Archive for the ‘Ecology’ Category

The Jackalope’s Legality

February 19, 2011

Anyone who visits the western United States will eventually come across a postcard of the jackalope, a mythic cross between a jack rabbit and a Pronghorn antelope. But, as far as I know,  the jackalope had never made an appearance in a legal opinion from any court anywhere. But last week, the animal was immortalized by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago. Confronted with a case involving a group of former employees seeking penalties under Indiana law against stockholders of their former corporate employer,  the court ruled against the employees.  In disposing of the claim, Judge Easterbrook wrote:

Plaintiffs want to combine the Indiana statute, which makes employers liable for penalties when they do not pay wages on time, with the New York statute, which makes some equity investors directly liable to workers for wages and benefits. Yet neither state passed such a hybrid law, which the district judge likened to a griffin or jackalope. (A griffin is a mythical creature, but a jackalope is the main character in the short film Boundin’ and therefore must exist. Surely Pixar would not mislead millions of children.)


Winter Solstice and Lunar Eclipse

December 19, 2010

Monday night and early Tuesday morning feature a total lunar eclipse, visible throughout all of North America. This eclipse falls on the winter solstice, a coincidence that has not happened for more than 300 years and will not happen again in the lifetime of anyone reading this blog on the date of its posting. (The next time falls on December 21, 2094 and  I expect to be gone as will you.)

Leveque's Bacchanalia

In the old days people would have greeted an event like this with all manner of pagan observances. Bonfires would have been lit and danced around, entire communities would have suspended – for one night – the rules about sexual intercourse outside of marriage, and whatever consciousness-altering substances available would have been consumed in copious amounts. Oracles and priests would have been busy forecasting the future and explaining what the omen meant. Bacchanalia, neighborhood orgies, drunken feasts, and Dionysus’s Maenads, would have filled this night when the sun is reborn and the moon suffers its little death.

But now? Things are different and more boring. That’s the price we’ve paid for intellectual progress. Oh, a few people still believe and will build their bonfires, a few more don’t believe, but will build a bonfire anyway, and some neighbors may get together for a party, but not an orgy. Mostly the night will pass as any other winter night. Most everyone will be asleep in their warm houses and apartments and will wake up the next morning none the wiser and go off to work or go do their Christmas shopping.

Winter, by the way, probably was not the time of the year that Jesus was born. Shepherds would not have been tending their sheep in the hills around Bethlehem in the winter. They did that in the spring and summer. Most likely, the ancient and persecuted Christians celebrated their holiday during the Roman winter solstice celebrations to hide it. Carousing Romans mistook them for ordinary people celebrating the winter solstice.

Puritan Preacher Increase Mather

The Romans, being Europeans, were not as uptight about sexual matters as current North Americans are. We are the spiritual and, often, the genetic descendants of the Puritans and, as a wit once noted, the only thing harder and more implacable than the rocky, cold, forbidding New England coast where the Pilgrims landed was the Pilgrims themselves. Few Americans have yet recovered from that grim Puritan heritage. H.L. Mencken once defined a Puritan as someone haunted by the belief that somewhere, someone may be enjoying themselves.

Some Americans have recovered. Here is the late A.J. Liebling of the New Yorker writing about sex,

The one thing about the glorious diversion that is no longer written, or if still written never published, is that it remains the most amusing as well as the most instructive of human activities, and one of the most nearly harmless.

But the Puritans disagreed and as a result, your neighbors won’t be coming over for an orgy Monday night.

I assume that most readers of this blog are, like me, children of the Enlightenment, which means we are skeptics. We know, for instance, that a human sacrifice is unnecessary to make spring return this year and that Constantinople did not fall to the Ottomans because of the 1453 lunar eclipse.

