Thursday, April 26, 2007

Article: The day the world smiled

Sunday was Earth Day.

Despite the promising weather forecast, a relentless drizzle leaked from the sky starting around noon. I stood with my horse while a neighbor took photos of her twin grandchildren petting Chesapeake’s enormous nose. The daughter and her offspring were visiting from San Francisco, she explained, the grandkids had never seen a horse before. Chessie stood quietly while they held the toddlers up to brush their tiny fingers along her broad blaze. I wondered sadly how many years it would be until they had their next encounter with livestock.

By the time the photo-op concluded, I had reached a conclusion. Forecast or no forecast, this was actual rain and it was not likely to let up soon. I gave up on the idea of an afternoon ride and returned Chessie to her pasture. I think we were both disappointed.

In my opinion Earth Day should be celebrated outside. I didn’t have formal plans. I’m not a social person so I eschew organized gatherings. With 6.5 billion people on the planet, I figure my physical presence isn’t needed. From the shelter of the back porch I looked across the jungle taking over our yard. Looked above the deep green of the juniper in the back pasture. Looked through the mist cascading gently from the infinite blanket of clouds. It seemed to me that the earth was sad and it reminded me of a poem:

Laugh and the world laughs with you
Weep and you weep alone
For the sad old earth
Must borrow its mirth
But has trouble enough of its own
______________Ella Wheeler Wilcox

The dismal sky seemed to reflect the troubles of the planet. The Earth gets a single day each year to celebrate--same as cousins (July 24th) and reptile awareness (Oct. 21st), same as the American flag (June 14th) and grandparents (1st Sunday after Labor Day). All of these things are important and they all share, as everything about humanity does, a dependence on the Earth. So it seems our planet deserves at least a week.

I entered the house to find my husband watching a video. I sat down with him. Turning my attention to the TV. I saw Al Gore presenting a slide show on global warming. Rick and I both saw “An Inconvenient Truth” in the theater. I often think that the only reason he cares anything about the environment is because he’s married to me. As the video neared its end, Rick remarked that he’d caught a lot of things in the second viewing that he hadn’t noticed the first time.

While watching the movie seemed a suitable pastime for the planet’s special day, it did not improve my mood. It again reminded me again of the poem and the troubles that plague the Earth.

I switched the TV over to the Discovery Channel. They were having a marathon of their new series Planet Earth. I’d never seen it but had heard good things. While the video is at times spectacular, I couldn’t tolerate the inane narration. How many times can they fit the phrase “Planet Earth” in their descriptions?

Unmotivated, I sat down at my computer and stared at the monitor. I still have a lot of work to do repairing my dad’s photos but I didn’t feel like doing it. I found myself browsing randomly. Eventually I stumbled upon a series of photos I took in April of 2004. 2004 was the last good year for wildflowers and these photos showed the diversity that grew on our property that year.

The photos reminded me that under the gloomy sky, bluebonnets are blooming again. And there are other wildflower plants just waiting for the right moment to show their colors. I know I’m not doing everything I can to save the planet. I’m probably not doing everything I should. But at least I’m preserving something on this little plot of land. Each year we loose a little as we become more hemmed in by development, but this Spring, the wildflowers are returning.

I smiled a little thinking of that. Maybe the Earth smiled with me.

Photo: Bluebonnets in my front pasture in the Spring of 2004.Photo: Cat claw is one of my favorite flowers. They look like purple powderpuffs with yellow tips.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Article: Book backlog

Like many people, I find there are a lot of things I don’t have enough time to do. I don’t get around even to things I really like, never mind the endless list of tasks that I don’t like. This predicament became apparent when a friend lent me a book. He’d gotten two books and said he’d read one and I’d read the other, then we could swap so that we’d both read both books. I didn’t want to agree because I haven’t had any time to read lately but when I saw the books he’d selected, I couldn’t resist.

I dropped the copy of “Infidel,” an autobiography by Ayaan Hirsi Ali on the backseat in my car. I’d seen the author on one of the late night comedy talk shows and her story struck me as fascinating. Born a Muslim in Somalia, she later became an atheist and a member of the Dutch parliament. How could I not want to read about that transformation? Yet the book remained in the car, untouched. Each day, I would see it lying there, waiting to be read.

