Dozing polar bear, Indianapolis Zoo

Thursday, November 30, 2006

The future has arrived early

Global warming is already causing extinctions.

A new study from Camille Parmesan, a biologist at the University of Texas - Austin concludes that populations of frogs, butterflies, ocean corals, and polar birds have already gone extinct because of climate disruption. It's the species occupying narrow climate ranges such as the polar regions or mountaintops that are taking the first hits. Polar bears, ring seals, certain varieties of penguins and cloud forest frogs are "showing massive extinctions."

"What surprised me most," Parmesan says, "is that it happened so soon."

Don't give a damn about frogs? You should.

Bill Fraser, a wildlife ecologist with the Polar Oceans Research Group in Sheridan, Montana, observes:
"The planet has warmed and cooled in the past, but never have we seen the type of warming that is occurring now, accompanied by the presence of 6.5 billion people who depend on these ecosystems," he said.

"Whether we want to admit it or not, we are completely and totally dependent on them."

We need national leadership on this issue immediately. We won't get it until at least 2008, if then.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Stop me before I anthropomorphize again

The interesting thing about a house in the woods is that the trees are always trying to take over. Pine trees are the dandelions of the mountains. Of course, I've always taken a contrary position on weeds -- I infinitely prefer them to manicured lawns. And so I do as well with my coniferous friends. They are, after all, merely trying to reclaim the space we've taken from them.

But this creates a certain dilemma in a region where one's embrace of the term "defensible space" can be a matter of life or death, should you be unlucky enough to find yourself in the midst of a raging forest fire. In northwestern Montana, as in many other places here in the American west, how well you clear your property of "fuel" can sometimes determine whether your home is a complete loss or is only lightly charred.

I find it difficult not to cheer the little upstarts that take root in my corral and even in the patch of land in front where the lupines grow in spring. I feel the same way about the ones that have poked up in the protective shadow of the house. They're small, they're uppity and they're ambitious -- all qualities I cannot help but admire. But the fire people tell me I should "remove" them.

I'd hate to do it. I like them. Who wouldn't?

Blast it all, it rubs my fur the wrong way to yank out a tree. I'm simply not one of those people who can rearrange vegetation willy-nilly as though moving around the living room furniture. A neighbor once observed to me that she intended to remove a hundred-year old cottonwood in favor of "more manageable trees." My mouth yawped open, unable to speak.

More manageable trees? That seemed an unspeakably capricious reason to remove a tree, especially one as venerable as that cottonwood. To me, there ought to be a very good reason to remove a tree.

Like, perhaps, defensible space.

Right now, this is a question I need not face at the Ranch. There will be no lightning to spark a blaze for several months, and with the canopy of snow overlaying the winter forest, nothing would light anyway. But the dry summer months loom, inevitable, with hard choices their traveling companions.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Stinkbug Ranch

My primary residence is in the Portland, Oregon area, but we have a place in northwest Montana as well. It's an oddly shaped house on six acres and change on the side of a mountain that looks out over the Kootenai River. We're lucky to have it.

It's been in the family for several years, first through my father-in-law, who bought it and spent summers there after he retired. The first time I ever spent there was in the winter of 2001. We were frequent visitors thereafter, especially when we moved from the midwest to Oregon in 2004. Mr. T and I became progressively more attached to the place, and when his father announced this summer that the place needed to be sold, we went into panic mode. He'd been talking about selling it for quite awhile, but backed off at the last minute every time.

Every time this game of chicken played out, we'd wipe the sweat off our foreheads in relief. He'd offered us the place before, but we simply couldn't afford it. Till this summer. I can't say it's financially easy, but we think of it as home, and where we ultimately want to live full-time. We'd rather drive old cars and have that place than drive new cars and not have it.

But that we even have such a choice underscores how many opportunities we've had in our lives -- and how deeply grateful we are for them. When I drive up the mountain and up the gravel drive, I'm still amazed at and thankful for my good fortune.

I dubbed the place Stinkbug Ranch in an e-mail to one of my dearest friends, telling her we'd finally closed on it. The moniker comes from the hordes of stinkbugs that descend on that part of the country every September. They congregate in orgiastic glory during those autumn weeks, presumably to mate and thereby propogate their species before they die an undignified death in the windowsills.

Every time we'd arrive at the house the week after Christmas, the first order of business would be to vacuum up the musty-smelling stinkbug carcasses.

Stinkbug Ranch.

It's funny to name such a beautiful, comforting homestead after one (and perhaps the only) undesirable characteristic. For me it shows how very little could diminish my pleasure in the place. A few dead bugs certainly couldn't do the job.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Mr. Tester goes to Washington. Poor thing.

As much as I wanted Jon Tester to be elected to represent Montana in the United States Senate, I feel a little sorry for him now that his election has come to pass.

Because now he has to leave Montana and go spend most of his time in Washington, D.C.


I'm a person for whom urban life loses more allure with every passing year. At first I thought this was evidence of a growing introversion chipping away at my longstanding need to be in the thick of human interaction. But that's not really the case. The reality for me is that, paradoxically, I often feel more isolated in the city where I live most of the time than at my place in Teenytown, Montana.

Here, our neighbors are fifteen feet away and we speak rarely. There, our only neighbors on the mountain are about a quarter mile down the gravel road, and we have dinner together regularly when we're there. Once every couple of days, their year-old Newfoundland will trot up the road and up the stairs to our kitchen for a visit, an ear scratch, and a doggie biscuit. Despite the reputation of rural folk as close-minded and insular, my experience in Montana is that the openness of the land seems to parallel an openness of its residents to other people.

My sympathy for Senator-elect Tester is, I acknowledge, an act of rank projection. For all I know, Jon Tester can't wait to hightail his flattop to D.C. and start frequenting the cocktail party circuit. (Though somehow I doubt it.) But I hope the good Senator, who after 8 years in politics still "does some of his best thinking" on his tractor, can find enough time -- for his own sake -- to spend on his organic farm during the next six years.