Friday, December 24, 2010

Do you believe?

All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

—Francis Pharcellus Church to Virginia O'Hanlon in The Sun of New York

Saint Nicholas. Father Christmas. Sinter Klaas. Santa Claus. Known by all these names and more, he is one of the most recognizable characters in Western consciousness. In the English-speaking parts of the world especially, but elsewhere as well, his image has been shaped by writers like Clement Clarke Moore and Charles Dickens, and even more importantly by visual artists like Thomas Nast, John Leech, and Haddon Sundblom. Sundblom, who also created the Quaker Oats label, did a series of paintings for Coca-Cola in the 1930s that essentially locked in Santa's image: often depicted previously in other colours (most often green) and sometimes as a younger, trimmer figure (see, for example, Leech's illustration of Dickens' "ghost of Christmas present"), he is now depicted almost exclusively as...well, I needn't bother with a description, for you all know what Santa Claus is supposed to look like.

And yet I see him differently: More barrel-chested than pot-bellied. His coat is not red, nor even green, but the subtle and beautiful brown of sealskin. There is perhaps just a bit of white fur trimming, from an arctic fox or maybe even a polar bear, taken reluctantly and with genuine reverence. Under his hood, his face is not pale and rosy-cheeked but the colour of an old penny. No beard; I can't even think where that idea might have come from. His nose is broad, and his eyes are narrow, genetics combining with a lifetime of squinting into bright Arctic sunlight reflecting off water, snow and ice to give him a look as sly as it is jovial. His age: indeterminate. Clearly he's an elder, no doubt a man of standing in his village, but he retains a certain youthful vigor, the natural athleticism of the hunter.

His traveling companions are not reindeer, but husky dogs, and they are hitched not in pairs along a gangline but in a fan pattern, Arctic-style, for there are no trees to get caught up on and few if any established trails to follow; the dogs spread out and run as a pack, which allows them to choose their own footing and probably feels more natural to them. His sleigh is light and flexible, as well-adapted to the conditions as the dogs that pull it.

I believe, based on excellent presents I have received over the years, that he is in fact a falconer. He flies a gyr, of course, at ptarmigan and Arctic hares. Its jesses are sealskin, its bells silver Pakistani ones acquired in the course of the old gentleman's travels. (Somehow I don't think he uses telemetry, trusting instead to his senses and the openness of the terrain to locate his hawk after a long flight.) When game is flushed, and only then, he does yell "Ho! Ho! Ho!" Otherwise, as befits a man who has spent half his life in close quarters in a small village, and the other half alone in the wilderness with his dogs and hawk, he is soft-spoken, his voice barely rising above a whisper, which might give strangers the impression that he is shy when in fact he is merely self-contained.

As for his kindness and generosity, again I believe those are explained by the realities of village life in the Arctic, where everyone is interdependent and a hunter's good fortune is naturally shared with others. Our man travels more widely than his neighbours, into regions where his generosity is considered remarkable, but at home he is just a solid citizen—as I said, a man of standing in the village. On these travels, he is pleased to help the locals celebrate Christmas, or Eid, or Kwanzaa, but he personally celebrates the winter solstice, when somewhere on the other side of the world the sun stands still and then reverses course, heralding the climax of the long Arctic night and the welcome return of daylight. For a man who lives in the elements, it could hardly be otherwise.

Yes, there is a Santa Claus. And I do believe firmly in him. If my beliefs are a bit unconventional, well, then, perhaps so am I, and the strangeness of my beliefs merely attests to their sincerity. I shall wear my gyrfalcon cap out hawking this afternoon as a tribute to Santa Claus and his travels as well as the return of snow to this part of the world. Happy holidays to all, and to all a good night.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

"These Days" and "Days Like This"

I haven't been writing lately, obviously, but will try to post something new soon. Meanwhile, a couple of songs (with similar titles) that have been getting me through lately: Jackson Browne's "These Days" and Kim Taylor's "Days Like This".

