Time travel in west Texas

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Sunrise out of the cabin

Ever since reading The Time Machine as a teenager, I, like most people, have wondered about time travel. And despite annoying naysaying from logicians and physicists, it still seems like an intriguing idea.

Wolf spider

Wolf spider

Susan and I just spent a week in far west Texas, where we experienced something like time travel. We stayed in a cabin in a caldera near Fort Davis. Other than a barbed wire fence, a single electric line, and a narrow, rutted dirt road there were no signs of human habitation––no other buildings, no cell service, no flights overhead.

An astute rancher might have pointed out that the male cattle were steers, not bulls, and that the cattle and many turkeys around were probably being raised for market. Closer inspection would reveal that there were some planted trees, both for shade and for pecans, but on the whole the impression was of desert isolation.

In this land the people are hard to find, but we could see yucca, sotol, ocotillo, prickly pear, sagebrush, mesquite, live oak, and uncountable wildflowers. We saw buzzards, mockingbirds, huge spiders, whitetail and mule deer. These living friends were framed by gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, and unbelievable cloud formations.

(Reconstructed) Fort Davis from 1854

1854 Fort Davis (reconstructed)

This all made me think of my early days in Fort Worth. We lived then in the new suburbs on the edge of ranchland. In our childhood explorations we could find tarantulas and horned toads, tumbleweeds and cockleburs, scorpions and butterflies. The land seemed to stretch forever into remoteness and romance. When we looked up we could see the Milky Way and thousands of stars.

Fort Davis felt like that Fort Worth of long ago. The contentious Presidential race was irrelevant. The old cashier at the local market wanted to share interesting stories rather than to ring up grocery items. The buildings and houses looked like stage props for an old Western, until you realized that they were still in use, probably by the same family that settled here a century or two ago.

Rhyolite porphyry in fantastic shapes from volcanoes 35 million years ago

Rhyolite porphyry in fantastic shapes from volcanoes 35 million years ago

Fort Davis itself lies at the base of a rhyolite cliff, the south side of the caldera, or box canyon, that held our cabin. With just a few steps we could reach the path to climb the cliff shown above. Without realizing it, we zoomed even further back in time, to an era of intense volcanic activity, which created the Davis Mountains. The rhyolite columns, tuff and pumice, volcanic peaks and domes, took us entirely away from the human world.

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope at the UT McDonald Observatory

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope at the UT McDonald Observatory (from mcdonaldobservatory.org)

But not long after that we learned what time travel could really be. We went to the nearby University of Texas McDonald Observatory, which takes advantage of the clear mountain air.

Among many projects at McDonald is the Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment (HETDEX). This seeks to uncover the secrets of dark energy, using the large Hobby-Eberly Telescope and to survey the sky 10x faster than other facilities can do. It will eventually create the largest map of the Universe ever, with over a million galaxies. In doing so, HETDEX will look back in time 10 billion years.

If there is anything more amazing than the mind-stretching that Fort Davis does, it is that the area is so little visited. In addition to the sites mentioned above, there is a state park with numerous hiking trails, the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center and Botanical Gardens, interesting towns such as Alpine and Marfa, and the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool, under the trees at Balmorhea State Park, which takes one back to the wonderful CCC projects of the 1930s.

 

A football field every 45 minutes

Isle de Jean Charles

Isle de Jean Charles

John D. Sutter’s column ‘There’s no more land’ struck home for me about global warming and sea level rise.

It’s not that Sutter offers new data or analysis on sea level rise per se. There is plenty of that already. For example, Dahr Jamail’s excellent recent summary ‘Climate disruption in overdrive: Submerged cities and melting that “feeds on Itself”‘ is enough to ruin whatever you might imagine could be a good day. It starts with this

the planet is warming a stunning 50 times faster than when it comes out of an ice age. The implications of the rapidity of this warming, for those who care to digest it emotionally, are horrifying…. even if carbon reduction targets are achieved and the planet’s temperature is kept below the 2 degree Celsius warming threshold, sea-level rise will still inundate major coastal cities around the world, forcing one-fifth of the total world population of humans to migrate away from the coasts.

and goes downhill from there.