Geometry of an Eclipse

But despite its unquestioned advantages for humanity, our enlightenment has come at a cost. Much of the magic and some of the mystery of the universe fade away in the light of reason. Certainly we know that this year’s winter solstice and contemporaneous total lunar eclipse are nothing but an orbital coincidence of the long eons in the ceaseless dance of moon, sun, and earth with no intrinsic meaning other than its physical beauty. We know there is nothing masculine about the energy of the sun, it’s just a thermonuclear furnace. And the moon? Nothing feminine about it. It’s just a cold lifeless ball of matter caught in the earth’s gravitational field. No mystical energy exists to be absorbed from her reflection of sunlight.

But what would be wrong with a willing suspension of disbelief for one night? We do it all the time when we read a work of fiction or when we watch a movie. So pour yourself a glass of wine, get outside Monday night/Tuesday morning, build yourself a little fire, and at least meditate, even if you don’t feel like dancing around the blaze and fornicating with your neighbors. Like Dickens’s Monsieur Defarge, perhaps no vivacious Bacchanalian flame will leap out but you might discover “a smouldering fire” burning in the dark, hidden in the dregs of the wine.

Bohr and Einstein Together

I leave you in the company of Niels Bohr, one of the greatest scientists who ever walked on this earth and, along with Einstein with whom he disputed often, a father of modern physics. This preeminent physicist, scientist and rationalist kept a horseshoe above the entrance to his home. A guest once said to him, “Dr. Bohr, surely you don’t believe that a horseshoe can bring you good luck?” Dr. Bohr responded, “No. But I’ve heard it works for those who don’t believe too.”


For more on the eclipse here is the NASA description and here is a newspaper interview with a Wiccan discussing its mystical significance.

Humor and the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

June 10, 2010

It is difficult, if not impossible, to find anything humorous about this NASA photo of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven humans and thousands of other sentient beings have lost their lives and millions of other lives have been disrupted and permanently damaged. Millions of gallons of raw crude oil foul the Gulf and its shorelines, notwithstanding Mississippi Governor Barbour’s claim that only a few tar balls have shown up on the state’s shores. Perhaps that is his idea of humor?

Nonetheless, some humorists are making the effort and we report on two here.

First, here is Robert Mankoff, the New Yorker cartoonist, comparing BP to King Canute.

And here we present Bryan Clarke and John Dawe, the Australian humorists who appear on Australia’s ABC news at 7:30 Thursdays nights in Australia. (Because people in Australia are upside down, does that mean the news show is on at 7:30 A.M.? And what is Thursday upside down?)

A comment about this piece. Humor can’t be analyzed too closely. As E.B. White once wrote, ““Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging. . .”

So we won’t dissect this piece beyond telling you that Brian Clarke pretends to be an interviewer and John Dawe pretends he is a clueless BP executive being interviewed about the oil spill in the Gulf. The piece is humor at its best, showing us our own foibles. Here is a conversation humanity is having with itself about our addiction to oil.

The Gulf of Mexico Disaster

May 21, 2010

NASA photo of the visible portion of the Gulf of Mexico disaster

Let’s see. First, British Petroleum (BP) told us the Gulf of Mexico disaster was spewing oil at the rate of 5,000 barrels a day. It used that number, of course, because “5,000 barrels” sounds like less than “210,000 gallons” which was BP’s estimate of the flow of oil out of their well.  That’s what is known as “public relations.”

Now they tell us that the straw they inserted into the flow last weekend to divert some of the spewing oil up to a ship on the surface has been a big success. That’s because, BP tells us, it is gathering 210,000 gallons or 5000 barrels a day.

Of course, any dolt can look at the video stream we’re finally allowed to look at, and see that the diversion straw is catching only a small amount of the oil gusher, about as much as you would catch if you inserted a drinking straw into your fully flowing garden hose.

Obviously BP was lying when it told us the leak was 210,000 gallons a day or it is lying now when it tells us that it is diverting 210,000 gallons a day into a ship.

Worse, the U.S. Government seems complicit. We would have expected that from the Bush Administration – the two men running the government in those years were oil men after all – but not from the Obama Administration.

