Monthly Archives: September 2014

I’ll Teach You Your Animals (Sequoia National Forest)

bear at sequoia national park          It’s early in the Sierra foothills, with a pale sun blinking over tall ragged hills. Three Rivers is a tiny town strung along the Kaweah River. In any other place this would be a stream or a creek, but in dry California it’s a raging river.

Bruce and I pull into a two-pump Chevron station. My window is rolled down and the chill damp raises goose pimples all along my arms. A rangy black and white cat emerges from the station yard and calls out a greeting.

As we get out of the Jeep, Bruce says, “Big Tommy likes you.”

Big Tommy does indeed. I kneel and he immediately approaches, rubbing his cheek on my calves and ankles. I pet his hard black head as he purrs and my hand comes away greasy. He has white socks and a white tuxedo chest, but these are not white I see up close. They are the same color as the early morning clouds over the river.

“He’s greasy as hell,” I say.

“He’s been out all night,” Bruce says. “He’s got a lot of business to do.”

“He’s got girls up and down the river,” I say. “Caught a fish last night.”

“He’s running numbers,” says Bruce.

Big Tommy does have a rakish look. His green-gold eyes are narrow and cockeyed. I scratch his greasy head a few more times and we get back in the Jeep. On the way out, I see his lair – stack after stack of used tires back of the station. Big Tommy sleeps in oil and tire dust. The fishes sleep with him.

On the way up to the giant forest Bruce spins yarns about Big Tommy. His cousin is Big Ollie, the crime boss. Ollie’s vice isn’t girls, it’s food. They’ve corrupted Gambit, the sweet young dog. Now he’s their wheel man. Soon, they’ll introduce him to the numbers trade and girls and dope.

The gray ribbon of pavement winds up and up through thick, impossibly beautiful forest. Amid the pines are slender red trunks of young sequoias. Two or three are giants, burned deep at the roots, still growing outward and upward, miraculous survivors. The sun is a bit higher now, but the cold morning air knifes through me. My heart is tapping steadily inside, faster and faster.

We round a curve and in front of us is a young bear, ambling across the road. His fur is thick and black, sunlight glinting off his back and shoulders. He looks straight at us with his shiny black eyes as if to say, “What are you going to do about it?” and continues to the turnout on the opposite side of the road. We watch for a few moments. The Mini Cooper behind us stays longer. We continue on.

At this hour, the prime parking spot at the forest museum is easily gotten. I get Bruce’s poles out and my tool. With little discussion we set out on the Moro Rock trail. My memory says it’s a two-mile hike to the rock, but of course I’m not sure.

It’s a classic scout-type trail, well-cleared and easy, a narrow path of soft red earth and sand cushioned by decaying pine needles. The giants are scattered within the pines. At our feet are tiny, perfect flowers, pink and white.

We have gone no more than ten minutes when I sense something and turn.

“Whitetail,” I say – wrong.

It’s a heavy muledeer buck chasing a doe not ten feet from us, strong hooves pounding the forest earth, raising small clouds of dust.

“There’s something up ahead,” I say. Bruce’s green eyes flash.

general sherman          The forest deepens. I pick some miner’s lettuce and give a piece to Bruce. He’s no longer innocently trusting of things I might put in his mouth and I see the doubt in his eyes. But this is not bad, just a leaf with a slight crunch and lemony tang. Oh to be such an authority, able to survive at least two or three days in the wild.

The trail turns and rises ahead. Atop the rise are a lovely doe and delicate fawn. The doe is feeding in the grass beside the trail. The fawn looks expectantly at us, then back to its mother.

My heart stops. I raise my hand. Bruce stops and steps quietly beside me. We watch the pair for a few moments. They pass along and we continue. I want to tell him how this made me feel, that he knew exactly what I was doing and what was happening without words. But of course I haven’t the right words to say.

Beside us, a hillock rises, with patches of smooth granite between the trees. This may be too high for the giant trees; there are only pines and cedar on this side of the trail. We climb upward, up onto the rocks.

We stand in the sun, the only place there is warmth at this early time. All around are the smells of the forest. The loamy earth, pine sap and red-furred big trees. Big flat gray-white granite rocks dusted with lichen and pine needles.

His arm slips around my waist. His lips find mine. Time stops. I cannot feel my pack, my boots, none of it. It is just the sun’s warmth, the earth turning beneath our feet, his lips on mine, my hands on his strong back, his strong hands supporting me.

We part. His eyes are warm and brown and green, flashing in the sun.

There is a near-black suncast shadow against the broad gray rock. It is an outline of passion, searing and perfect.

