Tag Archives: ecology

656. Angle of Repose

As a point of accuracy, angle of repose is a civil engineering term referring to how steep a slope is possible without slumping due to gravity. The angle varies according to the material under consideration.

I am completely misusing the term here in reference to axial tilt because it sounds so good. So sue me.

Today is December 30; the year is near it’s end. The solstice was December 22 this year, so the days have been getting longer for eight days now. What we call the first day of winter is actually winter’s mid-point, judged by the inclination of the Earth. The “incorrect” way we measure winter actually works pretty well though, because there is a delay effect between tilt and the weather that depends on it.

“The Earth tilts south in the winter and tilts back north in the summer.” Easy to say and easy to understand, just like saying that the Earth is flat, but of course it’s wrong. I remember teaching the matter to my school kids every year. I would designate a student sitting in the center of the room as the Sun and walk around the classroom with the globe tilted roughly 23 degrees toward the bank of windows to demonstrate that the angle of inclination doesn’t change, only the position of the Earth in relation to the Sun. I’m sure they all forgot it by the next day.

The seasons as we know them are due to the degree of tilt. Tilt further, and the seasons would be more extreme. Tilt less and they would be less extreme. I’ve made a career of writing about that.

My first novel, Jandrax, was set on a world circling a cool sun, with a tilt of something like 32 degrees. That made for seasons like those on Earth, but more extreme. It worked out well for my intentions, stranding a bunch of religious extremists and watching them adapt in two different ways, as a static civilization in changing weather, and as nomads who followed the good season.

The unharmonious planet Harmony was in the middle of an ice age, with the only livable real estate flanking the equator, and of course they had two summers and two winters each year.

No, I know it isn’t obvious, but it is real. I explained the phenomenon in 14. Axial Tilt. Check if you doubt me.

Cyan came later. I set it up as a planet with virtually no tilt, resulting in unlivable cold, miserable cold, too cold for comfort, Goldilocks perfect, too hot for comfort, miserably hot, and too hot to live, all depending on your latitude. That would have made for a perfect climate somewhere (a boring thought for a writer) except that I threw in a 40 hour day so even at the “perfect” latitude you could count on burning your brain and frosting your buns every overlong day of the seemingly endless year.

It also resulted in two virtually independent super-biomes, separated by a dead torrid zone, as Keir lamented when Tasmeen, Beryl, Debra, and Viki . . .; no, sorry, you’ll have to read that yourself.

Okay, what’s opposite of the unchanging, tilt-less Cyan? A planet of Uranian orientation, of course. Stormking becomes the third of the trilogy, lying on its back in orbit, presenting first one pole and then the other to its star. Such a planet would probably not be viable for a human civilization, but as a place for an orbiting civilization to dump its exiles, it’s perfect.

Dome cities could survive on a Uranian planet, but why would they want to? Any people, like our exiles, who actually interact with the environment would have to keep continually on the run. That’s a little like the nomads of Jandrax, but where those were a people whose march kept them on the leading edge of a moving paradise, the exiles of Stormking live in an endless hell-storm. All of the water of that planet spends half of the year locked up in north polar ice caps while the south pole is desert. Then all that water has to move from north pole to south to freeze again while the north pole becomes desert. All this will have to happen twice a year.

You can’t imagine the storms. Actually, you don’t have to. I do, and then I have to write them.

This is going to be fun.

646. Stinky Boy and his Cousin

Attribution of pictures is below.

I’ve met a couple of new friends lately.

(Actually this post is a month out of date. It was originally scheduled for October 16, but was displaced by a tribute to Alexi Leonov.)

This has nothing to do with writing, just with the life of a writer up here in the foothills. Over the years I’ve had plenty of wild visitors. By visitors I don’t mean the nuthatches, jays, and woodpeckers who live here all the time; nor the northern flickers (we call them 747 birds because of their size) and rufous-sided towhees who winter over. I also don’t include the turkey vultures who are always overhead.

I do count the great blue heron who came walking by one day. There’s nothing like a six foot blue bird slurping down a gopher to get your attention.

