Posts Tagged ‘Science’

The Speedy Thief

If any species of bird illustrates the fact that our feathered friends are the direct descendants of dinosaurs, it’s the roadrunner.


Based on our popular image of dinosaurs, the roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) certainly looks the part: upright stance, powerful legs, beak designed to mess you up, a murderous glint in the eye.

In the Warner brothers cartoons, the roadrunner was depicted as genial and benign. His live-and-let-live attitude was interrupted only when he had to deal with his hopelessly incompetent nemesis, Wile E. Coyote.


But in reality, roadrunners are serious predators. They are fairly large, about 18-22 inches tall, and can run at up to 20 miles per hour. And they will eat virtually anything. Their diet includes grasshoppers, beetles, snails, centipedes, spiders, scorpions, lizards, mice, small birds, and snakes.

Roadrunner are so quick and lethal that they will hunt and kill rattlesnakes. Not many animals are tough enough to do that.

Roadrunners can fly, but being so well adapted to running, they usually take flight only to escape predators.

They often become habituated to the presence of people. I guess they ain’t skeered of nothin’.

Which brings me to the reason for this post: to describe an incident involving a roadrunner that I witnessed some years ago. It happened fast and almost literally underfoot — but I have photos.

In December 2005, I spent three fascinating days at Death Valley National Park. On the first day, after checking into the Furnace Creek Inn, I walked over to the visitor center to get oriented.

When I came out a while later, I noticed a large number of birds in the parking lot — small, brown, finch-looking things, 50 or more of them in close proximity, hopping and chirping around the pavement.

Suddenly, something flashed into my field of vision from the right.

Simultaneously, the birds, all of them, went nuts. Amid a din of frantic squawking and flapping, they took flight in every direction. All except one unfortunate fellow.

Owing to dumb luck, I had my camera at the ready. I turned and got this photo.


Note how the image captured the speeding roadrunner poised several inches in the air above his shadow on the pavement.

The roadrunner sprinted across the road and into the desert at full speed. I captured this final photo before he disappeared around a dune. Again, the roadrunner was zipping along so fast, the camera shows him suspended above the ground.


The entire episode lasted about five seconds.

Ages ago, a creature that operated in a similar manner was the Velociraptor.

I don’t mean the malevolent beasts you remember from the movie “Jurassic Park.” Those creatures were not Velociraptors. They were based on Deinonychus, a cousin of Velociraptor that was six feet tall and weighed 150 pounds. Spielberg appropriated the name Velociraptor because it sounds better.

Real Velociraptors (Velociraptor mongoliensis) are thought to have been tough and aggressive, but so small — 30 pounds, the size of a chicken —  that most prey animals were out of their league.

They probably had feathers. Evidence suggests that they hunted alone, not in packs.


Educated guesses of the appearance of the real Velociraptor, a native of Mongolia.

But they were fierce predators, and in their day, the small critters of the world probably feared them greatly. Very much like the roadrunner today.

The name Velociraptor is derived from the Latin words velox (swift) and raptor (robber, plunderer). “Speedy thief” is the usual translation.

Today’s “speedy thief,” the roadrunner, is indeed a worthy successor.

Rattlesnakes, beware.


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The Questions…

1. What is a shorkie?

2. In 1864, French writer Alexander Dumas made a deal with the public library in the town of Cavaillon. He traded hundreds of volumes of his books for a lifetime supply of — what?

3. The pigeon, the salmon, and the hippopotamus are greatly different creatures, but they have in common a unique method of communicating. What is it?

4. In the 1660s, Dutch naturalist Jan Swammerdam discovered that bee colonies are headed by a queen bee. Prior to that, what was the prevailing thought?

5. In 1906, Congress voted to make a change to the Statue of Liberty that caused a storm of public outrage. The politicians promptly backed down. What was the proposal?

The Answers…

1. A shorkie is a dog, a cross between a Shih Tzu and a Yorkshire Terrier.

2. Cantaloupes (the French word for which is cavaillons, in honor of the town where they are a major crop). In exchange for the books, Dumas was to receive 12 cantaloupes every summer for the rest of his life. He died six years (72 cantaloupes) later.

3. All three can produce and hear sounds at an ultra-low frequency — sounds so low in pitch that most other animals can’t hear them.

4. Before Swammerdam, scientists believed a king bee ran the hive, and bees reproduced by spontaneous generation. Swammerdam set things straight when he dissected a “king bee” and found ovaries.