Then comes the feeling again, as when the buck was chasing the doe. Steps behind his shoulder. We both turn, and a doe is stepping toward us, her eyes soft and curious. She stops no more than three yards away. Our eyes meet hers. Her body is strong and elegant, long neck curved, sleek legs cream and brown and white.

Afterward, we continue on and the forest deepens again. Because we have kissed, we are less observant. A young Marine passes us and asks if we saw the bear sleeping on the rock. No – we hadn’t. We double back and I try to get a picture. Another bear of about the same size as the one we’d seen crossing the road is sunning himself on a small boulder in the shadow of the pines, sleeping and stretching.

We go farther, winding through thick glades of fern and pine and sequoia, interspersed with small alpine meadows. Then I hear a sound like a tree falling.

It’s no tree – it’s Bruce, complete with bloody nose and cut lip. The Marine returns and asks if we need help. No – I’ve got my pack.

This is poetic justice of a sort, as I had tripped and fallen on my face two nights before, chasing Big Ollie the crime boss. So now we have matching swollen noses and fat lips.

We reach Moro Rock and climb halfway up the stairs, far enough to stand at the edge and look across to the edge of the world and the great Western Divide. It takes our breath.

“You were looking at my ass when you fell,” I say.

Bruce admits this is true.

“Let that be a lesson to you,” I want to say. But I do not. He has suffered enough for his transgressions. There isn’t even any water in the bathrooms, and the drinking fountain is dry. We must ride all the way back to the forest museum to deal with the blood and dirt.

We see many more things that day. On another bus, the others are crying out because there is a doe in the forest near the road.

I smile over at Bruce. His dimple is very deep.

Oh, the places we’ve been. The things we’ve seen.

God is talking.

I hear, but his words are to me, unsayable. At least, just yet.

We have stripped ourselves bare and with silent minds listened at His breathing place, felt His presence and seen His face. Heard his eternal voice and know.

The first name of an animal is us.

This is About Natural History

anza borregoWe drive over the mountains through manzanita and scrub brush. Soon the land turns to hard Mojave, with scattered cholla and endless sand and the painted badlands wrinkled like an old seaman’s weathered face. A few miles on a narrow, state-maintained road winding through red and brown shattered volcanic cliffs, and we enter the hamlet of Borrego Springs. In this desert town, everyone has an ample yard filled with small white stones, sand, cactuses, and for the extravagant, palm trees and a chain-link fence.

After more driving we are finally at the state park at the foot of the mountains. These appear tall because they are so rugged, but in reality, they are not very tall. Indian Head peak is less than 4,000 feet in height though it towers above the low, sloping valley with the visitor center and the campground.

We park and are grateful for the water and shade of the buildings, though it is only March and nothing like the heat that comes to this place in high summer. The visitor center grounds have been manicured into a Disney desert, with examples of desert plants carefully arranged. Smoke trees, tall ocotillo and cactus. The small cactus that grows like crooked thumbs and fingers I had always thought was all the same, called cholla. There are many types of cholla marked by the gravel trail, including one with fatter fingers than usual called Teddy Bear cholla. A massive barrel cactus taller than a man stands near the entrance to the low-slung visitor center. It is proudly phallic, bending slightly to the left, the top ringed with reddish thorns.

This handsome building does not change. It is exactly as I remember it. The bronze doors have handles worked in the shape of bighorn sheep antlers, which are the namesakes of this place. In Spanish, borrego means bighorn sheep. They are beautiful animals but we will not see living ones today. They are wise to live in the mountains and do not come down on the flats.

I am excited to see the pupfish, which I remember as swimming happily in a small, reedy pool.

The pool is still there, but it has changed. Now it is brackish and filled with thick mats of ghostly gray algae and foamy yellow scum. Hordes of fat bees buzz about the fetid pool; where there are no bees, there are tadpoles and flies. The pupfish are invisible. They are either dead or hiding from the bees.

“Poor pupfish,” Bruce says. “I feel sorry for them. They have to hide or the bees will sting them.”

We sit for a time on a bench overlooking the valley. In the distance, some 30 miles, are the Laguna Mountains. It is so clear they appear much closer. Farther still are the much higher peaks of the Santa Rosa mountains near Palm Springs. This bench is sturdy and well-made. It has been donated to the center in memory of a handsome couple dressed in 40’s clothing, smiling out at the camera.

Behind us, people from the Nature Center are laying out a desert feast. We are sheltered beneath a paloverde. Somewhere in the tree or ground below is a dove which cries and moans like a grieving woman – a mourning dove. I look for it, but cannot see it.

We kiss as the dove cries.

