Friday, February 4, 2011

Fault-Blocking, Stories and the Meaning of Life

My first day of “retirement”, I took the Trifecta to school, ran some errands and then wanted to get out. It was a cold, windy day, with intermittent snow showers, but no real accumulation- bad for biking, not great for skiing- so I went for a hike. I talked Awesome Wife- who’d just come home from work*- into tagging along as far as the zoo, where she kissed me goodbye and turned back while I crossed Sunnyside Ave. and started climbing.

*Yes, work. Ironically, the week I stopped working was the week she started working. It’s not what you think. AW was a half-time reading specialist in a local elementary school last year, but her contract wasn’t renewed this year due to lack of funding. The recent influx of federal education money enabled her school to re-hire her. She’s thrilled.

Tangent: I had my first “retired moment” Wednesday. SkiBikeJunkie and I took a long lunch to ski up in Little Cottonwood Canyon. We were late getting back and SBJ had to run back to work. I had a couple of errands to run, but I was hungry, and stopped into a local Barbacoa to grab a burrito, which, as usual, I planned to take with me. But as I was walking away from the counter, I realized that I didn’t have to be anywhere, and I stopped and ate right there, while leafing through one of the local alternative papers. It was both cool and kind of weird…

Most of this project has occurred in and around the Wasatch Mountains, and the lion’s share of the trees, birds, shrubs, mammals, mosses, lichens and other things we’ve looked at are here because of this massive 11,000 foot-high wall in my back yard. For that matter, it’s why I’m here. The wall of the Wasatch, and the perennial water source it provides, is the reason why the Utes camped by the shores of Utah Lake, why the Mormon pioneers stopped here, and why it harbors one of only two major cities* in the Great Basin. Before wrapping up the project, we should probably have some idea why the Wasatch is here, how it came about, and why it is the way it is.

*Reno is the other.

DCMapRoute4 I quickly reached the top of the Roller-Coaster and continued climbing up the faint trail leading North. The trail is steeper here, but it was cold enough to more or less hold the mud together and provide solid footing.

Throughout this project, huge numbers of the things I’ve blogged about, especially in Spring, have been located in what IMG_8547I’ve generally referred to as the “foothills.” But the West slope of the Wasatch doesn’t really have “foothills” in the strict sense. For the most part, the West slope of the Wasatch is characterized by high peaks rising dramatically from the valley floor. When I first moved here, this was one of the big surprises. Back in the Denver area (Life 1.0), I lived and recreated mainly in the foothills of the East slope of the Front Range, which gradually work their way up over 20-30 miles to a high crest. But from the floor of Salt Lake Valley to 11,000 foot peaks is only a couple of (crow-flying) miles.

What’s interesting is that the other side of the Wasatch- the East slope- isn’t like this. It sort of gently tumbles down to Park City and Heber through rolling forested slopes (which is why there’s so much better mtn biking over on that side of the Front.) And what’s even more interesting is that if you check out the next 2 ranges to the West- the Oquirrhs and the Stansburys, they’re set up exactly the same way, with a steep West face and a gentle East slope.

Ranges Slopes The Wasatch Range- depending on how it’s defined- extends over 200 miles from Fayette, UT to Malad City, ID. Along its course the West-facing front is regularly interrupted by a series of minor East-West protrusions, or “bumps”, that geologists use to break the range up into segments. Our segment, the Salt Lake City segment, is bounded by the Traverse WFront SLC Segment cutMountains in the South (Point of the Mountain, Suncrest, Corner Canyon) and the Salt Lake Salient in the North. The SL Salient is the whole City Creek Canyon/Ensign Peak/radio towers area, and is composed largely of tertiary conglomerates, which I explained in this post*. The dividing line between the Salient and the Wasatch Front proper is the Rudy Flat Fault, which runs right more or less up Spring Gulch, the next minor draw after Limekiln Gulch** as you follow the Shoreline trail to the Northwest. The SL Salient, this little “aberration”, is my extended back yard, and comprises most of the “foothills” I’ve been blogging about.

*The tertiary conglomerate story in the salient is actually more complicated than I realized at the time of that post. Much of the salient is composed of 2 different conglomerates, which while similar in form, were laid down about 18M years apart. Essentially, over behind the Capitol you’re on what’s called Tertiary Conglomerate 1, which is about 35M years old, but between City Creek and Spring Gulch you’re mostly on Tertiary Conglomerate 2, which is only about 17M years old.

**Which in turn is the minor draw just North of Dry Creek.

Extra Detail: One of the confusing things about major faults to non-geologists is that they involve lots of little faults. For example, another little fault- the Warm Springs Fault- defines the Western edge of the SL salient, and it’s what you drive along when you take 89 up to Bountiful. For that matter, you have a bird’s eye view of another minor (unnamed) fault from the top of the Roller-Coaster, which runs right up the Death Climb gulch.

DC Fault The steep pitch above the Roller-Coaster only lasts for 5 or so minutes before you reach what I call The Shoulder, a short, open ridge that’s a perfect spot for a picnic or a nap on a Spring day. On this day though the wind was whipping and I donned sunglasses to protect my eyes from the sideways graupel*.

*Apparently, that is how you spell it. I never knew till I had to look it up for this post.

In 1995 when I moved to Utah, my first job was located in an old 3-story office building in downtown Provo. I remember one afternoon we had a visitor who my boss was showing around. As they looked out the window he pointed out Mount Nebo to the South, the highest peak of the Wasatch, and described it as the “last of the Rockies.” I loved that- the last of the Rockies. For years afterward, when I’d spot Nebo from afar, or drive past it on I-15, his words would echo in my head- the last of the Rockies… It was more than a decade until I learned he was completely wrong.

Shoulder ViewThe Wasatch certainly seems like the last of the Rockies, and biologically it’s a fair description; the trees, birds and mammals are, for the most part, trees, birds and mammals you can find clear across to Denver. But geologically they’re something completely different and much newer. Rather than the Westernmost range of the Rockies, the Wasatch are the Easternmost range of the Basin and Range province. Between Salt Lake and Reno, range after range- something like 200 of them, almost all running North-South- are separated by wide open valleys. Some of the ranges- like the Cedar Mountains- are low and scrubby. Others- like the Deep Creeks and the Rubies- are high and mighty like the Wasatch. But high or low, the vast majority of them- like the Wasatch, the Oquirrhs and the Stansburys- have one steep side and one gentle side. What’s going in this part of the country?

IMG_8549 On The Shoulder I pulled my shell out of my pack and put it on. I hate climbing with all my layers on- it means I’ll be cold up top. I followed The Shoulder to its “base” and started climbing again- even more steeply than before, but up here the ground was frozen hard, and the footing easy.

I’ve mentioned Reno a couple of times. If you’ve lived on the Wasatch Front for a while, chances are you’ve had to drive there at some point. And no matter how interesting the geology and botany of the ranges in between, it is a long, boring drive*. And it’s getting longer every year. No really, I mean it: in the last 17.5 million years, the distance between Salt Lake and Reno has nearly doubled.

*On I-80 it is, anyway. I still maintain (even though no one ever agrees with me on this) that driving it over a couple of days on US50 makes for an awesome road trip, which I described in this post, this post, this post and this post.

For the last 17.5 million years the Great Basin has been stretching and thinning. The reasons for this are not completely understood, but are believed to be intimately bound up with what’s going on in California. The San Andreas Fault marks where the North American and Pacific crustal plates meet up. But before ~17 million years ago, there was another plate- the Farallon- in between the two. Between ~150 million and ~17 million years ago the Pacific and North American plates gradually worked their way closer together, and as they did so, pushed the Farallon plate down under- or subducted beneath- the North American plate.

Plates 40MYA During the last 17 million years the San Andreas Fault has been zippering its way Northward, closing the gap with the North American plate and eliminating the Farallon. A small remnant of the Farallon- the Juan de Fuca plate- still exists up around Oregon and Washington, where its ongoing subduction is driving the volcanism of the Cascade Range.

Extra Detail: Interestingly, the ~20 million year period before 17 MYA was marked by significant and dramatic volcanic activity in the Intermountain West. And following up on the “The reasons for [the Great Basin extension]… not completely understood…” comment, there are at least 5 (probably more) proposed explanations I’m aware of. The topic is too wide-ranging for this post, but an excellent summary of the leading hypotheses can be found in Chapter 12 of Bill Fiero’s Geology of the Great Basin.

