Monthly Archives: December 2011

My 52 books for 2011

My name is Tyler and I have a problem with books (we all have problems with books here, Tyler). Seriously folks, I read probably more than is conducive to actually getting things done

I read as often as I’m able and get “new” books from garage-sales, goodwill, and trades more often than by visiting “real” bookstores. My collection is out of control, now spanning three states as I’ve had to abandon dozens of volumes in the hands of friends and family as I’ve loaded (or reloaded) my car for the next job.

This past January I set myself the very achievable (I thought) goal of reading 52 books in 2011. It averages out to one a week, which hardly holds a candle to the frantic pace of undergraduate English classes.

1. A Feast for Crows. George R.R. Martin
2. Pygmy. Chuck Palahniuk
3. World War Z. Max Brooks
4. The Warrior’s Apprentice. Lois Bujold
5. Snuff. Chuck Palahniuk
6. The Vor Game. Lois Bujold
7. Cetaganda. Lois Bujold
8. Ender’s Shadow. Orson Scott Card
9. Shadow of the Hegemon. Orson Scott Card
10. Nine Princes in Amber. Roger Zelazny
11. Shadow of the Giant. Orson Scott Card                                                                                                                           12. Ethan of Athos / Labyrinth. Lois Bujold
13. Abarat. Clive Barker
14. Stranger in a Strange Land. Robert A. Heinlein
15. Nine Princes in Amber. Roger Zelazny
16. Komarr. Luis Bujold17. A Civil Campaign / Winterfell gifts. Luis Bujold
18. A Wizard of Earthsea. Ursala K. Le Guin
19. The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm. Translated by Lore Segal
20. The Stainless Steel Rat. Harry Harrison
21. I am Legend. Richard Matheson
22. Down and Out in Paris and London. George Orwell
23. Diplomatic Immunity. Luis Bujold
24. The Name of the Wind. Patrick Rothfuss
25. The Wise Mans Fear. Patrick Rothfuss
26. Battle Royale. Takami, Koushun
27. The Magicians. Lev Grossman
28. The Historian. Elizabeth Kostova
29. Scorpion (Sundance No. 32) Peter McCurtin
30. Post-Captain. Patrick O’Brian
31. HMS Surprise. Patrick O’Brian
32. Notes From Underground. Fyodor i
33. A Dance With Dragons. George R.R. Martin
34. The Book Thief. Markus Zusak
35. Jurassic Park. Michael Crichton
36. The Lost World. Michael Crichton
37. Tarnsman of Gor (Gor #1). John Norman
38. Outlaw of Gor (Gor #2). John Norman
39. Priest-Kings of Gor (Gor #3). John Norman
40. Nomads of Gor (Gor #4). John Norman                                                                                                                             41. The Best American Non-Required Reading 2009. Various Authors
42. The Control of Nature. John McPhee
43. Ender in Exile. Orson Scott Card                                                                                                                                   44. Reamde. Neal Stephenson
45. The Left Hand of Darkness. Ursula Le Guin
46. Anasi Boys. Neil Gaiman
47. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Dave Eggers
48. Where the Wild Thing Were. William Stolzenburg
49. Snuff. Terry Pratchett
50. The Magician King. Lev Grossman
51. Inheritance. Christopher Paolini                                                                                                                                     52. Fight Club. Chuck Palahniuk

Some of these were, in fairness, pretty horrible. (See: All the Gor Novels). I tend towards escapist stories when I read, because although I guess its occasionally nice to read about someone undergoing more hardship than I ever have or ever will (The Book Thief) I much prefer to ingest a story that takes me away from that sort of thinking.

Trip Report: Sequoia National Park

I visited Sequoia National Park this past August and it was everything I’d been told it would be. Or rather, it would have been had I ever been told anything tangible about it beyond the fact that Sequoias are gargantuan. Beyond that, the park had been described to me in ways that were anything but objective or easily defined.

Words that objectively describe this: Awesome, Really Awesome, Really Really Awesome, and "Like finding a winning lottery ticket while eating breakfast in bed, in Paris."