But Sutter shows what dreary statistics can mean for ordinary lives:

Isle de Jean Charles, the mostly French-speaking, Native American community where Billiot [Wenceslaus Billiot, an 88-year-old born on the island] lives, once was about the size of Manhattan. Now, it’s about a third of Central Park.

The coastal island has lost 98% of its land since 1955.

And what’s left is going fast.

“I don’t know how long we’re going to stay here,” Billiot told me.

“If a hurricane comes, we’re wide open.

“There’s no more land.”

The island is losing a football field chunk of land every 45 minutes. Also see Lauren Zanolli’s ‘Louisiana’s vanishing island: the climate ‘refugees’ resettling for $52m’.

I’ve never been to Isle de Jean Charles, but have traveled in that area just south of New Orleans. Susan and I once camped in a tent at Grand Isle State Park. We feasted on Gulf shrimp we bought directly off a trawler. It’s a rare and magical place to visit.

The website for the island/town says:

For the people of Isle de Jean Charles, the island is more than simply a place to live. It is the epicenter of our people and traditions. It is where our ancestors cultivated what has become a unique part of Louisiana culture. Today, the land that has sustained us for generations is vanishing before our eyes.  Our tribal lands are plagued with a host of environmental problems — coastal erosion, lack of soil renewal, oil company and government canals, and a rising sea level — which are threatening our way of life on this gradually shrinking island.

The land’s beauty is enhanced by the feeling of its impermanence, whether because of hurricanes or natural changes in estuaries and dunes. If I were typesetting the island, I’d look for a wispy font with a small type size.

Isle de Jean Charles

Bayous and estuaries south of New Orleans

But the fact of the impermanence has now been written in 96 point bold by the actions of humans rapidly destroying the land. Channeling the river, adding dams and levees, drilling for and transporting oil, developing resort communities, and other activities have all played their part, but stronger hurricanes and sea level rise are the final blows.

Our politicians seem happy to stay in blissful ignorance of all this (see ‘In their own words: 2016 presidential candidates on climate change’). Republican leaders are actually in denial and Democrats make tepid statements without programs for meaningful change. Naomi Klein writes that to make those changes, “some powerful interests will have to lose”:

A president willing to inflict these losses on fossil-fuel companies and their allies needs to be more than just not actively corrupt. That president needs to be up for the fight of the century—and absolutely clear about which side must win. Looking at the Democratic primary, there can be no doubt about who is best suited to rise to this historic moment.

For Klein, Bernie Sanders is the one best suited for that rise. But could anyone who stands up to the fossil-fuel companies ever be elected President? More importantly, could they stand up to the fossil fuel users, meaning us?

To win “the fight of the century” many more people need to connect the larger processes of human-induced climate change to the particulars of places like Isle de Jean Charles, and further, to connect that to the choices we make about lifestyle and to what we value.

Wildlife in Wellfleet

White fox, Truro, by Desmond  Tetrault

White fox, Truro, by Desmond Tetrault

We’re fortunate in Wellfleet to have frequent interactions with wildlife.

We’ve always had many birds around the house, but are now likely to have more since we just set up a bird feeder. Even though it’s late in the season, some chickadees and American goldfinches have been happy to discover that. The goldfinches seem like a different species from the bright yellow ones we saw in the spring mating season.

Birds that live near the water here, such as loons, mergansers, gulls, and gannets have also been feasting. Last week the water temperature dropped suddenly, resulting in the stunning of many small fish. The birds were happy to scoop up the unexpected bounty, so they’re very visible near shallow waters.