The problem isn’t just that I don’t have time to read. Compounding that issue, there are a whole slew of books ahead of “Infidel” on my reading list. I don’t want to read them more than I want to read “Infidel,” but neither do I want to read them less. And some have been sitting on my desk or coffee table or bookshelf for a long time. I can’t just take the johnny-come-lately book and advance it to the top of the stack.

My daughter, who is a linguist, gave me an intriguing book for the winter holiday titled “The Language Instinct.” If I read that, maybe I’ll understand what’s she’s talking about better. Even without that carrot to entice me, the subject is something I’m interested in. When I was getting my degree in computer science, I studied a lot about artificial intelligence and natural language parsing. I know what an intractable problem language is. I’d love to learn about it from a linguistics vantage.

I also committed to read and review a book a friend of mine is writing. I’ve read about half of “Comancheria” and really liked it. But when Darrell gave me the second half, I was caught up in another project and set the book aside until I could finish that. I’m still not done with the other project and Darrell’s book calls forlornly from the coffee table where it sits even as I write this. Reviewing a book is more time consuming than simple reading though and I need to set aside a block of time to really do it justice. Maybe next week.

Last weekend I decided to take action on this backlog of books. I went to my shelf and pulled out the book that had been waiting the longest. I sat myself down and started reading. The book is “Eldest” by Christopher Paolini. It’s the sequel to his first novel, “Eragon.” Paolini wrote “Eragon” when he was fifteen years old, a formidable feat. I read it a couple of years ago and it was pretty good. Then I saw the movie version which was terrible. It took all the bad parts of the book, the parts that gave away the author’s age and immaturity, and coalesced them. Not a good idea. Still I wanted to give “Eldest” a chance. That has proved to be another bad idea but I’m going to stick it out to the end.

A package came from my sister-in-law Cherilyn this week. Guess what, it’s a book. “The China Study” presents a comprehensive review of diet and nutrition as revealed by a study of 6,500 people in China. It also promises to discuss western politics and its influence on nutrition. That does sound interesting. I placed it prominently on my desk where I will see it each day. Some day, hopefully some day soon, I’ll get around to reading it.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Article: Giants of Los Llanos

My younger brother had a room full of snakes when we were kids. Our mom struggled against this at first. Rules were well defined: small species only, nothing poisonous and all animals securely caged. Stephen broke all of these rules at one time or another. I can still remember the look on Mom’s face when she asked him if his “water boa” wasn’t the same thing as an anaconda. It would have broken his heart to give up Annie, as he called the snake, but luckily Mom wasn’t as good at enforcing rules as she was at making them.

One of the goals of my recent trip to Venezuela was an encounter with a giant snake in the wild. As my brother’s euphemism implied, anacondas live in the water, including the vast marshes of Los Llanos. This is one of the best places to view the largest of the anaconda species, the green anaconda (Eunectes murinus). Even so, cruising around Los Llanos in a small boat, or even driving along the raised dirt roads that serve as levies, you’re not likely to see one. But you can easily spot both their predators and their prey.

The most obvious item on the anaconda menu is the capybara. It makes sense that the world’s largest snake would eat the world’s largest rodent. You can’t expect a snake weighing in the hundreds of pounds to be content with a rat. Capybaras look like enormous, big-headed, coarse-furred, web-toed guinea pigs. The males top out at around 140 lbs, a good meal for even a large female anaconda. The smaller female capybaras provide tasty treats for the smaller male anacondas or for juveniles.

It is impossible not to notice the large numbers of caiman sharing the water with the capybara. The caiman are not as large as many crocodilians, generally smaller than six or seven feet in length. While anacondas of all sizes consume appropriately proportioned caiman, the converse is also true: caiman eat appropriately proportioned anacondas. I guess they probably resort to this mutual predation when they get bored of an endless diet of capybara.

Another giant shares the swamps of Los Llanos, the Orinoco crocodile (Crocodylus intermedius). These large crocodiles reach fifteen feet and are much bulkier and have nastier looking teeth than their caiman cousins. They look like caiman on steroids. Since there are so few left in the wild, it’s not easy to determine who is predator and who prey in their interaction with the anacondas.

Surprisingly, I found my first anaconda at a crocodile breeding station. It was actually in an enclosure with several large crocodiles. We strained to see it through the dense vegetation. It appeared to be sleeping. Our guide pointed to a place where a circular opening had been made in the wire mesh allowing the anaconda, a regular visitor, easy access. Even though the snake was free to go, this hardly fulfilled my dream of a wild anaconda spotting.