I understand the reasoning behind describing places of almost unimaginable beauty as breathtaking, majestic, surreal, or mystical (I’m often guilty of it myself and its not necessarily a “bad” thing). The problem is that descriptions that rely heavily on subjective language like that end up being so much window dressing compared to the real thing.

This is Majesty. I suppose?

Lets put it this way. It is a rare author or orator who can adequately describe natural beauty to his or her audience. Most of the time a description simply isn’t the same as being there. You know majesty when you experience it, but you can’t experience it second hand.

Because of that, I’ll endeavor to be a bit more specific with my own descriptions of my experience with the park, I’ll even try to leave out the flowery language that manages to say so little with so many syllables.

                         I will probably fail. I apologize.

Canopy

Sequioa, like so many other places of almost absurd natural beauty, needs to be experienced to be believed. You need to be there, dwarfed by the towering trees around you, to truly get a feeling for the place. By all means look at my pretty pictures, I took them for a reason after all, but when you’re done here go add an entry to your bucket list.

It should read: Visit this place.

Certainly THIS is Majesty?

The history of the park is about as storied as any of its contemporaries. It was discovered and lauded as a great place of natural beauty. Eventually it was tarnished and despoiled by idiot tourists (the worst sort of tourist) and finally “saved” by the modern vision of the Parks Service. Who’s most notable achievement (in my view) is making the place look as if it isn’t tromped on by thousands of people a day.

Because it is, and as much as I’m not a huge fan of crowds, this is a good thing. Many, possibly most, people have only as much respect for the natural world as is convenient. In theory, exposing people to areas of supreme natural beauty will make them more likely to be more nature friendly in the future.

Sort of. Maybe.

Wasn't kidding about the crowds.

Imagine you’re in my shoes. You’re visiting Sequoia for the first time and you want to see “General Sherman” the largest of the Sequoias in the park (volume wise at least) and to that end you park your car at the closest lot and hike in. Immediately, things seem different than you’ve grown to expect from national parks. For starters, the path is paved and has wooden railings. Although you are surrounded by giant tree’s, dozens of people stand side by side in order to get their pictures taken in front of the main attraction’s massive trunk. Disabled individuals in motorized scooters zip haphazardly through the thick crowds, trailed by laughing children and concerned looking parents. The path is lined with waste bins and in a ten minute walk you see signs for two separate bathrooms. For me at least, it is unnerving. Its simply too much, true the trees are beautiful, but there are just too many people. I’m thrilled they’re enjoying the place, that’s at least part of why it was set aside in the first place.

More Crowds.

                                                                               However…

If you’re like me you take the first turn off the paved path that you can (possibly at a dead sprint), and at every fork in the path there after you choose the smaller option. The crowds are thick in the area immediately surrounding General Sherman, but within half a mile they’ve vanished. Gone is the paved path. Gone are the motor-scooters and the dashing children, gone are the tourists… all of them.

I spy with my little eye... something that begins with "no" and ends with "one in sight"

In twenty minutes, maybe less, I walked from General Sherman, where the press of the crowd made breathing difficult and decent photography nearly impossible, to The Senate, where I was wholly alone.

The trees in The Senate are close together, and like all Sequoias they are absolute behemoths. Their size borders on the absurd. Their roots must be massive, clutching balls of ground and rock the size of suburban homes in a centuries old iron-grip. Nothing grows on their ancient bark, its fire-charred and wispy, and (at least in places like The Senate) they shade-out most ground-level vegetation.

See the fire line?

Sitting at the base of a Sequoia it is hard not to put them in the context of their history. The genus which they now solely represent first evolved during the Jurassic. These are trees that evolved in response to mega-herbivores and now stand as towering giants above anything the biosphere is capable of throwing at them.

In retrospect I’m happy that there were so many people surrounding General Sherman, had I known how busy it could get there I probably would have just skipped that part of the park. No big deal. However, I’m sad that it was as easy as it was to escape the pressing crowds. Almost no one strolling along the paved paths left them in search of different trees or more lonely stretches of forest.

I don’t know why.

I'll part with this.

A walk in the woods of Quebec

From the Journal: 8/29/2010

I took a walk this evening, an hour before sunset, south along the east short of the lake until the beach disappeared under the cool water and I found moosetracks submerged and untouched.