5. Congress wanted to paint the statue to cover up the signature green patina, which is caused by oxidation of the copper exterior. Years later, experts discovered that the patina protects against further oxidation. The statue was found to be “virtually intact.”


Statue of Liberty

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The Questions…

1. Starting in 1965, the Kennedy Space Center used two massive diesel-powered “crawlers” to transport spacecraft to the launch sites. What are the nicknames of the two machines?

2. After the French Revolution, as deposed queen Marie Antoinette was being led up the steps to the guillotine, she said to her executioner, “Pardon me, sir. I did not mean to do it.” Why did she apologize?

3. The summit of Mt. Everest, officially 29,028 feet, is the highest point above sea level on Earth. But the “tallest mountain” title easily could go to Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Why?

4. The summit of Mt. Everest is not the highest point on the planet. Explain.

5. What is the popular Indian delicacy “Bombay duck”?

The Answers…

1. Their nicknames are Hans and Franz after the muscle-bound Austrian body-builders played by Dana Carvey and Kevin Nealon on Saturday Night Live.

2. She accidentally stepped on the executioner’s foot.

3. When measured from its base under the Pacific Ocean, Mauna Kea is 33,464 feet tall. However, the top extends only 13,796 feet above sea level.

4. Ecuador’s Mt. Chimborazo is 20,564 feet above sea level. But the Earth bulges at the equator, so the top of Chimborazo is 7,113 feet farther away from the center of the Earth than Everest. To put it another way, Chimborazo is the closest point on Earth to the Sun.

5. A type of fish common in the oceans off India and China. Typically, it is dried, salted, and sold in street markets. The duck nickname, origin unknown, dates back to the 1850s.


Bombay Duck

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The Questions…

1. In what creative way do wildlife biologists in the English Midlands use tennis balls?

2. In 1919, Charles Strite of Minnesota invented the automatic toaster. The device held a single slice of bread, which was browned on both sides by electric coils. Inside was a spring-loaded pop-up mechanism and a variable timer to turn off the electricity. What motivated Strite to invent such a clever appliance?

3. What landmass did the United States try to buy in 1946 for $100 million?

4. How long does it take light from the sun to reach Earth? What about light from Proxima Centauri, the 2nd-closest star?

5. Nabisco introduced the Oreo sandwich cookie in 1912. Today, the round chocolate wafer with a white cream filling is America’s best-selling cookie. Initially, Oreos were made in a second filling flavor, but it flopped and was soon abandoned. What flavor was it?

The Answers…

1. British conservationists drill holes in tennis balls and tack them to wooden stakes, creating safe, predator-proof homes for the tiny Eurasian harvest mouse.

2. Strite said he got irritated because more often than not, his company cafeteria served burned toast.

3. Greenland, the world’s largest island. Denmark wouldn’t sell.

4. Light from the sun gets here in 8.3 minutes. Light from Proxima Centauri takes 4.3 years.

5. Lemon meringue.

Tennis balls


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The Good Earth

The American manned space program began with great promise, peaked 40 years ago with the Apollo Moon landings, and fizzled when Congress, with Democrats in the majority in both the House and Senate, slashed NASA’s budget.

Still, before the effort was reined in, it was spectacular to behold. The Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs were thrilling and important.

Between November 1968 and December 1972, Apollo astronauts blasted into space 11 times. Six times, they went to the Moon and landed on the surface.

What most people remember best is the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969, when Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the lunar surface. Fair enough.

But I’m a bit of a contrarian. The flight that impressed me most was Apollo 8, in December 1968.

The Apollo 8 mission was humanity’s first expedition truly into space and away from the planet. The journey to the Moon took three days. The astronauts parked in orbit, made 10 revolutions, and returned home safely.

The Apollo 8 crewmen were the first to see with their own eyes the far side of the Moon. Astronaut Bill Anders took the famous Earthrise photo, looking back at the rest of us.


46 years ago tonight, on Christmas Eve 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 appeared on television in a live broadcast from lunar orbit. They had been told by NASA to “do something appropriate” for the occasion.

They chose to read aloud from the creation story in the Book of Genesis.

I watched the Apollo 8 broadcast on TV that night, along with a billion-odd other Earthlings. The moment was not only exhilarating and inspiring, but wholly positive in nature.

Back then, the country badly needed something positive. The 1960s had been brutal and demoralizing — the Vietnam War, the assassinations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and MLK.

The times gave rise to the civil rights movement, the hippies, the drug culture, and the sexual revolution. Upheaval was constant. We seemed to be going off the rails.

And more anguish would follow. Six months after Apollo 8, we would learn about the My Lai Massacre. Watergate and the Nixon resignation were just ahead.

