Waiting for Peak Bloom


2012 peak bloomIt was a long winter in North America.  The kind of winter where you think, well, that must have been the last snow storm, and then it snows three more times. It seemed like this might be the year when, Narnia-style, winter never ends.

Here in Washington, we gauge spring by the cherry trees. The peak bloom for the most famous variety, the Yoshino cherries, is short; you can pin it to one day. The National Park Service defines it as the day when 70 percent of the trees are blooming. It’s been as early as March 15, in 1990. After the cold winter of 1958, the Yoshino didn’t peak until April 18.

This year’s peak is supposed to fall sometime between now and Saturday. The Park Service meticulously tracks the Yoshino blossoms in a chart on the Cherry Blossom Festival website. Every phase has a delightfully specific name. Green buds appeared March 16. “Florets visible”–March 23. The florets extended March 31, the day after the last snowfall. “Peduncle elongation” hit last Friday—a sign that peak bloom is 6-10 days. Monday the buds got to the “puffy white” stage.

Peak Bloom is coming soon. Continue reading


It’s Time to Evolve. Yes, You Too.


A few years ago, I was driving back exhausted from a rock climbing trip in the mountains. My buddy Bryan Fong, was bored and feeling a little punchy. When he gets like this, he tends to bring up politically sensitive topics and starts looking for buttons to press.

In this case, he honed in on the evolution “debate” in the US. He’s a geologist by training and has no problems with evolution. But like I said, he was feeling punchy. He pointed out whether we believe/understand/agree with evolution has very little effect on the real world. In fact, the only ones who care are self-righteous know-it-alls like me (I am paraphrasing – the exact words were lost in my blinding rage).

“Are you stupid?” I remember saying and then sputtering a lot of vague crap about “young impressionable minds,” “competitiveness in the world,” and maybe even “higher truth.”

Essentially the same stuff that Bill Nye said in his debate with Ken Hamm, which has now been discussed far more than it was actually watched. But here’s the thing – and I can’t believe I’m saying this – on one key point, Hamm is kinda right. For most of us, it really doesn’t matter what we think. Do you need to understand evolutionary biology to be a computer programmer? Must you grasp natural selection to sell car insurance? For that matter, do you really need to believe the world is round or that the sun is the center of the solar system to be a good florist or a trader on the stock market?

Continue reading

An Arctic Encounter


Bering land bridge, artworkTraveling in the north country, the open-skied Arctic of North America, you can’t help thinking of the first people and their journey across the Bering Land Bridge to this side of the world. They would have arrived in what is now Alaska and the adjoining Yukon Territory.

The landscape has not changed much in the estimated 23,000-40,000 years, since the first faintest sign of people appears.

In my 20s, I spent a summer floating rivers in that region, mostly the broad, swift, chalky-colored Yukon, which flowed right through the heart of a Paleolithic human landscape. After about 650 miles in a blue canoe on the Yukon, my partner Todd and I paddled out of the mountains into the flat Alaskan interior.

North of the Arctic Circle, the Yukon River looks like a jug of water spilled across a table. It runs 20 miles wide in places, an anastomosing mess of braids and channels looping around countless marshy islands spindled with black spruce.

This far north, the sun made circles around our heads, hard to tell one day from the next. Like a tilted hula hoop, the sun’s course barely touched beneath the horizon before climbing into the next dizzying day. I preferred the bow as we entered the flats. My partner, Todd, took stern behind me. Being in front, I could not see our strapped-in jigsaw puzzle of gear filling the canoe, or the back of Todd’s baseball ball cap. Instead, I saw only the river spreading in all directions, maybe a few fist-shaped cumulus clouds, and the dark skim of forests on faraway shores. Sending out my paddle and drawing it back, I felt like I was leaning into a creation story, the world forming as we passed into it.

