Tuesday, June 28, 2011

May 29, 2011

I went for a walk at Bridgeport, alone today. I'm sitting in the late afternoon, almost summer, sun. The grass is going from green to gold and the dirt is hot and cracking. Storms in late May are under-rated. Everyone gripes about the cold and the clouds, what with the flavors of summer already in their mouths. Yet I enjoy the huge thunderheads and intermittent sunshine. Last little exaltation of spring and life. A dipper flew nearly 6 inches above my head. I was nearly sleeping on a rock in the river, when I heard it and looked up. It mustn't have noticed me on the boulder. To be quiet and still, that is the way. I'm reading the Dharma Bums again. I want to be more of a rucksack wanderer. In all this time, that longing has not gone away. I see the beauty in him fleeing to the desert and me retreating to the mountains. Nothing is more beautiful to me than the sunshine. It is the source of all life.

A Home in The Woods

I've been living and working in Truckee, Monday through Thursday, for almost a month now. I rent a room in a house with two middle aged folks, whom I rarely see. I spend approximately 5 hours a day awake and in the house. That includes time I spend preparing food, doing dishes, showering and preparing for 10 hour days in the field. I have realized that all of the things that I require while I am here, I can get for free, or close to it. The weather is warm and mild, there is a refrigerator, kitchen and a shower at the office that I am free to use. There are many thousands of acres of soft duff upon which to lay my head each night. As of July, my roommates will be the sweetly scented Jeffery Pines, the gently singing Aspens, the Mule's Ears and the Yarrow.

My alarm will be the sunrise and all the songbird cries. I've got a classic green Coleman double burner stove, and so many recipes stored in my head of single pot meals. I've got a leather bound journal that has been patiently waiting for me to transform it into more than just a journal; I will write and sketch and draw and paint and sing and find the forest flowing in my veins and out my pores onto pages patient and pure. I'd much rather live in the woods alone, than with near strangers in this contrived home. And at the end of the week, I will climb the great granite spine of the Sierra and descend the forested slopes to my home in the hills, to my lover, the garden and the orchard and the ducks and the chickens. I will harvest basil and cherries, tomatoes and eggplant and fresh food grown from the good sweet earth. I will finally be at home in the woods.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Honest Little Fox

You better be honest as a fox from here on out and I know about these things, relationships are hard with all this living we've got to do crawling out of our bones...And god dammit if we don't all make mistakes sometimes and its best not to move on but learn and carry them with you, that way if you screw up enough times well at least you'll be strong enough to dig your way out from underneath all that heavy sorrowful dirt and rock. But who am I to say, I'm the one who went on and messed it all up...I'll just keep planting melons in the melon patch, and water the corn, and watch out the backdoor remembering good old Mr. Duck, Mr. Dead Duck now after that last thunderstorm, but at least he gets to rest nestled inside all that good rich earth, dozing with the worms working away at rebuilding the soil. Good god the hot dirt the ripe earth! Walk slow through the ancient golden sands of time. Get high on the low light, backlit leaves. Early summer rain catches in the forests eaves of new leaves.

Monday, April 25, 2011


Buffalo on the road in Yellowstone NP near Mammoth Hot Springs
The first buffalo I saw in the “wild,” was standing in the road munching on some free native grasses put out by a local in Yellowstone Village, just outside of West Yellowstone Montana. I was sitting in the back of “cornflake,” the green and white Subaru used as a patrol car for the Buffalo Field Campaign. Patrols were different each day, but were centered around three main threats to the buffalo: hunters, highways and hazes. Despite there being fewer than 4000 Yellowstone bison, tags were issued for a hunt this year. Treaty rights also allow for three Native American tribes to hunt the buffalo. Buffalo Field Campaign recognizes the importance of the buffalo to the native peoples, and respects their right to hunt without documentation or interference from BFC. The state hunters, however, are often filmed by BFC volunteers, who also sometimes approach them and offer literature about the campaign, what's going on with the buffalo and why the buffalo population is nowhere near healthy enough to be hunted. 