So, the Apollo broadcast on Christmas Eve was a welcome balm, a needed timeout, and a moment to treasure. It seemed like evidence that we still had good within us as a society.

The video of the Apollo broadcast is widely available online, and I’ve watched it often over the years. It gets me emotional every time.

Here is the transcript…


Air Force Major Bill Anders:

We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.

“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good. And God divided the light from the darkness.”

Navy Captain Jim Lovell:

“And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. And God said, ‘Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.’ And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament, and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.”

Air Force Colonel Frank Borman:

“And God said, ‘Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear,’ and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth, and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.”

And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you — all of you on the good Earth.

Apollo 8 crew

Merry Christmas.


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Optical illusions are fascinating phenomena. If a person is interested, you can go online and find plenty of scientific explanations about how they trick your brain.

Most of the time, I’m a curious dude. But for some reason, I don’t really care how illusions work. They’re cool and entertaining, and that’s good enough.

Here are some good ones.

1. The illusion below is called “Dr. Angry and Mr. Calm.” When you view the image up close, Dr. Angry is on the left and Mr. Calm is on the right. But if you slowly back away from the screen, they soon switch sides.


2. In this illusion, the gears appear to rotate and mesh, even though they are not moving.


3. Count the number of black dots in this illusion — if you can.


4. Here’s another illusion of motion when no motion is present — Christopher Walken flying through space:


5. Which way is the Ferris wheel turning?


6. This illusion of motion is called “Rollers.”


7. This is the “corridor” illusion. If you use a hand to cover the middle third of the corridor, the animation speeds up. If you cover the outside two-thirds of the corridor, the animation slows down.


8. This funky illusion is psychedelic, man!




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I interrupt this blog to bring you one of my periodic rants about the preposterous obstructionism of the Republicans, which is a pointless impediment to American progress and prosperity. If you find this subject upsetting and don’t want to hear it, come back in a few days. Thank you.


Let’s be real about the beliefs of the American right wing.  

Conservatives have a history of being hidebound and fiercely orthodox, always indignant about this or that, usually lined up to oppose threats to the established order.

If their philosophy ever had value at all, it was to remind the rest of us that frugality can be a virtue. In truth, “frugal” to most conservatives means “stingy” and “heartless,” but it was a good reminder anyway.

That was then, this is now. Today’s conservatives make their predecessors seem almost rational by comparison.

Republicans have tacked so far to the extreme right that they’ve broken through into Crazytown. The best of them are mildly to moderately loony. The worst of them have kissed reality goodbye — proudly and arrogantly so.

Consider the facts — which, ironically, right-wingers do not.

It’s no secret that today’s GOP is an “against” party. Conservatives spend their energy being opposed to many things and in favor of very little.

Well, that’s not quite accurate. They’re in favor of war, guns, capital punishment, and unfettered capitalism, but you get my drift.

Ordinary conservatives, those who are not in it for the money, no doubt consider themselves to be decent, upstanding folks. I’m sure they are.

But some right-wing positions and beliefs are so mystifyingly wrong-headed that it calls into question the reasoning ability of the adherents.

You can oppose abortion, contraception, gay marriage, and maybe even sex education on moral grounds. It’s misguided, but still within the bounds of reason.

What is NOT reasonable is opposing better health care, opposing any restrictions whatsoever on guns, and opposing the environmental regulations of the EPA. Do conservatives miss smog? Do they miss syringes washing up on the Jersey Shore?

What is it about unions, the BLM, and the United Nations that so infuriates the Right?

Why do they believe being poor, sick, or addicted is a moral failing?

Worst of all, how can they ignore science — science! — as if any ignorant,  belligerent white person knows better, and can dismiss ACTUAL EVIDENCE painstakingly accumulated by humanity’s best brains over the millennia? Seriously?

When people espouse haywire beliefs, something is truly wrong — “wrong” in the sense that brain synapses seem to be misfiring and logic circuits are bypassed. Maybe that explains why facts mean nothing, and concepts like empathy and compassion do not exist.

Earlier this month, President Obama delivered the commencement address at the University of California-Irvine, and refreshingly, used the speech to present the facts about global warming.

Mind you, these are genuine scientific facts. The planet is undeniably getting warmer. But naturally, conservatives deny it anyway. “Climate change is a plot (mumble mumble) socialist dictatorship (mumble mumble) secret Muslim.”

