Archive for September, 2008

Living Dirt

September 29, 2008
The Colorado Plateau

The Colorado Plateau

A friend and I have backpacked together for — never mind for how long — and we’re just back from our annual trip, this time to the high deserts of the Colorado Plateau where you have to be careful where you step lest you harm its “living dirt.”  (At least that’s my name for it. Scientists who just read that sentence are groaning because that dirt has a fancy scientific name, “cryptobiotic soil.”  Which sounds to me like a spy’s secret code. It also goes by another name, “biological crust.” I don’t care.  I like “living dirt.” After all, the “crust” consists of soil plus living organisms and their by-products.)

The life in the dirt is made possible by what used to be known as blue-green algae.  It too has a fancy name: cyanobacteria.  (Fearless, I call that “little blue bugs.”) But it is entitled to its fancy name; without it, the birds wouldn’t be here nor would we.



It’s really, really old.  In fact, it may be the oldest living substance on dry land. Fossils of it have been found, 2.8 billion years old, but it must be a billion years older than that.

Earth’s earliest solid land was lifeless.  Single cell cyanobacteria were the first living colonizers of that land.  Washing up on sandy beaches, it grabbed onto individual grains of sand and started wandering around, leaving behind a trail of mucilaginous glue which held the grains of sand together.  Forming and then stabilizing soil, it formed thick mats all over the early earth.

In those days the air here was mostly carbon dioxide with hardly any oxygen.  The cyanobacteria took care of that , converting much of the carbon dioxide into oxygen.  Without it, earth would be as lifeless as the moon.  By using water as an electron donor in photosynthesis, it made — and makes — oxygen. Combine little blue bugs with water, then add three billion years and you get sentient, oxygen-breathing life. You get crows, ravens, even humans.

Microscope view of Living Dirt

Microscopic View of Living Dirt

When it is wet, it is mobile. It forms filaments which move away from the main biomass, bud, and make new colonies.  All along the way it leaves behind a trail of sticky fibers which hold soil together, slowing wind and water erosion.  When dry, it stays put, holding the soil and waiting for the next rain.

In the meantime, it is grabbing nitrogen out of the air and moving it into the dirt so plants can use it. (Most plants can’t use free floating molecules of nitrogen.  They need the gas fixed in other forms.  Without cyanobacteria fixing nitrogen, the world would have no plants.) The dirt becomes an ideal environment for lichens, mosses, green algae and other fungi which in turn harbor the larger plants of the desert which provide food and shelter for the birds and other sentient beings who live there or who visit.

Cryptobiotic Soil in Arches N.P.

I have a friend, perhaps the only one who won’t mind being compared to dirt — this kind of dirt, anyway.  From its beginning his life has been full of challenges, many unwanted and undeserved.  His effort to integrate his past, coupled with his talents and perception, allows him to know things that most of us don’t know, to see things most of us don’t see.  You can read his ruminations on his blog, Wild Resiliency.

He is like cryptobiotic soil; he holds his own life together while holding soil together for our descendants. It will not erode until the earth has time to heal herself and produce new vegetation that will give our descendants a place to hide when the cold winds of ignorance blow across the land. He probably won’t live to see the fruit of his labors, but he soldiers on anyway; swelling with the rain, shrinking with the drought and leaving good earth behind.

Wildly Resilient Life

Wildly Resilient Life

But I digress.

Eventually, after several decades of growth, the living dirt forms erosion-resistant little hillocks of soil as you see in the photos.

Mature soil crust appears blackish. It is fragile.  Compressing it kills it.  Even the weight of a single human foot crushes it.  Then, in its unceasing effort to turn the desert into lifeless, naked sand, the wind blows the top part away. It takes a century, or longer, to repair the damage from a single foot print.

So imagine what 150 years and millions of free-ranging cattle have done to it.  Over-grazed desert land is easy to spot.  Look for loose sand and flat-bladed scrub cactus.  (I am sure that cactus also has a scientific name but I remain ignorant of it. I don’t care. Scrub cactus it is and scrub cactus it shall remain.) In such land you have to look hard to find any of the black-crusted soil that gives life to the desert.

So the next time you are on the Colorado Plateau step carefully.  We’ve done a lot of damage there over the last 150 years and it will take a long time to repair.  Stay on the roads or the trails or the slickrock or walk the washes.  It’s the least we can do.