I climbed a tree, and then a second, to ascend a cliff by the waters edge. Once I made it to the top I rested in the calf-deep Carribou moss and watched the sun start to drop down below the hills. It rained this morning and the moss held pounds of water per foot. I was soaked through seconds after kneeling.

The paths I walked back to camp are old and were not made by man. There’s bear and wolf scat near them, fresh moose tracks nearby, and blueberries all around. They — the paths — are cut deep in the moss, and seem eternal. I feel they’ve been here as long as the lake itself.

…and its quiet. When walking alone in the woods I often can’t help but whistle, click my tongue, or snap my fingers every so often. Far removed from the small, persistent, sounds that haunt modern-life, the woods are almost unnervingly silent.

Canadian First Citizens

From the Journal: 9/3/2010

I met a group of first citizens the other day — nearly scaring the life out of one in the process — on the North Portage. There were five of them in total, working their way south along the same 2000 kilometer long trail that their ancestors had traversed. Nice people I guess, I can’t fault anyone for wanting to take a trip like that. More importantly (for me at least) they were able to confirm that I the faint howls I’d been hearing at night were in fact wolves, and not merely my brain playing tricks on me.

The exact words of the woman who I scared on the trail so badly have been scarred into my brain. After we exchanged our awkward ‘hellos’ she said, “I thought you were a bear, I’m sad you’re not.”

Well shit, sorry to disappoint, maybe next time? More important to me was that they were able to confirm that I’d been hearing wolves the past few nights. I had the youngest ears on the trip by about thirty years, and was the only person who heard anything significant. Our attempts to call them in closer with howls of our own merely shocked the hell out of my ears, and if the wolves in question replied I couldn’t hear them.

Castoffs and leftovers: A Candid Description of the BLM

From the Journal: 9/21/2011 (Alpaugh, California)

Today I was treated to a bit of an explanation about how the department of the interior divvied up its holdings. The Parks Service got everything that was truly extraordinary: Yellowstone, Sequoia, Yosemite, The Everglades, et al. The Forest Service, being originally devoted to harvesting timber, was given all the really productive forests. The Green Mountains, The White Mountains, and the Finger lakes all spring to mind. Finally, the Borough of Land Management (BLM) got everything that the federal government couldn’t give away to homesteaders. They got the barren mountains, the driest (and least picturesque deserts), the scrub-land, and the swamps.

See: Unappealing Scrubland

Someday, young land management interns, all of this will be yours... except that black cloudy bit over there.

As far as I can tell, this is largely true. The BLM manages truly staggering amounts of land, 264 MILLION acres total (70 Million more than the forest service), and in my limited experience they seem to be fairly pragmatic about their day-to-day operations. Much of the land is multi-use, meaning people are free to come and go on it as they please, however other tracts have been designated for energy production (both fossil fuel derived and green), grazing, and species conservation.

Perhaps more relevant to me (and you gentle bio-friendly reader), since they don’t get the press that the other arms of the Department of the Interior do, the competition for jobs within the BLM is far lower.

Measuring Time in Fluid Ounces

From the Journal: 9/2/2010

We do our “serious” fishing in the early mornings and even then we take frequent beer breaks to rest the fish… this actually seems to work, which I find amazing. Hell, if I’d known years ago how much a part of fishing drinking is (and inversely, how much a part of drinking fishing can be) I’d own half a dozen rods, one of those dinky mesh vests, and a boat by now.

As I may have mentioned before, fly-fishing and drinking go together hand in hand. At any given point you may be in water up to your crotch, in the rain, in the middle of a lake (if you’re comfortable wading far from land / can’t cast with the shore at your back worth a damn). Of course you should have a beer or three handy.  Its cold and lonesome out there. I hear there are bears.

Which brings me nicely to the title of this entry. At least in my family, we measure the length of our individual fishing jaunts by how many beers we plan to take along.

  • A One beer fishing trip doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. What are you, a teetotaler? That beer might get you to the outhouse and back, are you casting from the front porch? Are you already finished? Recycle that can when you’re done and try again.