We’ve had coyotes running through our property many times. On two occasions they crawled under bushes in the yard to die. One was a youngster, probably hit by a car. The other was a ragged oldster at the end of his days. Those are the events that bring a settling of dozens of the vultures.

I don’t blame the oldster for picking our place as his last rest. We don’t have dogs to harass, we have lots of shade, and we keep basins of water available through the yearly seven month drought. We can’t stand the thought of a thirsty animal.

We have raccoons, although we rarely see them. Some mornings one of the water basins will be solid mud, and we know they’ve been by to drink and wash their food. Three times we’ve been visited by the neighborhood bobcat, but our elevation is a bit low for mountain lions. I’m all right with that. Bobcats don’t eat people; mountain lions occasionally do.

We have ducks and geese flying by and small hawks and owls living in our trees. Big red-tailed hawks and an occasional bald eagle cruise overhead with the ubiquitous vultures. And of course, bats come out by night.

Deer come by from time to time and eat our tomato crop. We were even visited once by the Christmas Pig. That was a 300 pound escaped porker who passed by one December 25th.

We have a flock of turkeys who come by two or three times a week in winter. I haven’t seen them for months, but they are about due to return. (And here they are, a week after I wrote that.)

I’ve mentioned most of our normal visitors before. Recently we’ve had two new ones. The first announced his presence several nights a week for a month or so, sending us an odoriferous wake-up call through the open window. We knew we had him before we saw him. I was walking back to the house at dusk one evening when I almost stepped on him. He looked up quizzically and I retreated.

Then for a few weeks, he showed up in the daytime. Who knew that a skunk is one of nature’s most beautiful creatures? I haven’t seen him for a while now and I miss him, odor notwithstanding.

Then, on the last day of September, Stinky Boy’s cousin showed up.

Now I know a badger is not a biological cousin of a skunk, but they share a striped face and that’s close enough for me.

In the interest of full disclosure, my wife saw him for full-faced positive identification. By the time I got there, all I saw was wide brown, furry butt disappearing at high speed into the distance.

So close, and yet so far.

The skunk photo is in public domain, the badger photo is via GNU. Both critters avoided my camera when they came to visit. Actually the skunk was in plain sight, but I didn’t dare get close enough for a good shot. You know, friendly fire.

634.1 Critter Count

I have a post about two new critters who came to visit, called Stinky Boy and his Cousin. It was supposed to be posted yesterday, but the tribute to Alexi Leonov pushed it forward to the Monday before Thanksgiving.

As I was writing that post, I was a little uneasy. It ended up mentioning a large cadre of critters. Even though I made it clear that many only came by once in more than a decade, I still wondered if some readers would imagine that I live in a virtual zoo, instead of normal foothills full of sweet but ordinary creatures, and more rarely visited by the exotic.

Then today happened.

We went out early by car to watch a cattle drive which happens twice a year, going to the high country in spring and back down to the foothills in the fall. The critter count included cows, horses, dogs, and cowboys, but they don’t really count because they are all domesticated. Except the cowboys.

Driving back to my house, I had to brake for quail flying across the road. Driving on down toward the valley afterward, we had to dodge a tarantula crossing the road —

“Why did the tarantula cross the road? Mating season.”

— then passed a flock of turkeys in a neighbor’s yard. Still less than two miles from home I saw an egret standing at the edge of the lake waiting for a fish. Yesterday at the same spot I saw a flock of geese floating on the water.

A moment later a vulture swooped down. For a moment we were bracing for a collision but he was only interested in a piece of road kill in the ditch.

Okay, you’re right. I do live in a zoo.

Weird Season

I grew up on a farm, spent my adult life in a city, and returned to a few acres in the Sierra foothills when I retired. That means that the passing of the seasons means more to me than it would to someone living in a city.

This year was strange. We had lots of rain early in the rainy season, none for a critical month, and then lots more at the end. It meant that there was close to normal rainfall,  but the timing was all off.

Usually our rainy season gives us a sequence of wildflowers, but this year they all came at once, giving us a brief look at a beautiful world. I thought I would show you a bit of it.