Blurry fox, Wellfleet marina

Blurry fox, Wellfleet marina

A more unusual visitor is the white fox. We know of two now, one residing in Wellfleet and one in Provincetown. We saw the Wellfleetian at the pier last night. It was as interested in us as we were in it. The quick smartphone photo doesn’t show much, but at least you can see that the eyes are not red as they would be for an albino fox. This condition is called leucistic. See also A fox of a different color in Provincetown – Gate House.

Turtle rescue at Mass Audubon

Turtle rescue at Mass Audubon

The same cold snap that stunned the fish and pleased the birds was a disaster for the sea turtles. Hundreds of turtles in Cape Cod Bay have been washed ashore. Most are endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles or leatherback turtles, and one is the largest loggerhead turtle ever to come ashore in Massachusetts (300 pounds, 3 feet long). About a thousand have been rescued and taken to the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, and later to the Animal Care Center in Quincy.

Sharing science across generations

In my last post I talked about an intergenerational reading experience. The day after that occurred, I had an intergenerational science experience when I attended the 12th Annual State of Wellfleet Harbor Conference.

The Harbor conference is always interesting, moving smoothly between very local issues in Wellfleet Harbor to regional issues in Cape Cod and New England, and on to global issues, especially those related to human activity, such as global warming, sea level rise, pollution, and decreasing biodiversity.

The presentations and posters dealt with a wide variety of topics: river herring spawning migration, including transponder tracking, training robots to assess landscape change in the Herring River floodplain, shellfish for nitrogen mitigation, horseshoe crab conservation, modeling sea level rise and vegetation change, ocean sunfish strandings, eel monitoring, restoring the Mayo Creek salt marshes, diamondback terrapin nesting, among others.

Although the sessions were diverse, there was a common theme of restoration, going from “How can we assess the damage?” to “How bad will it get?” to “Is there anything that can be done?” It was depressing to see the many ways that we’ve destroyed a beautiful habitat, even one that is supposedly protected by the National Seashore. On the other hand the efforts at restoration are impressive and may at least provide information about what not to do in the future. There was discussion of plans to restore Herring River and Mayo Creek, salt marshes, and many individual species of sea life. If these restoration projects are to succeed they need to involve a large public of all ages, not just a few scientists.

The conference was a delight to attend, even more so since most of the topics related to areas easily accessible by walking or paddling from our home. For example, we’ve seen the amazing ocean sunfish stranded on Mayo Beach only ten walking minutes from home and friends have encountered live ones while kayaking just offshore.

Aside from presenting an opportunity to learn about many topics, the conference was another good example of an intergenerational experience. Presenters included college students and volunteers of all ages. The audience was diverse as well, with some who remember well times long before the National Seashore was created.

One of the presentations was by Nauset Regional High about their own research in collaboration with the Wellfleet and Truro fifth grades. It was the first time to have K-12 presenters at the conference. The students wanted to compare oyster growth and mortality in Herring River and Mayo Creek. An interesting question for their study is that the streams experience tidal variation and high salinity at their outlets, but vary to mostly fresh water higher up: Would oysters be able to survive and thrive away from the sea? Each group of students measured and marked a set of ten oysters. There were five bags for different locations on the Herring River and three for Mayo Creek. The young scientists left each bag with oysters for six weeks, then collected it and re-measured the oysters.

The students learned some of the challenges of field science. For example, one of the oyster bags was missing when they went back to collect it. Valerie Bell, the environmental science teacher at the high school, asked the audience almost as a joke, “if you come across a bag like this can you give us a call?” To my amazement, someone in the back called out that they had in fact found the bag. It must have broken from its mooring and floated with the tide to another location. It was a small thing, but a nice example of community science in action.

Dink Starns and the Explorer Post Book List

Dink Starns was one of my Explorer Post leaders, including during the time of the 1963 Quetico trip. He was a big influence on my life and I was sad to hear that he has just passed away.

Dink worked for a publishing company and led the way on our 52 books project. We would identify 52 books for the coming year, which were important to read, would be of interest to adolescent boys, and were all available in paperback. Dink would bring in a copy of each for a display. We then had a program in which people talked about the books they knew. It was an unusual activity for an Explorer Post, and a novel way to increase interest in reading.