BFC also plays a vital role in protecting the buffalo as they cross the highways around Yellowstone NP. Outside of West Yellowstone, Highway 191 crosses the Madison River twice. Large semi-trucks and tourists frequent the highway, flying along at 70 miles and hour, the designated speed limit on a highway that crosses a major migratory zone, twice. The buffalo leave the park in hopes of finding areas of less snow where they can forage. They follow the river, where the shores are exposed and forage is much easier. However, once they reach the highway, the buffalo have nowhere to go. An inappropriately low bridge crosses the river, so the buffalo are forced to cross the highway instead of being able to go under the bridge. Buffalo Field Campaign volunteers keep a watchful eye along the highway. If there are buffalo crossing, they set up bright pink road signs that read "Buffalo On Road." I assisted in a few of these crossings and it was the only BFC activity in which I was allowed to safely speak my mind. As giant trucks and little cars flew by the signs at 70mph I screamed about their idiocy at the top of my lungs. My partner Andrew and another volunteer were unfortunate enough to witness what happens when people do not heed our warnings. A large group of buffalo were crossing the road at the same time but in a different place than a lone bull. Andrew and the other volunteer set up the signs for the large group and drove back to check on the bull, only to find that a local man had collided with the buffalo. His car was totaled and the buffalo was still alive, struggling to get up and get away. Eventually Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks showed up and shot the buffalo more than 7 times in the head until it was dead. They then proceeded to load it up and take it to the dump. The man refused medical treatment, but was arrested the next day under a warrant for another crime.
The Madison River, looking West from the Northeast Bluffs towards Highway 191
While we were in West Yellowstone, we mostly participated in going on patrols. As an introduction to patrol, we headed out to Baker’s Hole campground just outside Yellowstone National Park for our “rookie rove.” I hadn’t been on skis since I was barely big enough to remember being yanked up the rope pull and pizza-ing my way down the bunny hill. So, with my cross country skis attached to my toes, I felt quite confident until just beyond the edge of the parking lot. As soon as I started to go downhill, I naively listened to my instinct to lean backwards. My tailbone was thankful for the many inches of powder there to break my fall. My clumsiness on skis was compounded by my desire to admire the gorgeous scenery of the low, snowy bluffs lining the willow-dotted shores of the slow slinky curves of the Madison River, all beneath the electric blue of that gigantic Montana sky.
Andrew on the edge of the Madison River,  group of 25 or so buffalo across the river inside of Yellowstone NP

 We skied along her shores until we saw their silhouettes through the rising steam of the early spring morning. The giant, gentle beasts across the river distracted me so that I nearly fell down just standing still admiring their subtle, strong bodies, surrounded by the stark white snow.  
Buffalo standing amongst the steam along the Madison River, inside Yellowstone NP.

  My own difficulties getting around on the snow felt infinitesimal in comparison to these 1500 pound buffalo spreading their weight over four relatively small hooves all winter long. At least I had a safe warm place to call home at night. In a few months, most of these buffalo won’t even have a muddy safe place to call home at any hour of the day. The state of Montana does not tolerate wild bison on its lands, supposedly to stop the transmission of a disease called brucellosis from the buffalo to the cattle. First off, there has been not one documented case of brucellosis transmission from a buffalo to a cattle. In fact, their only disease interaction was when the CATTLE gave the disease to the buffalo. Secondly, the cattle don’t come in to graze on PUBLIC lands until after the buffalo have almost always migrated back inside Yellowstone where there are no cows. As if that is not enough reason to believe the disease prevention is just a front, it is known that the disease is transmitted in the placenta, which the buffalo consume completely. The bacteria that causes the disease is killed within 24 hours by the UV rays from the sun anyway. So how, then, after 11 years of outrageous spending of tax dollars and harmful management actions, did a hard of cattle in Montana test positive for brucellosis? Perhaps because elk, who roam freely amongst the woods and the livestock of Montana and the Greater Yellowstone area, are also carriers of the disease. The genius of five agencies (the National Park Service, US Forest Service, USDA Animal Plant Health Inspection Services, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, and Montana’s Department of Livestock) created the Interagency Bison Management Plan, IBMP, to stop the spread of brucellosis. The report mentions nothing of the elk. 
Elk grazing along the Gardner River inside Yellowstone NP