After a while, we go into the Nature Center, and squeeze between narrow, lumpy concrete walls made to duplicate a box canyon in the badlands. After displays of fossils and geology and a massive plaster tortoise shell which strikes me as ideal to ride, though it’s clearly indicated as a “fossil,” we come to a display of stuffed desert animals. There’s a handsome, long-legged jackrabbit and a delicate little kit fox with a fluffy, ringed tail. A mother, father and baby bighorn sheep are the center of the display.

A small, loud boy with a black walking stick taller than himself approaches, leaning on the rail that protects the display. His father stumbles behind him, arriving just in time for the boy to announce, “Are these extinct animals?”

The father mumbles something about them being real animals. Bruce’s eyes flash with humor.

The boy says, “Are these animals dead?” He is braying with stone-cold certainty that he knows all there is to know or ever will be.

The boy’s younger brother arrives with a similar large walking stick. He mimics his brother’s manner but clearly cannot compete in this sweepstakes for the depths of vacuity and ill manners. The father, dressed in vintage Sears Nerd, seems helpless as the two jostle madly back and forth for the best position overlooking the small display.

“See those sticks?” I say quietly to Bruce, looking toward the boys. “I’ll use them on them.” His eyes twinkle.

The center is closing and the elderly volunteer must release us with the handicapped button which opens the beautifully-cast bighorn sheep doors. We are outside only moments when the idiot boys and their father exit.

“Give me that fuckin’ stick,” Bruce says in his low Philly accent. “I’ll show you your animals.”

The boys do not hear; despite being about ten and seven years of age, it’s doubtful either has heard much besides television or video games for their entire lives.

But the father does hear. His eyes widen behind his thick-framed glasses.

“Haven’t you ever seen a fuckin’ stuffed animal?” Bruce continues. “It’s a fuckin’ stuffed animal.” His voice lowers still. “Are they alive or dead,” he adds in lazy contempt.

We know the father can hear, but he needs to hear. His children are monsters in training, soon to be extinct.

This is a stark, beautiful, hard country. We drive away to the village of the mad at the shores of the brackish Salton Sea, where nothing can live. It is not hot but the air presses down on us. We are traveling along the small of the world’s back, which feels as though it bears all of its weight, tired, ancient and brutal.

Yet even in this place, there is life, burrowing under the desert sand, nestled in a paloverde, driving in a Jeep. Like the blind, buzzing bees besetting the poor pupfish, these monstrous boys will rampage on.

If things were otherwise, I think, as we drive along the gray ribbon of desert road. If things were otherwise, I would have put a bit of the stick about and made them jump like kangaroo rats on hot rocks in August.

Sustainable Humanity / Human Sustainability / The Human Equation

There’s a way that most “futurists” view the world. It’s typically tech-focused. Some are very big thinkers — far bigger than I could ever imagine.

In March, Vernor Vinge was on a panel with me at the science fiction convention in San Diego and he turned to me and said in a quiet, mild tone (and I could have the figures wrong), “If we want large-scale interstellar travel and colonization, it will take three-quarters of gross global product for 20 years.”

Oh, I thought. That’s an awful lot …

“It will be worth it,” he added. A twinkle flickered in his eyes.

It may well be worth it. And it may well happen. And the one point I will quibble with Vernor about is – I’m sure he’s correct about the vast amount of resources and concerted effort required given current assumptions. But if the human dividend pays and we achieve genuine sustainable humanity, then concepts like “gross global product” will not apply.

People Drive Technology and There’s Nothing to Fear

I don’t think that the “technological revolution” has resulted in improved lives for most on the globe. I think improved lives for most on the globe drives the “technological revolution.” Without people, there is no technology. Technology is growing so rapidly because our previously-developed tools are enabling the development of more tools, just as some of today’s 3-D printer manufacturers are using their own 3-D printers to make more printers to sell. I had forgotten how chilling was the essence of Vernor’s original technological singularity paper. The abstract reads:

“Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.”

People Aren’t the Only Intelligent Life on Earth, Much Less the Universe

The previous human era may well end and I say “good.” I would like to think that any new superhuman (or nonhuman) intelligence would provide insight which is difficult, challenging or impossible for humans. The intelligence might well have these insights. It might not communicate them at all, or it might communicate them in a way people can’t understand. Like dolphins and whales could probably tell us a thing or two about life and the ocean. But we’re not very good at listening to and communicating with them. Most assume they are “stupid.” Like chimps. Dumb. Like dogs. Idiots. Dogs of course, have been known to diagnose melanoma. This phenomenon inspired the development of technology which uses a nano-sensor to detect VOCs (volatile organic compounds) to diagnose melanoma. The ready-made “organic technology” (dogs) have also been trained and used in this process.