Here is one of the lists, probably from 1963, formatted as we saw it then. Each year would be different, although some books would have multiple appearances.The choices ranged from classics that we should have read, but hadn’t, to books that seemed risqué at the time, such as Fanny Hill or the Communist Manifesto.

Skimming the list below, your eyes might pass over Mutiny on Bounty. But that was significant. The remake of the Mutiny on the Bounty film had been released in 1962. It was based on the popular novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. Those of us who had read that book or seen the movie knew all about the evil Captain William Bligh. The selection below is Bligh’s own account, which tells a quite different story, and caused us to ask those fundamental questions: What is the truth? How can we know?. Reading Bligh was a much better introduction to critical reading than some didactic programs that lead students down a prescribed path in an ironically uncritical fashion.

This particular list has selections from the Bible (Ecclesiastes), from ancient Greeks (Plutarch, Plato), and modern classics (Hugo, Kipling, Shaw). There are books by atheists and devout believers. There was a fairly good representation of international perspectives, given that all the books had to be in English. Some books might not rank high on quality or message, but they could get boys to read. Some were school classics, but many were read in school only when they could be safely hidden behind a large history or math book.

Books that seem non-controversial today brought a frisson at the time and place. The Ugly American, written just a few years earlier, called into question the patriotism that led to the Vietnam War and a boom to the Fort Worth economy dependent on an air force base and airplane and helicopter manufacture. To Kill a Mockingbird was not just a good story; it was a challenge to the prevailing racism in a city that thought if itself as the beginning of the West, but was still part of the segregationist South.

The overriding theme was that reading was fun, something to do and share with others, and something that would help you think in new ways. Those ideas were not widely accepted then, especially among boys of that age. Dink helped change that for me and many others.

  1. Auntie Mame
  2. Beau Geste
  3. Bligh, W. Mutiny on Bounty
  4. Brestit, History of Egypt
  5. Bridge over the River Kwai
  6. Buck, P. Good Earth
  7. Cervantes Don Quixote
  8. Chesterton, G. K. Father Brown
  9. Cuppy, W. The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody
  10. Ferber, E. Giant, Cimmarron
  11. Fisher, Gandhi
  12. Fitzgerald, F. S. Great Gatsby
  13. Fleming, I. James Bond
  14. Generation of Vipers
  15. Genghis Khan
  16. Golding, W. Lord of Flies
  17. Great Expectations
  18. Green Mansions
  19. Hilton, J. Good-by Mr. Chips
  20. Hilton, J. Lost Horizon
  21. Hugo, V. The Hunchback of Notre Dame
  22. In Midst of Life
  23. Irving, W. Sketch Book
  24. Keys of Kingdom
  25. Kipling, R. Kim, Jungle Books
  26. Last Hurrah
  27. Lee, H. To Kill a Mockingbird
  28. Lewis, C. S. The Screwtape Letter
  29. Magnificent Destiny
  30. Max Schulman
  31. Melville, H. Moby Dick
  32. Morehead, A. Blue Nile, White Nile
  33. Nutting , A. Lawrence of Arabia
  34. Orwell, G. Animal Farm
  35. Orwell, G. 1984
  36. Packard, V. (any)
  37. Plato Dialogues
  38. Plutarch Lives
  39. Rand, A. The Fountainhead
  40. Roark, R. Something of Value
  41. Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye
  42. Seven Days in May
  43. Shaw, G. B. Androcles and the Lion
  44. Six Days or Forever
  45. Solomon Ecclesiastes
  46. Stillwell Papers
  47. Stone, I. Sailor on Horseback
  48. Teahouse of August Moon
  49. The Little World of Don Camillo
  50. Twain, M. Huckleberry Finn
  51. Ugly American
  52. Voltaire, Candide

Center of the World

Milyon column, İstanbul

Milyon column, İstanbul

The Milyon column in İstanbul (left) is one of many “centers of the world.” These centers seem to be everywhere, each signifying by its presence the yearning for a stable ground, but by their proliferation, undermining any notion of centeredness.