  Instead, the document authorizes “hazing”, a management action used to control the location of buffalo inside and outside of Yellowstone National Park. While in West Yellowstone, we were fortunate enough not to witness any hazing. However, we saw a haze almost every single day while in Gardiner at the North entrance to Yellowstone. A haze is when any of the agencies send people out on any combination of horses, ATVs, snowmobiles, and on special occasions, helicopters, to chase the buffalo. Here we have the public taxpayer’s dollars, paying government agencies to harass public wildlife on public lands. The cowboys from the Department of Livestock saddle up their horses to pointlessly chase buffalo, who have lost nearly half their body weight over winter and have been surviving the harshest conditions by eating dead grass they have to dig up from under feet of snow. I watched the DOL push 6 bulls from a nice grassy meadow in the Gallatin National Forest, into the hills above the meadow. By the next morning the bulls were back in the meadow; the DOL didn't bother them again while we were there.
Buffalo being hazed by DOL agents outside Gardiner, Montana

Just another mile or so down the highway, and those bulls would be in the “drop dead zone” of Yankee Jim Canyon, just North of Gardiner Montana. Once the buffalo pass the 13 mile marker, they are “out of hazing range” and are shot and killed. Thankfully they’ve installed a cattle guard on the highway, on the opposite side of the river, where the road runs right along the cliff edge, where the buffalo are least likely to go if they decide to head into the canyon. Many of the actions these agencies are taking in regard to the buffalo are illogical and inconsistent. It was extremely frustrating to watch them haze buffalo who weren't even outside of the Yellowstone National Park boundary, while they left buffalo who were miles outside the boundary alone. Though they have the Interagency Bison Management Plan, their actions were inconsistent with what the document outlined, in addition to being inconsistent from day to day. BFC is no longer a direct action organization, so the main role volunteers play in hazes is to film. We had a few encounters with agents from the DOL and the Park Service, requesting that we stay 100 yards behind the haze, or out of sight of the buffalo if we were to go ahead of the hazing operation. At times this kept us entirely from getting any footage of the operation. However, our presence made at least some difference. 
Buffalo can "fly" when running; all four of their feet are off the ground at once. Taken during a haze outside Gardiner, Montana
Most of the time, the hazes we saw were mellow and pushed the buffalo further inside the park boundary. Sometimes the buffalo would get agitated, though, and would start sparring or running or jump on each others backs. Injuries occur fairly often from hazing operations, especially when there is still snow to battle with, and mud in which the buffalo can easily lose footing and tweak limbs and fall in the panic that follows being chased by snowmobiles and helicopters. Hazes can result in capture operations as well. In Gardiner, we frequented the Stephen's Creek Facility, operated under the IBMP and located inside the Yellowstone National Park boundary. The facility was home to over 500 buffalo while we were there in March, and currently has over 600 buffalo in captivity. The park service has very conveniently located the facility in a small basin, protected on most sides by rolling hills that obscure it from view. From afar it looks like a giant cattle feedlot. 
Stephen's Creek Facility, run by the National Park Service, on National Park land. Currently has over 600 buffalo in captivity

No one is allowed within the "temporary closure area" for "public safety," that provides a little less than a mile buffer around the facility. The sign at the end of the road says "corral operations," and nothing else indicates what exactly is occurring on public lands that is unsafe for the public to be around.
These signs lined the road around the closure area. The closure of public land in a national park when there is no threat to their safety is illegal...

Inside the facility, the buffalo are fed daily by a tractor that drops alfalfa hay for them to eat out of the mud and muck that occurs when you keep 500 half ton wild animals in an enclosed space for months at a time. The hay isn't very good for the buffalo as it is much richer than the food they are used to eating at this time of year. Although the issue of the buffalo is not truly about the disease brucellosis, I still feel compelled to bring up the point that the risk of disease transmission inside the facility must be tremendous is comparison to when they are roaming free. That risk is much higher this time of year, as mothers are giving birth to calves inside the facility, and the disease is transmitted in the afterbirth. Buffalo captured and brought into the facility are also subjected to all kinds of testing, drugs, and human interactions. There are multiple smaller facilities in the Gardiner Basin, one of which a volunteer and I explored from the other side of the 15 foot high chainlink barbed wire motion sensor camera equipped fence. What we saw was depressing to say the least. Most of the buffalo had at least a few small patches of missing fur and raw exposed skin.

