Friday, December 27, 2013

Pater: the wild cucumber...

Pater: the wild cucumber...  The photo at right is from our July, 2005 trip to the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.  Debbie, my dad, and I were there for several days with two of our field spaniels: Lea (at left) and Mo'i (at right).  Both of them are still with us.  My dad particularly enjoyed Mo'i's antics as he tried so hard to catch one of the pikas that live in rock piles and talus slopes.  Only once did Mo'i actually get one in his mouth – only to lose it as it wriggled free.  In this photo, Lea and Mo'i are splashing across a wet area, white marsh marigolds all around them, and behind them a patch of one of my dad's favorite flowers: Parry's Primrose.
The wild cucumber...

On one of my dad's visits with us, not long after we moved out to Lawson Valley, he and I took a couple of our dogs on a walk up a little-traveled dirt road that leads uphill for a mile or so from our house.  It was the first time he and I had ever walked together in the southern California chaparral, and at that point most of the plants around me were new to me.  I knew the manzanitas and the ceanothus, but most of the rest I did not.

My dad's main body of botanical knowledge was not of this area, but he certainly knew a lot more of the plants than I did.  He recognized the lemonade berry as a sumac, he knew the toyon, and he recognized the many buckwheat species we have here.  Some of our plants, such as chamise, were completely new to him; others, like our evergreen oaks, he knew but not well.  As usual, my dad kept spotting more and more plants that I'd never even noticed before.  And as always, I learned a lot from him in a very short time.

As we came around one bend, there was a ceanothus right next to the road.  It was covered thickly with a vine in bloom (like the photo at right, which is not mine).  My dad said “What have we got here?”  I told him that the locals called it a wild cucumber, which he dismissed as utter nonsense.  That was most definitely not a cucumber!

I have a clear memory of my dad standing next to that ceanothus, carefully studying the vine.  Then he spied something on the ground – the remains of last year's seed pod from the same vine, the dried up spiky thing as at left (also not my photo).  “Ah ha!” said he, “This is a Marah, a manroot!”  To which I said something brilliant like “Huh?  What are you talking about?”

If you knew my dad, then you know what came next: a long and detailed lecture on the natural history of the Marah species, absolutely none of which I had previously known.  I don't know if he had ever actually seen one before.  They certainly didn't grow in the wild on the east coast, nor are they used in horticulture, so it's not the sort of plant you'd expect my dad to know about.  I suspect something about it caught his fancy, and he'd read up on the Marah species at some point.  It may have been the plant's root that interested him, because he knew a lot about it.

My dad didn't know the particular species he was looking at, but I've since identified it as Marah fabaceus.  He did, however, know all about the gigantic roots of these plants – and the evolutionary advantage that root conferred on it.  My dad said that the roots could grow to be “as large as a man”, both in height and weight.  The photo of one such root is at right (not mine, again).  My subsequent reading backs that up: the largest Marah fabaceus root ever dug up weighed just over 110 kg (242 lbs) and was almost 3 m (9 ft) tall.  That's a lot of root!  And it's a lot of food and water storage for the plant.  The water storage is particularly important in a desert plant, and it allows the Marah family to thrive where you might not expect a perennial vine to do well.  They are very common here; on our 10 acres we have hundreds of them.  Water storage in the roots is a common trait amongst desert flora, but somehow I didn't expect to find that in a perennial vine.

My dad also said that the local native Americans made use of the plant, and that it had something to do with fishing.  He was fuzzy on the details.  It was many years later that I found a reference to the Kumeyaay tribe (the tribe our local Cuyamaca Mountains were named after) using Marah fabaceus to catch fish.  On researching this post, I discovered that bit of natural history is now also in the Wikipedia article.  My dad loved to read natural history books, especially older ones; I suspect he came across this little factoid in one of those.

A few years after that walk with my dad, I was using a small backhoe to dig a trench in our yard to lay some pipe in.  In the side of my trench I spotted a large root – and I recalled seeing a Marah fabaceus there the year before.  The one I dug out was perhaps 3 ft high, and weighed about 60 or 70 lbs. – not a giant (and therefore not particularly old), but still pretty respectable for a plant whose above-ground parts can't weigh more than 8 or 10 lbs.

This morning, while walking our dogs, I spotted a Marah fabaceus vine wending its way up the trunk of one of our pines.  The highest stalks of the vine were well over my head, perhaps 10 ft up.  Seeing that vine instantly brought back that memory of my dad, lecturing me on the natural history of Marah as we walked slowly up that road by our house.  Those sorts of triggered memories are happening to me a lot.  Sometimes, as this morning, they're emotionally intense – a trigger for more grieving.  This morning, two of our dogs put an abrupt end to that, and in a way that I know would have greatly amused my dad: Miki (our youngest male field spaniel) lifted his leg to pee – and peed all over Race's tail (Race is our hyperactive border collie).  My dad loved the couthlessness of dogs, and I laughed out loud thinking of how he'd enjoy that little scene.  I had to go wash Race off with a garden hose, but I came in from our walk with a smile instead of a heavy heart...