The column is all that’s left of a monument that was the starting point for measurement of distances for all the roads leading to the cities of the Byzantine Empire. It lasted for over a thousand years, but disappeared at the start of the 16th C. During modern excavations, some partial fragments of it were discovered and erected again.

It served the same function as the Miliarium Aureum of Rome, another center of the world, which was displaced when Emperor Constantine I the Great remade Byzantium into his new imperial capital.

Directions to the world

Directions to the world

Today, the Milyon column stands near the Basilica cistern, another ancient monument, which was covered up, then rediscovered in the 16th C. The cistern is a huge underground room to hold water. It’s 453′ x 212′, which is larger than a World Cup field, if you’d like a topical comparison.

It was built in the 6th C during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. During his era, and for centuries to follow, the cistern held fresh water for the citizens of Constantinople and the Milyon dome resting on four pylons marked the center of their world. As you explore the cistern’s eerily lit walkways, it’s easy to imagine that you’re in some mystical center of the earth.

Basilica cistern, İstanbul

Basilica cistern, İstanbul

The cistern was unknown in the Western world until P. Gyllius discovered it while doing research on İstanbul’s Byzantine remains. He was surprised to see people getting water with buckets from well holes, some within their own homes, and even catching fish.

There are many more such “centers” (click here).

Some manage to calculate the geographic center as being the same location as the Geza pyramid, which would be a coincidence supporting many mystical accounts. But more commonly, it’s calculated as being in the eastern Mediterranean Sea about halfway between Athens and Alexandria. Other methods locate it in north-east Turkey.

In either case, I like the way that it’s not too far from İstanbul. That fabulous city straddles Europe and Asia, and through its ports and the Bosporos serves as a bridge to Africa. Its layers of civilization locate it between old and new, encompassing many religious traditions. If you had to choose one center, İstanbul and its Milyon column wouldn’t be a bad choice.

Citizen Science in Wellfleet

Herring River estuary

Herring River estuary

The current habitat for communication between science and the public is dysfunctional. One need only look at the “debates” about climate change or disease prevention to see the problem.

Scientific findings are regularly misrepresented and sensationalized in the mass and social media. Even when well presented, those findings are ignored or distorted, attacked through faulty arguments, or tied to unsupported inferences. At its best, current science/public dialogue tends to be one-way, with the occasional enlightening article, book, or video, followed by public commentary. This rarely serves to deepen  understanding, much less lead to enhanced inquiry.

State of Wellfleet Harbor Conference 

Wellfleet marina

Wellfleet marina, note osprey nest, upper left

The 10th Annual State of Wellfleet Harbor Conference held yesterday at the Wellfleet Elementary School represents an alternative to that typical dysfunctional science/public relationship. One refreshing note was an effort by scientists to explain not only the results, but also the assumptions, methods, and theories behind them. People asked about the selection of factors to study, or about habitat assessment in tidal river versus bay sites, not to discredit a finding, but to understand more about how results were achieved. The conference was itself a small data point for the case that ordinary citizens can engage in science-based discussions, given enough time and well-crafted presentations, displays, videos, and other materials.

Poster session

Poster session

You can see from the schedule that there was a wide variety of presentations and posters. There was talk about dolphin mass strandings, bathymetry, auditory evoked potential, sentinel species, estuaries, cross-shore sediment transport, salt marsh backup, turtle gardens, terrapin clutches, brumation, eutrophication, cultching, winter/spring blooms, quahog seed, anoxic shellfish, temperature-dependent sex determination, anthropogenic effects, and many other topics related to the diverse ecosystems of the Outer Cape.