Mostly the facts in this post came from
The others I made up.  Except for the part about bacteria and the first two billion years of the planet’s history.  See Olivia Judson for that.


Hertzberg on Palin

September 27, 2008

First, here is the verbatim transcript of a part of the CBS News interview with Governor Palin of Alaska:

COURIC: You’ve cited Alaska’s proximity to Russia as part of your foreign policy experience. What did you mean by that?

PALIN: Alaska has a very narrow maritime border between a foreign country, Russia, and, on our other side, the land-boundary that we have with Canada. It’s funny that a comment like that was kinda made to…I don’t know, you know…reporters.

COURIC: Mocked?

PALIN: Mocked, yeah I guess that’s the word, mocked.

COURIC: Well, explain to me why that enhances your foreign-policy credentials.

PALIN: Well, it certainly does, because our, our next-door neighbors are foreign countries, there in the state that I am the executive of. And there…

COURIC: Have you ever been involved in any negotiations, for example, with the Russians?

PALIN: We have trade missions back and forth, we do. It’s very important when you consider even national-security issues with Russia. As Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of the United States of America, where do they go? It’s Alaska. It’s just right over the border. It is from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation, Russia, because they are right next to, they are right next to our state.

Here is Hendrick Herzberg on that passage:

“This seems to be a case of incoherence of thought leading to incoherence of syntax. Pronouns wander in search of antecedents like Arctic explorers in a blinding snowstorm.”


UPDATE – Here is a brave soul that attempted to diagram that sentence about Putin.

Sarah Palin Nude

September 24, 2008

I would have entitled this entry “Sarah Palin — Naked” but that’s been taken.  Worse, I have probably tricked people who don’t regularly read this blog into coming here expecting to see a photograph of Sarah Palin nude.   Alas, no such luck.  There are rumors that such photos exist and they may, but I don’t have any.

For those of you who did come here for nudes of Sarah Palin, stick around. Something important — and non-partisan — follows.

First though, we’ll strip Governor Palin of the political clothing she donned especially for this autumn’s fashion and electoral season. Because she wants to be one heartbeat of a 72 year-old man away from the presidency, this looks like a reasonable thing to do.

We’ll begin with the story of refusing the money for the bridge to nowhere.  Actually she wanted the money and the bridge until it became apparent the bridge idea would be laughed out of Congress.  She settled for the money which was spent on other projects in Alaska.

She does want that $2 billion dollar road to Anchorage which would go through her home town though.  Paid for by all U.S. citizens.

Then there is that natural gas pipeline.  She claims credit for a pipeline that is not yet built and for which there is a substantial debate as to its economic usefulness, a debate beyond the competency of your author to declaim on.

Then there is “troopergate.”  Until recently all we knew was that allegations exist that she fired the head of the Alaska state police for not firing her former brother-in-law who was involved in a child custody dispute with her sister. But now the McCain campaign pried a top flight lawyer away from prosecuting terrorists and sent him to Alaska to try to shut down that investigation. And her husband will ignore a lawful subpoena, something which would land the rest of us in jail. If you have nothing to hide, why try to hide it?

She opposes equal pay for women.

And let’s quickly dispose of the idea that she is ready to handle the nation’s foreign affairs because there is a spot on an Alaskan island from which one can see — only on a rare clear day — the distant coastline of remote Russia.  By that reasoning I am qualified to be Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff because I once lived down the street from a general.

But we probably lay too much stress on experience.  Our most experienced president had been Ambassador to Russia and England, had turned down a proffered appointment to the Supreme Court, served five terms in the House of Representatives and three in the U.S. Senate and had been Secretary of State before being elected president.

That was James Buchanan, one of our worst presidents.

Arguably the president with the least political experience had served only one term as a junior Congressman, and that years before he assumed the presidency.

That was Abraham Lincoln.

And Walter Lippman wrote about a presidential candidate in 1932, “He is a pleasant man who, without any apparent qualifications for the job, wants very much to be President of the United States.”

That was Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Nevertheless, in the following contest who do you pick to win?


