Friday, December 30, 2011

Wild Wolf Sighted in California

Return of our Natural Heritage

For the first time since the 1920s, a wild wolf is patrolling the edges of California.  The report below from Cal Fish and Game ("DFG") details what has been released to the public so far.  This is great news, and exciting milestone in the recovery of persecuted species.


The image above is from The Art of Robert Bateman, and the plate is titled "Wolf Pack in Moonlight." 

After I initially posted this blog, I received in the mail a clipping from the LA Times which shows the wolf's progress southwards.  Here is that clipping from the newspaper:

Meanwhile, as posted previously, here is the press release about the California wolf.


California Department of Fish and Game News Release
December 29, 2011
Media Contacts: Mark Stopher, DFG Executive Office, (530) 225-2275
Jordan Traverso, DFG Communications, (916)

Wolf OR7 Enters California

The gray wolf that was wandering in southern Oregon has crossed the
California border. According to the Oregon Department of Fish and
Wildlife (ODFW) this animal is a 2 ½ year old male formerly from a pack
in northeast Oregon. Since the animal has been collared with a Global
Positioning System (GPS) device that periodically transmits its
location, biologists have been able to document its travels since it was
collared in February 2011. Based on the GPS data, he is now more than
300 miles from where his journey began.

His journey, in total, has been more than twice that far with many
changes in direction. Several times he has reversed direction and
returned to previous locations. Today, the California Department of Fish
and Game (DFG) learned that this wolf, designated OR7, crossed the state
line into northern Siskiyou County yesterday. Tracking data puts his
most recent location as a few miles south of the Oregon border. It is
not possible to predict his next movements which could include a return
to Oregon.

DFG continues to collaborate with ODFW and expects to receive daily
location data. This information is transmitted daily when atmospheric
conditions permit. DFG will be sharing only general location information
as this wolf, while in California, is protected as endangered under the
Federal Endangered Species Act.

"Whether one is for it or against it, the entry of this lone wolf into
California is an historic event and result of much work by the wildlife
agencies in the West," said DFG Director Charlton H. Bonham. “If the
gray wolf does establish a population in California, there will be much
more work to do here."

Any wild gray wolf that returns to California is protected as
endangered under the Federal Endangered Species Act, administered by the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

DFG has been following the recovery and migration of gray wolves in
western states with the expectation that at some point they will likely
reach California. The last confirmed wild gray wolf in California was
killed in Lassen County in 1924. The available historic information on
wolves in California suggests that while they were widely distributed,
they were not abundant. DFG has been compiling historic records, life
history information, reviewing studies on wolf populations in other
western states, enhancing communication with other agencies and training
biologists on field techniques specific to wolves. This effort is to
ensure that DFG has all necessary information available when needed, it
is not a wolf management plan and DFG does not intend to reintroduce
wolves into California.

There are more than 1,600 wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains
following a federal reintroduction effort which occurred in the
mid-1990s. In 1999 a single wolf crossed into Oregon from Idaho, after
nearly a 60-year absence in that state. There are now at least 24 wolves
in Oregon in four reproducing packs. It has taken an additional 12 years
for the first wolf to now reach the California border. This particular
animal is exhibiting normal dispersal behavior for a young male and
there is no way to predict whether he will stay in California, return to
Oregon, or travel east into Nevada. Eventually, DFG expects that other
wolves will reach California. Whether this will lead to the
establishment of packs or simply transient individual animals is

Gray wolf recovery in other western states has been controversial,
particularly regarding impacts on prey populations, livestock
depredation and human safety. There have been instances where gray wolf
predation has contributed to declines in deer and elk populations,
however, in most cases, predation has had little effect. Some gray
wolves have killed livestock - mostly cattle and sheep - while others
rely entirely on wild prey. In other western states the impact of
depredation on livestock has been small, less than predation by coyotes
and mountain lions, although the effect on an individual livestock
producer can be important, particularly when sheep are killed.

Concerns about human safety are largely based on folklore and are
unsubstantiated in North America. In recent years there was one human
mortality in Canada caused either by wolves or bears and one confirmed
human mortality in Alaska by wolves. Based on experience from states
where substantial wolf populations now exist, wolves pose little risk to
humans. However, DFG recommends that people never approach a wolf, or
otherwise tamper with or feed a wolf. More about how to avoid
human-wildlife interactions can be found on DFG’s website at

In the near future DFG expects to add information to its website
( to provide extensive information on wolves to the

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Little Nemo in (Christmas) Slumberland

Christmas Thoughts from the Best Comic Strip in the World

When professional cartoonists talk about the most recent best best best strips of modern times, it is a three-way tie between Doonesbury, The Farside, and Calvin and Hobbes.  (Usually Calvin and Hobbes comes out top-ranked, if people are forced to make a choice.)  In turn, if we move back to the start of it all, there is universal agreement on the granddaddy of best-ness, the series that even Bill Watterson acknowledges as his definition of a masterpiece.  That is Little Nemo in Slumberland, by Winsor McCay.  It ran primarily from 1905 to 1914, with a brief and still-copyrighted (and hence still out-of-print) revival in the 1920s.  And oh my friends, what a strange and magic time that must have been.

