Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Antelope Valley is Going to the Dogs (that is, I mean to the Crows)

The Recent Arrival of Crows in Lancaster and Palmdale

There's a change going on, as one species begins to replace another --- I am talking about the recent arrival of crows. 

Most of us know that the Antelope Valley has a LOT of ravens. On any given day you can hear them, see them, watch them build their nests on freeway signs, and you even may have to shoo them out of your garbage bin. Other than a few landfills in Alaska, it's hard to find anywhere in America that has more ravens in a ten-mile radius than does Lancaster. They love all the things we provide: garbage, roadkill, nesting cliffs (also known as highway signs and tall storefronts), and thermal updrafts to soar on as they circle effortlessly higher and survey their domain. Ravens have been here at least since the end of the last Ice Age, but like raccoons and probably coyotes too, their populations surely have increased with the arrival of quote unquote civilization in the past 100 years.

Crows, in contrast, rarely occurred out here. As compared to ravens, crows are smaller, have squared-off tails (when seen from below, in flight), have slimmer beaks, and mostly go caw-caw-caw. (Ravens have a harsher, more croaky sound, though they also make gargling noises and klock klock klock and so on.) It used to be, going to L.A. to do research at UCLA or visit friends, I knew I had arrived "down below" when I could hear the crows in the trees. I didn't even have to look up in order to know I was in a different place.

Out here it was always different. For many years, one could go all year and not run into a single crow in the Antelope Valley. Then for a while, they were one corvid out of a thousand. A corvid is either a crow OR a raven, as a general group, like the fact that humans and chimps are both primates. Most corvids here were ravens but once in a while, there might be the stray, oddball crow mixed in --- as I say, 1000 ravens for every 1 crow you came across. Cal Yorke and I can still remember when "crow" got added to the official AVC bird list. (Well, actually, it was "American Crow," our particular species. In proper ornithology, it would be typed with a capital A and a capital C, American Crow. It's sister species properly typed is Common Raven.)

The old ratio seems to be changing. But before we talk about this week's "invasion of the crows," let's quickly review which one is which --- after all, you want to know yourself, right? Impress your kids, wow your friends by being able to correct them each time they get it wrong.

Here is a page spread from the National Geographic Guide to Birds, showing the different kinds of crows and ravens in North America, and showing maps of their ranges. Crow in flight is at the top right, with the more squared off back edge to the tail, and the raven is bottom, with the more wedge-shaped or diamond-shaped tail.

Here in Southern California, there is usually a fairly reliable range separation too, or at least, there used to be. Around the Los Angeles basin, crows were usually found in "nice" places --- they liked beaches and lush neighborhoods and settled farmlands. Coming up the 14, one left the crows behind at the In n Out Burger on Sand Canyon, well before Canyon Country and Acton. Heading northwest, if one took Highway 138 out of the Antelope Valley towards Gorman, the first crows usually did not turn up until you got to the Lebec Rest Area near Fort Tejon. They then became dense up 99 past Bakersfield and through the Central Valley. Ravens and crows can be found together, but you mostly expected crows down in Los Angeles proper and ravens in the deserts.

Here is classic crow habitat in Southern California.

In contrast, ravens favor harsher, more wild conditions --- they are birds of mountains and deserts, cliffs and salt flats. If you are in open rangeland like this shot from Nevada, there never will be any crows, only ravens.

And since the open range shot more classically describes the Antelope Valley than the beach shot from Santa Monica does, you can see that we would expect to have ravens, not crows, resident locally, as indeed was the case.

I suppose that fits with our "wasteland" image. Since we're thought of as a body-dumping sort of place (a cross between the New Jersey Meadowlands of The Sopranos and a survival show set in Death Valley), ravens somehow fit the profile. And crows and ravens as a group are associated with ill-omen, death, misfortune. The group noun for a flock of crows is "murder." As opposed to a pod of whales or a pride of lions, one correctly says that it is a "murder of crows." The collective noun for ravens is to say not flock or herd or gang or flight, but that it is an "unkindness" of ravens. Bad press indeed! They need new management teams.

So just look around --- of course we would not have the crows of Beverley Hills, but instead, the ravens of Littlerock.

This is just our own cultural hangup, of course, not any indication of actual malice or evil. We are a culture that also hates wolves, is afraid of the dark, and that thinks that all bats carry rabies and want to get into our hair.

Other societies have a different view. In Inuit culture, the raven is a trickster character, brimming with sexual energy and mischief. He is somebody to watch out for (he might want to sleep with your wife) but he's also to be envied for his ability to play pranks and get the best of any situation. He is a survivor, a bad boy but in a fun way, sort of the Jack Nicholson of the bunch. This illustration is by Cape Dorset resident Echalook Goo, and dresses up the birds with the colors perhaps they they see in their own minds.