Finally, we need to rid ourselves of the idea that our president ought to be someone with whom we’d enjoy having a beer with. I want the president to be smarter than I am and to surround himself with people even smarter than he is.  I don’t want a president as cold-hearted as Vladimir Putin but I do want one as smart and as calculating.

I’d love to have a beer with John McCain.  I don’t want to have one with Barack Obama.  Which is a good reason to vote for  Barack Obama.

Retirement and the Economy

September 22, 2008

Normally when something goes wrong in the world, I blame President George Bush.  War, famine, pestilence, global climate change, our broken judiciary; the blame for all these I place squarely at his feet. In part this is based on my personal experience with him.  During his watch my mother died, two of my favorite dogs died, and I needed dental work.

So last week, when the stock market crashed and the global financial system fell off the cliff I naturally enough blamed George Bush.

But I have learned to unflinchingly face facts. If a fact disproves one of my pet theories, I devise a new pet theory to explain the fact.  This is called the scientific method.

And here is the fact that must be faced.  The only thing that changed between Friday afternoon last when the stock market was doing fine and the next Monday morning when it collapsed was that a friend of mine retired.  (Yes, I’m talking to you Dotty!)

Obviously, the nation’s economy stood balanced on the edge of a precipice and my friend’s retirement pushed it off.  The only way I can see to rescue it is for my friend to get back to work.

So to her I say, “We hope you enjoyed your retirement but it is time to get back to work. Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”

Bullwinkle Assassination

September 18, 2008

We’ve used Rocky and Bullwinkle on this blog from time to time.  Here from yesterday’s New York Times web-humor section is fake news about our favorite moose, Bullwinkle.

The Danger of Vacations

September 16, 2008

Well.  I leave town for two weeks and the nation’s economy founders, the national Republican party walks off a cliff and
and a huge hurricane flattens Galveston. I suppose I’ll have to stop taking vacations.

Actually, I blame George Bush for the economic mess.  But then I blame George Bush for most things.  I need some dental work and I blame him for that.  The new sewer is his fault.  Two beloved dogs and my beloved Mother died during his watch. I should cut him some slack I suppose, but there he is swaggering around, thumping his chest, still clueless after eight years in office.

It would be refreshing if he would just admit that he doesn’t have a clue what to do about the economy.  I certainly don’t.  I’ve never understood the stock market and am not likely to now.  For me, it is an irrational enigma wrapped in the impenetrable prose of the Wall Street Journal.

As for John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin to be his vice-president were he elected, I leave it to the conservatives to chew on.  Here are three of them, Brooks, Will, Krauthammer.

But, if you want a liberal, and funny, view I recommend “Sarah Palin Naked.”

McCain’s choice is the equivalent of a baseball manager sending a rookie to bat with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, three runs behind.  Sure, there is a chance that the rookie will hit a grand slam and win the game but the odds are really bad. (Of course, the real problem is that the team got to the bottom of the ninth three runs behind.  Not even a veteran hitter has much chance of winning the game.)

Nonetheless, McCain wrapped up the anti-wolf, anti-polar bear vote by choosing Palin.

As for Hurricane Ike, having once worked for the weather bureau and having read Isaac’s Storm, I understand it a little better than John McCain and the stock market.  Add low pressure areas off the coast of Africa to warm water in the Gulf of Mexico plus global climate change and you get monster hurricanes. As I recently learned from my “Desert Sampler” vacation of national parks, (The Grand Canyon, Canyonlands and Arches) even the Bush-Cheney National Park Service, unlike Sarah Palin, now admits that global climate change is real and that humans have contributed to it. (I will have more to say about that brochure in a later post.)

In the meantime, no more vacations for me.  The Republic is in grave danger and I must sacrifice personal desires for the greater good.

Grand Canyon Raven

September 10, 2008

To be a Raven living in the Grand Canyon does not need words and is, in fact, beyond them. (Click for larger views.)

Navajo Nation v. U.S. Forest Service, Part II

September 4, 2008

UPDATE – June 8, 2009

Regrettably, the United States Supreme Court refused to take the case.  Your “subjective” experience of your religion is not protected, at least in the Ninth Circuit.

This is the end of the current legal trail for the tribes.  Presumably, the political trail remains open to them and one hopes for a more enlightened climate now.  In the meantime, we are still exacting our revenge for the battle at the Little Bighorn.  The majority seldom allows the religious beliefs of minorities to stand in the way of capitalism.  See generally, The Long Death by Ralph Andrist.


