dying, or better yet from your insurance company and mine.

What we actually need to fix this problem is a government with the courage and the humanity of, say, the government of Brazil, which is threatening to break AIDS drug patents, to force down the price the drugs competitively so that AIDS sufferers will not die simply because they cannot afford drugs, or, alternatively, so that poor countries will not be impoverished forever to pay off the drug companies as the cost of common decency.

Unfortunately, we are a long way from that.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Ringing in the ears, and other medical experiences

This morning I went to the doctor to have my ears tested. I have been having episodes of tinnitus, and it has seemed like sometimes it interferes with my hearing.

My previous physician had quit his practice to go to work for Doctors without Borders, for which I admired him, but it left me without a doctor, so I picked a guy at random out of the insurance list. I saw him today for the first time. Friendly. Busy. Probably competent. I looked up his record, insofar as that's possible, and he didn't have any credentialing or lawsuit problems I could discover. Like more and more doctors, I guess, he works in a large medical warren consisting of two buildings each with two pods of 4 or 5 doctors per pod. I went to the wrong pod and had to be directed down the hall to the right place.

My new guy is busy but listens without interrupting, which is good, and after examining my ears, sends me off with a technician to have my hearing tested on a machine. Upshot is, I seem to have some slight hearing loss in upper registers in both ears, and in lower registers in my left ear. More or less as I had begun to suspect. Now I have an appointment with a specialist.

A normal medical experience, I suppose, if there is such a thing. But as I was sitting in this buzzing hive of doctors and nurses and other medical personnel, I found myself remembering a career path not taken.

This was during was my last year in college, and I had been thinking of applying to medical school. I liked science and had been at the top of my class in a couple of the biology courses I had taken. Medicine seemed like an option.

I feel slightly apologetic about this story, by the way, and have to mention that it was before I ever heard the word feminism. So, anyway, I got a job as an orderly in a hospital. My duties were to change sheets, usually with the person still in the bed, take temperatures, count pulse rates, serve meals, clean up, empty bedpans, take pills to patients, and bathe male patients.

One guy had a tube coming out of his chest. He had histoplasmosis, if I remember right, and was being sloshed internally in fungicide. He seemed depressed. He had been in the hospital a month before I started work, and he was still there when I left.
"I don't know how I ever got this" he said. "They say you get it in caves. I never been in a cave in my life."
He worked downtown in the Capitol.
"But the damn Capitol's like a cave. Has bats in it. Always smells musty in the damn Capitol. I work next to the Governor's office."

I don't know if this is still a hazard of Texas politics.

Another guy had his testicles all swollen up and sore. He was a friend of Lyndon Johnson's. I had to be real careful changing the sheets, with him. His scrotum was red and tender, with the sheen, size, and tautness, of an eggplant. I helped him to his car after the swelling had gone down, and he gave me a ten dollar tip. I accepted, reluctantly. He was a banker. He had tried to give me a hundred dollars. The dollar then was worth maybe eight times what it is now, so that was a lot of money, for someone like me. I refused that much money, being suspicious.

One day a little pint-sized bouncy urologist who had been friendly with me beckoned me into his examining room. This was before medical ethics, obviously. Inside there was a guy unconscious and his legs spread apart, his feet in some kind of stirrups, I think.

The urologist told me a proctologist joke while unpacking his tools, lots of tapered smooth steel rods of various sizes. He zipped one up the guy's dick, inserted it about a foot, it seemed like, quick as you please. Then he pulled it out, and inserted a larger one.

"Good thing he's out cold" I remarked, since some statement seemed expected of me, and the urologist giggled. He was pleased at the opportunity to show me his dexterity with the rods. The rods got bigger.

"Got to enlarge it gradually" he said. Then he inserted some kind of optical tubing device and got down between the guy's legs like he was giving him a blow job, to look up his penis.

Well, I thought, I don't know about this. I don't have to be a doctor. I had had some reservations already, mainly about the doctors I had met.

There was a pretty French nurse working there. I liked her. One day she said to me seriously, "What are you doing here? Zees is weemon's work."

I thought about that, and I said to myself, "well, gee..." I _was_ working as a nurse, sort of. As I was realizing that I didn't wish to be a doctor, it occurred to me that I wanted to be a nurse even less.

A couple of days later I told the head nurse that I was quitting. She squinted at me over her glasses and said, shaking her head, "I'm very disappointed in you. Very disappointed."