Buffalo grazing inside the Corwin Springs Facility. Almost all of them have open wounds.

Some of these buffalo have been in here for months and it shows in their exposed ribs and wounded raw flesh.

My time in Gardiner taught me a lot about the complexity of the issue and allowed me to experience a wide range of emotions inherent in being around the buffalo. I have never seen an animal species where the individuals had such unique, expressive faces.  I would see the buffalo as they grazed peacefully, as they sparred playfully, as they ran feverishly, and as they stood their ground and intently stared down the agents hazing them. The gentleness of their nature overwhelmed me. Even with these evil cowboys chasing the buffalo, screaming "go bull" at them they never once turned their great stature and strength against them. At most, they grew agitated with one another, or just stood and looked at the agents. The agents don't see the buffalo the way I do, the way that most people do. It was amazing to be in their presence. One day we were heading into Yellowstone to check on a big herd that had been hanging around deeper in the park. We reached the bridge that crosses the Gardner River and were greeted by a group of 9 or so on the other side of the bridge. The other volunteers suggested we just turn around, but I asked if we could just stay and see what they did. We pulled off the side of the road just inside the bridge and were rewarded by the group walking across the bridge and grazing around us. I took so many pictures and was in complete awe as they came within a few feet of the car. I could hear them breathing and the click of their hooves on the pavement, the gentle chewing of grass. Each one had a personality, a wise old worn buffalo,  one with deep sad eyes.

In addition to spending our days looking out for these beauties, we were able to spend some time hiking and spending time at my all-time favorite hot spring, the Boiling River. 
The beginnings of the Boiling River in Yellowstone NP

The thermal Boiling River, which is not actually boiling, flows over a beautiful knobby, bright green cascade into the snowmelt Gardner River. At that magical confluence are pools of varying temperature that are extremely pleasant to submerge oneself in. 
Where the Boiling River meets the Gardner River and where we bathe in the pleasant pools that result.

We went one morning before dawn and watched the morning light creep over the mountains and into the basin. It began to snow right around dawn, and I was thankful for the light fluffy stuff that shook right off my towel. A bald eagle visited us, flying up the river channel to hunt from a nearby tree. 
The dusting of snow we experienced after dawn.
We were lucky enough to visit Mammoth Hot Springs while we were in Gardner, and found ourselves walking the famed boardwalks all by ourselves.
We joined a kildeer in admiring the travertine terraces.
We were there right before sunset, which only enhanced the vibrancy and intensity of the colors.

A small group of buffalo joined us at the upper terraces and gave us a bit of a scare as a few half ton buffalo walked around on the fragile ground around the springs. 

As the sun went down, we parted ways with the buffalo and admired the colors of the sunset in the reflection of the springs.

We spent another lovely afternoon hiking up the Gardner River to the Lava Creek trail. On our way out past the Boiling River, we were amused by a river otter in the Gardner.
River Otter in the Gardner River, Yellowstone NP

After crossing a shaky suspension bridge over the Gardner, we soon found our path blocked by a group of buffalo on the trail. We hung out and smelled the sagebrush and watched the buffalo for a while.
Andrew and a Buffalo, looking right at me along the Lava Creek Trail Yellowstone NP
 We turned back and found another group a little safer distance away.
Andrew and some more buffalo Yellowstone NP

To be continued...


Collectively, The Land

The past three years of my indecision about school and things related has had a new light shed upon it. I just finished reading the famous "sand county almanac" by Aldo Leopold. He preaches of ecology and the definition of land going beyond just soil to include the flora and fauna. I have never felt settled into one field of study, nor have I found an ecology major that was not based around the idea of restoration. I believe in preservation more than I believe in restoration. We live in an ever-changing world, that we barely understand. Who am I, or anyone else, to take a piece of land or river that has been abused for a century and pretend that I know what it is supposed to look like, what it would look like had it not been mistreated for decades? Sure, we have armies of scientists and libraries of research showing what we have learned, and much can be extrapolated and applied to our current environmental situations. However, if there is one thing I have learned from a history of mismanagement, it is that most of our efforts backfire or have unintended and unanticipated effects.