The latest post in the series, May 18, 2009, is here. The Supreme Court will decide on Thursday, June 4, 2009, whether to take the case.  The Court may not make public its decision until Monday, June 8th.


We ended last time on the strange words of eight judges of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The “sole effect” of spraying treated sewage water on the holiest mountain in several religions will be to diminish the “subjective spiritual experience” which “will decrease the spiritual fulfillment” of the adherents to those religions.

Wait a minute.

I thought “subjective spiritual experience” and “spiritual fulfillment” was the whole point of religion.

Apparently I was wrong.  Despite the court’s recognition that using sewage to make artificial snow at the Snowbowl north of Flagstaff Arizona will diminish and lessen the religion of the Native Americans to whom the mountain is sacred, the 8 judges allowed it. Ethnocentrism is alive and well in the American West.

Hualapai Narrows in the Grand Canyon

Hualapai Narrows in the Grand Canyon

In the beginning, water covered the earth.  The People put a young girl on a log and floated her off so the species would survive.  All the People except the young girl died.  But the girl lived and her ship landed on the Mountain called Wik’hanbaja—Hwal`bay by the Hualapai.  She washed in the water of the Mountain and conceived a son.  She washed again and conceived another son.  One of these twins became sick and his brother went to the San Francisco peaks as Anglos now call them and collected plants and water and saved his brother’s life and all the Hualapai are descended from the two twin warriors.  Today they collect the water from the Peaks for use in their religious ceremonies.  Healing ceremonies include using the water for sweat lodges and for purification by drinking the water.

Havasupai Mooni Falls in the Gand Canyon

Havasupai Mooni Falls in the Gand Canyon

Or, if you prefer: In the beginning, the earth was submerged in water and our Grandmother floated on a log which landed on the Peaks.  She lived on spring water there and begat the Havasupai people to whom Hvehasahpatch (The Peaks) are holy. The spring water that comes them flows into Havasupai Creek is a living, life-giving, pure substance.  They use it for sweat lodges because the steam becomes the breath of their ancestors.  They drink it to purify themselves.  They give it to their dead to carry on the journey of after-life.

Hopi Village

Hopi Village

Or, if you prefer: In the beginning of this world, the People came up through a Sipapu in the canyon of the Little Colorado not from where it joins the Colorado River, the beginning of the Grand Canyon. The People traveled to  Nuvatukyaovi (The Peaks) where they entered into a spiritual covenant with God to take care of the earth.  The Peaks are the home of the Katsinam, called “Kachinas” in the language of the Anglos.  The Katsinam are the Holy Spirits and spirits of Hopi ancestors.  If the Katsinam are not treated with respect, they will not form clouds and deliver water for the Hopi lands. They live on the Peaks which is where the souls of dead Hopis go.

Hopi Katsina

Hopi Katsina

Heaven, for the Hopis, is where the Court has now allowed treated sewage to be used to create faux snow for the pleasure of skiers.  There are 14 separate holy Hopi shrines up there.  No matter.  It’s only their “subjective spiritual experience” that is harmed.

Navajo Woman getting water

Navajo Woman getting water

Or, if you prefer: In the beginning, the Mother of Humanity — Changing Woman, lived on the Peaks.  There she went through her puberty ceremony, the  kinaalda, after which she gave birth to the Hero Twins from whom all Navajos descend.  Like a Christian confirmation or a Jewish bat mitzvah, the kinaalda is celebrated by young Navajo women to this day because that is how human life is continued.  Water especially collected after a pilgrimage to the Peaks is used in the ceremonies.

For life on the planet to continue, Nature must be pure. The nochoka dine (People of the Earth) are put on the surface of this planet to care for the lands.  Medicine bundles, consisting of materials gathered from the four holy mountains, embed the unwritten way of Navajo life. First used by the Hero Twins, the bundles are necessary for horzo, that beautiful concept of living in harmony with nature, one’s community and one’s self.  Without it, the center cannot hold.
But now up to 1.5 million gallons of sewage effluent per day from November through February will be sprayed on the Peaks.  That “reclaimed water” will be free of detectable fecal coliform bacteria for at least four out of every seven days it is sprayed on the mountain.  However on every day it is sprayed, it will contain detectable levels of enteric bacteria, viruses, Cryptosporidium, Giardia, other protazoa and “many unidentified and unregulated residual organic contaminants.”