    Its ungodly early. I could use a drink.

    Seriously considering getting back in bed in this picture.

  • A Two beer fishing trip might take an hour or two. To be fair, its probably only four or five in the morning. You’ll be home for the next meal (possibly breakfast) without any trouble. You’ll expect a beer ready for you when you get back.

    Two Beers

    Letting the fish rest, its "Strategy" (and refreshing)

  • A Three beer fishing trip is likely a solid afternoon, you’ll be far from camp for most of it and might miss a meal. Hopefully, someone will be kind enough to save a beer for you.

    Having a beer while you're eating barely counts.

    More letting the fish rest.

  • A Four beer fishing trip is an indication that you’re in this business for the long haul. There will probably be a significant hike involved (hence that fourth beer, you’ll get thirsty with all that walking), you might get lost, have to take a nap (doesn’t the sun feel wonderful on your face), or bring a meal with you. The folks back at camp should leave a candle in the window and a beer by the door for you.

    You can't see the beer because you can't see anything.

    Returning from a four beer trip, we critically misjudged how much daylight we had left, how much moonlight we'd have, and (perhaps most crucially) how much more river we had before the rocks.

  • I have never returned from a Five beer trip. It is the Everest of fly-fishing.

    Many Sherpas died in the attempt

    Pouring one out for those who tried to fly too high. (Actually christening a patched canoe, but its basically the same thing).

Found: Chrysalis

Walking along the shore in Quebec this past summer, my uncle stumbled upon (and by stumbled upon I mean stepped upon) a black Chrysalis half-buried in the sand. Not entirely sure what it was, but curious, he picked it up to examine it, and it started to wiggle.

Slowly.

Excited, he pocketed the intriguing little proto-moth and brought it back to camp to show me. We placed it on the table in the cabin in order to examine it better and eventually settled on the name Walter (I’m not very good at identifying adult insects, let alone immature ones, and it looked like a Walter). Since it was early in the summer still, we decided it might ultimately be more humane to leave Walter outside, lest he — spurred on by the relative warmth of the cabin — leave his protective casing early. We checked up on him every day, partially to make sure he hadn’t been snatched by an opportunistic bird and partly to see if he was showing any sign of breaking free.

Isn't he just the cutest

Shown next to a (tiny) bottle of vodka for misleading scaling. I'm not sure I could have dealt with Walter had he been six inches long.

Luckily for him, the swallows that nested around the cabin showed no interest at all. Unluckily for us, as the days passed it slowly became apparent that he might not hatch while we were around to see him.

However, that terrible disappointment was not to be. As we packed our things to leave, literally minutes before we boarded the float-plane and took off, we noticed that Walter had emerged at long last. However, I’m rubbish at insect taxonomy. Does anyone know what exactly he is? Beyond a moth of some sort?

My how you've grown

What awesome antennae you have.

Walter, something about you is different?

I really wish I was better with insect phylogeny. I have no idea what he was. Except for fairly patient with being held.

Alpaugh Tradeoffs

From the Journal: 8/5/2011 (Alpaugh, California)

One week down and no complaints — yet. True: My lips are burnt raw, but the rest of me is bronzed (insofar as  I tan). Its hellishly hot by 10AM, but we start work at 6 and get off by 2. There’s no internet, but every so the stars align and I my phone tells me I have a new email. There’s Arsenic in the water, but… actually that’s pretty horrible.  I’m driving alot, but the BLM is reimbursing me for most of it.

Everything bad has a flip side. Except that whole Arsenic thing. Eugh.

I mean, it had its moments.

Ghost town that it was, working in Alpaugh was still pretty amazing. As with all things, especially jobs, there are trade-offs that have to be made. For me at least, the lions share of my happiness can be assured simply by having interesting and intelligent coworkers. In Alpaugh at least, I did not lack in that department.

But yeah, the Arsenic thing was pretty foul (and it got worse before it got better).

