Finished the course

We only have one moon over our one planet.
We only have one moon over our one planet.

I just wrapped up my course on climate change and communication from Cornell. In summary here’s what I learned: To be effective we need to stop the blame game and focus on local adaptation and mitigation. So, no name calling, no trying to convince people of the facts, no eye rolling, no despair. It’s real, it’s happening, here is what we have to do build hope and lead by example…Insert what you as an individual and a local community can do. You know your towns better than I do. NY State has a great model for local governments to follow. It details a ten step process for local governments to lead. Local governments have a tremendous amount of sway because they consume energy, manage solid waste, have authority over zoning, land use planning, and they involve local citizens. Lead from the bottom up.

Adaptations include changes to agriculture, beefing up infrastructure, addressing new disease vectors, etc. Mitigation include reducing fossil fuel consumption, enhancing carbon sinks. There is no technological solution for binding CO2, yet. We will have to adapt and mitigate to survive but we can do it.

Meanwhile I need to come up with my ‘project’. Shall it be teaching basic birding in Mexico with a side of climate change or blogging more regularly or both. Or any ideas you all may have?


Species are moving new places


Fall is in the air. Birds are flocking up for the flight south. I’ve heard reports and seen some photos of a vast congregation of Swainson’s hawks near Whitewater Draw in Arizona. Here the Juncos and towhees are gathering. Tarantulas are on the prowl looking for lovely lady friends. This week we have seen three of these large fuzzy arachnids near the house. The males wander around looking for a receptive female this time of year. The sun’s angle is lower in the sky, the air is cool, and spiders are on the loose. Fall….

Recently I’ve been pondering the mass loss of species in our life time. It is very troubling and sad but there are some funny aspects. Most of the great extinction we are currently in is from habitat loss and climate change. The two causes are linked. Some habitat is destroyed by human development and some habitat has succumbed to sea rise and desertification. Meanwhile climate change is rerouting migratory paths as birds follow food sources and weather.

Not all change is bad for everybody. Insects are likely to do very well in a warmer, wetter world. Say hello to roaches, ticks, and fleas Montana. Parasites I thought I left behind 30 years ago in Georgia are making their way across the Mississippi and up the Rockies. Abandoned snakes are thriving in Florida. Anacondas and pythons can claim more territory as land masses sink, sea levels rise, and marshes move inland. I was reading up on pythons and anacondas recently. After I saw the yoga mat posing as an anaconda in the marsh I wanted to make sure I wasn’t crazy for leaping to that conclusion. I’m not. Anacondas are here in the US. Yes, twenty foot long, 500 pound anacondas are here. Like alligators they may soon be moving up north. Here’s the disturbing thing I found in my research. Pythons were thought to be a menace in Florida but, unexpectedly, they have reached a sort of stasis. The python numbers seem to have plateaued because they have a natural control. Pythons are being eaten by another invader species. Fire ants are eating pythons while they nest. Mother pythons lay eggs and sit on the eggs until they hatch. Floating squadrons of fire ants find these nests and eat mom and eggs. Anacondas don’t nest. Anacondas have live births. Let that sink in. Anacondas are now presumed to be the menace that pythons were predicted to be. I’d have preferred to take my chances with the python rather than an alligator eating snake. Pythons crunch your bones and don’t always kill you before they stuff you down the gullet face first. So the snake invaders, a problem caused buy irresponsible pet owners, have met the expanding habitat brought by warmer and wetter conditions in the south.  Keep an eye out Fifi.

I realize I’m going a little overboard here. The point is I am trying to get you paying attention. Fleas, starlings, knapweed, chagas disease, malaria…it’s all on the move. A species finds a nitch and grows to fill it. Everything is in flux. Warmer is not better.