Plates Now Since the zippering began, the Great Basin has been stretching. Currently any given point on the floor of the Salt Lake Valley is creeping Westward at about 2mm/year. Over by Wendover it’s stretching faster, more like 3mm/year, and way out in the Black Rock desert in Northwest Nevada the ground is moving at something like 8mm/year. As it stretches, it’s also thinning. Nevada and Utah’s West Desert are sprinkled liberally with geothermal hot springs and evidence of recent volcanic activity, such as the Tabernacle Hill area West of Fillmore.

All About Southern Idaho

I’m including this side note because a) it’s vaguely related to the geology we’re discussing, b) I meant to blog about it last summer but never got around to, and c) Southern Idaho generally gets a bum rap as mega-boring (which it kind of is) but its geology is fantastic.

Side Note: Another recent spectacular example of such activity is Southern Idaho, which has tons of volcanic features, such as Craters of the Moon National Monument and Hell’s Half-Acre (pic below, right)*. But Southern Idaho’s volcanic history is more complex than suggested by these features.

*Which is right along I-15 between Idaho Falls and Pocatello. The next time you’re driving this stretch, you absolutely must stop for 30 minutes. It’s the best bang-for-buck quick lava field stop in the contiguous 48 states.

The foundation of the entire Snake River Plain is a series of massive basalt layers laid down in a period of super-volcanism roughly 17.5 MYA. The obvious black lava fields you see at Craters of the Moon IMG_6498et al are far more recent, only a couple of thousand years old, and have created only a teensy-weensy fraction of the volume of rock produced by the earlier volcanic period. The earlier period is basically Yellowstone. The volcanic and geothermal activity in Yellowstone National Park is the result of a soft, or “weak”, spot in the Earth’s mantle. The reasons for this soft/weak spot are debated (the most exciting hypothesis may be an ancient meteorite impact), but the spot has been in the same place for at least the last 17.5M years. But the Earth’s crust has been moving across it, such that ~17 MYA what is now the Snake River Plain was right on top of it. The “new” stuff is a completely different deal, the stretching/thinning of the Great Basin, and the volcanism produced by it rather inconsequential in comparison. It only looks consequential because it’s so recent.

Everything you’ve heard BTW about the Yellowstone caldera is true; it blows up spectacularly pretty much once every 600,000 years, we’re due for another go anytime now, and it’s going to suck for us when it blows.

At the top of the pitch above the shoulder I encountered the first real tree- a Curlleaf Mountain Mahogany. I gazed up for years at these strange trees before I knew their cool story: evergreen angiosperms, they’re like the Rose Family’s version of a Juniper. They do so well on these exposed ridges; the scrub-oak here barely manages to grow thigh-high, but the Mountain Mahogany stands high above my head. About 50 feet further up the underlying tilted rocks emerge from the ground in a minor, ridge-defining hogback, which provided some bit of shelter from the wind. I slowed down when I reached it, bending down behind the hogback for cover.

Cerco TC limestone Well, all that’s interesting, but what’s it got to do with mountains? We generally think of mountain ranges forming when crustal plates push up against each other, which intuitively makes sense. The Himalayas are a great example: India runs North, smacks into the soft underbelly of Asia and up crumple K2 and Everest. But why would stretching produce mountains? Why wouldn’t the land just get flatter?

The hogback, along with all the underlying rock on Wire Peak, is Twin Creek Limestone, a light-gray marine limestone laid down in the Jurassic. It’s abrasive, high-friction and generally makes for good hand/toeholds, but fractures easily; when scrambling on it you have to “test” each chunk before committing your full weight to it. Perkins Peak, the next peak South*, is also Twin Creek, but none of the other peaks in this area are. Red Butte, the next peak North, is composed of a completely different rock- the reddish Nugget Sandstone, and the peaks to the South composed of still different formations.

*Hardly anyone ever climbs it. I’ve done so twice, and it’s a cool hike, though you have to be patient threading your way through the scrub-oak. Easiest way is to park at Little Mountain Pass and start walking West along the ridge.

Extra Detail: I described the geology of Mill Creek Canyon in this post. Parleys Canyon BTW has awesome geology you can check out from the car window. As you drive along the ramp connecting I-215 Northbound to I-80 Eastbound, you pass alongside a wall of reddish rock- the Ankareh formation. Suddenly, just before you enter the canyon, you’ll pass a band of white rock tilted at about 70-80 degrees, This is the Gartra Member of the Ankareh formation and there are 2 really cool things about it.

Parley Mouth Geo The first is that if you turn your head and look left/down, you’ll see that the member extends down to “Suicide Rock”, the heavily-painted outcrop at the mouth of Parleys. And if you pay attention from down in the valley, you’ll see that the white line of the Gartra extends clear up in a well-defined hogback to the North “shoulder” of Grandeur Peak. All of that, from Suicide Rock on up, is the same band of rock.

The second cool thing is that the Gartra is chronologically and sequentially analogous to the Shinarump Conglomerate* of Southwest Utah. So essentially, that white band of rock running up from the mouth of Parley is our own little Wasatch version of Gooseberry Mesa, except that it’s titled nearly 80 degrees on its side!

*Which we looked at in this post. Man, it is like I have a post for everything.

The Great Basin ranges aren’t formed via “crumpling”, but through a process called “fault-blocking”. Essentially as minor pieces of the Earth’s crust are pulled apart, they tilt. As the chunks of crust tilt, they form breaks, or faults, where the edge of the tilted block rises above the adjacent block. These tilt-faults become the steep sides of Great Basin mountain ranges. The “mellow” sides of the ranges are the old “tops” of the now-tilted blocks.

Faulting Block You see this pattern all over the Great Basin- one steep/faulted side, one mellow-tilted side. Most of the ranges around here- the Wasatch, Oquirrhs, Stansburys, Cedars- are faulted on the West side, but there are plenty of big ranges- like the Rubies and the East Humboldts faulted on the East.

Extra Detail: The easiest-to-see close-by East-faulted range is probably the Canyon Range. Next time you’re headed down to St. George, check out the mountains directly West of Scipio*. Those cliffs to the West are the East slope of the Canyon Range.

*Two years ago I discovered that a) the town is not named for the Roman general but rather for an Indian (who I presume was named for him), b) the “c” is silent, just like with the general, and c) the Chevron cashier/clerk knew all about the Second Punic War, which, I will admit, surprised me.

East Face Canyon Range But I believe the closest West-faulted Range to Salt Lake is- get ready for it- the Newfoundland Range, which coincidentally was the first range I ever blogged about.

Beyond the hogback the route IMG_8562passes through an open little mini-woodland of Mountain Mahogany. This is usually an easy stretch, but it was covered with crusty windblown snow concealing old icy footprints beneath. The footing was slow and treacherous, the wind howled, the graupel stung my cheeks, and I wished I’d packed a couple more layers.

Finally I passed between the old signal IMG_8569panels and trudged up the last slope to the peak. I’ve climbed Wire Peak probably a dozen or so times, sometimes alone, sometimes with kids, a couple of times with a baby on my back. I sat down long enough to strap yak-trax to my boots, gaze West for a moment, then started down.

Fault-blocking is a neat story, but when you think about it for a bit there’s something wrong with it- the valleys. They’re wide open and (mainly) flat. Why aren’t they tilted? Because they’re filled with sediment. If you know something of the recent history of Salt Lake Valley, you may think “lake” when you think of sediment.

Wire Peak view West But the sediments left behind by ancient Lake Bonneville (and Lake Lahontan in the Western Great Basin), though often hundreds of feet thick, constitute only a thin veneer over the deeper, thicker sediments, which are the product of 17 million years of erosion-rubble. As the blocks have faulted and tilted, rains, streams and gravity have worn away at them, filing the basins with rubble. Near my house on the East side of the valley, the rubble, or Basin Fill, is only about 600 feet deep. But out by the refineries in North Salt Lake, the fill is 4,000 feet deep. So the Wasatch would stand nearly 11,000 feet above the floor of Salt Lake Valley, if only someone would clean out the rubble.

Extra Detail: How can they tell how deep the fill is? There are 3 ways. The first- and by far biggest hassle- is by drilling till you hit bedrock. The second is via seismic soundings. But the cheapest and coolest way is by measuring gravity. Basin fill is less dense than bedrock, so gravity is weaker where fill is thicker, leading to the fascinating corollary that you weigh less at the refineries than you do in say downtown Murray!*

*I had to think about locations here, and could be wrong about this example. You need to equalize for altitude and latitude, both of which also affect surface gravity.