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Friday, November 12, 2010

Credit where credit is due: Cooper's hawk tactics

The daring exploits of this Hawk, which have taken place in my presence, are very numerous, and I shall relate one or two of them.
—John James Audubon, The Birds of America

Driving along Cornhusker Highway last week, I saw a red-tailed hawk rowing its way across an industrial park—then did a double-take when I noticed the long tail. Not a redtail then, but a Cooper's hawk doing a dead-on impression of a redtail's casual, point-A-to-point-B flight. The hawk slowly flew toward a utility pole, on which several pigeons perched. Just like a redtail, it dipped slightly as it approached the pole, then pitched up for a landing. At this point, of course, the pigeons are going to abandon the pole even for a redtail. The Cooper's knew this—was counting on it—for as soon as the pigeons flushed, she twisted into a stoop, stepped up her wingbeat, and disappeared behind a warehouse, hot on the tail of one of the fleeing pigeons.
Many birdwatchers, and more than a few falconers, think of accipiters as rather mindless, purely reactive predators: See, chase, kill, eat. Sleep. Repeat. And perhaps it is true that accipiters are less cerebral than falcons or buteos, but close observation shows that ambush is not the only option—that there is more to a Cooper's hawk, for instance, than just hair-trigger reflexes and cheetah-like acceleration.
[Urban Cooper's hawk. Photo by Pat Stull.]

In his book The Cooper's Hawk: A Cross Timbers Chronicle, Kansas falconer/naturalist Vic McLeran offers several examples of accipitrine tactics that demonstrate a deliberate approach to predation. Among them is another example of mimicry: a Cooper's that imitates the tilting, meandering flight of a northern harrier to approach, by stages, a flock of prairie chickens. Other creative Cooper's hawks in the book use coyotes or human hunters as beaters, or flush birds themselves by crashing repeatedly into impenetrable cover until the sparrows within lose their nerve and flee their stronghold. Another flies directly away from a flock of starlings, then drops low and uses the terrain to mask a flanking maneuver, circling around to take one of the starlings with a quick dash from an unexpected direction. (A trained hawk in this instance, but no one trained her to do that.)
Obviously there must be a first time for everything, but when a human happens to witness such an unconventional approach—a trick play, as it were—it's safe to assume that the hawk has successfully employed that same tactic before. But, for a mimic like the Cornhusker Highway bird, not too often: for a trick play to work, it has to be unexpected. This hawk must have played flocks of pigeons for fools, probably on a recurring basis, but not the same flock, or the redtail gambit wouldn't work. So not just creativity, then, but discretion. Intelligence.

["I know you're in there." Photo by Pat Stull.]

Several years ago, when I was flying a passage sharpshin, I was granted access to a good field in the southern part of the county, land covered by a conservation easement. Long and narrow, it was flanked on each side by a windbreak of trees. The field itself was planted in a mix of grasses and forbs, with stands of tall sunflowers that sometimes held a covey of quail—the reason for our visits. Also present were a flock of pheasants that made use of the field, feeding among the forbs and resting in the phragmites that grew in the lower, wetter spots, and a big female Cooper's hawk that hunted them. We saw her regularly, and every time we did see her, she was hunting the pheasants, and so I assume that she must have been successful or surely she would have given up long before: a pheasant is a tough bird, far from an easy kill even for such a large Cooper's.

Occasionally I'd see her perched on a branch way down the treeline, but she usually made her appearance in typical spooky Cooper's hawk fashion, materializing as if from nowhere, weaving her way through the trees of the windbreak with the accipitrine flap-flap-glide. As she came level with the pheasants, she'd veer suddenly toward them, putting them to flight. I was struck by the predictability of her attack, wondering how it could possibly remain effective...until I saw her do it differently. On that occasion, she again came flying down the treeline, not flap-flap-gliding in search mode but pelting through the trees in headlong pursuit of a bird—except there was no bird in front of her. The appearance, though, that she was otherwise occupied froze the pheasants in place for an extra second or two...a fatal mistake for a late-rising hen.