Luckily, my synapses are still firing pretty well, and my reasoning ability is adequately functional, so I understand that Obama was relaying to us an important scientific consensus:

Humanity needs to stop burning fossil fuels at the current pace, because CO2 is really, really starting to build up in the atmosphere, and the planet is overheating, and we damn well better make changes ASAP, or our collective goose is cooked. Done to a literal turn.

We know this is true because science tells us it’s true.

Below are excerpts from Obama’s speech. It’s quite articulate. My hat is off to the speechwriter who banged it out.

Read it as a test to determine if your synapses are firing on all cylinders.


Comments from commencement address by President Obama at the University of California-Irvine, June 14, 2014

I’m going to talk about one of the most significant long-term challenges that our country and our planet faces: the growing threat of a rapidly changing climate.

Now, this isn’t a policy speech. I understand it’s a commencement, and I already delivered a long climate address last summer […] And since this is a very educated group, you already know the science.

Burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide traps heat. Levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere are higher than they’ve been in 800,000 years.

We know the trends. The 18 warmest years on record have all happened since you graduates were born. We know what we see with our own eyes. Out West, firefighters brave longer, harsher wildfire seasons; states have to budget for that.

Mountain towns worry about what smaller snowpacks mean for tourism. Farmers and families at the bottom worry about what it will mean for their water. In cities like Norfolk and Miami, streets now flood frequently at high tide.

So the question is not whether we need to act. The overwhelming judgment of science, accumulated and measured and reviewed over decades, has put that question to rest. The question is whether we have the will to act before it’s too late.

For if we fail to protect the world we leave not just to my children, but to your children and your children’s children, we will fail one of our primary reasons for being on this world in the first place. And that is to leave the world a little bit better for the next generation.

Now, the good is, you already know all this […] Here’s the challenge: We’ve got to do more. What we’re doing is not enough.

And that’s why, a couple weeks ago, America proposed new standards to limit the amount of harmful carbon pollution that power plants can dump into the air. And we also have to realize, as hundreds of scientists declared last month, that climate change is no longer a distant threat, but “has moved firmly into the present.” That’s a quote.

In some parts of the country, weather-related disasters like droughts, and fires, and storms, and floods are going to get harsher, and they’re going to get costlier.

So it’s a big problem. But progress, no matter how big the problem, is possible. That’s important to remember. Because no matter what you do in life, you’re going to run up against big problems — in your own personal life and in your communities and in your country.

Now, part of what’s unique about climate change is the nature of some of the opposition to action. It’s pretty rare that you’ll encounter somebody who says the problem you’re trying to solve simply doesn’t exist.

When President Kennedy set us on a course for the moon, there were a number of people who made a serious case that it wouldn’t be worth it; it was going to be too expensive, it was going to be too hard, it would take too long.

But nobody ignored the science. I don’t remember anybody saying that the moon wasn’t there or that it was made of cheese. (Laughter.)

And today’s Congress is full of folks who stubbornly and automatically reject the scientific evidence about climate change. They will tell you it is a hoax, or a fad. One member of Congress actually says the world is cooling.

There was one member of Congress who mentioned a theory involving “dinosaur flatulence” —  which I won’t get into. (Laughter.)

Now, their view may be wrong — and a fairly serious threat to everybody’s future — but at least they have the brass to say what they actually think.

There are some who also duck the question. They say — when they’re asked about climate change, they say, “Hey, look, I’m not a scientist.”

And I’ll translate that for you. What that really means is, “I know that man-made climate change really is happening, but if I admit it, I’ll be run out of town by a radical fringe that thinks climate science is a liberal plot, so I’m not going to admit it.” (Applause.)

Now, I’m not a scientist either, but we’ve got some really good ones at NASA. I do know that the overwhelming majority of scientists who work on climate change, including some who once disputed the data, have put that debate to rest.

The writer Thomas Friedman recently put it to me this way. We were talking, and he says, “Your kid is sick. You consult 100 doctors. 97 of them tell you to do this, three tell you to do that. And you want to go with the three?”

The fact is, this should not be a partisan issue. After all, it was Republicans who used to lead the way on new ideas to protect our environment.

It was Teddy Roosevelt who first pushed for our magnificent national parks. It was Richard Nixon who signed the Clean Air Act and opened the EPA.

George H.W. Bush, a wonderful man who at 90 just jumped out of a plane in a parachute, (laughter) said that “human activities are changing the atmosphere in unexpected and unprecedented ways.”

John McCain and other Republicans publicly supported free market-based cap-and-trade bills to slow carbon pollution just a few years ago — before the Tea Party decided it was a massive threat to freedom and liberty.