The story is even more dramatic in other valleys. A well drilled in the 1970’s West of Spanish Fork in Utah Valley bottomed out at 13,000 feet. Think about what that means for a moment: The real height difference between the bedrock-valley-floor and the peak of Mt Nebo is about 25,000 feet! The real bedrock-valley-floor of Utah Valley lies more than 8,000 feet below sea level.

Basin Fill The fill-depths of most Great Basin valleys are unknown. But there are low rocky ridges that are nearly submerged, but which would stand as massive sheer ranges if the surrounding fill were removed. It’s suspected that some Great Basin valleys hide entire ranges under their fill.

I descended quickly but cautiously, driven by the wind and the cold, IMG_8580but not wanting to slip and twist an ankle. Finally I passed through the mini-woodland, cleared the snow and found firmer footing on frozen ground. Relaxing a bit, I thought of all the hidden life under the hard icy gravel, the spring-parsleys and balsamroots and phloxes and lupines and grasses waiting to burst forth, and the mental images of their sights and smells took the edge off the cold just a bit. All of those things have stories, many of which we’ve looked at over the course of this project. All of those stories are part of the story of the Wasatch, which in turn is part of the story of the Basin and Range province, which in turn… got me thinking about the project, and the 3 lessons I learned from it.

Lesson #1

This one should be obvious by now, but is worth repeating: Everything has a cool story. I thought I knew this before I started the project, but I really didn’t. I knew that lots of macro-level biological things had cool stories, like moose and pines and magpies and such, but I was largely ignorant of the amazing stories of things like fungi, moss, lichens and bugs. More importantly, I was ignorant of the stories of non-living things. Not just big, bright things, like the stars and the moon, but things like rocks and water and soil. Everything has a cool story- stories full of wonder and luck, perseverance and probability, joy and despair. You could spend a lifetime learning the million stories of the world. If life ultimately has no meaning, no higher purpose than to learn and know some small portion of these stories, then it is absolutely, wonderfully and fantastically worth it.

Side Note: The #1 topic I wish I’d blogged about in the project but didn’t get around to BTW is soil. It looks so simple, but is amazingly complex and is the primary interface between the organic and non-organic worlds. Dirt makes everything work. Ultimately it brings us forth from the inorganic world, and takes us home to it again at the end, but we’ll get to that in a moment…

Lesson #2

All stories are connected to other stories. Again, much of this is obvious. Pollinator-plant, predator-prey and parasite-host stories are all fascinating though largely obvious examples. But less obvious is the dynamism of the relationships in these stories- how migrations, introductions and climate change the balance and composition of populations, and how floral, faunal and other species sweep across the land again and again like waves.

Less obvious still is the connection between organic and inorganic stories. Some of these, such as the links between altitude, geography, climate and living things are straightforward. Others, like selenium in Prince’s Plume and UV-induced folate damage in Europeans are more subtle. Every molecule of chlorophyll contains an atom of magnesium that was born out of an ancient supernova*. After nearly 3 years at this project, I’ve come to see organic vs. inorganic less as a duality (is it dead or alive?) than as a spectrum (what is a virus?)

*For that matter we are chock-full of it, in our bones, muscles and elsewhere. Most adult humans have about ~24 grams of magnesium inside them, making it the 11th-most common element in the body.

Lesson #3

OK, pay attention, here’s the big one: Stories matter. When I say that you probably think I’m saying they matter because nature is beautiful, or every species is a unique treasure, or we need to be good stewards of the Earth or some such. But I’m not saying any of those things (even though they’re all true.)

I think the truth is that inside the heart and soul of every blogger is a frustrated evangelist. Somewhere down deep we think we have an insight or perspective that would somehow enrich others and better the world if only we could a) put a finger on just what it is and b) figure out how to communicate it. While I’ve tried hard to avoid blatant evangelizing, I’ve generally had an evangelical “message” in the back of my mind which the overall theme of the posts in this blog has supported. But here’s the thing: over the course of the project, my evangelical “belief” (EB), as it were, has changed.

My original EB was pretty simple: the world is full of wonder and amazing stories. If more people saw how amazing and wonderful the natural world really is, then they’d be less concerned with reality TV shows and material goods and trivial work-related stress and housing starts and marginal tax rates and a whole bunch of other things that seem real important but are actually pretty minor and stupid and so maybe they’d be a little happier. And since happier people tend to make the people around them happier, the world would be a little bit better place. That’s it. It’s corny, but it’s what I thought, and I still think it, but it’s not all I think.

Tangent: That’s absolutely true, BTW. The part about happy people making people around them happier. Even if you think everything else I tell you in this post is BS, believe that. I used to have a client who liked to say, “Happy wife, happy life”, and as a veteran of 2 marriages to women at radically different locations on the Spectrum of Happiness, I can tell you it’s spot-on. There’s a worthwhile corollary here: making the people in your life a little happier pays you back in spades.

I walked easily along the shoulder, the wind no longer so strong or icy. As I reached the next pitch down the ground started to soften, but not so much as to make things slippery.

No matter what our take on the world around us, the strictly material world-view leads us to a head-scratcher of a place. If “I” am the sum of the stuff that comprises me, then the here-and now “me” is changing all the time as that “stuff” changes. The “me” who opened the mailbox in the Henry Mountains, or rescued the dog with a face-full of porcupine quills, or dated the girl on the bridge, or rode a motorcycle cross-country, or for that matter started this blog, doesn’t exist anymore. And the “me” writing this post won’t be around to see his kids graduate from college, walk his daughter down the aisle, or dance with his wife at their 50th wedding anniversary.

Tangent: My parents’ 50th anniversary is next year. We plan to throw them a big party. My mom initially resisted, but we finally convinced her with a version of the It’ll-be-the-last-time-to-get-all-your-friends-together-for-a-big-bash-before-they-start-corking-off pitch. Actually, it wasn’t a “version”- that was the pitch. Hey, it worked.

But there’s another way of looking at “me”, and that’s to shake off the old-fashioned, evolution-shaped, parochial view of self. Self isn’t an absolute, it’s a configuration. A configuration that can see and hear and feel and figure out stuff and understand it. A configuration comprised by a small, here-right-now snapshot-portion of the immediate biosphere, which in turn is a little here-right-now portion of the broader organic+inorganic world, which in turn, well… planet->solar system->galactic arm->galaxy->Local Group->universe->everything. There isn’t really an absolute “me” or “you” distinct from the Big-Us-Everything any more than a given wave is distinct from the ocean.

IMG_8585I reached the top of the Roller-Coaster and continued down through the scrub-oak which grew taller now, as tall as me, down to the trailhead and Sunnyside Ave. I crossed the street and started walking home. I’d like to say I spent this time thinking great thoughts, but actually I pulled out my phone and started returning calls I’d ignored ringing on the hike up…

Multiple perspectives of self are all well and good, but the problem with this view is the huge gap in between. At one end of the “you” spectrum there’s the Right-Now-Little-You, which is cool to be, but disconnected from everything, and ultimately seems kind of pointless. On the other end there’s this Big-Everything-You, who/which has no end and is part of everything, but there’s this vast distance between the two. Neither of these “you”s relates meaningfully to your here-and-now day-to-day life. Your grow-up, go-to-school, get-a-job, find-true-love, raise-a-family, figure-out-how-you-are-connected-to-the-world, grow-old-and-complain-about-the-government/your health/your kids life.

That’s where stories fit in. Stories link all things-living and dead- together. They connect the little Right-Now-Little-You to the Big-Everything-You. And in between those two extremes, in the jumble of connections and threads between stories across scale and distance and time, is the “you” that matters- the “you” you obsess over, that your friends care about, your family loves and your mom worries about.

I’m not suggesting that if you start paying attention to the natural world you’ll suddenly understand the meaning of life, and for that matter I doubt there is a simple meaning of life/existence that can be summed up in any kind of sentence, paragraph, scripture or manifesto. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t continually gain more and more insight into the meaning of life. Think of this analogy: let’s say you take a week-long vacation to Costa Rica*. You could visit a couple of locations, but there’s no way you could ever “know” the place in a week. You could return the next year, the year after, and the year after that- maybe you could even move there- but you’d simply never know every town, every beach, every swimming hole, every little forest clearing or hilltop in the country. But whether you visited once or fifty times, no matter what you did, for sure you’d know the place better than if you’d spent the vacation in your hotel room watching TV.