The premise is simple: in our dreams, we travel to far and strange lands.  There all of us meet glory and harm, threat and expectation.  The strip's title character, a boy of circa ten years old (age is not really important here), Nemo, is trying to reach the mythical kingdom of Slumberland, where the king needs his help.  Along the way he has more adventures than Tintin on acid, but often the sequence of events is ruined when Nemo wakes up, usually in a tangle of bedding in the last square of the narrative.

The art and design is exquisite, the pacing jump-cut swift, the dialogue baroque and marvelous.  If somehow we combined Dr. Seuss with Dennis Hopper's shrooming photojournalist in Apocalypse Now, we might end up with something like this.

Wikipedia will step in now, to summarize for us:

"Certain episodes of the strip are particularly famous. Any list of these would have to include the Night of the Living Houses (said to be the first comic strip to enter the collection of the Louvre) wherein Nemo and a friend are chased down a city street by a gang of tenement houses on legs; the Walking Bed, in which Nemo and Flip ride over the rooftops on the increasingly long limbs of Nemo's bed; and the Befuddle Hall sequence, wherein Nemo and his friends attempt to find their way out of a funhouse environment of a Beaux-Arts interior turned topsy-turvy. McCay's mastery of perspective, and the extreme elegance of his line work, make his visions graphically wondrous. The eccentric dialogue is delivered in a dreamy deadpan, and often appears to be hastily jammed into tiny word balloons that can scarcely contain it. A typical line: 'Whoever named this place Befuddle Hall knew his business! I am certainly befuddled.'"

Which brings us to Christmas.  In a set of entries from about 1910 or so, here are two episodes.  These are scans from the fabulous collection by Taschen brought out in 2007; the headnote essay is titled "The Greatest Strip that Ever Flopped."  (As with so much of great art, it went underappreciated in its own time.)  Here are some panels, along with transcribed dialogue.

The person in the grass skirt is the Imp, sort of a Shakespeare Fool character, often up to no good, while the clown with the cigar is a manifestation of Flip, also a helper / hinderer kind of Scaramouche figure.  The sign says (in case it's not legible on this website) "Christmas Festivities Postponed!  Gone to Hunt for Little Nemo."  It is signed by the King of Slumberland.  The dialogue in Panel 1 reads like this: "The fellow said, who ever finds us will get a million dollars.  I said, why don't you find us? But he was too sleepy."  Second clown (a disguised Nemo): "He didn't know us.  Ah! Say! Look! There isn't going to be any Christmas! See the sign, Flip?"

(I might mention that the reason Flip and Nemo look like over-filled water balloons is that they were lost in the palace in a previous episode and got so hungry they began to eat the letters and borders of the strip itself.  They are bloated on printer's ink.  Back to Christmas.)

Next panel.  "What do you think of that old Doctor Pill having a bed like that?" (Dr. Pill often saves or helps Nemo.)  The Imp remains silent but Nemo says, "I guess he takes pretty good care of himself.  But say, I am thinking about Christmas!"

We all know what happens if you leave children (or adults acting like children) alone with a big bed.  Time to start jumping up and down.  Note the extraordinary rendering of space and anatomy.  In the right hand side panel, Flip rolls through space as if in zero-G, long before we had any photographs like this.  What a wonderful imagination the artist has.

The Imp just babbles nonsense before joining in the fun.  Flip says, "Yip! Look at me! Whee! Say!     I don't believe in Santa Claus, do you?" Nemo answers hesitantly, wanting to be accepted by his companion but also unsure of himself. "Nah, eh: I mean, say --- someone is coming!"

And an off-camera voice says, "What!!! Nemo is lost? And there'll be no Christmas? This is a fine how de do!!! Where can he be? Huh!"

We all know the magic that has been evoked.  You can't say in a movie or a cartoon, "Tigers? There aren't any tigers around here!"  As soon as you say that, you have tempted fate, and the speaker is doomed to turn around and find an escaped zoo tiger staring him in the face.  Never, EVER say there is no such thing as Santa Claus.

The web format here doesn't do the majesty of this justice.  (The Wikipedia entry is very thorough and clear, but it too has format problems.)  You really need to buy the book.  But until then, let's wrap this up.  Left to right, the dialogue zips along as follows:

Flip: "Blamed if that isn't Santa Claus! I always heard there was no Santa Claus."
Nemo: "Here I am! Here I am! Santa Claus, hey! Here I am!"

Santa says, "I'll find him! I'll find him and there will be a Christmas. I'll find him!"

Why is Santa driving a big blue car?  It's a dream, why not, and in dreams, cars drive through bedrooms all the time.  How modern our Santa is, with the latest miracle, the automobile.  That will be a plot point in a moment.

The noise and commotion wake the real Nemo up, who looks in confusion at the Christmas tree (much larger and grander than most of the era).  He says, "Oh! I was dreaming! Oh! I'm glad it was a dream! Um Merry Christmas."

The tree's presence may be part of the magic of the moment.  When my mother was a child in the 1930s, there was no tree when she went to bed on Christmas Eve.  Her parents bought it after she went to sleep, installed it in the middle of the night, and my mother woke up not just to a present (such an an orange, a rare treat) but to a decorated tree.  Santa supposedly brought not just gifts, but the Christmas tree as well.

But what happens?  Does Santa find Nemo and return to his Christmas duties?  Here is Part 2.