Two possibilities exist: Either BP thinks we’re too stupid to notice that the lie changed or BP is too stupid to remember yesterday’s lie today. Either possibility is frightening.

Go or Die

July 29, 2009


The 40th anniversary of the first sentient being to walk on the moon is behind us.  Now we are likely send the space program back to the edge of our consciousness again. Too many immediate, earth-bound challenges face us.

Philosophy loses vigor when the lions charge; aspirations wither without calories.

Recalling a speech he once heard Werner von Braun — the father of the one billion horsepower Saturn V that launched us out of earth orbit, bound for the moon — last week Tom Wolfe lamented that NASA never hired any philosophers. Even many of the hard-boiled test pilots who were the first astronauts came to realize that all their personal skill and courage, all the technical and engineering skill, and all the scientific knowledge that went into the Apollo program failed to lift our vision.  Frank Borman, the pilot/commander of Apollo 8 is an example.  He wrote, “We took the human intellect and the human vision, the human mind, 240,000 miles away from its home base. . . . Whether we found a rock there or not was of no importance.”

According to Wolfe, the author of The Right Stuff, von Braun was NASA’s only philosopher.  Aware that he was dying of cancer, von Braun made a speech in which he said,

Here on Earth we live on a planet that is in orbit around the Sun. The Sun itself is a star that is on fire and will someday burn up, leaving our solar system uninhabitable. Therefore we must build a bridge to the stars, because as far as we know, we are the only sentient creatures in the entire universe. When do we start building that bridge to the stars? We begin as soon as we are able, and this is that time. We must not fail in this obligation we have to keep alive the only meaningful life we know of.
We humans often assume that current conditions are the norm; that they were ever thus, and will always be, ever thus.  That common fallacy deadens imagination and, eventually, could kill us. Just because we now have the financial, technical, and scientific ability to maintain a space program is no guarantee that we will have it tomorrow.

And one day, we will either leave the planet or die. Wolfe thinks we’ve wasted the last 40 years. Without doubt, we are squandering a heaven-sent opportunity.  It is time for people to go to Mars.

Tempus fugit.

Some treasures surfaced during the week long celebration of Apollo XI.  For instance, here are the written transcripts of the entire flight.

Here is the digitally restored television image of our first step on an alien surface.

And here are two perceptive pieces published last week that are worth the read, the first by the former head of the European Space Agency, the second a book review of a new book about the space program.

Finally, here is Tom Wolfe’s entertaining and wise op-ed.

Cheating at the Grand Canyon, Part II

February 9, 2009
The "Flood" of 2008

The "Flood" of 2008

As we discussed last time, the Glen Canyon Dam, a/k/a the Damn Dam, has not been good for the Grand Canyon and many of its native inhabitants.  At the end of his long, distinguished career as a United States Senator, Barry Goldwater was asked what his biggest regret had been.  Without hesitating, Goldwater responded, “Voting for the Glen Canyon Dam.”

A Cottonwood drowned in Glen Canyon Photo by Eliot Porter

A Cottonwood drowned in Glen Canyon - Photo by Eliot Porter

Not only was Glen Canyon drowned, the interior of the Grand Canyon was neutered.  Seasonal floods no longer scoured its beaches, deposited life-giving nutrients in sediments; instead the absence of flooding allowed invasive species such as tamarisk to thrive, and extirpated at least four species of fish, with a fifth, the Humpback Chubb in grave danger. All the muskrats and river otters in the Grand Canyon died. At least eighty percent of the sediment that would normally deposit in the Canyon piles up behind the dam.  (It is that sediment that will eventually allow the river to overwhelm the Damn Dam.) The water that is released from the dam comes from the bottom of Lake Foul, er — Lake Powell; water which is cold.  Non-native fish thrive in the colder downstream water but the natives do not.