Mount St. Helens photos found, 33 years later...

Mount St. Helens photos found, 33 years later...  Reid Blackburn was one of the unfortunate people killed when Mount St. Helens surprised everybody by exploding on May 18, 1980.  A few weeks before the explosion, he was taking photos from an airplane flying around the mountain.  That roll of film (yes, kiddies, we could take photos before there were digital cameras!) was set aside, undeveloped, and forgotten after his death.  Until recently, when the film was discovered in an old storage box and finally developed.  The entire set of photos doesn't seem to be online yet, but there's one example at right, and some more at the link...

A fine Christmas rant...

A fine Christmas rant...  Clark Bianco, writing at Popehat, has a rant that needs to be savored slowly, so as to extract every last morsel of rantly goodness.  His conclusion will give you the general idea, but you really need to read the whole thing to generate that wholesome after-rant glow:
It is corrupt, corrupt, corrupt. From Ted Kennedy who killed a woman and yet is toasted as a "lion of liberalism", to George Bush who did his share of party drugs (and my share, and your share, and your share…) while young yet let other youngsters rot in jail for the exact same excesses instead of waving his royal wand of pardoning, to thousand of well-paid NSA employees who put the Stasi to shame in their ruthless destruction of our rights, to the Silicon Valley CEOs who buy vacation houses with the money they make forging and selling chains to Fort Meade, to every single bastard at RSA who had a hand in taking the thirty pieces of silver, to the three star generals who routinely screw subordinates and get away with it (even as sergeants are given dishonorable discharges for the same thing), to the MIT cops and Massachusetts prosecutor who drove Aaron Swartz to suicide, to every drug court judge who sends 22 year olds to jail for pot…while high on Quaalude and vodka because she's got some fucking personal tragedy and no one understands her pain, to every cop who's anally raped a citizen under color of law, to every other cop who's intentionally triggered a "drug" dog because the guy looked guilty, to every politician who goes on moral crusades while barebacking prostitutes and money laundering the payments, to every teacher who retired at age 60 on 80% salary, to every cop who has 50 state concealed carry even while the serfs are disarmed, to every politician, judge, or editorial-writer who has ever used the phrase "first amendment zone" non-ironically: this is how the system is designed to work.

The system is not fixable because it is not broken. It is working, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to give the insiders their royal prerogatives, and to shove the regulations, the laws, and the debt up the asses of everyone else.

Burn it to the ground.

Burn it to the ground.

Burn it to the ground.

Merry Christmas.

From the San Diego Union-Tribune...

From the San Diego Union-Tribune...   This would apply equally to those who, like us, are seeking escape from the Nanny State of the West.  We're taking I-15.  How about you?

First, read the cartoon...

First, read the cartoon...  As always, click on the thumbnail to embiggen.  Now think about this: it was drawn almost 20 years ago.

We pretend to teach, they pretend to learn...

We pretend to teach, they pretend to learn...  That's the title – and the short version – of this insider's view of our higher education system today.  Professor Geoffrey Collier hits many of my favorite concerns, including (most especially) the credentialist culture.  A sample of his essay:
Education thus has degenerated into a game of "trap the rat," whereby the student and instructor view each other as adversaries. Winning or losing is determined by how much the students can be forced to study. This will never be a formula for excellence, which requires intense focus, discipline and diligence that are utterly lacking among our distracted, indifferent students. Such diligence requires emotional engagement. Engagement could be with the material, the professors, or even a competitive goal, but the idea that students can obtain a serious education even with their disengaged, credentialist attitudes is a delusion.

The professoriate plays along because teachers know they have a good racket going. They would rather be refining their research or their backhand than attending to tedious undergraduates. The result is an implicit mutually assured nondestruction pact in which the students and faculty ignore each other to the best of their abilities. This disengagement guarantees poor outcomes, as well as the eventual replacement of the professoriate by technology. When professors don't even know your name, they become remote figures of ridicule and tedium and are viewed as part of a system to be played rather than a useful resource. 

To be fair, cadres of indefatigable souls labor tirelessly in thankless ignominy in the bowels of sundry ivory dungeons. Jokers in a deck stacked against them, they are ensnared in a classic reward system from hell. 

More legislators – just what we need!

More legislators – just what we need!  At least, that's what John Cox thinks – he wants to overhaul California's legislative branch, including increasing the number of legislators from 120 to over 12,000.  There's one part of his idea that I like: cutting the legislator's salary from $95,000 to $1,000, but that's still far more than they're worth...