Santa's car is leaving a wake of lost presents behind as Flip, Imp, and Nemo race to catch up.

Panel 1:
"Santa Claus didn't know us.  Now he's gone to hunt for us.  We --- "
"We'll get him! He's just down the hall. Come on! Oh! We'll catch him!"

Panel 2:
"My! But he's excited! He's scattering his Christmas presents everywhere!"
"Keep a-runnin. I smell the gasoline from his automobile. We're gaining!"

Panel 3:
"I'm too fat to run very much faster! He will be surprised to know we were here, won't he?"
"Yes! If we don't catch up with him, he'll hunt for us 'til next Christmas!"

Panel 4:
"We are getting pretty close to him now. Let's holler to him."
"He can't hear us for the noise his auto makes! I see him! I see him!"

At the time this was published, other than a preliminary form of bus, most readers had not ridden in a car yet, though they had been assaulted by the noise of a passing vehicle and had smelled the unfiltered exhaust.  This marks the end of the horse-drawn era.  Note too the amazing parade of presents along the bottom edge of the panel, which work visually as a foreground but which also document what was then a fantasy assemblage of extravagant (and tossed-aside) gifts.  Many kids reading this would say, "pick up the toys!  Nemo, slow down, pick up the toys!"

The smoke increases with each panel; note too the "trendy" bike in Panel 5.  No velocipeds here: this is indeed the modern era.  The dialogue, in case the web version is not clear....

Panel 5:
"Hey! Hey! Santa Claus! Hey! Hey!"
"There he goes! Hey! Stop! Here we are! Hey old man! Stop. Here we are!

Racing along with his exhaust billowing out, Santa says, "I'll find Little Nemo. I don't care how big Slumberland is! If he's here, I'll find him! Sure!"

In Panel 6, Santa, apparently a Sunday driver, has hit something, making an explosion that knocks his hat off.  (Apparently Santa is bald.  Who knew?)  The jack in the box springs out and Imp is thrown off his feet.

Panel 7 takes up most of the page.  The camera has shifted (how this so deliciously pre-dates and yet predicts the conventions of cinema!), and Flip says, "That settles him for a while.  He's done for."  Nemo worries about the consequences of what he has started, and so says, "That's too bad!  He's mad!  We'd better get away. Come on!"

Santa ruefully says, "This is what I get for being up to date.  I'll use the reindeer after this."

Final panel shows a properly sized Nemo by his real-life bed.  Back to safe and drab reality.  Colors fade, perspective calms down, drama ends.  The dream is over.  Meanwhile his mother, usually kept off-camera (like the parents in Charlie Brown), scolds, "Nemo! If you expect Santa Claus to call here, you must stay in bed.  he'll not come if he sees you up, so go back to bed!"

True words, mom.  This blog entry is being posted on Christmas Eve, and so that all of us have the best possible chance of presents, we will stop chasing Santa in his new fine blue car, we will hope that he has indeed gone back to reindeer, and from AVC's family to yours, a Blessed Christmas, and to all, a good night.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Pit Bulls, Parolees, and Second Chances

a few notes on Christmas miracles

Although it's the holiday season, which is to say, it's the time of year when we are risking pepper spray with every visit to Wal-Mart, it is also that time of year when we have the chance to do right by the world --- to give a little extra to the Salvation Army folks outside the Post Office, or to add a second offering at church.  Yet as we look around, it is easy to be discouraged.  Does it do any good?  Maybe people are poor because they deserve to be, or maybe the people in jail are all hopeless losers.  They are just feral dogs, unfit to be let into the hearts (and classrooms) of mainstream society.

Then again, maybe not.  Enter Animal Planet.  This channel sponsors a show called "Pit Bulls and Parolees" and they filmed an episode last summer at AVC.  The show features an animal rescue group and the folks they hire --- ex-cons, who (like the dogs being rescued) have an unfair reputation as being without value.  One of the fellows involved with the rescue project is also a writer, so for the episode that was filmed at AVC, the producers set him up on a blind date with me and adjunct instructor Nicelle Davis, to do some unrehearsed, unscripted reality tv.  It was then that I met Deshaun Lavender.

He was, as the saying goes, an ex-con, and a pretty hardcore one at that.  Yet he also was a poet, a generous and kind soul, and a survivor.  Let me share his story in his own words.

"The early days of my life were scarred by tragedy.  My father was killed by the LAPD when I was just three months old.  As a single mother, my mom did her best, but she was killed by a drunk driver when I was 12 years old."  This sounds like the opening of a Charles Dickens novel, but I have worked with Deshaun, and it's a true story, and not all that uncommon.  In an autobiography that he wrote for the AVC Blog, he goes on to explain the almost inevitable consequences.

"Young and confused, I lost all direction in my life, and though I did not realize it then, I was headed for a life of self-destruction.  Even the moral principles and family values that had been instilled in me were not enough.  The place where pain exists without any excuses welcomed me as if I were a distant cousin.  At the age of 13 I was initiated into a turbulent lifestyle of gang violence and criminal activity.  My new tribe became the Four Trey Gangster Crips and I began to live my life by the rules of the street.  I lost the vision of my family expectations."

The usual outcomes followed.

"By 23, with two prison terms under my belt, I was arrested for attempted murder and robbery, and would spend the next 15 years of my life incarcerated."