I felt bad about that.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Photo added

Here is a photo addendum to the Colorado story I put up a few days ago. I have an ongoing project of scanning old slides and negatives, and found this one. Sorry I didn't put up the picture with the story. This is a photo of Kay on the road to Turret, Colorado.
Kay Sutherland by the road to Turret, Colorado

Friday cat and fig blogging

Here's gray by the fireplace listening to the chimney swifts in the chimney. Gray is dimmer than his associate Grendel. Grendel has figured out that the flue is closed, and the swifts are unavailable for dining. Gray thinks if he waits long enough...
Gray by fireplace

The fig tree out front is providing food for most of the birds in the neighborhood. I don't much like fig preserves, so I either eat the figs fresh or dry them. I still have dried figs left over from last summer. So I eat as many as I can, but most will go to the birds, and other wildlife. Here is a bowl for me for after lunch.
figs in a bowl

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Bush and Blair may have forgotten about al-Qaeda, but al-Qaeda has not forgotten about us

We've invaded two countries now, without successfully engaging the people who actually menace us. We destroyed the Taliban, and Saddam, both of whom may have had it coming, but neither of which is al-Qaeda. We let Osama get away. And in the process we have efficiently created new enemies, and no doubt increased the fanaticism of the old ones. Torture and kidnapping and "collateral damage" to the tune of upwards of 100,000 Iraqi dead, do not make us any friends.

"Who needs friends?" Mr. Bush says. As long as our enemies fear us, things are fine.

But it looks like they don't fear us. And why should they, when we go after the wrong people? And things do not appear to be fine.

Terror attacks have, so far, benefited Bush politically. It's hard to see how this one can, but one should never underestimate the capacities of the White House spin machine.

In fact I take it as a given, that anyone who reproaches Bush for his negligence and incompetence in fighting terror (or "turr", as he puts it) will be accused of hating freedom, or worse.

The trivialization of Deep Throat: Judith Miller and what she stands for

I'd like to momentarily come out of my self imposed no-post-every-day easy blogging summer schedule, and expand on a few remarks I made about Judith Miller over in the comments at Dharma Bums.

Years ago Woodward and Bernstein used an anonymous whistleblower to expose actual wrongdoing. It's important to remember that the Deep Throat whistleblower was _revealing_ a felony, not committing one.

That was certainly a long time ago. Things seem to have changed. (For one thing, Bush almost makes me nostalgic for Nixon.) Reporters nowadays cultivate anonymous insiders to get what amounts to secret downloads of official agitprop, and, sadly, it gives them cachet in their profession, perhaps because of the now remote and faded memory of Watergate. So it's been a long, strange road indeed, from Deep Throat to the Plame outing.

When reporters come to rely on insider contacts as their primary, or perhaps their only, real news source, like ants stroking aphids, at that point they become susceptible to being used--if these aphids are smarter than these ants, as appears to be the case--as unwitting (or maybe witless) conduits for the party line. That's how the whole movement towards war in Iraq was orchestrated, I believe. Judith Miller has a lot more to answer for than just her part in the Plame business.

Her sucking up to Chalabi and the neocons and reporting their carefully crafted lies as "news" remains a true benchmark in failed journalism. It's bad enough to have reporters embedded with the troops. It's worse to have them embedded with the Bush Administration.

But, the argument goes, we need to protect this system on principle, because, at some point, it may do the world some good again, like Woodward and Bernstein did, and like the reporters who brought the Downing Street Memo to the light of day.

I have trouble with this argument, not at the level of principle, but at the level of present-day Washington reality.

It is almost impossible to imagine an exposure of Watergate level wrongdoing, or an exposure of wrongdoing at all, by contemporary A-list reporters in the United Sates. The DSM reporting was not here in America, was it? No, it wasn't. Can you imagine a Downing Street Memo ever getting revealed and reported in today's Washington? I can't. The New York Times and the Washington Post led the charge (odd metaphor for suppression of the news, but, no matter) to bury this story once it was reported by a real press in another country.

Nor can I convince myself Judith Miller is standing on principle in going to jail. I could respect that, actually. I don't think she is even protecting her source. She is protecting her career, which is founded on sycophancy and schmoozing with important insiders. If she gave one of them up to the Law, she would never eat lunch in DC again. Her career would be ruined.

Or else she would have to go back to being a reporter.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Slow learner naturalist

Well, yesterday I was out birdwatching (see bad photo of painted bunting, below), I ran across what I first thought was a snail disaster. A twistleaf yucca was barnacled with terrestrial snails, a rabdotus species. The snails looked dry and dead from the heat. Odd, I thought, that they would come to a yucca to die, or even odder, that a yucca would kill them. Then I looked around me and discovered that I was in the middle of a field with thousands of snails, all clasped tightly to weeds and stalks and dry grass. Wow, I thought, a snail graveyard. Mass death. Kind of creepy. (Maybe that's the wrong word for dead snails. Anyway.)

I plucked a small stick with a couple stuck to it and put it in my pocket, and went on.

Got a picture of a female of a common whitetail dragonfly later in my walk (below). I put up a photo of a male a few days ago.