*Which, as it turns out, I’ve visited twice. And yes, I’ll be returning again this year. But not just yet…

If life is a vacation, too many of us spend it in the hotel room. There, that’s it. That’s my evangelical message: Get out of your mental hotel room and start checking out the world, even if it’s just the small bit of it in your backyard. Try to understand some little pieces of it, learn stories, make connections. To know and understand yourself, you have to look outward.

When you can, help others do the same. They’re part of the Big-Everything-You anyway, and their stories touch yours, and the stories of those you care about, over and over again. Your story touches a thousand other stories: your friends and colleagues, your kids, your spouse. Live your life so that everyone else’s story is a little bit richer for having touched yours.

I passed the zoo and hung up with Arizona Steve, turned off Sunnyside into my neighborhood, then up my street. My intention of course- blogging or no- is to keep watching the world wake up for as many years as I’m alive and of sound mind, but of course we can never tell where life will take us. The future is full of unforeseens, of challenges and obstacles that can occupy or divert our attention, focus and goals. But by the middle of your life, after a few decades of noticing the lives and paths of those around you, you get a vague, general idea of where your life may be heading.

I’ll spend a year, maybe more, exploring, “walking the Earth”, and trying to best enjoy time with the Trifecta before they head off into the weird haze of adolescence. After a time I’ll likely turn at least part of my focus once again toward concerns material, whether another position, career or business venture. TrifectaThe Trifecta will continue to bring us- as all children do- worry and pride, heartache and joy, disappointment and hope, until we somehow manage to more or less “raise” them, and Nathan (Bird Whisperer), John (Twin A) and Julia (Twin B) set off on their own adult lives. Sue (Awesome Wife) and I will fumble along, eventually managing to “retire” for good, enjoying our golden years together for as long as health and good fortune allow, happy in each other’s company, yet each secretly, selfishly hoping to be the first to go, leaving the other to face the last dark years alone.

But how and whenever the end comes, I know this one thing: that if I have at least a moment’s clarity before the end, I’ll think that way back when, in the early decades of the century, for at least a few years, I Watched the World Wake Up.

End of Part One

Note About Sources: Info for this post came from Utah’s Spectacular Geology, Lehi F. Hintze, Geology of the Great Basin, Bill Fiero, Geologic History of Utah, Lehi F. Hintze, and Roadside Geology of Idaho, David D. Alt.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


Tomorrow or (worst case) Friday I’ll wrap up Part One, before leaving the country for a few weeks. Before doing so, I wanted to say a quick thank you to some of the many individuals who’ve helped me out with this project over the past couple of years. (I know I’ll miss some- if I forgot you please speak up.)

My biggest thanks goes to those who know way more about the topics I’ve covered, but who generously gave of their time and attention to help me out, including Sally White, Professor Chuck, Rudy Drobnik, Larry St. Clair, Lloyd Stark, John Brinda, Doug M., and Christopher Taylor. Sally in particular has become a great friend, providing support, encouragement and guidance throughout the project. Doug M. (aka Smartest Reader of This Blog) also deserves special thanks for his help and insights on everything from bat wings to red dwarfs.

Speaking of friends, I’m fortunate to have made two great real-life ones through this project: KanyonKris and SkiBikeJunkie. KanyonKris, in addition to being my most faithful commenter, also spent hours proofing and catching countless typos. SkiBikeJunkie spent many hours mulling posts and topics with me while biking, hiking and skiing, and deserves special thanks, along with Kevin Vigor* and Phil O., for their outstanding guest posts last Spring. Thanks also to fellow nature blogger KB, who provided access to countless sources I could not have obtained otherwise.

*Whom I finally met in real-life over the weekend. I was driving along 1300 South, recognized him (no kidding) from his profile photo, pulled over and introduced myself.

I’m also extremely grateful to researchers who, while not directly involved in this project, made their work freely available, enabling me to learn and post about many fascinating topics. Since mid-2009 (when I got serious about listing sources) I’ve tried to be diligent in crediting/thanking these individuals in the relevant posts, but without question I have missed dozens, for which I apologize profusely. Among these I must give special thanks to Jim Kaler, whose wonderful STARS site has provided material for countless astro-posts and hours of wide-eyed reading.

Thanks also to the many commenters who provided valuable insight, help and encouragement, including, but not limited to, KristenT, Enel, mtb w, Lucy/Jube, ElZo, P65, Maggie, Marissa Buschow, El Guapo, El Gaucho, TheGuth, John, Rachel, Eric Wright, Wheeldancer, rabidrunner, Dave, MikeJ in Fremont, Chris in Portland, KathyR, Tomodactylus and a bunch of others I’m almost certainly forgetting.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank Awesome Wife, who put up with me reading and typing at all hours of the night for nearly 3 years, or my many friends and coworkers who put up with my blogging about them in all kinds of posts.

But my last and most heartfelt thanks goes to a reader I won’t name, who works for a state government agency in the Eastern US. Way back when, in the summer of 2008, I was getting ready to kill this project. It was taking up a lot of cycles, I never got any comments, and it seemed like a huge time-sink. Out of curiosity, I installed one of those traffic-tracking tools, just to see if anyone was reading. Hardly anyone was, but one day a visitor from that state agency stopped by and spent 7+ hours reading just about every post I’d done to date. When I saw that, I thought, “OK, so at least someone finds this stuff interesting…” and I kept on going, learning about astronomy and geology and bugs and brains and eyes and ears and rock art and pigeons and all sorts of things I never would’ve gotten to if I’d killed the project then. So thank you, Mr./Mrs. East-Coast-State-Government-Employee. You made the whole project happen.

Next Up: Blocking, Stretching and Thinning, the Meaning of Life and I Wrap Up Part One*.

*Sounds big. I better get typing.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

It’s Not You, It’s Me

So anyway, about this blog…

Tangent: But first, 2 things about the last post. First, if you ever want to find out how many coworkers really read your blog, do a post like that one. All week long, coworkers have been coming up to me, saying (mostly) nice things* about how they’ll miss working with me, mentioning that they read the post, and sometimes asking a follow-on question or two to try to get a handle on the details of the past-blown-up deal or B or C or some other aspect of the LQC*.

*A couple even hugged me, which I thought was kind of nice. In general, I’m not a Gratuitous Hugger, but I have some great co-workers. Now that I think about it, I don’t think I ever did a tangent on Gratuitous Hugging, which is a rich, rich topic. Oh well, possible material for Part 2.

**Never gonna tell. But contrary to what Co-worker Matt is spreading, there is no anagramming involved. Seriously, the guy sat down in my office yesterday trying to Da Vinci-Decode “ABC…” One of the odd things in my life, BTW, that I think has been if anything exacerbated by this blog, is that people generally assume I’m smarter than I am. Really, I’m not all that bright- I’m just interested in a lot of things and like to run off at the mouth. Lots of times I’ll be talking with someone and they’re looking at me and I can tell they’re thinking, “Boy, I wonder what he’s thinking about right now- probably some deep, important stuff…” But mostly I’m just thinking about when I can next go for my next bike ride. Or lunch.

Second, I’m sorry- especially to male readers- about the “We Have To Talk” teaser. Because men are terrified of that phrase. When our wives/SOs say it to us, we simply have no idea what’s coming next. We honestly don’t know if they’re going to ask us for a divorce, or our opinion on the color for the new drapes. Really, we think it could be either. Because in relationships- and this is the truth- men never really have any idea of what is going on. Oh, we like to think we do, but we’re pretty clueless. We’re like long-distance drivers who have absolutely no idea how an engine works. We know we’re supposed to fill the tank with gas when the light comes on and maybe check the oil every once in a while. We generally think that when we get back in the car and start up everything will run just fine, but for all we know the next time we turn the key the engine might just blow up, like at the end of The Mechanic. That’s kind of like… oh, you get it already.

Monday night OCRick and I drove down South to Gooseberry Mesa. After a quick night-ride on the Bench level we drove on up onto the Mesa and camped. I looked up at the stars for a while and saw Perseus, Auriga, Gemini, the Big Dipper, Draco*, Orion, Taurus, the Pleiades, Jupiter, Cassiopeia, and much more.

*Thanks, Doug M.!

Tangent: We have a new favorite Phenomenally Awesome Campsite on Gooseberry. For years we had an Awesome Campsite, but about a year ago it got taken out by a cell tower. Then back in October, we stumbled across the new, Phenomenally Awesome Campsite, which turns out- incredibly- to be even better than the Old Awesome Campsite. It’s 2WD accessible, private, right on singletrack, and the view, well…

View no captions No, I’m not showing it on a map here. If you’re headed down there, email me and I’ll give you the beta.

