A Bright, Sparkling Morning

Published at 11:28 on 22 February 2018

First light hits the trees.
Morning light.

As expected, it snowed last night. Not as expected, it snowed a little more than the light dusting that was forecast. A small low-pressure system unexpectedly formed over the northeastern Olympic Peninsula and Whidbey Island then moved south. End result was a little over 2″ of accumulation in many areas on the west side of the Salish Sea. Not a big blizzard by any measure, but still a big deal in a climate that simply doesn’t see a whole lot of snow.

Then the storm promptly departed, leaving clear skies in its wake. It’s been years since that’s happened after a snowfall here, so I really enjoyed the treat of watching it gradually get bright this morning, going through various shades of first purplish then bluish light, followed by the trees being hit by first light. This sort of thing happens routinely in the Rockies, where I lived in my teens and twenties, and it brings back memories of winters there.

White Rock Canyon

Published at 12:59 on 13 February 2018

In the canyon. See link at end of post for more images.

Once in his life, a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it.
— N. Scott Momaday

There is a great good in returning to a landscape that has had extraordinary meaning in one’s life. It happens that we return to such places in our minds irresistibly. There are certain villages and towns, mountains and plains that, having seen them walked in them lived in them even for a day, we keep forever in the mind’s eye. They become indispensable to our well-being; they define us, and we say, I am who I am because I have been there, or there.
— Ibid.

One of my goals on my most recent trip to New Mexico to visit my parents had been to revisit White Rock Canyon, a landscape I bonded with in my youth. It was not even a half-mile from the house I lived in during my teens. Initially, like most, I concentrated my visits in the colder months, because the canyon becomes an inferno in the summer; its black basalt walls collect and concentrate the heat of the already intense Southwestern sun.

Then one June curiosity got the best of me: what would the canyon be like now? What would the hottest and driest spot in the county be like during the hottest and driest part of the year (as June is, in New Mexico)? There was only one way to find out, so one fine scorching afternoon I loaded a day pack with several canteens and descended into nature’s oven.

The cacti were in their typical June defiance. As the most drought-tolerant of plants, they could afford to bloom despite the conditions, and they did. As such, they were richly reaping the rewards of their monopoly on the supply of pollen and nectar; each cactus blossom was teeming with pollinators.

As expected, it was hot. Clouds of powdery, dessicated dust rose with every footfall. It was a challenge to exercise discipline and ration my water so I would still have some on the trip up. The further I descended, the hotter it got. The grasses and forbs were withered and brittle brown amongst the angular black boulders and parched soil. The branchlets of the junipers and even the blooming cacti looked wizened and water-deprived.

Then I turn a corner of the trail and see a view of vibrant, lush, defiant green appear. It seems like a hallucination, so out of place in this dry land in its driest season. It’s the sort of green one might see in Ohio or Louisiana or the Pacific Northwest, a green born of plant life exuberating in a water surplus.

I’ve been here before, so know it is no hallucination. The same descent that brought me into ever hotter conditions brought me ever closer to the water table. At the rim, it was nearly 1,000 feet below the surface. Here, near the bottom, the surface meets it. Multiple springs burst forth and merge into a clear stream.

I enter into the deep shade and rest by the first spring. It is mercifully cooler here among the verdure and abundant water. After a few minutes I glance upstream. Orchids!

Hundreds of orchids, in fact. In full bloom. More wild orchids than I have ever seen in one place. It turns out that these springs are one of the few places in New Mexico where the stream orchid grows, and they bloom in June. Because nobody I know enters the canyon in June, nobody I know knows about them.

That decided it; from then on I regularly visited the canyon, year-round, even though people thought I was nuts for going there in the summer when it was so hot. In August, the area around the springs was more magical yet. Cardinal flowers bloomed in a profusion as great as the orchids did earlier.

I had been wanting to see these rare flowers ever since hearing about them as a younger child in Illinois. I had given up hope of seeing them when we moved west, thinking they were a strictly Eastern/Midwestern plant. The tall spikes of scarlet humming with hummingbirds looked like a scene that belonged more in the jungles of Central America than the high deserts of New Mexico. Yet I could lift my eyes and see that beyond the narrow strip watered by the stream and springs, the austere landscape remained.

Some days I paused on the rim before I enter the canyon, surveying the landscape and choosing an off-trail destination that looks interesting from above. Other discoveries followed: a rock wall covered in dozens of petroglyphs, benches untouched by sheep and cattle where the grasses grew as tall and thick as they did everywhere centuries ago, ancient irrigation works, piles of giant boulders that left one feeling as if an ant amongst grains of coarse sand, unusual ferns (yes, desert ferns), and others I can’t recall at the moment.

Naturally, I had to go back someday, but my parents moved, first to Texas, then back to New Mexico but 100 miles from the canyon. It’s never been convenient to work in a side trip, but I kept saying to myself that someday I’d rent a car and make a day trip there.