Like Malcom-X and others before him, it was in prison he was able to use reading and writing as a tool for self-reflection.  He wrote poetry, he educated himself, he thought about where he had been and what it would take to get to someplace better.

"Finally the year 2011 arrived and I was released back into society with an understanding of the what it would take to maintain my freedom.  Through the guiding light of Higher Powers, I was led to a pit bull rescue center called Villalobos.  This is a place where not only pit bulls get a second chance at life, but so do parolees.  Here I found not only a job but a passion, and I was allowed to know the love of a cause --- the cause of rescuing and rehabilitating the most misunderstood breed of all dogs.  In the process, my own life has been changed forever.  I can identify with the stigma placed on these pit bulls because to society, I too am a pit bull, except I am a two-legged one.  If I deserve a second chance, so do they.  I have embraced the cause to fight for the most amazing dogs in the world."

During his summer poetry lesson with me and Instructor Davis, we were both impressed by his integrity, his sincerity, and his generosity.  With the help of Dr. Fisher and the AVC Foundation, Deshaun was able to enroll at AVC for fall term, and has been a solid presence in my English 101 night class all fall.  True, he still won't use italics correctly, and true, in his rough drafts he capitalizes nouns as randomly as if he's trying to mimic the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, but so what?  The main thing that counts is his spirit, his drive, and his willingness to improve.  He is like so many of my students, kicked around by life but trying to end up a better person in a better place.

He has been blessed with many gifts, and now is finding the courage to use them.  He has confided in me that he is becoming a father finally to a child he barely knows, which itself is a very brave thing to man up to.  Deshaun has been blessed too because he has been accepted by a new family, the ones centered around the rescue center's founder, Tia Torres.  As he says, "Tia has the biggest heart on any person I've ever encountered."  If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to keep a gang-banger out of jail.  "It's because of her," he says, "that I have been able to redirect my energies into something that I have come to believe in as deeply as I believe in myself.  Second chances are real, and of that, I am living proof."

Meeting him has made me ask of myself, What else --- who else --- around me deserves a second chance too?  It is the right time of year to go and find out.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

How to Ollie an Art Museum

Notes on Trends in Contemporary Design

Yes, thank you, skateboarders.  You gave us snowboards (not my thing, really, but I love how they look, shredding Mountain High), you gave us more kinds of Vans than would fill, well, a van, and you gave us the magazines that gave us about one zillion typeface and layout options.

First, a screenshot from the Nevada Museum of Art's website.  Note about two thirds of the way over, middle right, the Art and Environment logo.  Ah yes, the inverted letters.  I love this --- kicky and fun, the kind of thing that reads well but lets us think about Australia and base jumping and zero gravity.  The inverted "A" becomes a toppled Eiffel Tower or narrow canyon spanned by a bridge.  It makes you pause, just a microsecond, and think about life differently.  It's like those world maps that put New Zealand and Australia on the top half of the globe.  Fun stuff!

As a design choice, to invert a letter or two nearly may be a trend.  Here is a postcard that came in the mail, talking about something called the "2012 Center Awards" in Santa Fe.  Note the "r" in "Center."

As I say, this is nearly a trend: once you start looking for it, you can find it in a variety of places.  Here is another screenshot, this time for the website for the "Impossible" project, a small start-up group trying to resuscitate Polaroid film.  (Polaroid itself is bankrupt, but a Dutch factory still makes small batches of film.  Alas, the cost is higher now, but it's great stuff.  See my sample shot, below.)  Here is a screenshot from their website: note the "spelling" of the main logo, top left.

Pretty soon I suppose even Microsoft Word will let one do this, right on the title page of a term paper.  Until then, in order to get effects like this one must use an Adobe product, "InDesign," via which most books and magazines now are laid out.  Bold, bright, and striking: we see the changes in design everywhere.  Here's a page from a current biology textbook, Life: The Science of Biology (9th edition), by Sadava, Hillis, Heller, and Berenbaum.  As a guess, I would say this was originally done in Adobe Illustrator, then laid out for printing in InDesign.  Welcome to design's brave new world.

As content, this no doubt is serious stuff, but for me, aesthetically, the image itself, well, it's just plain charming --- it reminds me of the display window of a boutique cupcake shop.  It's not just a textbook, it's a preview for the next Pixar movie.

The clarity of the best current designs, combined with their risk and spunk, makes me feel about twenty years younger.  How about this gal, below, all scorpion snack and lavender lip gloss?  (Note to self: make sure my lipstick always matches my bra straps.)  This is a lovely WOW moment.  Next pay day, I hope the publisher gives whoever art directed this shot a fifty buck bonus.

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  With saturated printing and striking, white-background designs being so easy to achieve, the grunge side of the equation factors in too.  You will see faux Polaroids, harshly lit and off kilter, in loads of fashion magazines.  In my case, I like to use the black and white film for my Polaroid camera that is made by "Impossible" (see above), but I like to go for an even more dated look, trying in this case for a 19th century feel.  This is a recent shot of a sculpture in my backyard that my wife calls Hoodhenge.  Black border is the film holder; originally, Polaroids only came with white borders, but the Dutch folks at Impossible like to mix it up a bit.