View captions The next day we rode all over the mesa. We pedaled past Piñon and Juniper and Cliffrose and Sagebrush and Mormon Tea and Prickly Pear and Turbinella Oak, and rolled over the Shinarump Conglomerate and the Lower Sandstone Member of the Chinle formation. The rock surfaces were dotted with bits of crustose lichens, and shady spots bore bright green swathes of moss. Away from the trail, in the open spaces between the trees, Grate captionI spied rich black patches of mature cryptogamic soils. We heard the calls of Pinyon Jays, caught glimpses of the banded red & white Moenkopi members below the rim, the Wingate cliffs and Navajo domes of Zion in to the North, and the massive laccolith of the Pine Valley range to the West.

Tangent: So you’re probably wondering how I like my new bike. After careful testing, I’ve assembled this highly technical Evaluation Assessment Matrix (may be too advanced for non-technical readers):

Eval Matrix Seriously, I love it. The low bottom bracket requires a bit of “awareness”, but gives the bike a wonderfully stable feel on fast descents. And the brakes deliver a masterful sense of effortless controlled power, even if the sounds emanating from them remind me of the zombies in The Walking Dead. I could prattle on about this or that feature, but the most remarkable (and surprising) thing about a full-suspension carbon 29er with a through-axle fork is that you don’t get tired. After a full day on Gooseberry in the off-season I just can’t believe how good I feel. My wrists, butt, neck, legs, arms- everything feels great. And the next morning I feel, well, normal.

All of these things- and the stars the night before- I not only recognized, but now knew something about their stories: what they were, where they came from, why they were here- pretty much none of which I knew 3 years ago. Though there will always be new bugs, birds, rocks, shrubs and stars to learn about, by any reasonable measure, I’ve completed the project. I’ve watched the world wake up.

OCR DD My plan was always that this project would have a start and an end. And this is probably a good point to wrap it up. Except…

Now that I finally have all kinds of time and freedom, I’m going to get to go to all sorts of cool places and see all sorts of cool things- stuff really worth blogging about. So I’ll probably blog again, which means starting a new blog. I’d probably leave a pointer here to the new blog for any readers who were interested, which is kind of silly, because then, well, it’s really the same blog… So here’s what I intend to do:

Next week I’ll complete the project, which I’ll call Part 1. After I wrap up Part 1, I’ll take a brief break from blogging- probably around a month*. Then, I intend to start Part 2.

*Couple reasons for the break. First, I’ll have said my piece and feel I can let it sit for a bit. Second, I want a break. Third, I’ll be traveling light in a third-world-y kind of place where I don’t really want to be dragging a laptop around.

All About Part 2

Part 2 will be more focused on travels, places and experiences over the coming year- it won’t simply be a continuation of blogging about the Wasatch and Northern Utah. And it’ll be different than Part 1 in other ways. Posting will be less frequent, and there may be other changes in tone, perspective and focus.

Note that I said “intend”. I’ll start Part 2 when- and if- it feels right. I’ve always felt this project worked best when I wanted- was itching- to blog, which fortunately, was most of the time. When I felt I had to blog, well, it felt kind of like a job. I’m taking a break from jobs- of all kinds- for a bit. I think (and hope) that I’ll be itching to blog again soon, but if not, Part 1 will stand on its own.

So that’s the “plan”, such as it is. Next week I’ll finally get around to explaining the thing I probably should have explained when I started the project- the Wasatch. And some other stuff.

Friday, January 21, 2011

ABC in Perseus

When I started this blog, I wrote a “Point of the blog” type post, where I set out what I was hoping to do. The description- a middle-aged working dad who wanted to start paying attention to the natural world around him- was technically correct. But it was incomplete.

Three years ago this month, I took a solo “hooky” day to drive down to Southwest Utah and spend a day mountain biking in my Favorite Place In The World. I left straight from work, drove down in the dark to my Favorite Campsite In The World, rolled out my bag on the ground, climbed in and stared up at the night sky. I didn’t know much about stars back then, but had it in my head that I’d try to find a new constellation. I looked at the star-finder by flashlight, and decided to try and find Perseus.

I’ve regularly done solo trips for many years, but I had something on my mind on this one. For the past several months I’d been dealing with a sort of career-goals-life-direction, maybe mid-lifey, quasi-“crisis”, and was hoping to sort things out in my head, away from work, family, friends or other distractions for a day and a night.

Perseus Andromeda Action Graphic[4] Perseus, like most constellations, looks absolutely nothing like its namesake, who- as we already know from my previous post on Andromeda—was a semi-divine hero who made a living killing monsters, rescuing naked ladies chained to rocks, and flying around with a head in a bag. But what it mainly looks like is a wedge.

Tangent: It took me a couple years of semi-serious stargazing to figure this out: most constellations look like wedges. Andromeda? Wedge. Cepheus? Wedge. Capricornus? Libra? Sagittarius? Wedge. Wedge. Wedge. This is probably because a wedge is basically a lopsided triangle, which one can readily construct with any 3 points in the same general vicinity. Anyway, the key to recognizing these constellations is to see the wedge, because all of the wedges are different, and, with a little attention up-front, easily recognizable.

The Life Quasi Crisis (LQC) had several different aspects, most of which aren’t things I’ll get into here. But the core of it was that over that last decade, I’d gradually come to realize where my real passion and interests lay, while at the same time, it seemed less likely that my career aspirations were likely to ever come to fruition.

The Wedge of Perseus consists of 4 main stars, which might make you think it looks quadrilateral-ish, but really it looks more wedgy, because 2 of the 4 are quite close together. The wedge points roughly North, and lies West of Auriga and East and a bit South of Cassiopeia*. As you lie facing South, scan West/Right of Auriga for the next bunch of bright stars. If you reach Cassiopeia, back up to the East/Left. The Southwest “base” of the wedge is Epsilon Persei.

*To find Cassiopeia, see this post. To locate Auriga, see this post.

High Southern Sky Jan Epsilon Persei, a double star, lies some 540 light years away. It’s a young, hot star, probably only about 10 million years old, which will go supernova* in only a couple million more. The bigger of the 2 shines 25,000 times as brightly as our sun, and more brightly than any other star in the constellation. It shines 5 times as brightly, and is just about the same distance from us, as Mirfak, the apparent brightest star in Perseus (and which we’ll get to momentarily) but appears dimmer as it’s partially obscured by clouds of interstellar dust.

*I explained supernovas in this post.

Wedge1 Extra Detail: I’m unclear whether these clouds are considered part of the Perseus Molecular Cloud, which spans about 6 degrees of sky a bit further South, centered around Zeta Persei*, roughly 600 light-years distant. This cloud lies within the Orion Spur- which is our “home” spur of the Milky Way- but further outward from the galactic core than us. In fact, everything we’re looking at in this post is away from the galactic center, and we know this because Auriga is our reference constellation for the Galactic Anti-Center.**

*Zeta, not shown on my graphic, lies South of the wedge and is the “foot” of Perseus. Go South from Epsilon about the same apparent distance as from Epsilon to Delta Persei, and it’s the next bright star you run into. The star is an monster, shining- in absolute terms- 4 times as bright as Epsilon, but it’s way, way farther away- almost 1,000 light-years.

**I explained the large-scale structure of the Milky Way galaxy in this post. I explained the Galactic Anti-Center in this post.

The passion/interest thing is probably pretty obvious- it’s a lot of the stuff in this blog, except that back then it was sort of an amorphous, loosey-goosey subset of the stuff in it. I was interested in trees and stars and open spaces, but didn’t know enough to be interested in things like birds or bugs or rocks. But I realized that the natural world was the real show going on, something that hadn’t really occurred to me way back when I was making early life decisions about things like education and career.


From Epsilon Persei, I scanned North and West for the next bright star, Delta Persei. The apparent span between Epsilon and Delta Persei is roughly on the same scale as one of the longer 2 sides of the Auriga pentagon, so I scanned about that distance till I found it. I’d made the first connection.

Wedge2 Delta Persei lies roughly the same distance- 530 light-years away- and shines more than 3,000 times as brightly as the sun. It’s about 6.5 times the mass of the sun, only 50 million years old, has just about exhausted the hydrogen in its core and is in the process of turning into a red giant. Delta Persei appears (not certain) to be a double, but its companion, roughly the size of the sun, is way far out- about 16,000 times the distance between the Sun and the Earth (or 165 times the max distance between the Sun and Eris). At that distance the stars would orbit each other about once every ¾ of a million years. If this sun-sized companion had a planet, Delta Persei (the main star) would appear as an incredibly bright star in the night sky, about 5 times as bright as a full moon, and easily visible even by day.