Here’s a funny anecdote about human caused species migration. The case of Escobar’s hippos cannot be blamed on climate change but climate change may play a role in what happens next. Pablo Escobar (narcotraficante of Cloumbia and the 80s) had a zoo on his estate. Escobar was killed in a shoot out at the estate in 1993. Like many eccentric and too wealthy people he had a personal zoo. This zoo featured many animals from all over the world. After their owner died, most of the animals were farmed out to nearby zoos. Some animals were euthanized. Not everybody met such fates. Pablo also had four hippos. Hippopotami weigh two tons each. This pod of a male and three females were left to their own devices on a pond behind a fence. Nobody wanted to move 16,000 pounds of hippo. These four hippos bred and lounged and eventually broke free. Now there are reports of up to 200 hippos in the countryside around the estate. Hippos in Columbia are reproducing at a younger age and a quicker rate than in their home country. Hippos are poised to take over Columbia. Meanwhile they are heading towards extinction in there homeland. No natural predators, more food, and a nice warm home.

All of this to help you imagine the niches our viral, bacterial, and invertebrate friends are finding in the new world we are creating. Hope they find a way to vaccinate for malaria soon, folks. Me? I like spiders.

Same tarantula.
Same tarantula.

Message and the Messenger

Who am I?
Who am I? Fashionista?

Who am I? It’s a question worth considering. My identity has changed over time. Not too long ago I was a black belt, rock climber, oarswoman, engineer, woman. Today I can claim musician, carpenter, camp director, woman. I still say I’m an engineer because the way an engineer thinks is permanently molded by their training no matter what they happen to do for a living. But the thing is I don’t like to be labeled. I want to be whoever I am in the moment and not restrained by preconceived ideas from myself or society. But that’s a dream world. A dream world I have the flexibility to inhabit much of the time but not if I want a job or to have influence over people. People want to know who you are. I can’t even go to play Bridge and avoid these questions. Where are you from? Why are you here? What do you do? I actually dread them. Every table at Bridge we go through the answers.

How we identify plays a deep role in what we believe. PETA? Vegan? Athiest? Business owner? These values influence our ability to receive and consider new information. Here are some issues: Vaccines. Evolution. Climate change. Animal rights. What are you? A Hippie? Christian? White? Black? Poor? Rich? Hungry?

Polls have shown that there are six categories of people on climate change. There are the dissmisive (10%), the doubtful (11%), the disengaged (7%), the cautious (27%), the concerned (28%), the alarmed (17%). A person’s identity will hold sway on their affinity to a certain opinion. People that prefer hierarchy and like a strong leader and rugged individualism are more likely to be doubtful and dismissive. This is true no matter their education level and science literacy. People that are more comfortable with egalitarianism and rules that favor the health of society over the individual are more likely to be alarmed or concerned. The more educated this egalitarian group is the more likely they are to be alarmed. Education has little effect. So throwing data around will not change minds. Women and minorities and younger people, regardless of education, are more concerned about climate change than men. White men are especially likely to be unconvinced that climate change is a thing.

They say that the messenger must fit in with the group they are trying to influence. They have to have shared values, they must be perceived as an expert, and the message must match the messenger. This is humans acting like chickens. Birds of a feather. I wish we could get beyond this but as Burt says, we’re all scared when we see a snake. We are hardwired to suspect the outsider. We can recognize this bias and try to work through it. We can recognize this bias and try to work with it. Consciousness is key.

Here are two examples of me dealing with this from my past.

Once upon a time I was a U.S. EPA environmental engineer. New rules had just come down under the Clean Air Act. I was responsible for enforcing the Stratospheric Ozone Protection act in the entirety of Montana. By myself. 1992 or 1993. I was young. I was a woman. I was an easterner. I was from the government. Lucky for me there were several trade groups that were interested in helping their members comply with the new rules. I was able to meet with the leaders of the trade groups to share how the government was going to phase out the use of CFCs and how small businesses could be licensed to manage the CFCs safely. These trade group leaders invited me to speak to their groups. I traveled the state and met with landfill operators, junk car facilities, auto mechanics, and air conditioning and refrigeration repair people. I never had a problem. I was there to help them comply. I was sympathetic to their situation. I knew the new rules were costly but they were also a business opportunity. Those that updated would stay competitive. I was helping them comply. They accepted me.