There were some good videos from the Friends of Herring River and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). Brian Sharp complemented the latter with a talk and a tour of the IFAW van used for marine mammal rescues. This was especially salient given the mass strandings of dolphins in Wellfleet Bay in the early part of the year.

Mayo Beach, with groin

Mayo Beach, with groin

These presentations emphasized the interconnectedness of ecosystems, with humans as an integral part. Mark Borrelli from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies talked about how groins and revetments prevent local beach erosion, e.g., to protect a house, but shift the erosion elsewhere. Thus, they are simply “erosion relocation structures.” Sarah Martinez from the Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary presented a poster on the consequences for horseshoe crabs of their use as bait for conch and eels. Moreover, the revetments that relocate beach erosion also disturb the spawning, much of which occurs above the high tide mark.Vincent Malkoski from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries spoke about the data on horseshoe crab fisheries. These findings have led to harvesting closures for five days around the new and full moons in May and June to allow lunar spawning. Diane Murphy from the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension and Woods Hole Sea Grant spoke on the relation between oyster and clam growth and the wide variety of habitats they find in Cape Cod Bay.

Avoiding Either/Or Thinking 

Fishing boats

Fishing boats

One consequence of creating the forum in this way was that discussions avoided the either/or kind of thinking often expressed in mainstream media. For example, although most of the participants shared deep commitments to preserving natural environments and generally opposed rampant development, I heard statements such as “you can’t say that dredging is always bad or good; the decision is about choices and values.” There would then be productive dialogue that critiqued human-made alterations of the shoreline, estuaries, ponds, and so on, but acknowledged values others might hold for commerce, recreation, or housing. Zero-based planning  is no longer an option in the Wellfleet area: Every change today, even one that seeks to undo earlier construction, interacts with a myriad of alterations over centuries and can have unintended consequences for the environment.

Interactive map

Interactive map

Multilogue

Through Q/A, posters, and ample time for informal discussion, the conference fostered one to many, many to one, and many to many conversations among participants including scientists in the same and other disciplines, students, and general public. There was an interactive map on which people could write their hopes and concerns and peg them to a geographic spot. The map activity will be continued at the library to solicit input from those who did not attend the conference. I saw numerous examples of scientists taking seriously the concerns or knowledge of the public.

This was perhaps enhanced by the fact that many of the projects involve direct citizen science participation , e.g., the river herring count, the horseshoe crab spawning assessment, terrapin sightings, and the dolphin rescues. Others involve coordination with local activist organizations, such as the Wellfleet Conservation Trust.

Some were of special relevance to those involved in commerce, such as oyster farmers. Jessica Smith and Barbara Brennessel from Wheaton College had an interesting poster on a study of genetic diversity among hatchery versus reef oysters, showing, as one might expect, a greater diversity for the reef oysters. This provides indirect support for seeding oyster beds with pelagic, rather than hatchery, veligers. Some oyster farmers still collect these wild larvae for seeing their beds, despite the method being considered slower, difficult, and old-fashioned. A quahog farmer of 30 years was able to add comments about changes over three decades that was missing from most of the shorter-term scientific studies.

Sustainability

IFAW van

IFAW van

Perhaps a meeting like this requires a supportive habitat such as Wellfleet in order to thrive, just as the terrapins, horseshoe crabs, eels, dolphins, ospreys, and other creatures do. Would it fail to survive elsewhere?

Richard Lewontin points out in The Triple Helix that no organism can survive without a supportive environment, but also that no living environment exists without organisms. In this case, the conference organism succeeds because of the town environment, but also shapes it to become more supportive of exactly the kind of discussion heard today.

The conference was well-organized with good snacks, including clam chowder. I came away with a renewed appreciation for the special beauty of Wellfleet, but also sadness about what we’ve done to destroy this, and so much else of the natural world. The fact that a conference such as this is so rare punctuates that sadness. How much did you hear from political candidates or mass media this year about protecting the environment we all live in and depend upon?

Small but good things are worth preserving. I hope to make the conference an annual event.