Lake Foul, er - Lake Powell

Lake Foul, er - Lake Powell

The water impounded behind the dam is released in a daily, fluctuating flow which can vary in amounts up to 15,000 cubic feet of water per second.  Known as MLFFs — no, not MILFs — MLFFs, “Modifed Low Fluctuating Flows” — these periodic releases of water from the dam are timed to provide the cheapest electricity possible for electrical customers in six states. It is these dam operations that endanger the fish, clog the beaches, and allow invasive species to thrive downstream in the Grand Canyon.  Natural periodic floods necessary to build beaches for native plants and animals and to spark seed germination have been eliminated by MLFFs.

There is an alternative, SASFs.  (Seasonally-Adjusted Steady Flows) Steady flows, while not affecting the total amount of water released, would avert, the worst affects of the dam.  But the hydro-power interests are opposed, believing that switching to steady flows would result in higher electrical costs. (A disputed matter.)

The Damn Dam is operated by the U.S. Bureau of Wrecklamation, a division of the Department of Interior.  In March of 2008, the Bureau ran a 60 hour high flow out of the dam.  The results of the experiment were clear: Beaches were rebuilt, tamarisk removed, and new sediment deposited.

Hance Rapid from the South rim - Grand Canyon

Hance Rapid from the South rim - Grand Canyon

But that is it for the next five years at least.  For the next five years daily flows will fluctuate based solely on the desires of the sellers of electricity. MLFFs are mandated until at least 2014.

The Grand Canyon Trust recently sued the Bureau of Reclamation because of this policy, alleging that it violates the Grand Canyon Protection Act, a law that requires the bureaucrats who operate the dam, to operate it in a manner which does not impair the Grand Canyon.   Barry Goldwater’s successor, Senator John McCain was one of the sponsors.  On the floor of the Senate, he said, “The erratic release of water from the dam to meet peak electric power demands [has] destroyed Colorado River beaches, and harmed other natural, cultural, and recreational resources.  Somewhere along the line, we forgot our obligation to the canyon and to [t]he future generations for whom we hold it in trust.  In response, I introduced the Grand Canyon Protection Act to reorder those priorities—to stop the damage and legally require the dam to be operated in a manner which will protect park resources.”

Finally, we get to the cheating.

The Department of Interior’s lawyers responded to the lawsuit, denying everything.  In the course of responding, those lawyers wrote briefs to the judge in the case and signed their names.  Lawyers are required to have both a subjective and an objective belief that court documents they sign are true.  Interior’s lawyers denied that MLFFs damage the Grand Canyon.  Never mind that the Fish and Wildlife Service of the same United States government concluded in 1994 that such flows are killing the chub.

Colorado River from the Escalante Trail - Grand Canyon

Colorado River from the Tanner Trail - Grand Canyon

The Superintendent of the Grand Canyon — Steve Martin — is not amused.  He wrote a memo which subsequently found its way into the public domain.  You can read the entire memo here, if you choose.  In the meantime, here is a summary.

Mr. Martin wrote to Mike Synder, the Intermountain Regional Director of the United States Department on Interior on January 15, 2009.  In the memo, Mr. Martin demolishes any idea that Interior’s lawyers were telling the truth in their court papers.  Noting that the court documents imply that the National Park Service — which operates the Grand Canyon — agrees with an environmental assessment holding that MLFFs don’t do any harm, Mr. Martin baldly writes, “. . .this is not true.”

The five-year experiment, “… will significantly impair Grand Canyon resources.”

The government’s brief as presented continues to misinterpret key scientific findings related to the humpback chub, status of downstream resources in Grand Canyon. . . Significant misinterpretations of our involvement, the scientific findings, the Grand Canyon Protection Act, Park Goals, and future program oversight are found throughout the document.”

The Environmental Assessment, according to Superintendent Martin, is based in a “lack of scientific veracity” that “continues to misinterpret key scientific findings related to the humpback chub [and the] status of downstream resources in the Grand Canyon”; fails to address National Park Service, “concerns that actions under the EA’s five-year plan would impair the resources of Grand Canyon”; and “falsely suggests that the NPS concurs with the five year plan.” Never, according to Superintendent Martin, did NPS agree to a five-year program that lacks more high flows and seasonal steady flows.