That just goes to show that it does not have to be a cemetery all the time, any time we want to think about wildlife. It is just here in the classical Judeo-Christian tradition that ravens and crows are associated with melancholy and death --- remember for example that the famous Edgar Allan Poe poem is not called "The Mockingbird" or "The Sparrow," but "The Raven." That seems a bit unfair. Here is a very well-drawn crow, grim and dead, from an Andrew Wyeth painting, Winter Fields. If he had shown a dead cardinal or a dead puppy, he might have had the Humane Society after him. But a dead crow? No problem --- they represent death already, so what better irony than to see one stone cold dead. Nobody objects to an image like this. There is no "save the crows" society.

We actually should praise crows and ravens for being the clever and varied beasts that they are. They can count to seven, use tools, remember enemies for years and years, and play in the snow just for the fun of it. Ravens mate for life. Here is a note from artist and author David Sibley. "Ravens [in a lab] faced with a novel task, such as getting food that is dangling on the end of a string, were able to assess the problem and then use their feet to hold the string and pull the food up." In other words, they pulled in slack with their beaks like a fisherman reeling in line, held the slack in place with their foot, and then pulled in more slack, until the food was all the way up on the branch. "They performed this action without missteps the first time they attempted it." Smart birds indeed!

Crows and ravens are related to other corvids, the jays and magpies. World-wide, there are over 100 kinds and the group shows a really interesting diversity. Here, look at these Green Magpies, from Vietnam:

As this illustration shows, corvids do not always limit themselves to goth black. Even ravens come in different patterns. One of my pleasures on a trip to Ethiopia was getting to see one of these guys in the wild, Ethiopia's endemic Thick-billed Raven. Note the snappy white beanie. For once, the common name matches the beast exactly. That bill is like some kind of medieval poleaxe or halberd. 

This illustration above and the next one below come from the same book, Crows and Jays by Madge and Burn, as did the green magpies, above. The corvids are such a diverse group they have enough species to merit their own book. The book describes bright green "blue jays" and other kinds of jay found only in the remotest parts of the Amazon.

I hope to go to Tibet next summer, and if that trip comes together, one species I will look for is a very strange jay indeed, the Bidduph's Ground Jay.

That one has a very restricted range, listed as "Tarim Azne east to Lop Nur," on the China / Tibet border. According to the book, it is shy and elusive, running away over sand dunes or diving into scrubby bushes to hide from people. It's one rare blue jay!

One corvid that doesn't mind hanging out next to people is the Indian House Crow. This kind will ride on the backs of cattle, stowaway on cargo ships, gather by the hundreds on tall buildings to play chase-me and loop-the-loop, crack open nuts by dropping them on the concrete, and at least in one instance, steal golf balls from games in progress, seemingly for the pleasure of watching the golfers wave their hands and chase after them. Here's a pair on the beach in an outer atoll of the Maldives. (I was careful to protect my golf balls.)

The Indian crows bring us back to the crows of Palmdale. It's trash day today as I write this, and as usual, some of my more prolific neighbors somehow have more trash than the rest of us, so much so that they cannot close their trash cans' lids.

Leaving bags of trash exposed like this will bring ravens from far and wide, since they can easily slice open even the toughest Hefty bag, and they will have a feast as the mess spills down onto the street. It's bad for the birds --- this is not a healthy way for them to live --- and untidy for the neighbors, whose yards will become filled up with trash as the wind blows things away. One thing about ravens, they are not big on cleaning up after themselves.

Trash day used to be raven day, but now it's crow day, too. All winter I have been hearing one pair of crows on my block. Whether they came up the 14 from Los Angeles or down from Bakersfield and Tehachapi I am not sure, but each morning all winter I have heard this one pair of crows vocalizing and chasing each other up and down the block. My wife and I keep an informal list of all of the birds we have seen from our house, and it's up to 54 species now. One of the first birds on the list when we moved in was raven. Now, as of this winter, the list includes American Crow.

Not only are crows becoming more common, they are starting to gang up on the ravens. Many species of birds participate in what's called mobbing --- getting together like an angry gang of peasants with pitchforks and torches, ready to drive away an intruder. Here is a picture of crows mobbing a Great Horned Owl.

This comes from The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior by the National Audubon Society. The caption says this: "American Crows mobbing a Great Horned Owl. All corvids are rather noisy and bold. Traveling in small groups, they mob predators with belligerent calls and cautiously aggressive actions. This behavior serves the purpose of alerting other animals to the presence of a predator and in many cases is sufficient to drive the predator away." You probably have seen this too, especially in the spring when parent birds want to protect their nests. Blackbirds will chase ravens and even full-grown hawks, harrying them until the larger bird gets tired of the hassle and soars away.