Within a month, the rattlesnakes will be carrying canteens again.

421. Gobbles Returns

Those who have been with me for a while know that I often give you a glimpse of the life going on outside my door. It’s time for a new installment, because Gobbles came back recently, and I had missed him.

Gobbles is a wild turkey. As I’ve mentioned before, there is a flock of about thirty wild turkeys who come through our acreage about every three days and usually spend an afternoon. A little over a month ago, one of them stayed behind. He was crippled. He carried his left leg bent so that it never touched the ground. When we became aware of him, we were careful not to approach to closely and scare him into leaving.

He took up residence, primarily in our fenced back yard. At first I tried to keep a gate open so he would not be trapped, but then I saw him fly and there was nothing wrong with his wings. After that, we left him alone, talked softly when we were near him, and enjoyed his company.

We wondered where he slept, concerned that he would be vulnerable. We needn’t have worried. After about a week, we happened to be looking the right direction at sundown and saw him fly up into the giant oak tree above our garden. It took him two tries, first to a lower limb and then to a limb near the top. And he had to land carefully with only one functioning leg. Once there, he was as safe as any in the flock he had had to leave.

After a couple of weeks, he started putting his left foot on the ground, but without weight. Then he began to hobble and eventually he hobbled fairly well. Every few days, the flock would come back and he would be with them for a few hours until they left and he had to stay behind.

Then he disappeared. Three or four days later, the flock was back in our yard and one of the turkeys was limping. That pattern still continues. Later, we saw a flock in a neighbor’s yard a mile away, and one of them was limping. No doubt, it was Gobbles.

I grew up on a farm. I know all about animals as food, and animals as economic units. When we raised a new crop of heifers for the dairy herd, typically one of them would fail to get pregnant. No calf means no milk, and that means no money from that heifer. She would end up in the freezer as steaks and hamburger. That’s life on the farm.

I also know the flip side. I don’t want to tell you how many abandoned kittens I have bottle fed to save them. Both relationships are legitimate. Gobbles was somewhere in between. I never touched him, never fed him, never got closer than twenty feet from him. He remained a wild creature, but he came to trust me slightly, and I came to enjoy having him around. I miss him, but I am glad he is out in the wild, back with his flock, doing what wild turkeys are supposed to do.

And if, in a few months, the flock no longer has a turkey among them who limps, there will be two possible interpretations. Either he will have healed so completely that he can no longer be distinguished, or the coyotes will have gotten him. If that happens, my head will say coyotes, and my heart will say healed.

386. Chief Seattle

Beware, I occasionally rant. Like today.

If this post had a descriptive sub-title in the nineteenth century style, the full spread would be:

Chief Seattle: White Man’s Indian
or, how a movie took a fine old man and turned him
into a puppet and a joke

How’s that for laying out a political agenda for all to see?

Yesterday and today I presented an ersatz Miwuk legend. Ersatz is a fancy word for “I just made it up”. I don’t apologize for that. Spirit Deer is a work of fiction, and I used Miwuk Indians as the basis for Tim’s knowledge because they were the resident Native American’s in the places he finds himself. (When I wrote the book in 1975, it wasn’t yet a crime to say Indian instead of Native American.) Later, I will also have a “family story” about his grandfather’s grandfather. That is also made up, to meet the needs of the novel. Again, no apologies. Fiction is fiction. Historical fiction has some responsibility for maintaining accuracy, but Spirit Deer isn’t even subject to that.

I wrote this novel, all of it, including the legends and family stories. It’s fiction, okay. If it were ever to be published, I would make sure that those facts were clearly stated.

Actually, that’s what I’m doing here.

There is a point to all this, beyond simply taking responsibility for what I have written. When I was a teacher, I came across a book called Brother Eagle, Sister Sky: A Message From Chief Seattle and also the supposed text of Chief Seattle’s speech. This took place decades ago, and I can’t remember which I saw first, but my Hemingway style “writer’s shit detector” went off like a siren. I was sure that this was another white guy putting words in an Indian’s (excuse me, Native American’s) mouth, after he was long dead and couldn’t set the record straight.