Then one day I was asked to give the speech to an organization called the Western Environmental Trade Association. I thought these guys were environmentally minded business owners. I was wrong. These were business owners with no role in the CFC industry. They were simply an anti-government, pro-business group with no desire to do right by the environment. It was a blood bath. They wanted to make a fool of me and they did.

I must admit that twenty years ago I didn’t know what to make of this. The business leaders were crude and rude. The blue collar workers were warm and understanding. Now I realize my blue collar roots, desire to help, and general sympathy played well before the labor groups. A government representative was a lamb to the slaughter for the business group. Especially an ill prepared government representative. This experience has always stayed with me as part of my identity. It helped me have to confidence to at least approach any group and try to connect.

The next notable experience was in my private life. I was in South Carolina about ten years ago visiting my parents and their friends. Burt was with me. At one point the group (moderate to conservative political leanings) started discussing organic food. I opted to not share my opinion and nobody asked. My role as silent daughter is well practiced. Soon they veered into climate change. A very with it friend that I know to be well educated and a nuclear engineer said it was bogus. I was on a couch ease dropping. The entire group agreed. They got all animated and then somebody saw the lamb on the couch. My dad asked, “Aren’t you going to defend climate change?” They had already labeled me a believer without inquiry. I took one look at the table full of raucous men that had known me since I was a toddler. I said, “You won’t listen to me so I won’t waste my breath.” And it was sad but nobody disagreed. They were sad because it would have been fun to argue and try to make a fool of me. I was sad because it was true.

For ten years I’ve thought I should have said something. Today I am saying something. They might not listen but I will say it.




Walking and thinking and looking

Bridge in Point Reyes National Seashore.
Bridge in Point Reyes National Seashore. The 12′, 9′ are depicted on the explanatory sign below.

Laura and I have been walking the same loop every morning.  Some days we walk clockwise and other days we walk counterclockwise. Today we were late. It was day seven of our 3.6 mile loop through oak savanna and vineyards. I was tired. The boys were going, too, and they are louder and faster. I let them go ahead and slept a few more minutes and then Laura and I went without them at 10:00 instead of 8:00. Was I tired or avoiding the men? Probably both.

Each day our vision grows keener. We see more birds and can pick out the different ones more easily. Yesterday I discovered a new species for me, the California thrasher. I love a thrasher. They carry big bills and aren’t afraid to use them. Today I spotted a gaudy Townsends warbler in a mixed flock of mostly chestnut backed chickadees, titmice, and dark eyed juncos. The Townsends was a bird I’d seen once before in Montana and the chickadees turned out to be a new bird. The chestnut backed variety has a limited range and where we are now is one of the places it does not overlap with the black capped chickadee so score a new bird while completely unawares.

The boys are hard at work turning this spread into Barry and Laura’s home. I am unemployed. Barry has supplanted me as walking companion and assistant carpenter. He does not play Bridge. Yet. Today the boys told me they are going to pour a concrete slab. I responded with, “Did you know that concrete production accounts for 5% of all global CO2 emissions?” Yes. A shocking figure. Concrete, my beloved building material, foundation of civilized life, is a major producer of green house gases. It pains me to think it but knowledge is power and we need to look head on and decide how to adjust. Here are some other figures: Electricity production is 29% (if you think your plug in car is helping, think again), transportation (trains, planes, automobiles) 27%, Industry 21%, agriculture 9%. I’m not sure if the agriculture number includes production only or both production and transportation to market.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed and think it’s hopeless. But then look at the room for small steps each of us can take to reduce these numbers. Share a ride. Walk to work once a week (live on the job site like we do?). Cut down on meat. Buy locally. You’ll be healthier and the gas savings is always nice on the budget. Try a solar oven. We love ours.

Last week we took a walk out the Point Reyes National Seashore near San Francisco. They have a display there that viscerally depicts where sea level will be in the next 80 years. Since 1880 sea level has risen 8″. It is predicted to rise an additional 1′ to 4′ in the lifetime of a child born today. The bridge above will be completely submerged. Do we build a bigger bridge?

A sign depicting projected sea rise on the current bridge.
A sign depicting projected sea rise on the current bridge.