Is this photograph high Art?  No, maybe not.  For me, I just like the shot as a way to explore tonal ranges.  With Polaroid you never know what will happen.  The tallest of these stones is just a touch past eight feet high; the best time to shoot them is during a snow storm, but since we have not had one of those this week, next best is to use the time machine option of wonky film stock.

Of course as fun as these art museum websites and alternative weeklies are, I am an advocate always of going to the source.  Not the movie Lion King, but the play Hamlet; not Clueless, but the Jane Austin original; not Trader Joe's, but beef tongue tacos right from the vendor on the streets of Guadalajara.  Following that spirit then, it's time for me to put away my issues of Art in America and Eye magazine, and go right to the headwaters of design.  What will be in my mailbox next week?  What can I expect to be the next new thing?  Let me turn the pages and find out . . . Thrasher magazine, here I come.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Thanksgiving, 1945

Pilgrims, Zoo Animals, and the Connections of Family

Thanksgiving means thinking about family, and, for many of us, family exists as two, parallel things:  (a) the people themselves and (b) our memories of those people.  And our memories are tied to pictures, more often than not.  After all, when a forest fire threatens the house, people grabs the pets and the photo albums, and not always in that order.  Going through boxes from my late parents I have to say that it is a miracle, how Kodachrome has lasted.  Kodachrome film is a kind of Tardis, for our Dr. Who fans: a phone box that takes us to another time, another planet.  In my parents' slide files, I have found a photograph of my father, seated on the right, eating Thanksgiving with his own father (head of the table, the pastor C.W. Hood), a photo taken in 1945, just after my dad has just survived five years of service in World War Two.

This was a family so poor that at times they ate squirrels and 'possums.  Looks here like a grand spread, as was normal for so many American families in this year, the year that America celebrated the first Thanksgiving after the end of a war that had killed 60 million people, world-wide.  At this time period my aunt was a school teacher (and de facto missonary) to the Pueblo Indians; I see she has brought home an artifact balanced on a shelf left of the door.  Through the door, what does the kitchen look like?  In a painting from the Chicago Institute of Art, we have that answer too --- this same scene, but from the other perspective.
These days it's hard to get back to the core root of what holidays such as Thanksgiving meant in earlier times.  For the people at the Antelope Valley Mall, getting ready for midnight openings for Black Friday, Thanksgiving is a chance to change the receipt tape in the registers and re-tag the sale merchandise.  For Mountain High, it will mean the first big day of skiing of the season.  According to this poster at a casino in Reno, Thanksgiving is just some days off of work in order to go gambling.

Given that the first European settlers in North America were, on average, Puritans, I think they would be upset to see their iconography used to market vice.  But then, we have, most of us, been raised on false notions of the "true" history of Thanksgiving.  Was it this, as the painting shows?

Well, probably not --- the white linens would have been especially unlikely.  Healthier than most arriving Pilgrims, better fed, filled with their own viable cosmology and a reasonable amount of religious tolerance, the Native Americans of the 1620s were unimpressed by the blundering colonists.  Here in fact is what they probably thought. 

To the Native Americans, in 1621, the Europeans “were shorter than normal, oddly dressed, and often unbearably dirty.  The pallid foreigners had peculiar blue eyes that peeped out of the masks of bristly, animal-like hair that encased their faces.  They were irritatingly garrulous, prone to fits of chicanery, and often surprisingly incompetent at what seemed like utterly basic tasks.”        —Charles Mann, from the book titled 1491 (published in 2006)

Even the idea that the Indians taught the Pilgrims the trick of using dead fish to fertilize their corn may not have come down to us exactly correctly; there is some evidence that the individual Native American who taught that to the Europeans had himself learned it from other Europeans.  (There is also evidence that there were no worms native in American soil, and that they arrived in the root balls of introduced saplings.  O what changes we brought to this country, we white folk.)  Here is the picture I was taught was true when I was in grade school.

The first Thanksgiving?  This looks like an ad for Ikea, or maybe Halloween at a gay bar.  In actuality, houses were smaller, with low, smoky ceilings.  (The first "houses" were brush piles appropriated from Native Americans killed off by disease.  "Plimoth" was originally an abandoned Indian village site.)  The whites should be shown lousy with vermin, pockmarked from smallpox, and, to be really authentic, nearly skeletal with starvation.

That was then, this is now: God's will or just bad luck, but the whites won, the Indians lost, and off we go on down the yellow brick road.  Thanksgiving today?  We have blue corn tortilla chips and ocelot cubs.

For the record, this page is from the magazine for the San Diego Zoo --- a place I support fully.  They can add in all the margays and pumas they want and I'll still renew my membership, no matter how discordant the images.  Of course, like an ocelot, turkeys in the wild had a lot going for them, despite the top-heavy dullards they have been bred to be now.  Ben Franklin was right to want them to be a national symbol: in the wild they are swift, wary, and smart.  (There also are other species elsewhere, such as the lovely ocelated turkey of Belize.)  We call them turkeys, by the way, since the Pilgrims thought that was where they came from: the Spanish had brought turkeys from the New World to the Old, and so that was a type of critter the Brits already thought they knew about, and what they knew what that the turkey (the bird) came from the Levant, specifically Turkey (the place).  What a pleasant surprise it must have been to them to find turkeys here, too, trotting around wild.