It turns out, I was right. The version of Chief Seattle’s speech in question, which comes complete with the statement, “I have seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairies left by the white man who shot them from a passing train,” was written by screenwriter Ted Perry for the 1971 film Home. Those buffaloes were killed and rotted decades after Chief Seattle made his speech, and half a continent away. To be fair to Perry, he tried for years to claim credit for the speech and counter its false historicity, to no avail.

Actually, as fiction, or as a soupy environmental statement, it is a powerful piece of writing. But it has nothing to do with Chief Seattle.

The publication of Brother Eagle, Sister Sky led to a 1992 Newsweek article that named Perry as the author of the speech. In researching for this post, I also found a more complete article from the New York Times. You can check them out for yourself.

All this slapped me in the face four ways.

As a writer, I work hard to keep my fiction from telling lies, either morally or factually. I am a long time student of ecology, and I abhor the way a hard-edged science gets turned into a set of slogans. As an anthropologist (B.S., M.A., and two summers on archaeology digs), I hate the way Native Americans are rarely seen for themselves, but as savages or saints, according to whatever is the current fashion. I am a student of history as well, and . . . you get the picture.

You might have guessed by now that I can be irritated by lies, and seeing a screenwriter’s version of “Chief Seattle’s” speech accepted as history grinds all my gears.

364. The Core Story

photo by David Mayer

For the last month, these posts have been coming later in the day, in hopes of finding new readership in other time zones. I haven’t been happy with the results, so today I am reverting to the old posting schedule.

Over in Serial today, I begin presenting the novel Spirit Deer. I had some hesitation about this.

As it stands, Spirit Deer is a juvenile, not a YA. It would be suitable for most of the kids I taught in middle school, but too young for teenagers. It would stand with Island of the Blue Dolphins, not with Twilight.

It didn’t start out that way. When I originally wrote it, as an experiment to see if I could I write a complete novel, Spirit Deer was a book for adults. Tim had a last name, a wife, a job, a backstory, and other adult considerations. When he got lost in the woods and had to find his own way out, it was a catalyst for changing his life.

It was only 45,000 words however. That was too short for a western or a science fiction novel, even in the seventies, and way too short for a regular novel. And while the lost-and-found part of the story was fine, the relationships part wasn’t ready for prime time. It didn’t deserve to be published, and it wasn’t.

I moved on and my second novel,  Jandrax, and it was published. Fair trade; Spirit Deer had done its job by teaching me to write. It could be put away with no regrets.

But it wouldn’t die. The problem was, once you strip away the wife and the job and the friend and the adult concerns, the core story of how to keep alive when nature is trying to kill you was still powerful.

After a lot of years, and several other novels, I went back to Spirit Deer and stripped it down to it’s essence. At that level, Spirit Deer could have been about any male above the age of thirteen, all the way up to senility. To be fair, a woman could have endured what Tim endured, but I don’t think a woman would want to read a book about it. At least not in the eighties and nineties when the core story was tapping me on the shoulder and saying, “Don’t give up on me.”

Spirit Deer became a juvenile because of its length. When the wife and friend and backstory went away, there were only about 25,000 words left.

Consider this:

Man against nature, other men, or himself, is a story.
Man against nature, other men, or himself, plus gunfights, is a western.
Man against nature, other men, or himself, plus thugs, is a thriller.
Man against nature, other men, or himself, plus spies, is James Bond.
Man against nature, other men, or himself, plus sweet sex, is a romance.
Man against nature, other men, or himself, plus rough sex, is men’s action — a genre which has all but disappeared.
Man against nature, other men, or himself, plus sex, catching a big fish, and death on the last page, is Hemingway.

I didn’t want to add any of those plusses, and I didn’t want to make Spirit Deer artificially longer, so it became a juvenile. It’s still a good story, it taught me a lot, and it provides a lot for us to talk about as writers.

That is, I assume you are or want to be a writer, or I would have lost you in the second paragraph.

Spirit Deer will be presented in forty posts over in Serial, and there will be posts over here on A Writing Life expanding on the story, on being a beginning writer, and on how many ways a writer can present a core story.