In my neighborhood today, we had a gang of 6 crows, and they were busy beating up 2 ravens. One-on-one, no crow can match a raven, which has larger size, longer wings, and a much heftier beak. But as a group, the crows were being very territorial, saying (in essence), "This is OUR garbage, sucker!" Here is my photograph from this morning.

The top bird is a crow (note the more squared-off tail), the middle one is a raven (note the wedge-shaped tail), and the bottom one is a crow as well. They look as big as the raven because they are closer to me while the raven is a bit higher in the air.

The reason the top crow is missing a wing feather is just normal molt: as feathers wear out, they drop away and regrow, usually on left and right wings at the same time, and usually just one pair at a time, so the bird always can fly even as new ones grow in. It's possible that feather got snagged on a branch or a cat got it, but most likely it is just a normal sequence of molt and replacement. I doubt it's a wound from the raven, since in their feints and jabs, none of these birds ever made actual contact. There was a heck of a lot of cawing --- nobody ever accuses a crow of being too quiet --- but no direct contact.

This makes me wonder, what has changed? Why crows now? They are not undergoing a particular range expansion nation-wide that I know about. What it may reveal is that trees and landscaping in the Antelope Valley are maturing. For a bird that size to do well, it needs more than roadkilled coyotes. It needs fruit trees and dead squirrels and half-eaten cupcakes and compost piles and tall, dense hedges in cemeteries.

Our property values may not mirror Santa Monica's, but perhaps our backyard plantings now do. My tract was built in the mid-80s, so most of the trees are not much older than that. We have the usual California urban mix ---- eucalyptus, mulberry, Bradford pear, Japanese plum, some London plane trees, some Italian cypress, and so on --- and some of these are now quite substantially filled out. Almost all the houses have trees, and almost all those trees look "full grown." And crows don't nest on cliffs or pseudo cliffs --- unlike a raven, you won't find a crow nesting on the Ave H exit sign on the 14 freeway. They will use telephone poles but prefer the crotch of a tall, bushy tree, the kinds of trees that now we finally may have started to provide.

Or maybe it's not that, but that I have some neighbor I don't know about who leaves a lot of cat food out. Maybe winters are a bit less frosty overall. Maybe we leave out more trash on trash day. Maybe the raven population has been attacked by a disease or parasite, or maybe it's that my local ravens have shifted over to the west side of Palmdale, to be closer to the landfill, and so crows have moved in to fill the void that way. Animal populations reflect a wide spread of dynamic factors, and it's rare than a trend can be traced to a single cause.

What I do know is that nature is never static, and one reason to keep a house list such as I do is not to set any records (other birders have house lists in the 300s), but just to have a reason to be a bit more aware, a bit more attentive to the world around me. Crows and ravens look and sound enough apart that you can distinguish them without binoculars, but to do that, first you have just to start looking and listening in the first place.

It's an interesting, ever-changing world out there, and this week's invasion of the crows reminds me of that all over again.


The AVC Blog is curated by Charles Hood, and he can be reached at It does not represent any official position by the Board or the District about the correct way to use a garbage bin, about the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe, or about which is prettier, our raven or Ethiopia's.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Nelson Mandela's Connections to AVC

Thoughts on the Passing of a Hero

South Africa might seem a long way from the Antelope Valley, but the recent passing of political leader and role model Nelson Mandela reminds us all about the ways that great people touch many lives.

It is easy when something is on every CNN web page or TV broadcast to think of it as "news" (that is, something like the situation in Syria --- "over there" and "important," but not really relevant to us locally). Mandela's passing is worthy though of being taken out of the "Syria" side of the equation and put more locally, more directly, into the "this matters" side of the equal sign.

His life and work touched more lives on campus than some people might guess. I was talking about this the other day with Dr. Charlotte Forte-Parnell, Dean of Language Arts, Instructional Resources, and about a million other sub-chores and ancillary responsibilities. Here she is, sharing with me her "from the era" Free Nelson Mandela t-shirt.

We were talking about his release from a life sentence in prison --- more on that in a moment --- and how people in America felt. She was excited, even ecstatic to hear the news, as were many of us. At the UC system, first as a student and later as faculty, I had joined others in protests that tried to get (and were successful in getting) the University of California Board of Regents to sell off their investments in firms that supported the Apartheid regime. As Dr. Forte-Parnell says, looking back to Mandela's rise to international status, "He was part of larger movements for social change, change that I was involved in too. You had Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, there were breaking points like the Watts Riots, and there were the great leaders, Nelson Mandela included. He is another unifying piece of that crucial era."

I first learned about apartheid in high school, back in the long-ago 1970s. Here I am, third from the left, seated, wearing aviator glasses and having my picture taken with the Sci-Fi Club that I started.