My favorite turkey does not come from Trader Joe's or Marie Callenders, but from my daughter, Amber, and dates from 1994, when she was helped in kindergarten to make that most traditional of centerpieces, the pine cone turkey.

Thanksgiving?  Indeed so.  If we think of what the word can mean, and return to the core sense of giving thanks, our own lives will almost certainly be fuller.   Most of us are blessed many times over, and this is a good time to remember that.

In that spirit, this blog closes with some stanzas from a poem by Anne Porter titled "A List of Praises."  This is the opening and closing section only, with the skipped bits shown by bracketed ellipsis points.  The full text can be found on the website for the Academy of American Poets.

Here is the poem:

Give praise with psalms that tell the trees to sing,
Give praise with Gospel choirs in storefront churches,
Mad with the joy of the Sabbath, 
Give praise with the babble of infants, who wake with the sun,
Give praise with children chanting their skip-rope rhymes, 
A poetry not in books, a vagrant mischievous poetry 
living wild on the Streets through generations of children.
[ . . . ]
Give praise with the rasp and sizzle of crickets, katydids and cicadas, 
Give praise with hum of bees, 
Give praise with the little peepers who live near water.
[ . . . ] 
Give praise with water, 
With storms of rain and thunder 
And the small rains that sparkle as they dry,
And the faint floating ocean roar 
That fills the seaside villages, 
And the clear brooks that travel down the mountains 

And with this poem, a leaf on the vast flood,
And with the angels in that other country.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Why Do Trees Turn Red in Fall?

Color Comes to AVC

It's that time of year when "Fall" (the season) also means "fall" (what the leaves are starting to do).

AVC looks especially nice right now.

It also is looking good in Arizona, as my brother confirms with a picture from near Flagstaff.  Here's what it looks like now in Northern Arizona.  This photo was taken by Fred Hood, whose wild cat website is  No ocelots or tigers in this picture, just a lovely autumn scene.

What causes trees to change color?  If you recently got an A in botany, go ahead and skip this: nothing here is original research or in any way deviant from the usual story.  But if you're not sure, here's the basic idea.

Fact A.  In North America, on average, we have sunny summers and cold winters.  Just like wearing flip flops and shorts on the 4th of July, trees that want to specialize in summer need appropriate leaves.  But our beach gear is not so good during a winter snow storm, especially in a habitat like interior Maine's.  So trees can either be like the pines, with year-round needles that don't soak up sunlight so well but which can endure a blizzard, or they can be like a sycamore, with a parasol instead of a knitting needle for a leaf shape.  An ice storm could weigh the tree down with too much heavy snow and ice in the off season, breaking branches or bringing down the whole tree, plus of course there's the year's accumulation of insect damage and parasites.  It makes sense just to get rid of the entire leaf, spend the winter with bare branches, and grow a fresh one when it's warm and sunny again.

(We'll ignore for the moment the tricky part about why manzanita has red bark instead of red leaves.)

Fact B.  On campus, we have both types of trees, the evergreen pines and the deciduous broad-leafed types.  Therefore by mid-winter, some trees will be bare, and some will still have leaves, which among other things, is a good thing for our campus owls.  With the right perspective, one can usually see both tree types in the same view.  (The dark shadow below is a pine outside the Learning Center, as one looks out towards the F entrance of Parking Lot 10.)

Fact C.  The red part of the color has been there all along.  Now I turn to David Sibley, the famous nature artist.  In his book on the trees of North America, here's what he says.

"The brilliant colors of the autumn forest are among the most striking and most viewed spectacles of nature.  Nearly all boradleaf trees develop some amount of yellow or red color before they drop their leaves in the fall.  Yellow pigments are already present in the leaves, masked by green chlorophyll, and are simply revealed when the tree begins to withdraw resources from the leaf and the chlorophyll breaks down."

Red, Sibley says, is synthesized by the trees just before the leaves drop.

He goes on to note that by "combining just a few pigments --- green, brown, yellow, and red --- trees produce the entire range of fall colors."

One can plant for this, in local backyards.  If you want a taste of New England, a book called Trees of the California Landscape (Charles Hatch, UC Press) lists ornamentals one can plant, itemized by color.  It has over one hundred species in its review, and in fact, one could alternate, with a red tree and then an orange one and then a yellow one.  Sibley again: "Each species or genus often shows a particular patten of color.  Aspens are famous for their dramatic show of golden-yellow color. [ . . . ] Sweetgums are distinctive for having scattered purple, red, yellow, and green leaves all simultaneously on a single tree, even on the same branch."  (Some people may know this plant by another common name, liquid amber.  It is also called red gum.)

Maples are especially famous for their brilliant colors.  When growing wiild in the woodlands of the eastern USA, why don't they all turn the same color, and at the same time?  It turns out that it may be a sexual difference.  We all know that a male lion has a mane (at least in the African types), while females do not.  It may be the same in maples --- not manes, but variations in color and timing.  This possibility is explored in a post by David Sibley on his blog, which one should see for the full (and illustrated) discussion.

And that just (ahem) "leaves" us with this final thought.  Does it even matter why?  Do we need to know the answer in a technical sense?  Maybe the great Creator in the sky just likes variety, and too, has a soft spot in His / Her heart for beauty.  Whatever the cause, we have just concluded a week that was brim-up with beauty galore.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Great Book Giveaway

Simple Ways to Help Encourage Reading

AVC instructor Santi Tafarella has a lot of books.  They are in his house, in his garage, in his office.  Since our tastes overlap, I would guess he owns 5,000 books.  (I base that on a count I once made of my own collection.)

