"Ot-ter! Ot-ter!" That may not have been our daughter's first word but it was among her most thrilled.
We had just walked into the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and had made our way through the crowd to the Sea Otter Exhibit, a multi-leveled display where we were transfixed by the mammal's liquid grace, its corkscrewing motion through the pool. As it spun, dove, and curled up and around, we explained to our riveted two-year-old what we were looking at and pronounced the animal's name. That's when she let loose: "Ot-ter! Ot-ter!"
Memories of her exuberant cry surfaced in mid-December when news came that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had abandoned its 25-year-old ban on southern sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis) residing in Southern California's waters. The ban, an outgrowth of the Reagan administration's aggressive anti-environmentalism, proved once more that if given a chance nature can make a mockery of command-and-control policymaking.
In the highlands of Joshua Tree National Park my friend Seth leads me to a mature oak. "It's not like the scrub oaks in the hills around here," He says. "It's a live oak, tree-sized, and it's different from everything else around it." We round a curve and there it is: a mature tree with a trunk a few feet thick and a messy crown. Its leaves are an odd light green with almost a blue tinge to them. I don't know what kind of oak it is, and I don't realize as I take a dead leaf for later identification that I'm about to connect one of humankind's oldest technologies with one of our newest.
Like approximately two billion other people, I was briefly taken in Tuesday evening by a YouTube video purporting to show a golden eagle attempting to capture a small child in a city park in Montreal. For most watchers, the video was persuasive and scary, showing a large, dark raptor suddenly swooping down and grabbing a fleece-clothed toddler by the shoulders, and carrying it for ten or fifteen feet before dropping it. The video went viral almost immediately and was exposed as a hoax almost as quickly.
But even exposed as a hoax the video's immediate, extreme popularity reminds us of something very real indeed about our place in the natural world.
Real or Fake? Natural or Artificial? What kind of Christmas tree have you stepped up into your living room or community center, or gazed upon in urban square, suburban mall, or village green?
The answer is not obvious: fake is on the rise.
China alone produces more than 10 million artificial Xmas trees a year, 90 percent of which are sold in the United States. There has been a strong run on the faux creations this year. Home Depot, Target, and Wal-Mart have reported a double-digit jump in sales over last year. Nationwide the increase is a bit lower, estimated at 6 percent, with total sales in 2012 expected to top 13.4 million, reaping $1.07 billion. No wonder the manufacturing process for this winter symbol has gone global.
Moving into my little house in the desert hasn't been complicated. The place comes furnished, and so taking possession basically means carrying boxes of books from the Jeep into the living room. It's hot, even for July, and the summer of 2008 is shaping up to be warmer than usual. I have spent an inordinate amount of time sweating. I am covered in dust from my boxes of books. My sweat catches the dust, carried it in muddy saline rivulets into inconvenient and uncomfortable places. Showering helps only a little. The local water is hard. Shower all you like: soap never really comes all the way off. I left a half-full glass of water on my bedside table the day before yesterday. Now there's a coat of lime in the glass where the water had been.
Drinking the water, though: that helps with the heat. The water in Nipton tastes better than any other tapwater I've ever drunk. Is it the heat? The dissolved solids? Hard to say. Perhaps it's the remove from which the water comes: seven hundred feet down, to hear my new neighbor Fred tell it the other day when I picked up the keys.
The morning broke clear, bright, and blue. Perfect Southland weather for Tuesday's dedication ceremony of an impressive solar array housed at the Forest Service's Technology and Development Center in San Dimas.
Such was the warmth of the day that Leslie Weldon, who as Deputy Chief for the National Forest System was on hand to celebrate the grand occasion, could not help reveling in her good fortune to have escaped what she described as "Maryland's drear," that cold, wet, gray blanket muffling winter life back east.
Resolving her Vitamin-D deficiency was not the only reason Weldon was so excited to be basking in the sun. Its rays, and the photons they convey to the Earth's surface, are what the 1,288 solar panels, ground mounted and spread out over 1.5 acres, are converting into electrons to power the Technology Center.
Most Angelenos are familiar at least in passing with the story of how the Department of Water and Power (DWP) essentially dewatered Owens Lake so as to fill the growing city's water mains in 1913 and after. What they may not know is that the story isn't over. In November, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) ruled that according to data from lakebed monitors, the DWP was solely responsible for the horrendous air quality in the Owens Valley caused by dust blowing off the dry lake.
DWP's response? They're trying to get rid of the monitors.
Sometime 34 million years ago, a butterfly died. It was a nymphalid, today the largest family of butterflies (and perhaps then, too). Paleobiologists do not know how or why it perished -- hey, that was eons ago! But that it lived is perfectly preserved in the geologic record.
More exactly, its fossilized remains were entombed in paper shale that has risen to the surface at what is now the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in Colorado. Once a shallow lake surrounded by groves of redwoods and broad-leafed trees, a fecund home to a vibrant biota, the now-grassy site was buried in ash and lava flows from the once-volcanic mountains nearby. Over time, wind and erosion have swept away layers of this thick, pressurized coating: Large silicified redwood trunks silently testify to the powerful natural forces that have transformed this terrain. The weathered, gray-black sheets of shale - and the paper-thin fossils embedded within them -- bear witness to ancient life on Earth.
This testimony is perhaps best captured in the excited prose of geologist Arthur C. Peale, who encountered the landscape in 1873: "When the mountains are overthrown and the seas uplifted, the universe at Florissant flings itself against a gnat and preserves it."
Here's a Mojave Desert living pro-tip: don't leave your jackalope on the porch in November. If you do, the antelope squirrels will strip off its fur to line their nests. I found this out the hard way this week when I went out on our back porch to investigate the source of the loud scraping sound that had our cat ready to dive through the screen door. One whole flank of the poor jackalope had been scraped almost raw, and the antelope squirrel who's been trying to move under our porch stood there, hand in the cookie jar, a cotton-ball-sized wad of jackalope fur clutched to its chest.