The masks we wear

This is crossposted from The Last Word on Nothing, a science writing blog where I just became a regular contributor!

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When I put on the metallic silver unitard and homemade alien mask that rainy morning, I had no idea that I was about to embark on one of the most stressful weekends of my life.

How could I? I love wearing costumes. One Halloween, I dressed as a vulture-like Skeksis from Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal, and stalked through the local grocery sniffing packages of meat. Another, I made 30 little men out of fabric and baling wire, gluegunned toothpick spears into their tiny mitts, and sewed them all over my clothes. When my friends asked what I was, I screamed that I was “being attacked by tiny people!”

A mask gives you freedom to reinterpret yourself. Sort of like the way being drunk cleanses you of all your inhibitions: Maybe you dance “15,000 times better in costume than out,” as one of my friends puts it, or maybe you finally have an excuse to talk to that cute stranger dressed as a box of wine. To wear a costume is to take on a sort of power.

But the difference with my alien getup was that it wasn’t Halloween. It was an ordinary March day. As a newcomer to Portland, Oregon, I had decided to take on the role of the ultimate foreign visitor for a travel story that I was writing – a sort of cross between performance art and social experiment where I would spend 48 hours seeing the city’s sights through black, ovoid eyes. There was a tenuous journalistic angle, in that Oregon had the highest per capita rate of UFO sightings in 2014, and Portland was a hotspot. But it was personal, too: Moving from a town of 1,500 to a city of 600,000, I felt invisible. I yearned, with tinges of existential dread, to set myself apart from the faceless masses. To be a special snowflake. A special alien snowflake. Continue reading The masks we wear

Is this climate change-battered conifer migrating northward?

This web exclusive appeared on hcn.org Oct. 19, 2015:

Healthy yellow cedar from the stand on Douglas Island, near Juneau, AK.
Healthy yellow cedar from the stand on Douglas Island, near Juneau, AK.

We are high in the fold of a steep, boggy valley when my friend Sarah spots our quarry tucked amidst blueberry and dark hemlocks. The first yellow cedar is spindly, no more than four inches in diameter, with striated reddish bark and drooping feathery fronds that seem to fit the sodden, misty September day. We poke around and find another, then another; there are a couple hundred of the trees in this stand leaning over a cascading stream and spaced out along a hairpin bend in the trail that leads up to a Forest Service cabin above Juneau, Alaska.

Young as they are, they look a bit scraggly to my untrained eye, but they’re a small bright spot in an otherwise dark story: Yellow cedar, a culturally and commercially important tree prized for its strong, remarkably decay-resistant wood, has died in droves thanks to long-term climatic shifts, and will likely lose much more as human-induced warming advances. And yet here, the trees seem to be thriving. Scientists studying this and 14 other scattered, isolated stands around Juneau believe they may represent a leading edge of the tree’s migration northward into more favorable climes. The researchers hope the trees will yield clues on how best to conserve the species as temperatures climb. More…

How monk parakeets pick their battles

From Audubon.org, Sept. 10, 2015:

Remember middle school? Well . . . maybe you don’t want to. It turns out, humans aren’t the only ones who go through agonizing rounds of teasing and torment to find their place in the pack. Other primates and mammals create social hierarchies, too, as do fish, hermit crabs, and birds.

A study published today in PLOS Computational Biology shows how one species of bird forms its pecking orders. The researchers focused on the Monk Parakeet, a bright green South American native that has invaded parts of the southern and eastern United States over the last 40 years. More…

The Lesser Prairie-Chicken’s Spot on the Endangered Species List Is in Jeopardy

From Audubon.org, Sept. 4, 2015:

This year the Lesser Prairie-Chicken has faced a variety of attacks aimed at undoing its recent listing. Now, a lawsuit filed by the Permian Basin Petroleum Association and four New Mexico counties has succeeded in doing just that—at least temporarily.

On September 1, a U.S. district judge in Texas vacated the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to designate the Lesser Prairie-Chicken as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. His ruling stated that prior to listing, the agency failed to follow its own rules for gauging whether existing conservation programs could help stem the bird’s decline. “It’s just one more cut into the (agency’s) authority and the efficacy of the ESA,” says Karyn Stockdale, a senior advisor for the National Audubon Society and former director of Audubon New Mexico. More…

Climate showdown on the Willamette in Oregon

This web exclusive appeared July 31, 2015 on hcn.org:

It feels a bit like a picnic until the Coast Guard starts lunging at boats with a hooked metal pole.