When I got home, in trying to identify the snail species, it slowly dawned on me that these guys might not be dead after all. I was reading about estivation among land snails, and many dry country snail species seal themselves up during the heat of the summer, and glue themselves to plants and rocks and whatnot. My snails had a dry membrane across the opening. And they were stuck to a stick.

Sooo, experimental science time. I moistened a piece of toilet paper, put them on it, and closed them up in a box.

When I opened it an hour later, they were crawling around. So I put them out under the big fig tree, which is shady and well watered.

These snails, by the way, are the same species as ate all the seedlings in my spring garden this year. I had made the mistake of mulching with flakes from a hay bale, a perfect home for snails.

The snail yucca
twistleaf yucca with rabdotus snails estivating on leaves

A partial view of the field of snails
Field of estivating snails

A slightly blurred view of the painted bunting.
painted bunting

And a female common whitetail dragonfly. I thought it was a different species from the male, till I looked it up
female common whitetail dragonfly

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Rocky Mountain road trips

My daughter and her boyfriend and his sister are leaving for an excursion to Colorado in the morning. They don't know exactly where they are going. We used to do that when Eve was younger. And in the summers we would rent a cabin under Mt. Princeton, and then drive around the state, getting out to take pictures of patches of dirty snow and throw snowballs, look at incredible views, and try to figure out where the hell we were on the a map.

Various recollections of it:

Once we drove up to Leadville, gray snow clouds lay on the mountains, abandoned black coal tips by the highways. On the outskirts the only place that seemed to be open was the bar El Perdido, whose name in the context could be construed as "The Done For," with the cars of a few daytime drinkers nestled around it. In the center of town the tourists, panting in the thin air, walked a restored boardwalk past Disneyed goldrush storefronts. Beyond them the skyline revealed a sharktooth grin, plumbago clouds above them, orebody hills ruined in the foreground. Lowgrade tourism was the only vein left for this town to work.

We ate lunch in a small crowded cafe frequented by hearty locals and a few tourists who like ourselves appeared disoriented, as if wondering why did I fly on this airline and when will the oxygen masks drop down, and then we drove back toward Buena Vista, into the sunlight of the valley of the Arkansas. A few miles south of Leadville a nonchalant boy sauntered along the roadside with two shoulder-slung military-looking rifles, at ten thousand feet under the nosebleed sky.

We took the road up Clear Creek to Winfield, which was a refurbished but still uninhabited ghost town, board buildings dark as pitch which have withstood the chilly winds upwards of a century. Plexiglass windows on the one-room school built 1880-something revealed old desks with a mannequin schoolmarm posed near the blackboard, paralyzed in front of the empty inkwell chairs. You couldn't go in on account of the padlock on the door, so you pushed your face against the Plexiglass to see the dim interior, where momentarily you froze and died. Across the road was a "Typical miner cabin," also with plastic look-in view-portals, dirt floored, cheery compared with the school. A typed weathered card on the school said that the town prospered briefly in the 1880's when a church was built which never had a worship service.

As we were walking around, a man in a red car drove up who stopped to ask directions, an Italian, very friendly. "No, I'm not lost. Does this road go anywhere?" He pointed to a map where a road dwindles into dotted line. He had escaped from a conference; after 2 days of reinforced concrete symposia in Denver he was now out seeing the West, on the loose in a sporty car on a dirt road in the Rockies. He looked in some way excessively European--I don't know if it was his mannerisms or his clothes--I found myself imagining him running a machine gun in the Balkans.

Then back down to the whitewaters of the Arkansas, crossed on an old bridge and took a dirt road that ran parallel to the plunging kettledrum river. We drove through the meadows that lay between the rockribbed torrent of the river and the precambrian rust-granite hills. Ponderosa pines grew by the stream, pinyon pine trees stood, stochastic, across the plain, one point seven billion year old boulders bestrewing the meadows.

In the evening, as the rain gathered in the west, we ended up in Chalk Creek canyon at the trail head for the Agnes Vaille falls, whence we hiked the short trail to the cascade. Poor Agnes died in a mountain climbing accident many years ago, according to the forest service sign. She fell, then froze before her companion could get back and bring help. Another sign told us to look for frolicking mountain sheep and goats. We followed the trail along a crippling-cold snowmelt creek below the waterfall which crashes over a granodiorite cliff and showers down about 75 feet I would guess. On the way back I saw a mountain goat; it was not frolicking but walked deliberately down his hardglare rainslick rockfall on the cliffs high above the matchstick firs, lord of rocks, under the splints of lightning veining the nimbus.