I probably knew about the laws of robotics than I did about social justice, but luckily I had some wise and patient teachers, including a pastor at my church. But I also met a boy called Ian, who was assigned to be my handball partner in PE. He was a white exchange student from South Africa, and had only been allowed an exit visa on the understanding that he would promote and support apartheid as a concept. He was to be the repressive Boer government's ambassador abroad.

On the face of it, he did that, appearing in multiple civics classes to explain how "separate but equal" kept things stable, and how it helped the "lesser" classes function more efficiently. You could tell, though, that he knew even then how unfair it was, and through body language and quiet deviations in the narrative, he managed to tell two stories at once: the government's, but also the resistance's.

Put bluntly, the white-minority government in South Africa kept control by reducing anybody of non-white status to near-enslavement. Non-whites could only live in certain, specified ghettos, and they had almost no civil rights. They could not vote, could not work, could not do anything outside of the most restricted options. If they gathered to protest, they were savagely beaten or were arrested on false charges. In essence, they had no rights, including to rights to a fair trial.

Some tried to speak out, even so. Here is a pre-prison Nelson Mandela, burning his passbook. This was a race-based identity card that one was required to carry at all times. It gave you permission to exist if you were one race, and, in contrast, restricted you if you were a different race. Mandela spoke out against many things, and here is shown in a very serious act of defiance, burning his passbook. It is a provocative act --- sort of like burning a Confederate flag outside a Klan rally. Yet in his defiance, he became the voice of an oppressed nation.

After hiding out inside South Africa and traveling abroad, ultimately he was arrested and convicted of treason and, basically, also of being a terrorist. (The CIA may have helped hand him over to the South African government, though this has not been proven.)

Mandela was sent to prison for a life term.

South African prisons were not as brutal as Soviet-era gulags or Hitler's extermination camps, but then, they were not much better than that, either. Here is a rare photograph of Mandela in prison, where the men are in an exposed yard, seated on fragments of granite stone as they use heavy hammers to break blocks of stone into gravel for construction projects. Needless to say, they did not get work gloves, shade, or anything other than beatings and abuse. Mandela went into prison in 1964.

He was taken to Robben Island, a former leper colony in the ocean near Cape Town, where this photograph above was taken. (It was reprinted in the Time publication shown at the head of the blog.)

I have been there, and found it to be a troubling and surreal journey. South Africa happens to be an exquisitely beautiful country, and Cape Town is amazing. Here are wild penguins on a beach, in an area as close to the main civic center as Santa Monica is to downtown L.A.

It is hard to reconcile the beauty of the land with the ugliness of the historical record. Nearby, at a nature preserve, one can see wild ostriches foraging in sight of tide pools and kelp forests. To go to Robben Island, which is now a historical site and open for visits, you leave from a thriving and hip commercial district, which is a waterfront like you will find in Monterey's Cannery Row district, or the Fisherman Wharf part of San Francisco. Then you cross a gorgeous bay, watching for seabirds and dolphins. Then you arrive. There are more penguins here, and nice views of the mountains. It is a very disturbing juxtaposition.

When you go to Robben Island, the tour guides are former inmates, including people who as young men served along side Nelson Mandela. I took many pictures, so that I could share their stories with my students back at AVC. I was still shooting slide film then, which means the finished products are not digital files, but physical slides. That word means one thing now in PowerPoint lingo, but before PowerPoint, one took the processed, mounted, hard copy slides, flipped them around, dropped them into a circular plastic tray called a carousel, and then projected them on a screen in a darkened room.

You load the slides upside-down and rotated, so if you look at this shot of my prison slides in their plastic storage sleeve, you can see some red dots in the lower left corner of the plastic mounts. Those help one orient the slides when loading the carousel; properly set up, one would see a row of red dots along the right-hand edge of the slots of the plastic tray.

To include these pictures here, I had to scan the slides inside a machine connected to my AVC computer, in order to convert them to digital format. Society changes and so does technology.

Here is my tour guide, George, taking us on a tour of the cells.

Mandela's prospects were grim, even bleak. How he kept his spirits up, I do not know. He had no hope when he went in that his side ultimately would win. All aspects of thought and behavior were restricted. While researching animals once, I came across this book, and it has in it a sad, brave quote about Mandel's life. Here is the book.

Here is what happened, in Mandela's own words. "One day at the quarry, we resumed our discussion of whether or not the tiger was native to Africa. Masondo, who had been a lecturer at Fort Hare, was vehement in his assertions that no tigers had ever been found in Africa. The argument was going back and forth and the men had put down their picks and shovels in the heat of the argument. This attracted the attention of the warders, and they shouted at us to get back to work. But we were so absorbed in the argument that we ignored them. [ ... ] We were charged with malingering and insubordination, so were handcuffed and taken to isolation."

In the days before Wikipedia, how you knew things was to look them up in a hard copy encyclopedia, but these men had no libraries, no access to phones --- nothing but their own memories and imaginations. If they tried to use those memories and imaginations, they were beaten and sent to the hole.