Continue reading

New person of LWON: Craig Childs


CraigChildsLeafToday, we bid temporary adieu to Sally Adee, who is going on hiatus for a while. We are trying not to mourn, because she promises to return to LWON at a later date. In the meantime, it’s my pleasure to welcome Craig Childs as the newest person of LWON. I first met Craig backstage at a reading, and I was instantly awed by his gift for storytelling. On stage that night, the words he’d neatly scribbled on field notebooks came alive with his animated reenactments. He doesn’t just observe the world, he touches it and tastes it. Craig is no stranger to LWON. As a guest poster, he’s written about a grizzly skull with a bullet hole wound, ice and ice ages on our planet of swinging seasons and the history of dogs and humans walking. He’s written numerous books about nature, science, and his vagabond adventures. His latest is Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Future of the Earth. Welcome Craig, we’re delighted to have you here.

Photo by JT Thomas.


The value of collegiate sports


CUnatChampsAs I’ve followed the NCAA basketball tournament (join me and some folks from Radiolab tonight, as we live tweet the final game), I’ve been thinking about the value of collegiate sports. My first experience with sports in college came as an NCAA division I cross-country runner. I lettered in cross-country at the University of Colorado my freshman year, but a freak knee injury cut short my collegiate running career. Though I had no experience in the sport, I started training with my school’s Nordic ski team, and I also bought a bike and joined the cycling team.

Cross-country and skiing were both division I, NCAA sports, but cycling was governed by its own body, outside of the NCAA system, and was overseen by club sports, rather than CU’s varsity athletic program. The difference was immediately noticeable. As a varsity NCAA athlete, I received special treatment — advance, preferential registration for classes, private tutoring if I needed it, and excused time from class to attend practice and meets, not to mention free tickets to all sporting events. This special treatment fostered a sense of privilege. We were part of the student body, but we were treated as if we were somehow above it.

My teammates and I were good students, and we were there to get a degree, we didn’t expect to make a profession out of sport. Nevertheless, as varsity athletes, we understood that performance was expected of us. Our sport was no hobby — we were there to win.

Things were different on the cycling team. Continue reading

The Last Word


640px-SoursobMarch 31 – April 4, 2104

Richard:  “But in a way, Kepler had beat him to it. By imagining the universe from the point of view of someone on the Moon, he’d discovered a new planet: Earth.”

Guest Stephen Ornes:  “The theorems, proofs, and equations of mathematics are Big Ideas distilled to their naked cores. And what’s a poem, if not the pure distillation of an experience, emotion or idea?”

Cameron:  “So perhaps instead you’ll find us no longer weeding, our yard bright yellow, our bodies fighting free radicals. Or maybe we’ll just be enjoying the spring, leaning against the tree trunks, stems with bright flowers falling from our mouths.”

Cassandra “Why not just put them back in the park? Anyone who has visited Yellowstone knows that it’s prime habitat. You can’t drive a mile without seeing their shaggy hulking forms. Or better yet, let the bison roam free. After all, isn’t that the definition of a wild animal?”

Abstruse Goose:  “Holy shit.”

Abstruse Goose: NUM63R5


NUM63R5As a literate but functionally innumerate person, I hate AG’s title.  I think it’s dumb and silly.  But I thoroughly get why he feels the way he does about that equation.  Really.  What an odd pattern.  Why would it happen?  Would figuring out why it happened  help you understand anything else?  No?  You couldn’t even figure out why it happened?  In fact, is “why” almost always a dumb question?  That last one I can answer:  yes.




Montana’s Buffalo Conundrum



Yellowstone National Park spans three states and nearly 3,500 square miles, making it one of the largest parks in the US. So when I read that Montana officials are searching for a home for 135 Yellowstone bison living on Ted Turner’s sprawling private ranch, I was bewildered. Why not just put them back in the park? Anyone who has visited Yellowstone knows that it’s prime habitat. You can’t drive a mile without seeing their shaggy hulking forms. Or better yet, let the bison roam free. After all, isn’t that the definition of a wild animal?

It didn’t take much research for me to realize that the issue is far more complex than I first imagined. Yellowstone already has more bison than officials would like. According to an agreement signed in 2000, the park is supposed to keep the population around 3,000 animals, far less than the 4,600 bison that currently reside there. To curb the population, park officials trap some of the animals and ship them to slaughterhouses, a move that has sparked outrage among environmental groups.  Continue reading