My “career aspirations” were, uh… to make money. That’s pretty much it. OK that’s a little general. Specifically- and this is an important distinction*- it was to make enough money that I didn’t have to work anymore.

*Because I’m not really into having expensive stuff or anything. I drive an 11 year-old car, and buy a new mountain bike once every 5-7 years. It’s the security and freedom of money that I love. The security to never be losing my home or begging friends or family for hand-outs, and the freedom to (at least know that I could) walk away from any job, any time.

All About Money, Part 1

Tangent: One of the things in our culture about work and money that kind of irks me is how we all put on this sort of overdone show about career development and job satisfaction and meaning in our work and what-not, when the fact of that matter is that for the vast majority of us the #1 over-riding reason why we all go to work every day is to get money. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. We’re trying to stay alive- buy food, shelter and a few luxuries- and money is the most practical way to do that. But there’s this thing about not acting like you do it for money. What’s up with that? I’m screaming loud and clear right now for the world* to hear: I worked for money!

*“World” in this instance would consist of the ~couple hundred people per day who visit this blog, approximately 50% of whom are searching for Salma Hayek photos.

In my family/culture (upper middle-class* Northeast US) the expectation was that you go to college following high school graduation, which like it or not, necessitates at least some preliminary decisions about career path. But I had no idea at age 18 what I wanted to do, other than I didn’t want to go to school for any longer than I had to, and didn’t want to be dependent on my parents for money. So I majored in (electrical) engineering, because you could get a decent-paying job with a bachelor’s degree.

*I’m not really sure what this means. Practically everyone in the Northeast US says they’re “upper middle-class”, don’t they? Unless they grew up semi-poor, in which they say that they “came from a middle-class background…” (which of course implies that they’re now upper-middle class…) I never hear anyone claim to be upper-class, lower-class, or lower middle-class. Anyway, my parents always said we were upper middle-class, so I guess that’s why I say it too.


The next point in the Wedge is mighty Mirfak. From Epsilon to Delta Persei, continue along the same line, except veer ~30 degrees to the West. Continue a bit less than half the apparent Epsilon-Delta distance and you hit honking bright Mirfak.

Wedge3 As I mentioned earlier, Mirfak is the alpha star of Perseus only due to the dust obscuring Epsilon Persei. It’s a young, hot star, maybe 30- 50 million years old, shining 5,000 times as brightly as our sun and lying some 590 light-years distant, and…. waaaait a minute. Isn’t this sounding familiar? All 3 of these stars are super-bright, super-young, and about the same distance- rather atypical for a named constellation. Almost Big Dipper-ish*, in fact. What’s going on here?

*I blogged all about the Big Dipper in this post.

Mirfak, Delta Persei, and Epsilon Persei are all part of the same open star cluster*, the Alpha Persei Cluster, which is around 50 million years old. If you check out Mirfak through binoculars, you’ll see the space around it appears packed with other blue-white members of this cluster.

*I explained open star clusters in this post. Man, it is like I have a post for everything.

As I lay in my bag I retraced the line from Epsilon Persei to Delta Persei, then from Delta Persei to Mirfak, repeatedly, becoming comfortable with the lay of three stars above. As I did so, I started to think of Epsilon -> Delta as segment “A”, and Delta -> Mirfak as segment “B”. Now I was ready to look for “C”.

Engineering seemed dry and dull, and the raises small, so I switched to sales after a couple of years, lured by the promise of big commissions. I wasn’t particularly good at it, but I knew my product well and stumbled into enough lucky breaks to make that first job work, which lead to another job and another… In that first job I used to fly a couple of times a month, mostly between Boston and Newark. One time I was waiting for a flight and I noticed another salesguy-looking fellow waiting. He looked really old, like maybe 45 or something, and I remember thinking, “Man, I hope I’m not still flying around selling stuff when I’m 45…”

My career progressed well enough, making a good living and moving into management, but I never quite hit it big enough to check out. Almost 20 years after I saw that 40-something salesguy in the Newark airport, I lay under the stars, thinking about my life, and about the maybe, possibly, finally chance to break free…


“C” is a direction reversal, heading back South from Mirfak, but veering ~30 degrees West of due South, down almost as far South as Epsilon Persei, down to the next bright star, Algol. In the traditional rendering of the constellation, Algol- the apparent 2nd-brightest star- is the eye of Medusa, the thing that when you look straight at it, will turn you to stone. But although it won’t really turn to stone, Algol will, if you look long enough at it, wink at you.

ABC Perseus Algol is different than the other 3 stars of the wedge. It’s not part of the Alpha Persei Group, and it’s nowhere near as bright as they are. It’s 100 times as bright as our sun, and only appears so bright relative to the other 3 wedge-stars because it’s so much closer- only 93 light-years. Most of the time, Algol shines as a second magnitude star, and the second-brightest star in Perseus, But roughly once every three days, it gets noticeably dimmer (by 2/3!) for a few hours, then returns to normal.

Algol is an eclipsing binary, and was in fact the first such system to be discovered. It consists of 2 stars orbiting each other very closely (less than 5 million miles apart- about 1/20th the distance between the Sun and the Earth) and very rapidly (once every 2.867 days) on a plane parallel to our line-of-sight from Earth, such that one passes in front of the other roughly every day and a half. The star we see is a main sequence hydrogen-burner, like our own sun, only 3.5 times as massive. The obscuring star is a burnt-out giant, dim, with a mass of 0.81 times that of our sun.

Wait a minute- big stars burn out faster. Why is the burnt-out partner the less massive one? Because at their close distance, the burning-bright star is sucking away matter from the dying hulk of its burnt-out partner. It only steals a teeny-tiny fraction of its mass away every year, but at the current rate it should suck it away completely in around 40 million years.*

*My calculation, could be wrong.

Algol System There’s a third partner in the Algol system, about twice the mass of our sun, orbiting the inner 2 stars once every couple of years at about the same distance as between our sun and the asteroid belt. None of the Algol system stars are known to possess planets, but if they do, their skies must be freaky-wild.

The Big Deal

The maybe-possibly part was the promise of a deal- a big deal. A company-liquidity kind of deal that would make my hard-earned piece of it worth something. For 6 years I’d stayed with the same company in hopes of just such a deal, though it seemed forever to lie out of reach, and for the last year I’d debated whether to stick around or move on. Start over. Hit the reset. Find a new gig, negotiate a new deal with a new company, start working and vesting all over again, and hope for a better outcome.

But now, for the first time, that deal was on the horizon. And as I thought about that deal, and about the course of my life and my passion and paths, I re-traced again and again the 3 segments of the wedge of Perseus in the sky above- from Epsilon Persei to Delta Persei to Mirfak to Algol- and a thought came into my head: that the deal- when it happened- would be akin to “A”, in that it would enable a step “B” and a step “C” that would give me the freedom and opportunity and security and confidence to break out of the LQC and start to realize the passions and interests I’d come to recognize only in the middle of my life. Specifically what “B” and “C” were, how they were connected, and what would they would entail aren’t important, but they lead to the promise of a lifestyle of more time doing things that I’d finally figured out were important, including, but not limited to, spending more time doing things I love, traveling to places I’d always daydreamed about traveling to, being a better friend, spouse and parent, and finally paying attention to, learning about, and understanding something of, the natural world around me. Maybe I’d start by creating a blog to keep track of various trees, shrubs and wildflowers as I learned to ID them…

In my head it all fit together, and I called the plan (to myself only) “ABC in Perseus.” ABC in Perseus was my vision, my path, my ticket to freedom, balance and a better, more fulfilling life. And after I returned home, dealing with the craziness of work and the mechanics and logistics of the hoped-for “A”, I kept that vision in my head. “ABC in Perseus”, I’d remind myself, when stressed or worried, and sometimes in the evening I’d step out onto the back porch before bed and scan the night sky, just to reassure myself that ABC was still there. And so things went forward for the next 2 months.

In mid-March 2008, the deal fell- quickly and spectacularly- apart. There was no backup plan, no successor deal on the horizon. I was deflated, crushed, the mental wind knocked out of me. On the verge of Spring- a Spring I’d so been looking forward to- I grasped about for some kind of outlet or distraction, something to focus on other than my lack of a plan or direction. Two weeks later I started this blog.