It's hard now to conceive of how widespread and normal racial discrimination has been. Everybody knows about Hitler's "final solution," but look at something as innocent as a food menu. This once again is one of my scanned slides, taken from a display on Robben Island. I hope you can read this:

What this delineates is how much food prisoners from each race received. In South African English, "Coloured" meant mixed-race or Asian ancestry; "Bantu" meant black. If you can make out the menu you will see that those of the fullest African heritage --- the "most black," if you will --- were given less food overall and less "human" food, including no jam for their bread. It was based on whacko eugenics that said that some systems were more primitive and hence could not digest human food. I knew about this kind of racism in the abstract, but to see it enacted really shocked me.

Here's something that sounds like a joke, but the dogs had better kennels than the human prisoners had cells. This shot shows the guard dogs' enclosures. Each dog's kennel is larger than a prisoner's cell, and I would not be surprised if the dogs were fed better too.

Here is another example of the deeply brutal conditions on Robben Island. The cells had no toilets: to go "number 1" or "number 2," each prisoner had a plastic bucket beside his bunk. Those they were allowed to rinse out once a day. Yet to bathe, they had to use the same bucket: each day, after they cleaned their waste bucket, that then was what the prisoners had to use to wash their bodies. Once a week they were allowed to wash their clothes, also using this same toilet bucket.

How one group of humans can treat other humans this way simply astounds me.

Mandela was in prison from 1964 until 1990 ---- 27 years. Think of all of the everyday pleasures of normal life he missed out on, separate from being cut off from his children and his wife. From the Beatles to Pearl Jam, from Sputnik to the walk on the moon to the space shuttle. He missed it all.

Yet in time, outside pressure and steady progress within caused the apartheid regime to fall. Mandela was allowed to go free. It was a moment of worldwide joy. We talked about it on campus, too --- I was teaching here then. This photo from the Time magazine commemorative book (the same one shown at the head of this blog) captures the spirit of hope and renewal his release symbolized.

He became the first national leader of a fully democratic election in the history of South Africa. Like George Washington (and mindful of the poor examples of greedy neighbors like Zimbabwe's leader, Mugabe), Mandela served only one term, then stepped down. He did not want to become a perpetual president, since that too easily turns into a type of dictatorship itself, no matter how well-intentioned.

His later life included guiding South Africa through the truth and reconciliation process, as they tried to find ways of forgiving the oppressors without ignoring the harsh realities endured by the oppressed. In 1993 he received the Nobel Peace Prize. As years passed, his world-wide status continued to grow, and so now, with his death, we can truly say it is not just Africa, but the whole world which has lost a father figure. One name for him in Africa is "madiba," sort of like "very respected elder father."

In America, there have been many reactions to his passing. Just to mention one, public-supported radio station KCRW has put together a special musical response, available on the Internet for free. Here is the link:

That takes you to this site (here's my screen shot):

A White House blog on Mandela is available at this link.

Mandela's journey offers all of us hope. He saw a problem and dedicated his life to solving it, and the example he provides will be cited for years to come. As Dr. Forte-Parnell said about his time in jail, when she and others attended rallies to pressure the South African government to change, "If you were paying attention to the world, then this all fit into a larger picture."

That picture includes us, at AVC --- we are a racially diverse campus that tries to make sure that even the most disadvantaged and excluded can find an access to education and a better life.

In my travels in South Africa, I asked people what they thought the future would be. Jill, a marine biologist pictured below, told me she is very optimistic. The primary "white" language in South Africa for several hundred years has been Afrikaans, a mix of 18th century Dutch and local tribal languages. It's still widely spoken. Jill told me she is raising her children to be tri-lingual: they are learning English, since that is a world-wide language now, and South Africa has a strong British colonial history as well. They are learning Afrikaans, since that is still a dominant part of cultural history. But she is making sure that her children learn Xhosa, one of the most widespread of the indigenous African languages in South Africa. She said to me, "I always want to make sure that my kids growing up feel connected to --- and responsible for --- their neighbors, no matter what their race. I never want them to be isolated in a white-only world."

I asked her if she herself knew any of the black tribal languages. She said no, but that alongside her kids, she was doing her best to learn. She wants to be part of the new future as well.

I would like to end with a quotation from President Mandela, made just as he was starting his prison term.

He said, "During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

He said that in April, 1964. These will be like the words of Abraham Lincoln, I think --- concepts to live by for hundreds of years to come.