On Homonyms and Emergency Rooms

From the Journal: 8/29/2011 (Alpaugh, California)

Plus Side: Went job searching today. Downside: Was able to go because of a trip to the ER in Delano. Idiotically, I slashed my hand open on a garden hoe. The ER doctor gladly glued it shut and billed me $100 for the fifteen minute job, which opened up again almost as soon as I got back to Alpaugh. I did learn a bit from the whole experience, though. Never tell a ER doctor that “A Ho cut you” when you walk into his office clutching your bloody hand. (He apparently didn’t see the humor of the Homonym.)

In retrospect, spending so much time sharpening everything wasn't the best idea.

While transferring a bag of parakeet seed (more on why later) from a wheelbarrow into my trunk I accidentally slashed my hand open on a garden hoe that had been lying there, blade up, since before lunch. We’d made a habit of sharpening the tools we used on a day to day basis in Alpaugh, including the hoes, until they were razor-edged. The work dulled them quickly and it was extraordinarily bad luck that the hoe in question had been sharpened only hours before. In all honesty I could probably have gotten away with not going to the hospital, especially considering that I recovered just fine after reopening the cut hours after having it closed. However, at the time the cut seemed deep enough to warrant the trip to Delano if not much concern on my part, hence the attempt at humor with the ER doctor.

I thought it was funny at least. Some people are just boring I guess.

Alpaugh California: Overview

I spent the better part of three months in 2011 (Late July to early October) in Alpaugh, an unincorporated town of (reportedly) ~600 in Tulare County, California. Alpaugh is a one stop sign town. It is also a one gas station town. A one grocery store town, and a two restaurants, one school, one post office, and a not much else town. Perhaps there was more to it than I could see in my explorations, but unfortunately I lacked a native guide and I had few opportunities to meet the locals since my nearest neighbors were either Bureau of Land Management employees (who didn’t hang out in town), farmers, or were the omnipresent California marijuana cultivators (who had no interest in talking to strangers, especially those who worked for the feds).

Adding to my troubles on the meeting people front was the near impossibility of bumping into someone casually. With the exception of the cafe in town, there didn’t seem to be a local hang-out a stranger could justifiably walk into without attracting a lot of negative attention. Moreover, it was a twelve mile drive for gas and a twenty mile drive to the nearest Wifi connection, both of which were located in towns that bustled in a way that Alpaugh never did.

Since it seems like it might be difficult to adequately describe Alpaugh (and it does merit a description) with what was there, perhaps it will be easier to describe it by saying was wasn’t. For instance, there wasn’t potable water, apparently what poured out of the taps was laced with arsenic (and later sulfur). There also wasn’t much shade and for that matter there weren’t really any trees to speak of. The biggest tree around was a non-native Mulberry (I believe), which was carefully marked on a map in the house I lived in, and was lovingly called George by those of us who had grown up accustomed to playing in the shade of a closed canopy. George was a little over two miles away, a trip which could have been made blindfolded due to the utter lack of traffic, or crowds, or bends of any real significance in the roads.

During the day the sun beat down mercilessly and made the place a ghost-town populated mostly by wandering dogs and circling hawks and vultures. When I asked how people managed to survive in the heat, I was told — I hoped jokingly– that it wasn’t really considered “hot” until the mercury tipped past 105 degrees, and that I’d “Get used to it.” Thankfully I did.

On the other hand, nights were pitch black, clear, and dry. With no clouds and no humidity to speak of the stars were fantastic. There were barn owls living in the palm trees by my house and families of both burrowing owls and great horned owls within a few miles. None of them were particularly put off by humans, I imagine they were all living too well on the areas ubiquitous rodents to be bothered by my constant attention.

On yet another hand (I’m at three now, correct?) the mornings in Alpaugh were stunning.There were mountains on the horizons, visible at dawn and dusk and but made invisible during the day by the vile plume of smog seeping eastward from LA. And since I worked on a BLM holding called Atwell Island, an artificial wetland sequestered carefully in a (recently) dry lake-bed in this otherwise inhospitable valley, there were birds everywhere and….

Here I’ll cut myself off before I stray too far into the specifics of my job in Alpaugh. Suffice it to say that while the town has little to recommend it (beyond fantastically inexpensive Mexican food), the work more than made up for the location. As I tell more about the project itself I’ll let you be the judge.

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