The “project” started out as a way to learn about flowers, shrubs and trees. I thought I’d do it through the Spring. But Spring came and went and there were still new flowers and trees to check out, and when I learned about them, it seemed that nearly all of them had a cool story. As I learned more about them, I started to get curious about their relationships to one another, and then to and with other living things- other growing things, like mosses and lichens, as well as moving things, like birds and bugs and other critters.

Summer turned to Fall to Winter to Spring again and I still wasn’t done checking out flowers and shrubs, and now I was interested not just in other living things but in their connections to the non-living world, and things like light and sound and rocks and magnetic force and water and the connections between those things and the universe as a whole, and… well, if you’ve been following along over the course of this project you already know all this.

The Big Deal, Take 2

Seasons continued to pass, work continued to happen, and after another couple of years, after the first Big Deal was a faint memory, another Big Deal did appear. And as it developed and grew and then finally came together, it occurred to me that this was “A” all over again, and that if I kept my nose down and played things right, ABC in Perseus could still happen.

Over the last year, “B” and “C” did happen, and though I won’t get into details, I’ll say that it was a year of keeping cool, threading needles and juggling balls. And for once in my long, wandering, figuring-it-out-as-I-go-along life, I did everything right*. ABC in Perseus completed last week. My last day with the company will be January 31. I don’t really need to work, well… anymore.

*Part of “B&C” did involve money, and another part involved disentangling oneself without burning bridges. But the most important part involved finding homes for my team in the new entity. The truth about acquisitions is that they’re great for the top guys, but often a raw deal for the rank & file. M&A folks talk about synergies and opportunities, but for the average worker-bee, having your employer acquired is usually not a good deal. At the time of the acquisition I managed around 30 people, and it was important to me that, at the end of the integration-year, they wound up with good, secure jobs. My success rate ended up being about 90%. (As recently as Thanksgiving, it was looking more like 60%. I did a lot of fast talking and fancy footwork this holiday season…)

To be clear, I will work again. Life is long, children are expensive and the future full of unknowns. But not yet. I’ve put too many things off for too long, and now… well, we’ll get to that soon enough.

All About Money Part 2- How Money Is Like Nudity. And Some Other Stuff.

Tangent: Here’s a funny thing about money: you hardly ever tell other people how much you have or make. Even your good friends. Think about it- married middle-aged guys are more likely to share details of their/their wives’ sex lives with each other with their friends than they are how much money they make. Isn’t that weird? But you (assuming you’re a guy- I can’t speak for women) know it’s true! Why is that? And yet, there are some people in front of whom we speak of our incomes freely. We talk about it with our boss of course, but also our accountant, and maybe our financial planner. Yet we don’t talk about it with our good friends, whom we know far better than our accountants. Why is money like that?

Know what else is like that? Getting nekkid. Most of us don’t get naked in front of most other people, including our friends. But when we go to the doctor- even a strange or new doctor we’ve never seen before- we happily disrobe in front of him/her. You may say, oh, well that’s health-related, it’s private. Maybe, but people share (or overshare) exacting details of their various health ailments all the time with all sorts of people. But they don’t get naked in front of them. Why are only Money and Nudity like that? Nudity of course has the whole connection to Sex. OK, so why are Money and Sex these 2 big, weird taboo topics, when making money and having sex are probably the only 2 things the vast majority of adult humans have in common?

Mind you, I’m not advocating that people should walk around naked telling each other how much money they make- I’m just saying it’s weird.

Where was I going with this tangent? Oh yeah- so anyway, one of the interesting things about this upcoming break is people’s reactions to it. Some are happy for me, some are envious, and others just confused, all of which are fine and understandable. But the reaction of a fair number of people has been a sort of denial. “Well, there’s no way I could stop working now- I just don’t know what I’d do with myself!”, they harrumph... I’m never really sure where this reaction is coming from. On the one hand, maybe it’s a face-saving thing: they’d like to stop rat-racing, but can’t see a way how to, so they tell themselves that they wouldn’t want out, even if they could finagle it… But on the other hand, maybe they really mean it. Which on the one hand is just great. Maybe they’re an artist, a researcher, educator, astronaut, Leader of the Free World, Rock Star or something else that brings them meaning and fulfillment. But when I hear it from a salesman or a purchasing agent or a product manager, I scratch my head a little; is there really nothing else, no other passion or interest or calling that you’d rather be following 40, 50 or 60 hours a week?* (And if not, doesn’t that give you pause?)

*I’ll probably piss off some reader with this one, and half-expect some “I love my job” comments. Which is great, and I hope you do (love your job- though I certainly welcome your comments as well.). But before you claim that you do your job because it’s how you want to be spending your time, ask yourself this: If you got paid the same whether you showed up for your job or not, or if you had X million bucks in the bank, would you still do it?

One more thing about money: It’s often said- and is very true- that money doesn’t bring happiness. But, ironically, the lack of money brings tremendous unhappiness. Isn’t that strange?

November Oquirrh Sunset cut

I love movies and stories where guys ride off into the sunset. My absolute favorite is the end-scene in Pulp Fiction, where the enforcer/hit-men played by John Travolta and Samuel Jackson are talking over breakfast. Samuel Jackson tells John Travolta he’s quitting, leaving the business, he’s getting out. Travolta, incredulous, asks him what he’ll do, and Jackson says, “You know, walk the Earth, meet people and get into adventures. Like Caine from Kung Fu.”

PF still2 I love that line. And that- more or less- is what I’m going to do. Oh, it’ll be a little more tamped-down; I do have a wife and kids and home and such. But for the next year, I (along with my family a good part of the time) am going to walk (and bike and ski and drive and take airplanes around at least some limited portions of) the Earth, meet people and get into adventures.

All of which brings me back around to this project, this blog, and well, uh… us.

Next Up: We Have To Talk

Note About Sources: Info for this post came from Jim Kaler’s totally awesome STARS site, the Audubon Society Field Guide to the Night Sky, the Sky & Telescope Magazine website and Wikipedia.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Smart, Aggressive And Not Always Entirely Honest

Since the new year I’ve been home a bit more often during the day, seeing as… well, I’ll get to that in the next post, which has given me an opportunity to see the comings and goings of various creatures in the yard- mainly birds- during the day. Last week one morning this big Scrub-Jay showed up on our deck.

WSJay1 Tangent: One of the weird things about Winter, assuming you work a full-time job, is that a whole week can pass without you ever seeing your home in the light of day. You leave when it’s dark and come home when it’s dark. Sometimes you’ll wake up on a Saturday morning in January, look out the window, and think, “Oh yeah- this is where I live…”

The Western Scrub-Jay, Aphelocoma californica, is a super-easy bird to ID, as it’s pretty much the only blue bird in Salt Lake Valley in the winter. It has a distinctive call, arguably the harshest of corvid squawks: a razor-sharp, scratchy, climbing note that instantly catches your attention. When it shows up in the yard- never staying more than 5 or 10 minutes- it immediately disrupts the social equilibrium around the feeders*, sending juncos, siskins and finches scattering.

*I described the Winter “regulars” at my feeders 2 years ago in Bird Feeder Week. Man, was that a great week or what?

Scrub-Jays are birds of woodlands. In Utah they’re most often found in either Piñon-Juniper or Scrub Oak. This time of year you’ll almost always come across a couple if you go poking around on any of the foothill trails across the street form the zoo, or up around the Death Climb. Aphelocoma, the Scrub-Jays, includes 5 species, all native to North America, but the only other one* you’re likely to see in the US is the Florida Scrub-Jay, A. coerulescnes, native to, yes that’s right, Florida.

*The Island Scrub Jay, A. insularis, is endemic to Santa Cruz Island off the California coast.

The Western Scrub-Jay is divided up into a whole bunch of subspecies, grouped broadly within 2 clades, (which may in turn get reclassified as 2 distinct species sometime in the near future): one inland and one in California.

Side Note: This might sound similar in some ways to the division between Black-billed and Yellow-billed Magpies; the Sierra Nevada/Great Basin constitute a formidable barrier to migration. But while Magpies came over from Asia some 3-4 million years ago, Scrub-Jays are “New World Jays”, thought to have migrated Northward from Central America.