The thing is, with so many books, a few are bound to be duplicates --- or else titles that even after 20 years, we just never have gotten around to.

He has had a great idea.  Give the books away for free, by filling up mobile carts and leaving them in hallways around campus.

These have been absurdly successful.  He has helped give away 500 books so far, and indeed, has been so successful that we have had to slow down --- not for lack of interest, but because the carts empty faster than we can collect donations to refill them.

That is why I found myself following up.  Here are some of the Trader Joe's bags in the back of my truck, as I worked my way through my own bookshelves.

Students have been enthusiastic.  Full carts, once put out around campus, are emptied in an hour or two.  Here is a video clip about what they say:

Professor Tafarella also would like to have a campus "read-in," which would be a day when all over campus, at the same time, people who love reading --- staff and faculty and students --- will go outside and just read for an hour, silently, publicly, unashamedly. 

I am all for this, and look forward to the details.  Great job, Santi!

If you want to bring some bags of books yourself to him, so he can keep refilling the carts, here is his office extension.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

How to Live to be 100

The Experts Remind Us How to Live Forever

According to the recent issue of National Geographic, babies born now in key countries, including the US, can expect to live to be 100.

At the same time, USA Today says that to be happy is easy.

Most sources agree that longevity ties to simple things.  Genes are one; living in a healthy country with good medicine and proper sanitation is another.  Where you were born is out of your control, as is, to some extent, whether you grew up in Sweden or Zimbabwe.  Some things though anybody can do.  Being married (or in the case of my gay friends, being in a committed, stable relationship) helps.  Friends help. Pets help.

Diet helps.  Anybody remember the ill-fated experiment of the sealed dome in Arizona, "Biosphere"?  They almost starved to death.  This a group of idealistic "earth astronauts" were going to live inside a sealed ecosystem and show us how space colonies would work.

In the end, they could not grow enough food to survive (more algae soup anybody?), and like prisoners of war and other deprived people, reported having nonstop food fantasies.  I remember one problem: no wind.  Without the wind blowing back and forth while a sapling grew, a tree's wood has no stresses, and no stresses (as with a body in a hospital bed over time) made the dome's trees weak, atrophied, spindly.  They would have traded three baskets of dwarf mangoes, I bet, for one jar of good, old-fashioned, oil-and-sugar enhanced Skippy.

(Breakfast of Champions, that one is.)  Yet ironically, while they were shedding weight and gaining daydreams about Thanksgiving dinners, they may have been on the path to the hundred-year mark.  Some doctors argue that in the industrialized countries we all eat way too much, and can (and should) survive on a near-starvation level diet.  In this view, we should look (and have the endurance of) Kenyan runners (or African school kids, who walk up to 20 miles a day).

I don't think anybody denies that exercise, to whatever greater or lesser degree, is another factor in feeling good and living longer.  I would like to spin in circles on my hands like these kids in the AVC Black Box, but am still working on it.

The mind's health is another aspect of this. One study in Sweden found that people who engage in cultural activities (visiting art galleries, for example) were happier and healthier than those who did not.  I assume they had appropriate control groups (you have to be healthy enough to leave the house, for example, before you can go to the museum for the day) and will take their findings at face value.  I know that among the faculty, following a sports team is NOT going to make you happy.  By definition, the odds are against you: your team will, sooner or later, lose.  We have on staff people who are devoted to a wide range of teams, from the Kings in ice hockey to the Boston Red Sox to Manchester United in footie, and all I know is, sooner or later, they all lose, usually at some key point, such as the playoffs.  True fans follow their teams even in slumps, I know that, but that seems to me a tedious exercise in misplaced loyalty.  I tried to follow the Lakers for a while, but in the end, the egos and salaries and blown chances just irritated me. 

In contrast here's a place that has never, ever let me down: the Walt Disney Concert Hall.  Closer than the beach, cheaper than drugs, it is a sure bet way to feel good about the world.

On Sunday night my wife and I went to see a 1919 silent movie at the Walt Disney Hall, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, accompanied by live organ.  The movie was good, the architecture was good, the playing was spectacularly good, and the people around us were clearly happy and thoughtful.  Somebody said he saw Tim Burton in the front row; others had on spectacularly good costumes, from "House, MD" to "Phantom of the Opera."  I have never NOT had a great performance experience there.

Here's what NOT to do.  Too many of us check our email hourly, half-hourly, even when we get out of the shower or have come back to the desk after just getting up to get a drink of water.  Some things do NOT help happiness --- so try, for example, turning your email off, your phone off, your twitter feed and your television off.  Get that crap out of your life and life will be better.

We have alcohol clinics and drug de-tox programs.  How long until we need those kinds of places for our cell phone addictions?  Turn it off and go for a walk.

After all, where's the one place you can't get reception?  What is the guaranteed absolute "zero service bars" place on this earth?  I promise you, you will NOT get any cell phone reception in the grave.