Waste

Which brings us to the human dividend. Vernor’s pricetag of two decades worth of the majority of global economic product in exchange for space exploration would be less daunting if the full potential for human economic and social development were realized. And we are living in a world just transitioning from one where it was not only acceptable, it was lauded to exclude half the population (females) from higher education, business management and, unimportant though it is in the larger scheme of things, voting and political participation. It was also acceptable, and often lauded, to exclude males of different races and ethnicities from higher education, business management, and any meaningful political involvement. In terms of waste, most people understand the concept of wasted food. In 2013, according to a report prepared by BSR for the Food Waste Alliance covering the majority of U.S. food manufacturers and restaurants, more than 44 billion pounds of food were disposed of through landfills or incineration. food waste 2013The big red block isn’t big companies or grocery stores or even restaurants. It’s people at home. energy ROI US 2010

 

As to energy, there’s a concept called EROI or “Energy Return on Investment” that is probably controversial since it shows that some alternative energy sources have a much better return on investment than others. The EROI is a simple calculation of the ratio of the amount of energy produced by an energy source and the amount of energy required to obtain the energy from that source. So, hydro power is by far #1 with 100% EROI. That’s because it’s actually “free” and requires no investment of energy to “create.” Wind power is also very good, as an alternative energy source as compared to … ethanol and biodiesel. The problems with these two should be evident, since they require growth and processing of crops.

Slaves

The continued “energy debate” and instant sidetracking of many people to fears of global warming if they use plastic grocery bags is little surprise, in a world that thought for thousands of years that using people as energy sources was a great idea. The “energy slave” concept was discussed by Buckminster Fuller. It refers to the concept of human labor necessary to produce energy and the benefit that people get from “non-human energy slaves” – i.e. they’d have to have that many actual slaves to maintain their lifestyle that’s currently able to be pursued without human slave labor. Of course he made a map. If a society relies upon literal human slaves, when its EROI shrinks too low, the society actually collapses. This problem has been proposed as the reason for the fall of the Roman Empire and the Mayan civilization. In other words, there was too little food to maintain the lifestyle and the slaves that provided the energy and work for these civilizations. Today, we still have plenty of slaves. They are allowed certain amounts of free time, but their minds are still locked in patterns of thinking built in previous centuries. Previous eras. We have women today who still look at life the same way as their great-great-great-great-great grandmothers. We have men with the same attitudes as any number of Victorian manservants.

What Really Frightens People

Freedom.

The Human Dividend and the Choice

Slave – or free? With freedom will come wealth beyond most people’s wildest imaginings. What we have today is beyond the wildest imaginings of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. The technological revolution didn’t and doesn’t drive human development. It’s the other way around. And our way to the future doesn’t lie in the same people making technology in the same manner as they have in the past. It lies in all of humanity achieving its potential. And those potentials are as unique as each person. The person who makes a new iPhone screen is not intrinsically more valuable than a great massage therapist. The person who develops a new home security system isn’t a more important, valuable person than the person who starts a free range cattle business.

The human dividend, if we allow it to pay off, can be seen in the career of the great chemist Percy Julian. Percy is referred to as “the forgotten genius.” He is noted for being the first African-American chemist (and only the second African-American) inducted into the National Academy of Science. He held over 150 patents. All of the compounds he synthesized were made from natural plant materials. They are all safe, none were ever challenged or found to be ineffective or harmful, and nearly all are still in use today. percy julian in labPercy Julian’s initial breakthrough medication was physostigmine, an alkaloid which has been used to treat glaucoma for over 65 years, and which is showing benefits in treating Alzheimer’s disease. When he worked for Glidden (yes, the paint people), Percy produced sterols from soybean oil and converted the sterols to a variety of medications, including progesterone and other beneficial sex hormones such as estradiol and testosterone. One of his processes continues to be the most widely-used process for producing hydrocortisone and derivatives, used to treat arthritis. In nearly every chemical process he was called upon to work, he reduced cost of manufacture ten-fold or more.

This is what is important about Percy Julian. For his race, he performed untold services and gave tirelessly. The world in general, is an immeasurably better place, because Percy Julian lived in it. And it was no surprise to me that Percy Julian understood what it meant to be fully-human, and what the human dividend really was, and how it could be earned and achieved. When he received the Honor Scroll given by the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Chemists, he addressed the audience with issues of humanity, God and nature.