Someday was Monday. It being in a town I had lived in for eight years, I drove directly to the trailhead with no missteps. There is now a fancy sign with an elevation profile and rules. I did not read the rules. Other than that, there were not any big changes. No new enlarged parking lot, no big crowds at the trailhead; it was basically the same as I had remembered. From the rim, the familiar landscape of river, semi-desert vegetation and Toreva blocks came into view.

It was winter, so no sightings of wildflowers this time (though the ferns are evergreen and were still there). There was still the unique fragrance of the canyon, a mix of sagebrush, basalt, and dust. It was still surprisingly free from human sights and sounds for a place right on the edge of a town: canyons lie below the surrounding land, frustrating the ability for sounds to enter them. It’s the converse of how you can see and hear signs of distant civilization from a otherwise remote mountaintop.

I found and climbed the boulder pile (easy to find, it’s close to the trail) and visited the petroglyph wall (less easy, it’s a detour off-trail of at least a half mile through terrain that is in places quite rugged). The latter spot was no longer completely my own, as others were obviously visiting and admiring the ancient artwork, as evidenced by the faint trail, marked by cairns, and trampled vegetation at the site itself.

Overall, however, the canyon has changed far less in the intervening 35-odd years since I last saw it than many attractions in that state have. Part of it is it’s not really a tourist attraction: it’s a county park, not a state or national one, and the county really doesn’t publicize it much (there’s no signs directing one to the canyon from the nearest major highway). Mostly, it’s a spot for the locals.

Halfway through my visit I realize how much that place is still part of me today, how its lessons in harsh beauty have influenced my own outlooks. I just can’t get on board with so much New Age stuff because it strikes me as all soft and mushy and friendly and cute; the world isn’t all soft and mushy and friendly and cute, sorry. Ditto for a good chunk of politically liberal beliefs that think all problems can simply be loved away; sometimes things must be fought for. I care even less for right-wingers and their cheering on of capitalism and its subjugation and domestication of the wild.

The natural world exists on its own terms, and it’s not simply good and bad according to our own metrics (nor should it be). The canyon can outright kill (and has killed) the unprepared, the foolish, and sometimes the simply unlucky. Hazards abound: extremes of temperature, a disorienting terrain, rattlesnakes, and sheer cliffs among them.

Would those orchids have been the experience they were if it was easy and pleasant to get to them, if I had expected them because I had heard of them from somebody else first and gone to see them, if there had been crowds and paved trails and a gift shop there? If there had been signs and rules and regulations and profit-making capitalists charging money everywhere, instead of the freedom to explore and wander that I had then? If the weather had been comfortable and temperate?

No, I don’t want a world engineered to be nice and safe, or a world engineered to be efficient and profitable. I want a wild world, a free world.

More photos here.

A White Pine Conundrum

Published at 21:59 on 7 February 2018

At the age of four I moved from California to Illinois, a land of prairies and broadleaf trees. The only local conifer was the Eastern Red Cedar, and there weren’t many of those.

Several hours away was White Pine State Park which has the only forest of Eastern White Pine trees in Illinois. There were white pines elsewhere in the state, such as at Starved Rock, but just occasional trees mixed in with the broadleaf ones, not a solid forest.

There were no wild pines in the western suburbs of Chicago, where I lived, something that I regretted. I have always been interested in plants, and the tree books talked about a closely-related pine found in the West, which I was curious to see some day.

When I moved to Seattle and was biking through my neighborhood several months later, there it was. A tree that was obviously a white pine, yet obviously not the Eastern White Pine I knew from Illinois. And another, and another, generally in the more unkempt areas, like greenbelts and the margins of back yards. A quick look at a range map confirmed that yes, the Puget lowlands from about Seattle north were in the range of the Western White Pine.

It’s the only place in the world where that species comes to meet the Pacific; it’s mostly an inland and mountain species. It both provides a sense of home and memories of my childhood in a place where its close relative was one of the only native conifers.

Last week I noticed one coming up in one of my hedges in the front yard, underneath a rose bush. It’s not a complete surprise, as its likely parent tree looms large just a fraction of a block to the south. No doubt a winter windstorm carried a winged seed from it to under my rose bush a few seasons ago. But it’s not exactly where I’d want a large tree to grow, which is the conundrum.

Where do I put it? Mine is a small lot, so most people wouldn’t plant something so large there in the first place. The place where it has the most room to grow already has a grand fir volunteering, another species I love, because of the distinctive citrus-like fragrance of its needles, and no way is there room for both there.

I suppose I could dig up and give away one of the two trees, but I’m attached to both. Right now I’m leaning toward digging up and gifting (or just guerrilla transplanting) the grand fir and moving the pine to that area, but my thoughts keep changing. Thankfully, there’s no great hurry; I have about a year to make a decision.

220 MHz Adventures

Published at 16:46 on 4 February 2018

35 years old and still working fine!