These days, unfortunately, nothing is happening. Even minor energy efficiency bills are killed on the Senate floor. And the reason is because people are thinking about politics instead of thinking about what’s good for the next generation.

What’s the point of public office if you’re not going to use your power to help solve problems? (Applause.)

And part of the challenge is that the media doesn’t spend a lot of time covering climate change and letting average Americans know how it could impact our future.

The broadcast networks’ nightly newscasts spend just a few minutes a month covering climate issues. On cable, the debate is usually between political pundits, not scientists.

When we introduced those new anti-pollution standards a couple weeks ago, the instant reaction from the Washington’s political press wasn’t about what it would mean for our planet; it was what would it mean for an election six months from now. And that kind of misses the point.

Of course, they’re not scientists, either. (Laughter.)

And I want to tell you all this not to discourage you. I’m telling you all this because I want to light a fire under you. As the generation getting shortchanged by inaction on this issue, I want all of you to understand you cannot accept that this is the way it has to be.

The climate change deniers suggest there’s still a debate over the science. There is not.

The talking heads on cable news suggest public opinion is hopelessly deadlocked. It is not.

Seven in ten Americans say global warming is a serious problem. Seven in ten say the federal government should limit pollution from our power plants. And of all the issues in a recent poll asking Americans where we think we can make a difference, protecting the environment came out on top. (Applause.)

So we’ve got public opinion potentially on our side. We can do this. We can make a difference. You can make a difference. And the sooner you do, the better — not just for our climate, but for our economy.

Even when our political system is consumed by small things, we are a people called to do big things. And progress on climate change is a big thing.

Progress won’t always be flashy; it will be measured in disasters averted, and lives saved, and a planet preserved.

But can you imagine a more worthy goal — a more worthy legacy — than protecting the world we leave to our children?


Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.

— Martin Luther King, Jr.

Climate change

Tom Tomorrow 6-14


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Web of Life

This is my second post in two weeks about wolves and the balance of nature. Go figure.


“Sustainable Man” is an online movement that promotes peace, empathy, equity, justice, and environmental protection — as opposed to, you know, fear, greed, and consumption. The goal is to leave future generations a sustainable planet.

The idea originated with brothers Chris and Steve Agnos, who produce videos for their website to get their messages across. The brothers are environmentalists of particular intelligence and compassion; they probably don’t vote Republican.

If you have a scintilla of respect for Planet Earth, and if, like me, you despair about our future, then you may be encouraged by one especially excellent Sustainable Man video, “How Wolves Change Rivers.”

A link to the video and a transcript of the narration are below.

Please note that when the British narrator refers to the “deer” of Yellowstone National Park, he means, in fact, American elk. In Europe, “deer” often is an umbrella term for deer, reindeer, elk, and moose.

Wolves howlng

How Wolves Change Rivers

A video by Sustainable Man, narrated by George Monbiot

One of the most exciting scientific findings of the past half century has been the discovery of widespread trophic cascades. A trophic cascade is an ecological process which starts at the top of the food chain and tumbles all the way down to the bottom.

And the classic example is what happened in the Yellowstone National Park in the United States when wolves were reintroduced in 1995.

Wolf stalking

Now, we all know that wolves kill various species of animals. But perhaps we’re slightly less aware that they give life to many others.

Before the wolves turned up -– they’d been absent for 70 years -– the numbers of deer (because there had been nothing to hunt them) had built up and built up in the Yellowstone Park, and despite efforts by humans to control them, they’d managed to reduce much the vegetation there to almost nothing. They had just grazed it away.

But as soon as the wolves arrived, even though they were few in number, they started to have the most remarkable effects.

First, of course, they killed some of the deer. But that wasn’t the major thing.

Much more significantly, they radically changed the behavior of the deer. The deer started avoiding certain parts of the park -– the places where they could be trapped most easily, particularly the valleys and the gorges.

And immediately, those places started to regenerate. In some areas, the height of the trees quintupled in just six years. Bare valley sides quickly became forests of aspen and willow and cottonwood.

And as soon as that happened, the birds started moving in. The number of songbirds and migratory birds started to increase greatly.

The number of beavers started to increase, because beavers like to eat the trees. And beavers, like wolves, are ecosystem engineers. They create niches for other species. And the dams they built in the rivers provided habitats for otters and muskrats and ducks and fish and reptiles and amphibians.


The wolves killed coyotes, and as a result of that, the number of rabbits and mice began to rise — which meant more hawks, more weasels, more foxes, more badgers.

Ravens and bald eagles came down to feed on the carrion that the wolves had left.