He concludes, “In short, this is perhaps the worst EA I have seen for an action of this importance.  The EA’s lack of alternatives, the mistreatment and disregard of science, the lack of public involvement, the signing of a FONSI amidst the controversy and unresolved issues — all these actions are in conflict with standard NPS management practices and constitute poor government in general.”

In other words, the government’s lawyers lied and the Department of Interior cheated.

Even Aristotle would not be amused.

For more information, here is the Grand Canyon Trust’s page about Colorado River water.

Cheating at the Grand Canyon, Part I

February 4, 2009


Aristotle famously held that women had fewer teeth than men.  But, despite being married twice, he never bothered to ask either of his wives to open their mouths and let him count.  In this instance, the recently concluded Bush Administration resembles Aristotle; dogmatically clinging to scientific ignorance, both refused to verify a cherished fantasy.

The chief difference?  Aristotle’s fancy was harmless.

Now that the Bush Administration has gone home, news of its wilful scientific ignorance is likely to begin flowing like rivers during Spring runoff.

Speaking of such runoff, they cheated at the Grand Canyon.

To see how, we’ll need to make quick stops for geology and legal refreshers.

Much of the snow melt on the western side of the Rocky Mountains ends up in the Colorado River.  For three million years or so that water cascaded unvexed to the ocean, cutting a channel into the uprising earth which we know as the Grand Canyon.  Every day and every year the river kept the bottom of the canyon clean and healthy.  From time to time, obstacles such as lava dams, would be thrown up in the way of the river but they never lasted long.  The river possessed immense power and immense loads of red earth. Put an obstacle in its way and the river mowed it down.  One such lava dam was more than 2,000 feet high.  The river got rid of it in three thousand years or so; a period of time which is, to a river existing in deep geologic time, like a 16th note in a Mozart symphony is to a musician.

But recently humanity came on the scene, evolved, and got the idea of building dams on the Colorado River.  The first, Hoover Dam, did not affect the Grand Canyon because it is too far downstream.

The Damn Dam

The Damn Dam

But the Glen Canyon Dam, a/k/a the Damn Dam, did. By creating a large pond, a/k/a Lake Powell, behind the dam and drowning the sublime Glen Canyon, humanity temporarily tamed the river, although it won’t last. It will take the river less time to destroy the man-made dam than it took to wipe out the monstrous lava dams. That’s assuming that Hayduke is really dead. Or that no one calls in an air strike first.

But for now the river is tamed, controlled by people who operate it to produce electricity and no longer able to scour the floor of the Grand Canyon.  Specifically, it is no longer allowed to flood in the spring and its daily fluctuations are timed solely for the convenience of power companies.

This has had and continues to have severe adverse ecological impact downstream of the Damn Dam.

Now for the law refresher.  Major projects undertaken by the government require environmental impact studies. No longer can the government fire up the bulldozers or turn off the flow of water down a riverbed without first studying the ecological impacts of the proposed actions or inactions.  Environmental assessments (EAs) must be performed. The assessments are supposed to be based on the best science available, unhindered by ideological interests.

But not in the Bush Administration’s Department of Interior, the one in which our government paid regulators were caught smoking dope and having sex with oil company representatives.  In that Department of Interior, business trumped science.

For instance, we have known for sometime now that the Grand Canyon needs the occasional flood.  The floods keep the river beaches clean, remove invasive plants trying to grow on those beaches, and keep the riverbed itself clean.  Innumerable plant and animal species in the Canyon need those floods.

Humpback Chub

Humpback Chub

One of those species is the lowly humpback chub, a fish species that lives no where else but the desert canyons of the Colorado and its tributaries.  No one really cares about Grand Canyon chubb, per se.  Especially evolved to thrive in white water rapids and swift currents, it is being extirpated in the Grand Canyon because the tamed Colorado is turned off and on at the Damn Dam solely for the convenience of power companies serving Phoenix and southern California.  Water is released at times of high human demand for electricity and slowed or stopped at times of low human demand,  the need of water for other beings usually not considered.