There’s a ham band at 220 MHz, but in most places its uses are limited to obscure control links, even though the band has frequencies allocated for repeater and simplex use. It was actually used where I lived as a teen and young adult in northern New Mexico (there was a very nice wide-area-coverage repeater with autopatch on that band). That was long enough ago that autopatch was still quite the thing (cell phones existed, but were very expensive, and most of New Mexico was outside of cell coverage). So I naturally grabbed a used 220 rig when I saw one for sale at a hamfest.

Sadly, I then proceeded to destroy said rig by hooking it up incorrectly to a power supply within a year of purchasing it. Then I left New Mexico to move out on my own and didn’t much think of getting anything to replace it for a while; I was living in a dorm room and it was tricky enough to put just one VHF antenna up for the 2 meter band.

I assumed when I moved to Seattle that given how as sparsely-populated a place as rural New Mexico had a useful (and used) 220 repeater, there would definitely be activity on that band in Seattle as well. So when I upgraded my mobile rig, I got a 2m/220 dual-bander, and also proceeded to snag an inexpensive older 220 HT at a hamfest when I saw one in good shape being offered for a good price.

Incorrect assumption; while there were repeaters on the 220 band up this way, they were virtually never used. All the local activity was on 2 meters and 70 centimeters. The old HT couldn’t do CTCSS tones, either, which at that time were increasingly needed to access repeaters, so it quickly found itself relegated to my spare parts box. The mobile rig just got used on 2 meters.

When I moved to Bainbridge Island, I learned that there were no 2m repeaters on the island, because by the time the island’s ham radio club had thought to erect a repeater of its own, all the local 2m frequency pairs had been allocated. So they put a repeater up on 70cm instead. That prompted me to sell the old mobile rig and upgrade to a new 2m/70cm dual-bander.

Last month, I started hearing about there being increasing activity (actual QSOs, not just control links) on 220 locally. There was even a weekly net that some people started talking about. For a moment I cursed my decision to sell the mobile rig then I remembered that old (by now about 35 years old) HT which by then had been sitting completely unused for well over 20 years. Would it even still work? It took some rummaging through my collection of old spare parts to assemble it: the battery packs were in one box, the antenna was in another, and the body of the radio was in a third.

I sprang for 6 new alkaline AA cells at the hardware store (not worth throwing money at expensive rechargeables for a radio that’s probably dead), plopped them in the battery holder, and put the holder on the radio. It sprang to life as a working receiver! But I couldn’t use it on any repeaters, because the radio can’t generate CTCSS tones and all repeaters are on tone squelch these days.

I arrange a simplex test with one of my ham radio friends in Seattle one weekend. Darned if I didn’t get an excellent signal report; it transmits just fine, too! So I purchase a third-party CTCSS board and install it. The latter required adjusting signal levels on a service monitor at another ham’s house, which also showed that the overall signal coming out of the radio was nice and clean.

From battery to battery eliminator.

Next came a base station setup: a simple ground-plane antenna built around a coax connector, followed by my taking apart one of the long-dead NiCd rechargeable battery packs for the thing and turning it into a battery eliminator by installing a simple voltage regulator (an LM7810 and two capacitors) inside its case.

It’s a low-powered base station; the HT comes from the days when the “high power” setting was only 1.5 to 2 Watts. Not that it matters; when doing some tests on the repeater of greatest interest, I dropped my power to the 0.5 Watt low setting and continued getting the same full-quieting signal reports. So on low it will tend to stay.

No Class Consciousness? No Way!

Published at 07:12 on 3 February 2018

First, let me begin by repeating (for those already unaware) that I am queer myself and that even if I wasn’t I’d totally support LGBT liberation, because it’s part of the struggle for human liberation. But, reread that last bit: it’s only part of the struggle for human liberation. Such can be said about any identity politics issue.

The Democratic Party in particular and the Left in general have in the USA tended to focus mainly on identity politics issues in recent decades. This has overall been nothing short of a disaster, as many members of the white working class have been presented with very few messages explaining how left-wing politics are in their own best self-interest.

Which brings us to this campaign. If it succeeds, it will be seen by many as nothing more than another brick in the wall of an elitist corporate/liberal conspiracy to keep the heartland poor and backward. If it fails, it will be celebrated as a victory in “making America great again” and a triumph over the same conspiracy.

Part of the problem is the broader context that the campaign is being conducted in. What if instead there was a large and powerful organized labor movement participating in it, because many of those same anti-LGBT states are also anti-organized-labor?

However, even though organized labor is currently nothing but a shell of its past self, unions still exist, and of course it’s still possible to articulate a more class-and-labor-based argument against Amazon moving to most of those same states. Yet that wasn’t done; the site’s opening page is completely silent on labor issues, despite Amazon having not precisely the best record on these (just type “Amazon warehouse workers” into your search engine for a whole bunch of examples).

As a political enemy of mine might conclude in one of his tweets: Sad!