Bears fed on it, too. And their population began to rise, as well, partly also because there were more berries growing on the regenerating shrubs. And the bears reinforced the impact of the wolves by killing some of the calves of the deer.

But here’s where it gets really interesting.

The wolves changed the behavior of the rivers. They began to meander less. There was less erosion. The channels narrowed. More pools formed. More riffle sections. All of which were great for wildlife habitats.

The rivers changed in response to the wolves. And the reason was that the regenerating forests stabilized the banks so that they collapsed less often. So the rivers became more fixed in their course.

Similarly, by driving the deer out of some places, and the vegetation recovering on the valley side, there was less soil erosion, because the vegetation stabilized that, as well.

So the wolves, small in number, transformed not just the ecosystem of the Yellowstone National Park -– this huge area of land — but also its physical geography.

Wolf howling


Don’t give up. Don’t lose hope. Don’t sell out.

— Christopher Reeve


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The evolution of the late author and ecologist Aldo Leopold from hunter to environmentalist was a simple progression.

(1) Was hired by ranchers to kill bears, wolves, and mountain lions preying on livestock. (2) Came to respect the animals and see the crucial role of predators in the balance of nature. (3) Spent the rest of his life promoting wildlife and wilderness conservation.

Leopold believed that all things — animals, plants, soils, and waters — are part of a collective “land-community.” He championed a “land ethic” in which humans become steward/protectors of the environment, not conquerors.

Makes sense to me.

In his best-known book, “A Sand County Almanac,” Leopold wrote clearly and directly about his transformation.

It’s an essay that ought to be taught in every school along with the multiplication tables.


Chapter 11

Thinking Like a Mountain

A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world.

Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well) pays heed to that call. To the deer it is a reminder of the way of all flesh, to the pine a forecast of midnight scuffles and of blood upon the snow, to the coyote a promise of gleanings to come, to the cowman a threat of red ink at the bank, to the hunter a challenge of fang against bullet. Yet behind these obvious and immediate hopes and fears there lies a deeper meaning, known only to the mountain itself. Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.

Those unable to decipher the hidden meaning know nevertheless that it is there, for it is felt in all wolf country, and distinguishes that country from all other land. It tingles in the spine of all who hear wolves by night, or who scan their tracks by day. Even without sight or sound of wolf, it is implicit in a hundred small events: the midnight whinny of a pack horse, the rattle of rolling rocks, the bound of a fleeing deer, the way shadows lie under the spruces. Only the ineducable tyro can fail to sense the presence or absence of wolves, or the fact that mountains have a secret opinion about them.

My own conviction on this score dates from the day I saw a wolf die. We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.

In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes — something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

Since then I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise. In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the high-lined junipers.

I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades.

So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.

* * *

We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness. The deer strives with his supple legs, the cowman with trap and poison, the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing: peace in our time. A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is behind Thoreau’s dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.

Aldo Leopold (1887-1948)

Aldo Leopold (1887-1948)



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The writing team of Walt and Leigh Richmond wrote novels and short stories, mostly science fiction, during the 1960s and 70s. The Richmonds were journeyman writers; often entertaining, rarely profound, little known except to a handful of editors.

Some of their acquaintances suspected that Leigh, 11 years older than Walt, did all the writing. If she did, no one could explain why she shared the billing with him.

At any rate, when Walt died in 1977, that ended the collaborating, real or otherwise. Leigh retired from the writing business. She died in 1995.

The short story below (not a sci-fi tale, by the way) is simultaneously clever and silly, and it makes two valid points.

One is that four-year-old children actually are eager little scientists, working and experimenting with whatever is at hand, steadily amassing knowledge.

The other is that it’s quite possible to do the right thing, even if you don’t understand the situation.


Poppa Needs Shorts

By Walt and Leigh Richmond
Published in Analog Science Fact & Fiction, January 1964

Little Oley had wandered into forbidden territory again — Big Brother Sven’s ham shack. The glowing bottles here were an irresistible lure, and he liked to pretend that he knew all there was to know about the mysteries in this room.

Of course, Sven said that not even he knew all of the mysteries, though he admitted he was one of the best ham operators extant, with QSOs from eighteen countries and thirty-eight states to his credit.

At the moment, Sven was busily probing into an open chassis with a hot soldering iron.

“Short’s in here some place,” he muttered.

“What makes shorts, Sven?” Oley wasn’t so knowledgeable but what he would ask an occasional question.

Sven turned and glared down. “What are you doing in here? You know it’s a Federal Offense for anybody to come into this room without I say so?”