One day Kay, Eve and I drove to find the ghost town of Turret. It was up a steep dirt road east of Salida. First few miles were dry hills and pinyons. Then we got up into Ponderosa country and high granite hills that would be called mountains back home in Texas. I had just driven our rented Chrysler New Yorker (the promised small car had been unavailable, so they gave us a big car for the same price) up a steep rocky switchback and was stopped while we debated whether to turn back in our gigantic retired-banker auto when a man and a woman, about 60 years old, came along in a old crate of a car with Colorado plates. They had a dog named Luv with them, spelled that way on the collar, and the car was full of water jugs and food and junk. They asked directions. It turned out they had no idea where they were, but did not seem in the least concerned. I knew exactly where we were, and showed them on the map. They decided to go on to the town of Turret, and then continue into the maze of dirt roads to the north. We followed them for a while, but they disappeared in a cloud of dust.

We got to Turret, which consisted of several abandoned shacks and one house which looked like someone lived in it. But no one was at home, or in any case there was no car there. A crude hand-lettered sign on the well warned against drinking the water. We ate a simple sack lunch of cheese and bread, and were sorry we couldn't drink the wellwater, having only warm sodas in the car.

Occasional high places in the road gave us a view down into the Arkansas valley, blue and bright in the distance, and the shining Sawatch peaks remoter beyond the valley, and great mountainous cumulus clouds lowering over the mountains with gray sheets of rain veiling the peaks below the clouds.

Out of nowhere, from above us, a thin, sleet-like hail suddenly rattled on the car, covering the road with a white grit like road salt, as reverbs of thunder rolled over us like an invisible landslide filling the canyon. Like all mountain storms we encountered, it blew over quickly.
In the afternoon above our cabin the violet-green swallows would knit the strands of mountain rain even as the sun would break through the crack in the mountain to the west like the pour of a distant blast furnace. The low flashing arc of magpies lasts in my mind with the floating mockery of their cries.
We drove over Monarch pass near Gunnison, a clean Mormon-looking town full of freckled white children. Mothers sat on park benches and watched their children play and tended their baby carriages.
At the black canyon of the Gunnison I went for a walk on the "High Point Trail", which should have been called the Trail of the Flowers, or the Trail With a Hell of a View. The path was lined with serviceberries, mountain mahogany, bluebells, penstemons, larkspurs, arrowleaf balsamroots, mountain lupines, sagebrush, purple flowered onions, and snowberries. I ate some of the wild onions. A view of the San Juan Mountains unfolded to the left, dark black-green with sunlit emerald patches in the foreground under the afternoon stormclouds billowing blindingly into the ionized blue of the stratosphere, and the Elk Mountains on the right, both visible at once from the razorback ridge trail.

Below the trail a view of the canyon dropped like a chill into a chasm of dark greenish injection gneiss, banded with red and pink. Western tanagers and mountain chickadees blittered in the sparse branchery of the Douglas firs and the Utah Junipers and Pinyon pine; the red red tailed hawks and turkey vultures floated five hundred feet below the rim, tightly choreographed to their shadows racing along the canyon wall.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

A slight change of pace

I am (re) reading a book I was impressed by 2 or 3 years ago, when I first read, it, called Changing Lenses. It is about something the author, Howard Zehr, calls restorative justice. It made sense to me at the time I first read it, and in looking into it again, it still does. I am re-reading it because there is something really screwed with our criminal justice system--easy to see here in Texas--and I feel like I need to organize my thoughts a little better as to what exactly I think is screwed about it. Maybe I will try to write a few things about this soon, when I get through reading the book.

Which brings me to another matter: the frequency of posts here. I'm realizing that I have unconsciously set up a kind of deadline pressure for myself, to put something here every day. When I started this blog, I wanted it to be an incentive for me to actually sit down and write coherent things, rather than scribble on pieces of paper I carry in my shirt pocket (I can't live without shirt pockets), and then lose the little pieces of paper, usually sooner than later, most often in the laundry.

And it has been that incentive. It has also been an incentive to go through old notebooks from years past, and work that material into a form at least a few people might enjoy reading. These are good things.

On the other hand, thoughtful posts, and I can probably exclude political fulminations from that category, take me more time than I have been allowing myself. Blogging has eaten into my reading and reflecting time--like reading Zehr and coming up with some hopefully meaningful thoughts on his book. Reading in general. (Not to mention cutting into time for my other current enthusiasm, watching Mexican telenovelas on Telemundo and a couple of other cable channels.)

So, to make a not very long story shorter, I have decided to put up posts less frequently. Probably several times a week. Plus (maybe, I am not sure yet) more nature photos. Some of what I like to do is nature writing, and pictures add to that, I think. I hope.

So, see you folks next week. Have a good holiday weekend.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Friday cat and dragonfly blogging

Common housecat (Grendel) resting on a cushion
Grendel taking his ease

Common whitetail (Plathemis lydia), resting on a grape leaf
Dragonfly resting