Serious marriage portrait
Serious marriage portrait.


There’s a song Burt used to regularly sing called South Coast. It’s not often heard now but has been covered many times in the last fifty years. Arlo Guthrie and the Kingston Brothers and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Burt are some of the singers you might have heard take their turn on this haunting story and well matched melody. The story is set back when this land was Spain. As such there are references to things most of us have long forgotten about or never knew including the town mentioned in the chorus, a town called Jolon. The J is pronounced like an H. Hoe-Lone.

Here we are nestled in the hills very near the south coast of the song. Jolon isn’t too far away. Or what was Jolon. Burt dragged his memory for the song and we sang it and pondered why it has slipped away from our regular repertoire. Because I couldn’t play well in Gm when we hit the road and lost the rest of the band. As Burt and I contemplated bringing the tune back to the Gypsy Carpenters, the boys hatched a plan to visit Jolon and a nearby Spanish mission. Burt and Barry like history. Barry likes to drive. A road trip idea was born. Laura and I decided we’d look for birds if we got to board with the historic drive.

Yesterday four humans and two dogs covered the land of the song. We saw the actual South Coast, the remains of Jolon, and the Spanish Mission of San Antonio de Padua. There was even a barranca. Unlike the song’s characters who used a horse named Buck (spoiler alert: Don’t ride a horse named Buck.) we traveled in a late model sedan. Most of the area is now the property of the U.S. Army. A vast amount of land remains undeveloped and nearly in the natural state you would have seen if you were traveling in the era of Spanish rule. Father Junipero Serra picked a great place to found one of his many missions. This was the third mission in California. It fell into ruin after Mexico separated from Spain and took the missions from the Catholic church. There were no private takers and so the mission was neglected. It fell down. After a stretch of time this land was taken from Mexico by the U.S. So the ownership history looks something like this: Spain (via Catholic Church), Mexico, U.S.  While under the U.S., William Randolph Hearst bought vast swaths of California, including this entire area.  Hearst lost most of it and then the Army took over. The mission was given back to the Catholics by the U.S. government. The church rebuilt the mission. The rebuilt mission today needs a $15 million renovation because of seismic codes. That’s a lot of money to rebuild what is essentially a replica. Not my problem.

Mission San Antonio de Padua is the site of some historically excellent water management. These guys were moving water like the Romans. There’s an interpretive sign acknowledging the early history civil engineering accomplishment near a defunct reservoir. They had a mill works, and tannery and indoor plumbing. The ruins are not quite to the standards of Italy but still interesting. In fact, that reminds me of another similarity to Rome. The roof tiles were taken from the mission to build in another location. That was a big reason the place fell apart. Adobe structures melt rapidly without roofs. So we wandered around and ate lunch and took some pictures. Laura and Barry sat for a formal wedding portrait under the sign commemorating the first marriage in the land of California. That was in 1773. I won’t go down the historical rabbit hole of what was happening on this land before the Spaniards arrived but it seems a little myopic and ignorant to presume marriage began with the Europeans. You may detect some ambivalence about visiting Spanish Missions. You would be correct.

Phone service is spotty out in the middle of this vast military reservation. Kind of surprising but a nice way to bring a flavor of the remoteness at the time of the song. Spotty cell coverage resulted in some minor difficulties and inefficiencies as we tried to find Jolon. It was all sorted out and we saw some bald eagles and a bobcat while we wandered. Jolon was a spot where the stage coach came by. The collapse of the mission and the railroad in the next valley did away with the citizenry. All that remains of Jolon are a road with its name and a building. The nearby hacienda is behind locked army gates and requires a guided tour and reservations.