“Momma and Hilda come in all the time, and you don’t say so.” Oley stood firm on what he figured were legal grounds. “What makes shorts?”

Sven relented a little. This brother had been something of a surprise to him, coming along when Sven was a full ten years old. But, he reflected, after a few years maybe I should get used to the idea. Actually, he sort of liked the youngster.

“Shorts,” he said, speaking from the superior eminence of his fourteen years to the four-year-old, “is when electricity finds a way to get back where it came from without doing a lot of hard work getting there. But you see, electricity like to work; so, even when it has an easy way, it just works harder and uses itself up.”

This confused explanation of shorts was, of course, taken verbatim, despite the fact that Oley couldn’t define half the words and probably couldn’t even pronounce them.

“I don’t like shorts. I don’t like these pink shorts Momma put on me this morning. Is they electrics, Sven?”

Sven glanced around at the accidentally-dyed-in-the-laundry, formerly white shorts.

“Um-m-m. Yeah. You could call ’em electric.”

With this Oley let out whoop and dashed out of the room, trailing a small voice behind him. “Momma, Momma. Sven says my shorts is electric!”

“I’ll short Sven’s electrics for him, if he makes fun of your shorts!” Oley heard his mother’s comforting reply.

In the adult world days passed before Oley’s accidentally acquired pattern of nubilous information on the subject of shorts was enlarged. It was only days in the adult world, but in Oley’s world each day was a mountainous fraction of an entire lifetime, into which came tumbling and jumbling — or were pulled — bits, pieces, oddments, landslides and acquisitions of information on every subject that he ran into, or that ran into him.

Nobody had told Oley that acquiring information was his job at the moment; the acquisition was partly accidental, mostly instinctive, and spurred by an intense curiosity and an even more intense determination to master the world as he saw it.

There was the taste of the sick green flowers that Momma kept in the window box and, just for a side course, a little bit of the dirt, too. There were the patterns of the rain on the window, and the reactions of a cat to having its tail pulled. The fact that you touch a stove one time, and it’s cool and comfortable to lay your head against, and another time it hurts. Things like that.

And other things — towering adults who sometimes swoop down on you and throw you high into the air; and most times walk over you, around you, and ignore you completely. The jumble of assorted and unsorted information that is the heritage of every growing young inquiring brain.

In terms of time, it was only a couple of weeks, if you were looking at it as an adult, until the next “shorts” incident.

Oley was sitting peacefully at the breakfast table, doing his level best to control the manipulation of the huge knife-fork-and-spoon, plate-bowl-and-glass, from which he was expected to eat a meal. Things smelled good. Momma was cooking doste, and that to Oley smelled best of all.

The doster ticked quietly to itself, then gave a loud pop, and up came two golden-brown slices of doste. Dostes? Oley wasn’t sure. But he hadn’t really begun paying too much attention to whether one doste was the same as two doste or what, though he could quite proudly tell you the difference between one and two.

Out it came, and fresh butter was spread on it, and in went two shiny white beds, for some more doste.

Little Oley watched in fascination. And now he reached for the tremendous glass sitting on the table in front of him. But his fingers didn’t quite make it. Somehow, the glass was heavy and slippery, and it eluded him, rolled over on its side, and spilled the bright purple juicy contents out across the table in a huge swish.

Oley wasn’t dismayed, but watched with a researcher’s interest as the bright purple juice swept across the table towards the busily ticking doster. Momma, of course, wasn’t here, or she would have been gruff about it. She’d just gone into the other room.

The juice spread rapidly at first, and then more and more slowly, making a huge, circuitous river spreading across the table, first towards the doster and then away from it towards the frayed power-cord lying on the table. It touched and began to run along the cord. Not a very eventful recording so far, but Oley watched, charmed.

As he watched, a few bubbles began to appear near the frayed spot. A few wisps of steam. And then, suddenly, there was a loud, snarling splat — and Momma screamed from the doorway. “That juice is making a short!”

The information, of course, was duly recorded. Juice makes shorts.

It was a minor item of information, mixed into a jumble of others, and nothing else was added to this particular file for nearly another week.

Oley was playing happily on the living room floor that night. Here there was much to explore, though an adult might not have thought twice about it. Back in the corner behind Momma’s doing bachine a bright, slender piece of metal caught Oley’s attention. Bigger on one end than the other, but not really very big anywhere, the sewing machine needle proved fascinating.

As a first experiment, Oley determined that it worked like a tooth by biting himself with it. After that he went around the room, biting other things with it. Information, of course, is information, and to be obtained any way one can.