After the Gulf oil spill last year, I did some research on potential ways to alleviate the stresses placed on the ecosystem by the outpouring of oil. I found a study from a spill off the coast of Normandy, where dispersants and other means were used to clean up the oil only in places where it made economic sense. They only cleaned up the beaches that were used for tourism, and left the remote beaches to fend for themselves. At first it appeared that the treated areas were responding well and improving. However, thirty years later the treated sites have still yet to fully recover. The untreated sites recovered fully in only five years. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/05/100504142110.htm   I don't believe that we should abandon restoration practices entirely. I am not advocating a throw in the towel approach by any means. I would much rather see our efforts, time money and otherwise, spent towards promoting responsible respectful coexistence. Thus I have issues committing myself to one field of study, or even one cause. Saving the buffalo isn't going to save the world, the Great Plains, or even the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. However, I am still here nestled in the Hebgen Lake Basin volunteering my time and energy to save those buffalo. As a species we are too proud; I would like to see us bow our heads in shame and admit we have been careless with our mother Earth. Until we admit that we are entirely too fallible, we will continue with aggressive management practices with unintended consequences. And the big overshadowing theme in my mind as I contemplate these things, is the nuclear crisis in Japan. It almost always takes catastrophe to get people to really see the big picture and have a whole-world perspective. As radiation spews out of failing nuclear reactors, I am disheartened. It won't matter how much pressure we put on our land and wildlife management agencies if those things are instantly spoiled by radiation. It is the constant battle I fight in my head, small incremental changes or large paradigm shifting ones? I just don't know what it is going to take to cause the paradigm shift we need, so I resign myself to the small incremental change approach.

(I wrote this first part as an email to myself while volunteering at BFC)

At the time I wrote this, I felt a great sense of urgency. Perhaps it was the fact that I had been isolated in the world of BFC volunteers and buffalo and little else. All of these huge things were going on around me and goddamn it if I was just going to sit there in the tiny wooden cabin and read about it on the internet. I felt a push of inspiration which I can honestly admit has faded a bit since. Our society is so easily coddled and deceived, myself included. I'll just grow my veggie garden, buy local and carpool to work and everything will be just dandy. With the number of times I have heard people say "I'm going to end up with cancer anyway..." I shouldn't be surprised by the short lived concern about the radiation from Japan. If its not going to keep me from feeding myself tomorrow, I'll worry about it later. Lots of places in California sold out of iodine and kelp after the reactor crisis, but what are we doing now? Life as usual. I want to reiterate that I don't exempt myself from my own criticisms; I always feel the push to be doing more, but do not always react to it. Once again, indecision cripples. There is so much to be done, yet I end up doing so little. I can no longer pretend that living my quiet little appreciative life, off the grid, nonparticipant in the evils of the world, is enough. I wish it were, but something has pushed me to the point that I have fully realized it is not enough. I care too much for the fate of the world, and it may be my own downfall. Am I going to become the well-intentioned, overbearing management specialist trying to save the world all the while contributing to its demise? I hope not, but I'm not sure how much weight my hope bears. I intend to dive back into the institution, obtain a wildlife degree, and do something useful after that. Or maybe I'll just end up back on the farm...

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Where the Wild Things Were

We retreat to the spines of mother earth. We find solace in the shouting leaves of the grove of black oak trees that forest her flanks. We seek a higher meaning on the bare earthen peaks of her breast. In a foiled attempt to descend her steep unsteady slopes, we instead discover the microcosmic world in the heart of a ring of oak trees. We let our hearts beat free and hard as we struggle to follow the deer trail through the thickets of manzanita and poison oak. The torturous scrapes and rashes of the brittle branches and shiny leaves are an appropriate response to the clear-cuts of the previous decades. We stripped the skin from her flesh and the dirt bled red. From the bloodied earth arose these shrubs of vengeance, to make our skin bleed and weep.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Pinus Ponderosa

            Every kid climbs trees. My favorite place to read was in the cradling arm of a live oak in our front yard. Eventually, my dad took me into the yard and showed me the crack in her bark where the arm was beginning to show the signs of her age and mine. I would sneak back into her embrace sometimes when no one was around, but it seemed my tree climbing days were numbered; we were both too old. At the age of 17, I picked up John Muir’s “My First Summer in the Sierra,” in which he recounts an exhilarating experience riding out a storm at the top of a tree. Among the many things Muir reminds us all of, the ability, and more importantly, the worth, of climbing a tree as an adult is one that often gets passed over. I had dismissed the desire to climb trees as overly nostalgic, and rather impractical in my early teens. After reading Muir, I decided that I should no longer ignore those impulses. It has taken a few years, but today I finally climbed a beautiful Ponderosa Pine, on the edge of one Wolf Mountain. 