After Jolon we decided to take a trip through the baranca and over the mountains to the actual coast. Last winter’s massive rain events brought down three parts of the coast highway. There is only one land route in and out for this wild coastline today.  Traffic has dropped to a trickle. Our road trip was taking us back in time.  The road over was narrow and steep. You could see that hillsides frequently gave way and covered the road in debris. Landslides figure prominently in the song and they are still determining people’s fates today. The barranca (canyon) yawned below as we snaked up into the marine layer. Soon sunny skies were gone and we were immersed in fog. More swooningly stiff curves and we started to drop. Eventually we emerged from the clouds and could see the Pacific Ocean far below. It took an hour to cover 15 miles. The only was home was the way we had come in. No cell, no EMTs, no civilization without passing a rugged mountain range in the fog. We had captured the feeling of the song. Stay safe.

South Coast lyrics by Lillian Ross, music Sam Eskind. Get that story HERE.

My name is Juanano de Castro
My father was a Spanish Grandee
But I won my wife in a card game
To hell with those lords o’er the sea

Well the South Coast is wild coast and lonely
You might win in a game at Jolon
But a lion still rules the Barranca
And a man there is always alone

[Verse 1]
I played in a card game at Jolon
I played there with an outlaw named Juan
And after I’d taken his money
I staked all against his daughter Dawn
I picked up the ace…l had won her
My heart it was down at my feet
Jumped up to my throat in a hurry
Like a young summer’s day she was sweet
He opened the door to the kitchen
And he called the girl out with a curse
Saying “Take her, Goddamn her, you’ve won her
She’s yours now for better or worse”
Her arms had to tighten around me
As we rode down the hills to the south
Not a word did I hear from her that day
Nor a kiss from her pretty young mouth
But that was a gay happy winter
We carved on a cradle of pine
By the fire in that neat little cabin
And I sang with that gay wife of mine


[Verse 2]
That night I got hurt in a landslide
Crushed hip and twice broken bone
She saddled her pony like lightning
And rode off for the doctor in Jolon
The lion screamed in the Barranca
Buck, he bolted and he fell on his side
My young wife lay dead in the moonlight
My heart died that night with my bride

Now for the climate change link. The central coast of California is fighting for its economic survival. Bigger, wetter storms this winter destroyed infrastructure all over the state. It very nearly brought down the Oroville dam. The south coast country is practically inaccessible. Segments of road and a bridge have washed away. Repairs will take a massive effort. It makes me wonder where we should be investing. Is it time for this wonderful coast line to revert to nature, like so much of the army base country? Or do we keep doing what we can to build and adjust. I don’t know the answer. I do know we need to know what we are up against and plan accordingly. We need to accept the facts of climate change. In this part of California that means bigger storms, wetter storms.  More water in a shorter period of time. And yes, droughts are here to stay, too. Less water over longer periods of time. We need to make decisions on where to invest and how to design using the best information we have. We can adapt. We must.

Chapel at Mission San Antonio de Padua
Chapel at Mission San Antonio de Padua
Church at Mission of San Antonio de Padua
Church at Mission of San Antonio de Padua
Junipero Serra at Mission San Antonio de Padua
Junipero Serra at Mission San Antonio de Padua

Birding Basics

Fledged but not flying mourning dove.
Fledged but not flying mourning dove.

The walking is great here from Chez Gopher. Laura and I have a daily 3.6 mile loop we do every morning at 8 AM. It’s an effective addition to my Galapagos training program. Waking up on a schedule is as important as the exercise. Today the weather was noticeably cooler and there were overcast skies. I wore long pants and a long sleeved shirt for the first time since arriving here. Laura wants to learn more about birding so I’ve been bringing my binoculars but until this morning there hadn’t been much to see. I don’t know why today was different. We had reversed our normal route so was it because we were headed downhill instead of uphill so it was easier to stop and look around? Was it the cloudy sky? The cooler temperatures. Is migration underway and so the birds are lfocking up, making them easier to see? Because we had reversed direction we arrived at the birdier area earlier, Were the birds more active earlier? It’s impossible to know the reasons why today but it is not impossible to know if we keep studying the area and doing the same loop over time. We can make a habit of observing the birds through the month, season, year in the same place at the same time of day and someday we might be able to reach some conclusions. This brings me to today’s climate change blurb.