The brown, snaky lamp cord was the end of this experiment. Oley bit it, viciously, with his new tooth, and had only barely observed that it had penetrated completely through when there was a loud splat, and all the lights in the room went out.

In the darkness and confusion, of course, Oley moved away, seeking other new experiences. So the cause of the short that Momma and Poppa yakked so loudly about was never attributed to Oley’s actions, but only to “How could a needle have gotten from your sewing machine into this lamp cord, Alice?”

But the sum of information had increased. Neatles stuck into lamp cords had something to do with shorts.

More time passed. And this time the file on shorts was stimulated by Poppa. The big, rough, booming voice had always scared Oley a bit when it sounded mad, like now.

“Alice, I’ve just got to have some more shorts!”

Poppa was rummaging in a drawer far above Oley’s head, so he couldn’t see the object under discussion. But all he already knew about shorts — the information passed in review before him.

Shorts are useful. They help electrics to work harder.

Shorts you wear, and they are electrics.

Wires are electrics.

Shorts can be made by juice.

Shorts can be made by neatles, that bite like teeth.

Poppa needs more shorts.

But Oley wasn’t motivated to act at the moment. Just sorting out information and connecting it with other information files in the necessarily haphazard manner that might eventually result in something called intelligence, although he didn’t know that yet.

It was a week later in the kitchen, when Momma dropped a giant version of the neatle on the floor, that his information file in this area increased again.

“Is that a neatle?” Oley asked.

His mother laughed quietly and looked fondly at her son as she put the ice pick back on the table.

“I guess you could call it a needle, Oley,” she told him. “An ice needle.”

Oley instinctively waited until Momma’s back was turned before taking the nice neatle to try its biting powers; and instinctively took it out of the kitchen before starting his experiments.

As he passed the cellar door he heard a soft gurgling and promptly changed course. Pulling open the door with difficulty, he seated himself on the cellar stairs to watch a delightful new spectacle — frothing, gurgling water making its way across the floor towards the stairs. It looked wonderfully dirty and brown, and to Oley it was an absorbing phenomenon. It never occurred to him to tell Momma.

Suddenly above him the cellar door slammed open, and Poppa came charging down the stairs, narrowly missing the small figure, straight into the rising waters, intent, though Oley couldn’t know it, on reaching the drain pipe in the far corner of the cellar to plug it before water from the spring rains could back up farther and really flood the cellar out.

Halfway across the cellar, Poppa reached up and grasped the dangling overhead light to turn it on, in order to see his way to the drain — and suddenly came to frozen, rigid, gasping stop as his hand clamped firmly over the socket.

Little Oley watched. There was juice in the cellar. Poppa had hold of an electric. Was Poppa trying to make the shorts he needed?

Oley wasn’t sure. He thought it probable. And from the superior knowledge of his four years, Oley already knew a better way to make shorts. Neatles make good shorts. Juice don’t do so well.

Suddenly, Oley decided to prove his point: Nice neatles probably made even better shorts than other neatles — and there was a big electric running up the side of the stairs — an electric fat enough to make a real good shorts. Maybe lots of shorts.

Raising his nice neatle, Oley took careful aim and plunged it through the 220-volt stove feeder cable.

Oley woke up. The strange pretty lady in white was a new experience. Somebody he hadn’t seen before. And there seemed to be something wrong with his hand, but Oley hadn’t noticed it very much, yet.

“Well, my little Hero’s awake! And how are you this morning? Your Momma and Poppa will be in to see you in just a minute.”

The pretty lady in white went away, and Oley gazed around the white room with its funny shape, happily recorded the experience, and dozed off again.

Then suddenly he was awakened again. Momma was there; and Poppa. And Sven. But they all seemed different somehow this morning. Momma had been crying, even though she was smiling bravely now. And Poppa seemed to have a new softness that he’d seldom seen before. Sven was looking puzzled.

“I still say, Pop, that he’s a genius. He must have known what he was doing.”

“Oley,” Poppa’s voice was husky — gruff, but kinder and softer than usual. “I want you to answer me carefully. But understand that it’s all right either way. I just want you to tell me. Why did you put the ice pick through the stove cable? You saved my life, you know. But I’d like to know how you knew how.”

Little Oley grinned. His world was peaceful and wonderful now. And all the big adults were bending and leaning down and talking to him.

“Nice neatle,” he said. “Big electric. Poppa needed shorts.”

Original illustration from Analog Science Fact & Fiction by John Schoenherr.

Original illustration from Analog Science Fact & Fiction by John Schoenherr.

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