<<< This post has been up a while, but Hood is back, with an update: Nelson Mandela's prison copy of Shakespeare is at the Huntington, here in California, which I did not know when I put the blog post up.  Here is a link, including notes in his handwriting:  >>>


The AVC Blog is curated by Charles Hood, Language Arts, and he can be reached at The blog does not represent any official positions of the Trustees or the District, though these thoughts on Mandela are shared by many others on campus.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

National Geographic Comes to Lancaster

Tumbleweed Tech and Other Place-Based Assumptions

National Geographic has come to the Antelope Valley and what do you think is on their minds? I'll give you a hint --- it's not an article about Joshua trees (or camel trekking).

Yes, once again, the Antelope Valley is shown in a bad light. It seems like we're always being featured for something negative --- skinhead gangs, exurbia and decay, feral dogs.

Here is Tom Wolfe, going at us in the book (and later movie), The Right Stuff. He is talking about test pilots and hardship postings. He says that Edwards Air Force Base "was up in the high elevations of the Mojave Desert. It looked like some fossil landscape that had long since been left behind by the rest of terrestrial evolution. It was full of huge dry lake beds, the biggest being Rogers Lake. Other than sagebrush the only vegetation was Joshua trees, twisted freaks of the plant world that looked like a cross between a cactus and a Japanese bonsai. They had a dark petrified green color and horribly crippled branches. At dusk the Joshua trees stood out in silhouette on the fossil wasteland like some arthritic nightmare."

He goes on like that for a while, then, speaking of winter rainfall, says that "the dry lakes would fill up with a few inches of water, and some sort of putrid prehistoric shrimp would work their way up from out of the ooze, and seagulls would come flying in a hundred miles or more from the ocean, over the mountains, to gobble up these squirming little throwbacks. A person had to see it to believe it: flocks of seagulls wheeling around in the air out in the middle of the high desert in the dead of winter and grazing on antediluvian crustaceans in the primordial ooze."

He's having fun, of course, and doesn't really care that our gulls come from Mono Lake and other inland seas. His tone is fairly universal. Our best representation in visual art is David Hockney's Pearblossom Highway, now owned by the Getty, and that's a piece that laughs at us more than with us. It's just the trend. So, for National Geographic, what have we done wrong this time?

This time it's our tumbleweeds. That's their topic and Lancaster makes the opening spread. Here it is.

Few of us will be surprised to be picked out for more disgrace. I've heard AVC called "tumbleweed tech," which I assume is intended to mean that we are yokels who think Los Angeles is a dangerous and foreign Other, and who don't hold with thissy-here notions of equality and world-is-round nonsense.

Yet on one hand, to be called a tumbleweed might be a kind of honor, really. This is one tough, smart, nearly-universal plant. In the US it's found in Hawaii and all the states except Alaska and Florida. Here is a basic summary from Wikipedia: 

"A tumbleweed is the above-ground part of any of a number of plants that, once mature and dry, disengage from the root and tumble away in the wind. Usually, the tumbleweed is the entire plant apart from the roots, but in a few species it is a flower cluster. The tumbleweed habit is most common in steppe and desert climates."

And, the article goes on to say,
"The tumbleweed is a diaspore, aiding in dispersal of propagules (seeds or spores). It does this by scattering the propagules either as it tumbles, or after it has come to rest in a wet location. In the latter case, the tumbleweed opens mechanically as it absorbs water; apart from its propagules, the tumbleweed is dead."

In his book The Calfornia Deserts, Bruce Pavlik describes how easily such plants spread. "Carried in sacks of grain, lodged in hoofs, and discharged [in poop], nonnative seeds found patches of plowed or otherwise broken soil that allowed establishment. Some were capable of dispersing on their own, such as the tumbleweed (Salsola tragus), whose seed-laden adults tumbled into every corner of the region with such speed that they become mistaken icons of the Old West."

National Geographic points out that they don't lawn well-watered lawns, using this image to compare Heaven to Hell.

If you're a resident of the Antelope Valley, you've probably hit some with your car during a windstorm. As members of the local ecological community, they are not very good neighbors, it is true. Wikipedia again:

"Tumbleweeds have a significant effect on wind soil erosion in open regions, particularly on dry-land agricultural operations where the outside application of additional moisture is impossible. One study showed that a single Russian Thistle can remove up to 44 gallons of water from the soil while competing with a wheat crop."

Maybe that is what these ones are doing --- stopping by the aqueduct for a final drink. They need that last gallon or two.

It's bad news in many ways. Our final Wikipedia paragraph is this one:

"The amount of water removed from fallow land more subject to erosion would be even higher. In addition to the moisture consumed by the plant, significant damage to the protective soil crust is caused by the tumbleweeds' motion. The damage to the soil surface then provides exposure for subsequent wind damage and topsoil loss."

We see them daily, so much so that I wonder how many people even can name a tumbleweed for what it is, while it's still growing? I took this photo a block from my house.

As a guess, the leaning pine tree on the far right background is the non-native Italian stone pine. The grass is all cheat grass, a worse plague on the Western ecoscape even than tumbleweeds.