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Dozens of colorful kayaks and canoes on Portland, Oregon’s Willamette River have been chasing shade under the St. Johns Bridge all day, their floppy-hatted passengers laughing and shouting slogans. People are crammed so tight on one side of a nearby floating dock that it lists to the side and water laps onto its boards. Some cheer, while others hoist speakers on lengths of PVC pipe, blasting the union anthem, “Which Side Are You On?”

Aside from a woman proudly holding a placard that reads: “Thank an oil company for all your protest/activist equipment,” it seems pretty clear which side most of the crowd favors. Thirteen Greenpeace activists dangle in climbing harnesses dozens of feet below the bridge. Their porta-ledges and stuffsacks, packed with days’ worth of supplies, are decorated with long red and yellow banners and giant signs reading “SHELL NO!” and “SAVE THE ARCTIC!” They and the kayaktivists, as the boaters have come to be called in recent months, are here to try to block the exit of the icebreaker MVS Fennica, which carries a key piece of safety equipment Royal Dutch Shell will need in order to move forward with oil drilling in the Chukchi Sea, off the north coast of Alaska. And at 7:30 that morning, they had already succeeded in turning it back once from the Columbia River, its gateway to the Pacific. “That was a little bit yay,” Sue Lenander, a 350.org member who came down from Seattle to join the flotilla, tells me. “But we can only fight them off for a day or two. It’s just a matter of time.” More…

Private-land camping startups offer alternative to public lands

This piece appeared in the July 20, 2015 print edition of High Country News:

On a sticky June evening, I pull onto the narrow shoulder of U.S. 30, 12 miles northwest of Portland, Oregon. Cars speed past my little Tacoma camper as I stroll down a short hill singed yellow by the heat wave. Nearly hidden from view behind rambunctious apple trees is Carey Haider’s two-story Quonset hut. Blackberry brambles creep along its edges, growing into a high thicket on the other side of the railroad tracks that run less than 20 paces from his back door. Beyond a towering power line, more mushroom clouds of greenery explode along the banks of the Multnomah Channel, blocking it from view.

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Haider, who sports a beard and suspenders, leads me past an overturned toilet to piles of sledgehammered sheetrock and siding. There, he points out a flat spot where I can park and lay my head for the night. “It looks like a meth house right now,” apologizes the 31-year-old graphic designer and photographer. He bought the property in December and is in the midst of overhauling it. “Whatever,” I tell him. “It beats KOA.”

I mean it, too, even though Haider’s planned noise-blocking fence, camp trailers and wood-fired hot tub aren’t yet in place. Finding a private, pleasant spot to sleep outdoors, especially near a city, can be tough. Try a pullout or parking lot, and you’ll often find a police flashlight in your face at 2 a.m. And state and national park and forest campgrounds overflow with generator-grinding RVs. Haider has signed up with a new Portland-based startup called LandApart to provide campers with another way: Access to private land via an online service. More…

Hot times usher in early Northwest wildfire season

This web exclusive appeared July 10, 2015 on hcn.org:

Portland, Oregon, has been hot lately. The kind of past-95 degrees hot that glues your clothes to your skin, with multi-day “Excessive Heat Warnings” following on each other’s heels. Several Northwestern communities broke all time heat records late last month and temperatures across the region hovered 10 to 15 degrees above average. A weather map was so garish with red, pink and yellow that one TV meteorologist compared it to a Grateful Dead T-shirt.

So when the long Fourth of July weekend rolled around, some friends and I sought relief in a basin of cold blue lakes high in Washington’s central Cascades. The heat’s signature was everywhere along the Columbia River as we set out on Thursday evening. The grassy hills stepping back from the Gorge’s basalt cliffs were scorched nearly white. As we came around a bend in Highway 97, we saw that they were scorched black as well, where the bright fingers of a grassfire picked their way up through a forest of wind turbines. It took an hour to detour around the blaze. When we finally turned back onto northbound 97, we broke through an endless line of stopped cars and semis awaiting clearance to head south — their headlights stretching across the darkness like a line of flame themselves.

The Junction Fire — which had consumed 2,100 acres by Friday — was one of 1,425 fires that have started in Oregon and Washington so far this season, about double the average for this time of year, says John Saltenberger, fire weather program manager at the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center. “We’re already seeing fire index values (based on heat, humidity, wind and precipitation) you’d typically see in late August.” More…