Humans should not drink the stuff.  Nor swallow any snow made from it.  And I suspect the judges of the Ninth Circuit would not be happy for their grandchildren to be baptized with it.
To the Native Americans we say, modern science counsels you to take the long view, as your people always have. The Peaks are volcanoes and aren’t finished erupting; they’re only napping.  It’s just a matter of time until Nature reconfirms the holiness of your mountains by wiping that ski area off the face of the planet.


UPDATE – March  16, 2009

We’ve updated this post here.

Navajo Nation v. US Forest Service, Part I

September 1, 2008

The San Francisco Peaks, — named by Spanish settlers after St. Francis of Assisi in 1629, a century and half before the City of San Francisco was also named after him — rise out of the Arizona Sonoran desert about two hours north of Phoenix and an hour south of the Grand Canyon. They are, if you accept modern science, the eroded remains of a stratovolcano which began erupting about 6 million years ago and last erupted about 1,000 years ago.

Of course, if you accept that view of modern science, you may accept also that the Dome of the Rock is just another old building and Golgotha just a nondescript little geologic hill outside the old city of Jerusalem.

But if you are a religious Navajo or Hopi or Havasupai or Hualapai, you don’t accept it. To you, the San Francisco Peaks (The Peaks)are not only sacred; they are holy. They are as holy as the Dome of the Rock is to a Jew or a Moslem and Golgotha is to a Christian.

But to eight judges on the supposedly “liberal” 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and to a few Gringos stupid enough to pay $4 million to buy a ski resort in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, the San Francisco Peaks are just mountains and the Indian tribes of the Southwest have a silly religion which must not stand in the way of the true religion: Commerce.

Snowbowl Ski and Commerce Area

Snowbowl Ski and Commerce Area

If you are an citizen of the United States, you own the San Francisco Peaks and the land where the ski area squats. Over the vehement objections of the citizens of Flagstaff, Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt placed the peaks in a national forest. Your United States Forest Service, guardian of the “multiple use” concept, issued a Special Use Permit to the operators of the ski area way back in the 1930s. The current owners still have that permit to operate a ski area.

But now they want to make artificial snow from Flagstaff’s treated sewage. The plan is to build a pipeline up the mountain to carry the treated sewage water up to the ski area which will turn it into artificial snow.

The San Francisco Peaks, also called Sierra sin Agua, (“Mountains without water”) get more moisture than the surrounding desert. 11,000 feet higher than Phoenix, only 120 miles to the South, they stand in a direct line of the Pacific storms that make it over the Sierra in central California which results in some snow. At the Snowbowl ski area in a good year they can get up to 460 inches of snow. But in a bad year, say 2001-02, they may get as little as 87 inches, which can make a huge difference in how much money the owners take in. In the bad years they may get fewer than 3000 skiers, but in a good one, may get 200,000. The ski area, until now anyway, relied solely on natural snow. Not enough water is available to make artificial snow.

After learning of the plan to make artificial snow from sewage, the Native Americans of the region, to whom the mountains and the water which flows from them are holy, sued to stop it. They asked the federal courts to forbid the federal government from allowing the ski area owners to use treated sewage to make artificial snow.

The legal issue in the case is whether using sewage to make snow on a holy mountain “substantially burdens” the free exercise of religion. Suppose, said the Indians, you are a Christian and your church is required by the federal government to use treated effluent in its baptismal font; you might feel that your free exercise of your religion was burdened.

But that self-evident proposition did not sway eight members of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Conceding that the Indians’ arguments accurately reflected sincere religious beliefs, the court wrote:

. . . [T]he sole effect of the artificial snow is on the Plaintiffs’ subjective spiritual experience. That is, the presence of the artificial snow on the Peaks is offensive to the Plaintiffs’ feelings about their religion and will decrease the spiritual fulfillment Plaintiffs get from practicing their religion on the mountain.

Those have to be the two strangest sentences ever uttered by a court in the United States of America. We’ll discuss why next time.