One of the interesting markers of A. californica subspecies is bill morphology. Subspecies that live in Piñon-Juniper woodlands have straight, thin bills for reaching in between cones scales to grab Piñon seeds, while those that live around Oak woodlands have slightly broader, more hooked beaks (better for working with acorns). Our subspecies here in Northern Utah, A. californica woodhouseii woodhouseii (sometimes called Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay by bird geeks) has sort of an in-betweeener beak: straight but heavy, with a slight hint of a hook at the tip.

Acwwoodhouseii Bill In any case, it’s easy to dismiss Scrub-Jays as somewhat unremarkable in that compared to other “Pine Birds” their capabilities can seem rather unimpressive. Pinyon Jays for example can carry 0.6 oz worth of nuts in their mouth/esophagus. Clark’s Nutcracker- the champion pine bird- can carry over a full ounce- over 20% of its body weight.. Guess how much a Scrub-Jay can carry? 0.05 oz- less than 2% of its body weight. And it barely limps along with that load. A fully-loaded A. californica will fly no more than 1/3 mile to cache nuts, reaching a top speed of no faster than 18 MPH.

Pine Bird Stats The Pinyon Jay carries its load up to 6 miles, at speeds up to 26 MPH, and Clark’s Nutcracker up to 18 miles at up to 29 MPH. Even Stellers Jay- not a nut or acorn specialist- can manage up to 2 miles with a 0.2 oz payload at up to 22 MPH.

Side Note: An interesting corollary to these figures is the role- or rather lack thereof- played by Scrub-Jays in the modern-day distribution of Piñon pines*. monophyllaneedles35 Piñon pine has steadily expanded Northward across the Great Basin since the end of the last ice age, only reaching its present range within the last few thousand years. Piñon doesn’t occur on the floors of Great Basin valleys- only on mountain slopes. The principal agent moving it between disjunct ranges was pine birds, who spread the nuts via caching. With such a dismal loaded flight-range, the Scrub-Jay has likely played little role in its expansion to new ranges.

*I’ve covered Piñons extensively in this project, most notably in this post and this post. Man it is like I have a post for everything.

Stellers Jay’s loaded flight range is also pretty modest. It’s a bird of higher altitudes, and an infrequent visitor to Piñon-Juniper Woodland. When it does collect piñon nuts, it most often caches them at higher altitudes, unsuitable to piñon growth. But as temperatures rose following the end of the last ice age, its slightly-too-high seed caches may possibly have helped piñon expand up-slope within ranges where it was already established.

Scrub-Jays’ bills aren’t strong enough to pry apart the scales of unopened piñon cones. Instead they pick seeds from already opened cones, or wait for other, stronger-beaked corvids, such as Pinyon Jays, to open them for them, whereupon they harass them, drive them away, and make off with the goods.

What Scrub-Jays have going for them is their big brains. We covered the high intelligence of corvids when we looked at Magpies last Fall. Scrub Jays aren’t champion tool-makers, aren’t known to recognize themselves in mirrors, and certainly don’t display the phenomenal memory and navigational skills of Clark’s Nutcracker. But they appear to have both strong episodic memory and exceptional social awareness.

Episodic memory is the memory of autobiographical events and context, including time, place and emotion. In experiments Scrub-Jays have been placed in 2 different cages- one in which they were fed, the other in which they weren’t. Later the same jays were given the access to, and the opportunity to cache food items in, both cages. They overwhelmingly cached food in the cage in which they’d been hungry.

Extra Detail: Episodic memory is one of the 2 forms of declarative memory, which I described in this post. The other form of declarative memory is semantic memory, which is information or knowledge independent of personal context or relevance.

Scrub-Jays remember not only events, but others present at those events. When Scrub-Jays cache food items in front of other Scrub-Jays, they’ll frequently return later and move the items multiple times to avoid pilferage. They even appear to be able to keep track of specifically which individual birds saw them cache at which location on which occasion. Clark’s Nutcrackers, on the other hand, as brilliant as they are navigationally, seem to be utterly clueless to potential theft, happily caching away in front of Scrub-Jays and other thieving corvids.

Side Note: Lest this post make Scrub-Jays sounds like scoundrels, I should mention that they exhibit strong pair-bonding and parenting habits. In fact, when Scrub-Jays cache in front of their “spouse”, they only re-cache about as often as if they’d done so unobserved; their spouse is clearly on the same “team.”

Florida Scrub-Jays BTW, seem to take social cooperation even further, with young adults helping parents to cooperatively raise younger siblings. Family members also collaborate to take regular “watches” looking out for hawks, snakes and other predators. Similar cooperative breeding efforts are displayed by Western Scrub-Jays down in Mexico, but not here in the Western US.

But what’s interesting about this re-caching behavior is that it’s exhibited only by Scrub-Jays who have experienced cache-theft directly. By which you probably think I mean that once they’ve been robbed, they figure it out, smarten up and start caching in private or re-caching if they cached while observed by other Scrub-Jays, right? Wrong. What I meant was specifically the opposite: Scrub-Jays don’t re-cache until they themselves have robbed other birds’ caches. The experience of having observed another bird caching, and then they themselves having robbed that cache, clues them in that other Scrub-Jays watching them will likely figure out the same schtick. This learning-process suggests that Scrub-Jays, like us, have evolved a “theory of mind”- the ability to attribute knowledge, intent and desire to others. What does so-and-so know? What is he or she likely to do with that information?

WSJay Scoot cut Humans seem to develop a theory of mind around age 4. Before this time, children fail “false belief” tasks. For example, a child is told a story with 2 characters. Character A puts something- a toy, a ball, whatever- in a basket, then leaves the room. Character B moves the object from the basket to someplace else- say a box. Character A returns, and the child is asked where Character A will look for the object. Up until about age 4, most kids get the answer wrong. So in other words, the Scrub-Jay is- in at least some ways- smarter than a 3 year-old kid.

Side Note: Autistic kids over age 4 usually still fail this test, which backs up my previously-expressed Half-Baked Theory that Clark’s Nutcracker is essentially an autistic corvid.

This social intelligence makes possible all sorts of deception. Scrub-Jays and other corvids, such as crows and ravens, routinely move caches, make false caches, and cache inedible items to throw off would-be thieves and competitors. In other words, they-deliberately and with forethought- lie. How “human” is that?

You may object that simply misleading is not lying, that a lie is a specific statement of falsehood, and corvids lack the level of language to be able to explicitly state such falsehoods. But I disagree; I’ve always felt that the nature of a lie is in intent, not words. Most of us are uncomfortable directly stating a falsehood, but we all “tell” little partial lies of omission all the time. When we host a party, we don’t call or email our friends whom we’re not inviting to tell them of the event. In business we don’t notify our competitors before calling on their clients, and we don’t usually tell our bosses before interviewing for another job. Often these lies of omission are harmless. Sometimes, as in the case of the uninvited guest, we tell ourselves it’s for the benefit of the person to whom we are “lying” (although the real reason is just as likely to be our own cowardice or conflict-avoidance…) Then there are lies of omission that might- or might not- cause harm, such as when your new boss fails to volunteer why the 2 people to hold your job before you quit, or when a manufacturer fails to disclose certain product information…

Part of being an intelligent social animal with a well-developed “theory of mind” is constantly deciding what information to share when with which individuals. To simply describe this information we share as “truths” or “lies”, while comforting, doesn’t always describe things the way they really are.

All of which brings me, in a rambling and roundabout way, to my point, which is this: there’s a piece of information, an aspect of this project, which, while I haven’t misstated or misrepresented, I haven’t been entirely forthright with you about, and it is this “lie of omission” about which I will come clean in the next post.

Next Up: ABC in Perseus.

Note About Sources: Thanks to my friend and fellow nature-blogger KB for help accessing several of the sources for this post. Scrub-Jay caching, pilfering and memory info came from Food Caching Western Scrub-Jays Keep Track of Who Was Watching When, Joanna Dally et al, Social cognition by food-caching corvids: the western scrub-jay as a natural psychologist, Nicola S. Clayton et al, The Mentality of Crows, Convergent Evolution of Intelligence in Corvids and Apes, Nathan J. Emery et al, and The rationality of animal memory: Complex caching strategies of western scrub jays, Nicola S. Clayton et al. General info on Scrub-Jays came from Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America, the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology All About Birds website and Wikipedia. Info on episodic memory and theory of mind (including the example story) came from Wikipedia. Figures on flight loads, speeds and ranges of various pine birds came from Made For Each Other: A Symbiosis of Birds and Pines, Ronald M. Lanner, and info on the historic range expansion of Piñon pine came from The Desert’s Past: A Natural Prehistory of the Great Basin, Donald K. Grayson.