Climate change fact of the day: Warming temps have changed bird behavior. Birders have kept meticulous records for long lengths of time over large geographic areas. This makes for great data. We can see discernible trends in the last thirty years. A quick summary:

Birds are nesting earlier, birds are migrating north earlier and heading south later, and some birds aren’t migrating at all anymore. Birds are arriving in habitat that no longer meets their survival needs. Birds are in trouble.

So today I taught Laura the basics. We saw or heard juncos, titmice, towhees, jays, doves, hawks, robins, turkeys, quail, crows, and more. There were a couple we couldn’t ID. So annoying but it is what keeps the brain firing on all cylinders. Accepting the mystery is good for the mind and soul. Even the most mundane of birds can tell us what is happening in the world around us. There is no need in being an expert. Learning and recording your regular neighbors over time will help us (and you) develop a deeper understanding and connection to the natural world. Join me in learning your local birds and recording data. Be part of a worldwide team. Visit and submit your feathered friends to the census.

Atascadero City Hall
Atascadero City Hall

Work and walk

Perching rock
Perching rock

Climate Change factoid of the day: Warmer air holds more moisture than cooler air. I’ll spare you the why. The results are more downpours and less drizzle. Obviously this hurts the brain a bit when you think ‘but droughts are worse.’ Indeed they are. The change is in the how much and where the rain is falling. Bridges, storm sewers, roads need to be designed to handle large rain events. Agriculture has it’s own problems.

By downpour we mean a lot of precipitation in a short period of time.

Life on the rancho in Templeton is sweet. Nice walking abounds. The internet works fine. The clients feed and walk us. I finished my first week’s course work in a day. The presenters estimated 3-4 hours of reading and video watching per week and I got it done. I passed all my quizzes, too. After that I dealt with the IRS.

Our mail came (thanks, Sue). It was full of dog treats and dog drugs left over after Sue and Jay’s dog Scotty flew to the other side. Scotty lasted a long time and he was ready to see what lay beyond the rainbow bridge. Elvis will benefit from Scotty’s pain pills and anxiety meds. I’d like to believe Elvis is going to last a long time but he hates pain. Maybe the pills will convince him to stick around. Also in the mail was a hilarious letter from the IRS. If you’ve been following along you might remember I couldn’t file our taxes electronically because the IRS could not identify our identity. After much email searching and some lengthy holds and calls with the TurboTax and IRS I finally submitted our taxes in paper. I felt so old and wasteful. Retro. This month the IRS’s suspicions were raised by our paper submission. I had to call them to prove it was really me that filed the taxes. Really.

I don’t know what to think. I spent 25 minutes on hold and then another 20 minutes proving I was who I said I was to the IRS. Eventually my service technician said she was as perplexed as I was. I mean who would be impersonating me by filing taxes? Next year I’d like to pay someone to impersonate me and do my taxes. It did occur to me that this was some kind of IRS investigation into my taxes. Like, maybe, they want me to say I did it cause I did it wrong. Well, if that’s true, I did do it but I did my best to do it right. If I accidentally did it wrong we’ll just have to deal with that but first you’ll have to prove it was me being me and not some other person pretending to be me here and on the phone. Got that?

The other day we took a walk to the Harmony Headlands. This path to the ocean was littered with regurgitated pellets. I must have seen over 100. The number was impressive but so was the location. Normally pellets accumulate under a birds perch. An owl will catch and eat a mouse and then fly off to digest. A while later the owl belches up the nasty bits. Pellets can be fun to investigate. The pellets we found were sitting in the open on a path with no perches above. Meanwhile rodents and lagomorphs were everywhere. Rabbits peered out from the bushes. Gopher holes dotted the landscape. Fat and I presume happy birds of prey soared over hear. I saw a golden eagle on the drive in and the northern harriers put on a spectacular flight show. The area looked barren but it was surging with life in a circle of eat or be eaten.

Imitation rabbit.
Imitation rabbit.
Regurgitated pellet full of rodent bones.
Regurgitated pellet full of rodent bones. Birds of prey regurgitate the indigestible fur and bones.
A triad at the Harmony Headlands.
A triad at the Harmony Headlands.
Gopher mummy.
Gopher mummy.