Historians of tomorrow may well ask why scientists did not join the human race in our time when the opportunities were so great and the means at hand so magnificent. (Hesberg, qtd. in Julian)

What does all this mean to you and me of the world of chemistry? To begin with, I cannot, and I hope you cannot, accept the blank statement that “Science is Amoral.” While this may be said of its methodology and specific aims at a given time, Science is something more than methodologies, symbolisms, and technological devices; it is vastly more than the creation of mere things; computers and mechanical robots are only incidental by-products of its spirit of inquiry. Science, like all man’s noble endeavors, involves the whole personality of those who pursue it. To say flatly that Science is amoral is to separate this man-made discipline from man himself and from the destiny of man. . . .

The challenge to us in the great debate with Humanists is clear. Too many of us have been satisfied to seek Truth only through the medium of certain facets of our discipline. We should have been the strong right arm of the humanist, but for the most part, we have not carved a basic social philosophy out of our endeavors. And yet where would one find more appropriate experience for such a philosophy than ours, where we live amidst the incomparable beauty of Nature’s truth, Nature’s objectivity, Nature’s solemn and honest justice, Nature’s grand nobility and bigness where no smallness can prevail in either mind or matter, Nature’s understanding and tolerance where even the lowliest creation — whether it be the bee or the lilies of the field — performs its functions with dignity and glory, Nature’s understanding and delicate balance, where on the one hand microorganisms can bring about the most dreaded disease, and on the other, bequeath to us the wonders of penicillin and aureomycin.

In terms of waste, the man who spoke those words, made those many beneficial compounds and medicines, and who contributed vastly to our economy, could well have stopped school in 8th grade. He in fact completed only the 8th grade before going to DePauw University and successfully graduating, eventually becoming one of the first African-Americans to receive a Ph.D. in chemistry. Percy Julian, as a young boy on his grandfather’s farm, accidentally came upon a young man who had been lynched, hanging from a tree. Percy himself could have been lynched, if he’d been unlucky. Percy Julian’s work didn’t just heal people with safe medicines made from plants. His work drove the development of soybean crop production in the United States. The U.S. has led the world in soybean production for well over two decades. China is the major importer of US-grown soybeans, and soybeans are responsible for 75% of US oil and fat consumption.

I have questioned for years: how many Percy Julians are there out there who never get the education he fought so fiercely to achieve and the job opportunities he pursued with a vigor the average job candidate cannot imagine? The human waste we are comfortable with is beyond calculation.

Economically, we are many hundreds of billions richer because of Percy Julian’s work. I believe it is fairly said that we have cost ourselves many hundreds of billions because of all the Percy Julians out there who were never able to make it into the fields of endeavor where their talents and abilities could produce new work, new insight and new endeavor.

Valuation

 

Let’s give an average of $10 billion increase in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) over the lifetime of work of a significant scientist, engineer, entrepreneur or other creator. And let’s compare this with the social net cost of someone who could have that capacity, but who instead, never achieves it because they never receive the opportunity. The average high school graduate (not dropout) can expect to earn $1.2 million over the course of their lifetime. So, the human dividend potential for each Percy Julian-like creator is $9.99 billion. If we have a thousand such individuals in the United States alone (not remotely unrealistic), then that is a trillion dollars. If we have more – say 5,000 – Well.

That’s the 40 cents off every dollar our government is presently borrowing to pay to keep people in lousy schools, eating lousy corporate food and getting fat and sick, so they can use our government-semi-sponsored health care and “vote the right way.” Yes, this does feel like the energy slave concept. How many people are required to be kept away from that which they are born to do, are brilliant at, and can contribute to, just so some people can feel good and spend time with their pals telling each other stuff they already know? Like this and this. My thinking here is far from original. All while I was growing up, there was a commercial on television, often aired during “Wide World of Sports.”

Stop Judging and Start Listening

I’m not arguing for higher taxes to continue the current educational system. I’m arguing for people to open their eyes and ears and minds to something new, and above all, to accept that while we recognize and value the past and contributions of others, we should also make room for new voices and new contributions.

I watched the final episode of “How the Universe Works,” which was a dumbed-down version of information I learned at LaunchPad this past summer. With one exception. The show covered astroseismology, or the “music of the stars.” This is the development of audio technology to listen to various stars, thereby determining their size and placement on the sequence of stars. Young astronomer Keivan Stassun explained how simple, quick and affordable the technique, using an unconventional (for astronomy) sense was: hearing.

What We Can Hear

I hear the difference between the “old” scientists and the “new” on such shows. The “new” scientists like Keivan are soft-spoken and talk about possibilities and potentials. The “old” ones … well, we grew up with those. They continue to hold court. For a time. Oh, such expensive dates they are! I think next time, perhaps we should make them pay for their own dinners.