The chub, as a species is about three and a half million years old.  (For comparison, we are about a third as old.)  The chub grows, over its thirty year life span, to about 20 inches in size.  The chub’s body is highly streamlined with almost no scales.  Water is directed by the hump and dorsal fin enabling the fish to maintain its position in the swift currents of the Colorado. First listed by the Fish and Wildlife Service as endangered in 1964, it now has full protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Well, not quite, as we shall see next time.

Climate Change in the National Parks

January 16, 2009


Sitting on my desk is a brochure published by NASA and the National Park Service of the Department of the Interior of the official government of the United States of America.  Entitled, “Climate Change in the National Parks” it begins with this quote — in large italicized print — from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change:

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global sea level.

Open the brochure and you read, “Scientists tell us there is little doubt that human activities are having a major impact on the atmosphere and ecosystems of our planet.”

Carbon dioxide levels, this publication of the United States government tells us, are higher now than any time in the past 650,000 years.  And rising.

Carbon Dioxide Levels

Carbon Dioxide Levels

Higher temperatures in spring and summer bring earlier and faster runoffs and more frequent and more intense wild fires.  The pikas of Yosemite National Park are in danger of extinction because they have to keep moving higher to get to the cool microclimate they need to live.  Soon they’ll be at the top with no where else to go.  At Bandelier National Monument the temperatures coupled with a drought brought infestations of bark beetles which are slaughtering the trees.  In Yellowstone National Park pine beetles are killing whitebark pines whose seeds are a critical food source for the grizzly bears and birds.  At Joshua Tree National Monument the cool winters and freezing temperatures the trees need to flower and set their seeds are getting too warm for their survival and the Joshua trees that give the place its name are dying so fast there soon may be no more in the park.  The glaciers in Glacier National Park will be completely gone in 20 years.  Photographs of Muir Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park taken in 1941 and 2004 prove that the planet is melting.  Rising sea levels threaten the freshwater wetlands that are the Everglades National Park.

Muir Glacier Melting

Muir Glacier Melting

According to our own government climate change is real and humanity is, “. . . having a major impact on the atmosphere and ecosystems of our planet.”

Obviously, the brochure was published without the knowledge of Vice-president Cheney.

I leave you with a last quote from the brochure,

What is the use of a house, if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?

Henry David Thoreau


The brochure can be downloaded here.

NASA maintains two web sites about climate change here and here.

This Land is Your Land

January 12, 2009
Whose pot is that over there?  Pothole Point, Utah

Whose pot is that over there? Pothole Point, Utah

Here is how it works.  The men working for the oil and gas companies sit around their offices and conference rooms pouring over maps of your land. They’ve been carefully mapping your land for a long time now, with the help of your hired hand and your money.  After studying the maps of your land and wandering around on it, without your permission, they decide how much of its mineral and drilling rights they want to own.

Then they go to your hired man, the BLM, and tell him which parcels of your land they want to drill on. Like a loyal lap dog, the BLM obsequiously obliges and holds an auction so the oil company can buy your drilling rights. Usually, you don’t even know about the auction, which is a real auction with an auctioneer and a room full of men —  it’s always men —  with little paddles they raise when they want to bid.  And they do want to bid, because the prices for your rights are laughably low.  By any rational economic measure, the prices are so low they are fraudulent.  The hired help is really just giving away your drilling rights.
Oh yes, one other detail.  If you have the temerity to go to the auction and bid for your own rights, the BLM and the oil men will call the cops to escort you from the auction, accuse you of a crime, and try to get you indicted.  At best, you are confronted with huge legal expenses and, at worst, a federal judge who used to lawyer for the oil companies and who was appointed by the former oil man in the White House, will throw you in a federal prison.