National Geographic traces tumbleweeds' arrival to the late 19th century via rye seeds first planted in South Dakota. Once they were here and got the first generation settled, there was no getting rid of them. (I think the Native Americans say that about the white people.)

As Pavlik says, we think of it as essentially "Western." The Writing Center's head, Diane Flores-Kagan, reminded me that the movie The Big Lebowski opens with a marvelous tumbleweed sequence. I like this movie a lot, though am annoyed when students compare me to The Dude. Am I really so dissolute as all that? I like to think of myself more as Michael Douglas, the English professor in the movie Wonder Boys. He starts dissolute but pulls it together at the end, gets the girl, and even finishes his book. His students publish their books too, and everybody lives happily ever after.

Look at the card from this DVD version of Lebowski, and see how many of these characters you can still name.

Of course, if you've seen Lebowski even once, you know that it has a catch-phrase: "the Dude abides." So for the movie, the tumbleweed fits as an image and metaphor. Come what may --- earthquakes or urban renewal, Round-Up or weedwhacker --- the tumbleweed just keeps tumblin' along. As my poetry teacher Charles Wright once said, "Sonnets, cockroackes, and coyotes will always be with us."

To that list, add the tumbleweed.


The AVC blog does not represent the views of the California Native Plant Society, the Board or District if Antelope Valley College, or the directors known collectively as the Coen Brothers. Blog shepherd, Charles Hood, can be reached at

Monday, November 25, 2013

Saying Grace (and Other Good Thanksgiving Ideas)

Did Norman Rockwell Get it Right?

It is that time of year ---- and in fact, nearly past it, since Thanksgiving this year comes on the same day as Hanukkah and only one week before AVC's final exams.

On farms all across America, turkeys are busy impersonating cows.

(Actually most turkeys we'll eat at Thanksgiving were killed many months ago and frozen, but never mind that.) There are many turkeys in art --- here is the "comic book" artist, Roy Lichtenstein, with a turkey from 1961 (reproduced here from an article in an art newspaper). His tongue-in-cheek use of the Ben-Day dots, enlarged and made into part of the artwork, has been well-documented, but I was amused to see this newspaper reproduction, since it relies on a similar "dot pattern" to put into newsprint what he himself was quoting to create his original paintings.

To be an American dinner it does not have to be the dead bird on a plate, of course. For those of us with more flexible traditions, what about a Thanksgiving tostada? (Recipe here comes from a supermarket magazine, First For Women.)

No matter what one's orientation philosophically or culturally, a large, multi-generational family meal on Thanksgiving often starts by one of the elder members of the family saying grace. Wikipedia even has a moderately long article on the practice, some of which I would like to excerpt here:

Grace is a name for any of a number of short prayers said or an unvoiced intention held prior to or after eating, thanking God and/or the entities that have given of themselves to furnish nutrients to those partaking in the meal. Some traditions hold that grace and thanksgiving imparts a blessing which sanctifies the meal. In the English language tradition, reciting a prayer prior to eating is traditionally referred to as “saying grace.”

A prayer of Grace is said to be an act of offering thanks to God for granting humans dominion over the earth, and the right and ability to sacrifice the lives of divine creations for sustenance; this thanks is the “saying of Grace” prior to and/or after eating of any meal.

However, in many indigenous cultures around the world, including North America, the saying of grace does not signify human dominion, but rather recognition of a plant or animal's giving their life and that some day the prayer giver, like every sentient being, will return to earth to give sustenance and life to others.

When my brother graduated from Fuller Seminary, we had a meal in his honor afterwards. We asked him to say grace, as did, apparently, most other families of their recent grads. He knew to expect this request, and had been warned. Apparently the very worn-out joke is that almost all families now turn to a recent divinity school graduate and say, "You do it --- you are the expert now." In his case, he did a very touching job of saying grace, and he still says grace before all meals, public or private, whether he is eating alone or with a large group.

Luckily, one of the aspects of grace in most religious traditions is that you do NOT have to be an expert to thank the universe for allowing you to participate in the cycle of life. I like the traditions I was exposed to when I lived with an Inuit family many years ago, on an island between Nome and Siberia. Their beliefs were very parallel to a group called the Koyukon people, whose theology was summarized by Richard Nelson in his book, Make Prayers to the Raven.

Nelson says, "For traditional Koyukon people, the environment is both a natural and a supernatural realm. All that exists in nature is imbued with awareness and power; all events in nature are potentially manifestations of that power." He also adds, "Not only the animals, but also the plants, the earth and landforms, the air, weather, and sky are spiritually invested. For each, the hunter knows an array of respectful gestures."

In a child's book about the first Thanksgiving, I found a similar summary.