            Wolf Mountain looks East to the snowy Sierra along I-80, South through the rolling foothills of the Mother Lode, and West  across the Great Central Valley to the Coast Mountains. The mountain reveals a more unique view today, with the Coast Ranges rising subtly above the ocean of fog consuming the whole valley. The Sutter Buttes erupt to the North-West, lonely and abrupt figures in a vast expanse of gentle waves and ripples. The waves of fog break and flow around the foothill mountains, creeping up canyons and reaching over the mountain saddles.

             I did not climb the tree for the view; the rocky outcrops mountainside offered much better views. It was from atop one of these rocky outcrops, leaning contentedly against the perfect rocky chair, worn by years of erosion, that I first saw the stout pine. I immediately noticed its branches reaching out only inches above the ground. I attributed it to the winds it experienced on such an exposed South West facing slope, and continued to take in the view. Lively conversation and the songs of frogs in the pond below carried on for nearly half an hour before I exclaimed “I’m such an idiot,” and hurried off to the base of aforementioned tree. I had noticed the low branches but not made the connection. Most tall conifers with branches sturdy enough to support a person’s weight lack branches low enough for a meager 5’4” girl to reach. Now, I barely had to lift my foot and I was in the tree’s lowest branches. I ascended slowly, breaking off the small dead branches cluttering the first 10 feet of the climb. As I got closer to the top, the bark grew as fresh layers with sharp tips. I reached the forked top and, though there was still another 8 to 10 feet of tree above me, I could go no further. I could feel it sway from my weight, and felt the butterflies stir. The wind barely swept the hair from my face, and I tried to imagine clinging to the tree’s spine in a storm. If I find so perfect a climbing tree during a storm, I shall have to climb it, for the sheer odds of finding myself in such a situation. I descended the tree and lamented the bits of bark broken off by my shoes. Looking down, I realized that the real danger of tree climbing is not so much the risk of falling, but the very real chances of impaling oneself on the small, hard branches jutting at awkward angles that make them practically invisible to even the most aware climber. She delivered me safely from her branches.

            Though there is no longer any American “frontier, the John Muir’s of my generation are still out discovering wildernesses. Our Wildernesses are the spaces between the backcountry roads, or the community garden and park at the top of some small hill in San Francisco. We seek out oases of nature in our otherwise developed lands. Living in the foothills is a tease. The beauty is all around us, but it is being consumed by the sprawl. The rolling hills are topped by less than modest ranches, or worse, subdivisions. The open fields are eaten by cattle and fenced off with no trespassing signs and barbed wire. Private ownership has made a simple walk in the woods a scavenger hunt. Where can I go to enjoy the trees and sunshine, where I don’t have to stay on a trail, without having to drive for miles and miles? Our wild places exist where people can’t live year round. So in January, when the Sierra are covered in snow and even a cloudless sunny day can be frigid, I have trouble finding a place to go for a sunny, warm walk in the woods. 

            The foothills in winter lack the colors of spring, but in the soft January light, nothing is so satisfying as the simple green hills, red dirt, and blue skies.  To enjoy them from our spot atop Wolf Mountain, we have to park by the radio tower, ignore freshly placed No Trespassing signs, and cower behind rocks as a strange man in a golf cart parks at a plateau on the mountain below us, and seemingly does nothing but look up at the rock we’re hiding behind. I woke this morning to more winter sun and decided all I wanted to accomplish today was to climb to the top of a mountain and play in the sun. Sure, I was able to drive to the top, and had to “trespass” just to see the sun, but I adapted. Despite the pressures of a growing population, I succeeded.