Really.  The hired help is giving away the mineral and drilling rights to your land and, demanding that you go to jail if you try to stop them. Today’s Washington Post has the full story.

Reminds us of Woody Guthrie:

This land is your land,
This land is my land,
From California to the New York Island
From the redwood forests to the gulf stream waters
This land belongs to you and me.

In the squares of the city – In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office – I see my people
And some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’
If this land’s still made for you and me.

This land is your land,
This land is my land,
From California to the New York Island
From the redwood forests to the gulf stream waters
This land belongs to you and me.

The college student who bid on these drilling rights apparently upset a lot of people.  The New York Times covered the story the next day.

Here is a web site collecting small donations so the college student has the money to pay for the rights he bought.  Already the site has collected enough for the first payment due.

For more detail, see this post at the Fat Finch.

Here is the BLM site containing some of the maps you’ve paid for to help out the struggling oil companies.


A federal judge last week, temporarily stopped the entire sale.  The BLM, which would have deposited the checks from the sale yesterday and made the sale final and binding, was restrained from depositing the checks until it redoes its Environmental Impact Statement.  Given the change in presidential administrations today, there is some chance the sale will never happen.  What that will mean for the young college student threatened with prosecution remains to be seen.

The Eaters of Death

October 3, 2008

It is a fine thing to lie on your belly and watch Turkey Vultures soaring far beneath you.  1400 feet below me a plateau falls away into the canyons of the Colorado and the Green Rivers.  I am lying on hot sandstone and watching two vultures, a/k/a buzzards.  I had to lie down.  Otherwise vertigo might have sent me tumbling over the edge of the precipice and I lack wings. And I do not wish to feed those vultures.  Yet.  Someday perhaps, but not now.

I have come back to this cliff late in the day, hoping to watch the sunset alone.  But it is not to be.  A small group of people is already gathering for the evening talk by the astronomy ranger at Canyonlands National Park.  I had been here earlier in the day when the place was infested with bus loads of what Edward Abbey called “industrial tourists” meaning that they come to places like this only because of the paved roads and the internal combustion engine.  Finding solitude in our national parks can be a challenge, especially on top of the “Islands in the Sky” district of Canyonlands.  We are funneled to the best viewpoints and restricted to a single developed campground.  Tomorrow my backpacking buddy and I will escape them but, for tonight, here we are.

The Turkey Vultures don’t care. I suspect the only thing finer than to be lying on my belly — out of sight of the tourists and Gordon, the astronomy ranger — on hot sandstone watching them soar, is to be one.

For hours they ride the thermals.  For hours they soar without so much as twitching a wing.  Perfectly designed for flight, they fly perfectly.  Soon the afternoon thermals on which they soar will die and they will return to earth for another night. There are two of them and they probably roost somewhere in the cliff below me.

They are the eaters of death.  Where ever death on the desert happens, they arrive to help clean it.  They are perfectly evolved for that as well.  Featherless heads and necks have evolved to enable them to dive into carrion without trapping all that bacteria in their feathers. So acute is their sense of smell that they can smell death from thousands of feet above it.  Their olfactory organ is larger than that of Andean and Californian Condors. Even certain mushrooms attract them because of their odor.  They leave the scent glands of skunks alone when they feast on a dead skunk. Apparently that smell is worse than death.

The same backpacking friend and I once came upon one in the middle of a narrow desert road.  It refused to move for the auto bearing down on it.  It was pulling what we first took to be a long stick across the road.  That was a puzzler.  Why would a buzzard be interested in a stick?  As we got closer we realized it was a dead snake.  No way was that bird going to allow that metal contraption to deprive it of its dinner.  We stopped the car and waited.

We humans, aware of the long term consequences of death and worried about it, often think of vultures as ugly.  This is a defect in our perception.  Perfection, in all its forms, is beautiful and so are they.

If you don’t believe me, spend an hour or so watching one soar.