As the bumper stickers say, let's all live long enough to be a problem for our grandchildren.  First one of the AVC Blog readers to reach 100 gets two jars of Skippy and a free pass for a break dancing class.  See you there!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright

 William Blake's Prophecy

 A bit over 200 years ago, William Blake, an engraver and poet barely making ends meet, began an ambitious project --- he would not only write poetry, but illustrate it too.  His best known work comes in two self-titled halves, "Songs of Innocence" and "Songs of Experience."  He wrote about Heaven and Hell and orphans and child labor and roses and London, but he also happened to create a poem that has become the single-most anthologized bit of literature in the English language, the "Tyger, Tyger" poem.  In it, Blake asks the rhetorical but still-relevant question: Did the God who created the terror and power of tigers, also manage to create the innocence and quietude of lambs?  How do we reconcile beauty and evil, terror and power?

 That question is in every headline it seems, but especially recently.  As USA Today says, "In Ohio, a panic over one man's zoo."

Having been working on a book about tigers in fact and myth for five or six years now, I can say that while tigers escaping from captivity (usually due to their selfish, careless, or mentally ill owners) may make the news and seem highly singular, in actuality, over the years, it happens all the time.  

Math makes this inevitable.  It's a sad fact that there are probably fewer than 3,000 tigers left in the wild (most in India, but a few each in Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, and Sumatra, not to mention the famous "snow tigers" in Russia).  In contrast, nobody knows how many tigers are in zoos, circuses, and the private compounds of drug lords and exotic animal fanciers, but the usual number is assumed to be past 10,000.  That many people with that many tigers in their backyards and a few are bound to go missing every once in a while. 

This tiger (above) was photographed in a zoo in Trivandrum, India.  Of course we can all sympathize in some small way with the people who do keep tigers.  According to Animal Planet, it's the world's most popular and iconic species, ahead even of the extended family that makes up the shark assemblage.  I bet we all have some similar shared fantasies.  Who wouldn't like to own a palace like Hearst Castle, or who doesn't want to win the lottery?  Most of us are still waiting for personal jet packs to become a reality.  And most of us would love to have this or that zoo animal as a pet on our estate.  Hearst's zebras are still visible from Highway 1, and in my wife's case, she longs for her own giraffe.  I have been looking at tigers as many ways as I can, and even dead, they are fascinating. 

Here (below) is AVC art teacher Christine Mugnolo, sketching tiger specimens behind the scenes in the collections of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

A large museum like the Field Museum in Chicago might have a total of 200 or more different tiger specimens listed in their catalog, from full skeletons to jars of tissue to dried pelts.  For me, I am interested in all cultural aspects, not just biological.  In Hindu tradition, the goddess Durga has eight arms and is a fierce (planet-saving) warrior.  She often is depicted riding a tiger.

Some of the manifestations though of our tiger fixation baffle me.  This fashion spread from Harper's Bazaar shows a model bottle-feeding a white tiger cub.  It's being yanked back on the chain while her back seems about to go out.  Somehow it doesn't make we want to spend $2000 on a linen blazer.

White tigers by the way are all inbred descendents of a wild-caught genetic freak.  They are not a separate form or species, just a color mutation.

I guess I should be glad that we feed tigers in our ads now, rather than shooting them.  In the past, most photographs of tigers showed the dead ones, like this fellow in India, shown here in a bad xerox in one of my workbooks.

I do keep a "tiger journal" (an artist's sketchbook just devoted to this topic) --- it is filled with newspaper clippings, escapes, notes on poaching, bits of literary reference, and tigers in advertising.  It turns out, the tiger is so popular that I filled up my first 100-page vol and now have another 100 pages scattered through successive journals.

In Blake's time, Britain was fighting native rulers for control of India, and the Gadhafi of the moment had been Tipu, a rather brilliant (and understandably anti-British) leader who used tiger-themed uniforms for his army.  His throne was tigers and all of his flags and banners.  He had a pump organ built in the life-size shape of a wooden tiger eating a dead British soldier --- he had it built and he shipped it to them, as a taunting gift.  When he finally was killed, tigers were brought on display in London as war trophies.  (As a footnote, you can see a watercolor about the death of Tipu on display now at the main Getty Center, and there as well is a gorgeous piece by Blake of Satan exulting over a fallen Eve.)

The recent release of tigers in Ohio has caused editorialists to call again for calls for stricter controls on exotic animals.  The problem is, we can't legislate against vanity, stupidity, or depression.   People have all kinds of pets they should not have.  There are some people on my block who shouldn't even own a small dog, when it comes down to it.

Attacked by a tiger, a crewman in the Vietnam War movie Apocalypse Now says, "Never get out of the boat."  Maybe we should have the opposite idea: sure, yes, go ahead --- get out of the boat.  Encourage more people to have big fierce pets, tigers included, and when they escape, don't shoot them but rather just shoo them up into the foothills.  The escaped cats can join the mountain lions and black bears that are up in Angeles Crest and that we hardly ever see.  Okay you tigers, here's the deal.  Stay to the canyons, go back to being nocturnal, just content yourself with mule deer and the occasional stray pet, and everybody will be happy.

We can set up a secondary population of tigers here in California, to make up for when the last few in India are poached into oblivion.  After all, they fill our dreams (and our English books) already.  Why not have the real thing?

When I told my wife this idea, she just wanted to know one thing.

How long until I get her that giraffe I keep promising?