The text says, "The Wampanoags ... believe that spirits dwell in the forests and waters around them. Even today, many Wampanoags ask the spirits for help and thank them when they bring good things to their lives."

I like this idea very much of combing respect and thankfulness, and in my family, we always said grace at Thanksgiving (and before all dinner meals). Yet I found an interesting piece of art that says that this tradition was not as stable or enduring as I had assumed. Like others, I often think of the 1950s as being the Ozzie and Harriet moment in American society, when cars were large, ties were narrow, and everybody wore an "I Like Ike" campaign button. Norman Rockwell apparently was worried that after the Second World War, some American values were degrading too fast. Look at this painting:
It dates from 1951, and the title is Saying Grace.

While a pious grandmother says an obvious but silent grace in a crowded diner, the others look on, a bit stunned. In the far left corner, one boor even is smoking a cigar indoors, while one lout at the table with grandma has a cigarette dangling from his mouth. His companion holds his by the condiment tray, smoke rising as if from the ruins of a bombed city. The woman's umbrella and knitting sit on the floor by her chair, and her young ward's hat is off and resting on the umbrella's handle --- after all, he knows, even if these uncouth slobs at his table do not, that a gentleman never wears a hat indoors.

Out the window is a snowy, bleached-out urban environment --- locomotives and silos it seems. (The print is a bit hard to read well; I have taken this from an advertisement for an art sale at Sotheby's, the famous art auction house.) Here is what the Huffington Post blog says about this work: "On a day like today, American illustrator Norman Rockwell created Saying Grace, capturing a Mennonite family praying in a bustling restaurant. Rockwell created the work 62 years ago today, as cover art for the Saturday Evening Post. In 1955 the iconic depiction was voted Post readers' favorite cover."

The original painting will go to auction just after Thanksgiving. Somebody will be saying a big loud "thank you" once the final gavel falls: it's anticipated to go for 15 to 20 million dollars. Norman Rockwell has become collectible in a big way in a relatively short period of time. Ignored as a "mere" illustrator during his lifetime, his technical skill, his ability to compose a busy yet clear scene, and his distinct brand of American vision, all combine to raise his status. He was a very serious craftsman, and worked from live models and photographs to achieve his remarkable and deeply human portraits. The Huffington Post says that he was paid $3,500 for this originally. In modern dollars, that would be about $30,000 --- a respectable living, but nowhere near what some of art's superstars can make today.

What interests me are not the scandals, and with the man himself, there are plenty. Here is a quote from a recent article in the Houston Chronicle"A twice-divorced workaholic who neglected wives and children, a religious nonbeliever, a closeted homosexual, a depressive forever anxious about his rightful place in the world, a Vietnam War opponent who worked down the block from Alice's Restaurant --- guess which product of New York's famed Art Students League this 20th century painter was." Yes, it's him, Mr. Clean Cut himself. But if we leave Rockwell's private life just that, private, what's interesting is the social anxiety this painting describes. We see here an entirely secular world --- newspapers, overcoats, coffee cups --- into which has come a modest and out-of-place saint, our woman who despite the grit and urban secularism all around, finds a moment to listen to her heart and say a brief prayer. He could not have found an audience interested in this painting if our "perfect" post-World War world had not already begun to feel a bit adrift, a bit too cut off from spiritual value.

This does not have to be a "pro-Christian" painting; many faiths ask their members to stop what they are doing and spend a moment of contemplation and gratitude. (In most iterations of Islamic faith, this happens five times a day. Are perhaps Muslims more authentically "religious" than most Christians?) The Sotheby's website explains that the idea for the work came from a Post reader, who had witnessed a scene like this firsthand. 

Apparently one could have seen the original painting in Los Angeles in September, when it made a brief stop on a world tour. I don't follow auction news closely enough to have known this at the time, and I am not sure it would have made much difference if I had. His graphic clarity and wonderful handling of light and dark sections "read well" in reproduction. Even here in the AVC blog we can get a taste (pun intended) for what a striking painting this is.

The original work asks about the place of spirituality in our day-to-day lives, and about what respect we might best show to those around us who are engaged in manifestations of faith.

Sixty-five years later, the painting seems to me just as important as ever. One can be a strictly Darwinian atheist and still find that a moment of contemplation provides clarity and balance. In the Buddhist tradition, they speak of "mindfulness." There are many ways to pray, including just sitting down for a second and listening to the sound of water rushing past the rocks. This year on Thanksgiving, what forces around you would you like to stop and acknowledge?


The AVC blog is generally herded along its path by Charles Hood, Language Arts, who can be reached at It does not represent the official position of the District or the Board of Trustees. Future blog topics will include tumbleweeds and the portrayal of Lancaster by National Geographic magazine, water in the Antelope Valley, the deaths of Lou Reed and poet Wanda Coleman, smoking on campus, and the winter solstice.