About a week later in another part of Los Llanos, we came across an anaconda basking in the evening sun. The snake was only seven or eight feet long, typical size for a male. I snapped several photos and then posed with the snake after capture. It didn’t seem particularly large or dangerous. When released, it took its time sliding its heavy body into the tall grass.

I guess I expected more from my wild anaconda experience. It was great seeing how they live and everything but, well, Annie was only a little smaller and a lot more vicious than her wild con-specific. Our guide had insisted that only he was qualified to catch the wild anaconda yet, in one of those common breaches of the rules, even my mom caught Annie when she escaped from her cage one time when Stephen and I weren’t home.

Photo: Green anaconda at Hato El FioPhoto: Coral, Philip and me holding the 7' anaconda we saw at Hato El Frio
Photo: Capybara family swiming
Photo: Male capybara at water's edge
Photo: Coral with one of the Orinoco crododiles that was in the enclosure with the anaconda.
Photo: Head of an Orinoco crocodile. This one attacked Coral but luckily couldn't get through the fence.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Article: Making maché

I’ve always wanted to do papier-mâché. I don’t know why. And I don’t know why I had never have until this year. It was on my life list but apparently very close to the bottom. Still, this year I decided to cross it off. To that end, I enlisted the help of my eight year old granddaughter, Celeste.

To implement my plan, I bought a couple of books on papier-mâché and gave them to Celeste for the winter holiday. On New Year’s Day Celeste and I poured through the books and picked a project. I wanted to make a cute little snake but Celeste is more of a cat person. Since the books and the project were nominally her gift and not just a thinly disguised excuse for me fulfilling a life-long dream, the cat project won out.

I had the necessary items available: newspaper, plastic bags, masking tape, flour, salt and water. Plus a plastic tablecloth, a true essential for such a messy project. Celeste soon bored of ripping strips of newspaper. I should have done that the day before. But she loved picking out shreds of wrapping paper from the holiday festivities to stuff into our cat. Never mind that the shiny remainders would never be seen again, it was still important to use the prettiest pieces.

After plumping the bags and taping them together, it was time to apply the papier-mâché. At first Celeste enjoyed wrapping strips of dripping wet flour-covered newspaper on our creation. She’s a clean kid though and eventually decided she didn’t like getting her hands wet and gooey. Plus, we had to admit that our cat did not look like the cats in the book. In fact, our cat did not look like a cat at all.

Since the papier-mâché had to dry, we couldn’t complete the project on the same day. Philip assured me they would return on the weekend so Celeste and I could paint our creation. Things being as they are, that didn’t happen. And it didn’t happen the next weekend. Or the next month. Or the month after that. Everyone is so busy these days that we didn’t get to work on the cat again until last weekend.

April 1st is a long way from January 1st but luckily the kitchen table wasn’t used during that entire time. The project was exactly where we left it. All it needed was paint. We eyed the “cat” warily. It didn’t seem possible that a thin veneer of color would transform the shapeless blob into something recognizable. Still, we picked up our brushes and set to work.

Celeste chose baby blue as the base color. As we worked it became apparent that neither of us has much talent at painting. Still, we persisted. Transformed by a uniform shade of blue, our monster was still not a cat. We needed a pattern. I voted for tiger stripes but again Celeste’s suggestion--colorful flowers--won out. I painted the outlines and Celeste filled them in.

After our work was completed, no one was more surprised than the two of us that the cat actually looked like a cat--and it was kind-of cute! Our first papier-mâché project proved a success. Celeste hasn’t taken it home yet because we still have to paint the bottom. I hope that doesn’t take another three months because I’m hyped about starting a new project. I think I can convince Celeste to do a snake this time.

One success and I am hooked on papier-mâché. I wish I didn’t have to rely on an eight year old for an alibi but wouldn’t it seem lame for a person my age to take up such a silly hobby? I don’t think I’m old enough to claim senility. That might undermine my position as Director of Engineering if word got out at work.

To make your own cat use: Papier-mâché for Kids by Sheila McGraw

Photo: Celeste on New Year's Day with our incipient cat.
Photo: Celeste applying base color to the cat.
Photo: Me and Celeste painting the cat's pattern.
Photo: The eyes are the most important part. Celeste made them a shiny green.
Photo: Nearly done! Cat and artist pose together.