One of the limitations of falconry is that our hawks tend to be constrained, flown in the ways we think to fly them, and plying their trade at best a few hours a day. Little wonder then that wild hawks can show us things we might not have imagined, things that surprise us. Cooper's hawks may hold more surprises that most, owing to their aversion to close observation. It can take hours afield to glimpse mere seconds of an accipiter's day. It's easy to respect the physical abilities of a Cooper's hawk, but perhaps it's time we paid more attention to their mental abilities.
[Related post (by David Sibley): A hawk in pigeon's clothing]

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Trials and tribulations

She was a picture of relaxation, perched on a fallen, sun-bleached snag with one foot drawn up into her body plumage, the small feathers under her chin fluffed out: the casual demeanor of a merlin enjoying her leisure. Exactly what I'd like to see on the block at home.

But not out in the field.

I leaned against the middle of the log, ten feet away from Wakulla, which was about as close as she would let me get. She would fly toward me when I swung the lure, but refused to land on my gloved fist or even commit fully to the lure. So I watched her, and she mostly ignored me, occasionally preening or bobbing her head at something moving in the distance. Every once in a while she'd drop from her perch and fly down the creek, chasing dragonflies. She caught a few of them, which was a shame, because this place, if anything, needed more dragonflies to keep the mosquitoes in check. I swatted mosquitoes by the dozen, my jeans, T-shirt, and bare arms a battlefield strewn with the bloody corpses of the slain. Most of it, of course, was my blood, and despite the slaughter the bloodthirsty little bitches kept coming and coming and coming. Over the next couple of weeks, I somehow managed not to come down with West Nile Fever, but it couldn't have been from lack of exposure.

At some point in the course of her rehabilitation, training, and moult, my "passage" merlin (trapped inside a building for a week without food) had undergone a reversion in behavior, acting like an eyas—a screaming eyas at that, so I hardly ever get to see the relaxed-merlin posture: as soon as I walk in the room, she starts screaming for food; once she finally gets it, she clutches it and mantles over it and continues screaming between bites. It's noisy, painfully noisy, but more to the point, it's misleading. She acts hungry whether she really is hungry or not, and evidently I'm slow-witted enough to fall for it. More than once.

Unable to discern her true response weight, I took her out a few weeks ago and, as described above, she sandbagged me, persistently refusing the fist until well after sunset and just before dark. So I dropped her weight by ten grams—a lot on a bird of this size—and took her out again a week later, with distressingly similar results. She did hit and knock down a sparrow, even if she didn't press for the kill, and she did take a long slip at a passing blackbird. But she remained recalcitrant, refusing the fist altogether and eventually flying off into the darkness. I pulled out the telemetry, marked her down in a cedar tree about a quarter-mile from the log we had shared, and got her back early the next morning, though not without difficulty and not without making more involuntary blood donations to the local mosquito population.

Since those misadventures, I've become more disciplined and have discovered Wakulla's current response weight, or at least a close approximation thereof. With increased flying time, she's grown visibly stronger—and her manners have improved somewhat, though they're still not exactly Emily Post. Now the challenge is to get her chasing birds seriously. Challenges, plural, actually: get her attention focused away from me, figure out what kind of slips she wants, at what kind of quarry, and perhaps dial in her weight with a bit more specificity. If falconry was always easy, perhaps I'd find it less interesting, but I'll be glad to get this set of challenges behind us. Fingers crossed...

Monday, October 4, 2010

One more dragonfly

It's been a while since I posted a blanket. This is from Pendleton's American Indian College Fund series.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Niobrara dragonflies

A belated post: A gallery of dragonflies from the Niobrara River Valley, shot on our kayak trip in August.

Twelve-spotted skimmer, male and female. (Much better than the blurry snapshot I got in Pennsylvania earlier in the summer.)

Common whitetail

The next four shots are all of meadowhawks. The first is, I believe, an adult white-faced, the second an adult cherry-faced or ruby. The latter two are juveniles, and could represent any of the three species. Note that one has the basal half of the wings tinged with amber, while the other's wings are totally clear. This is not diagnostic, just an example of the variation within each of these similar species. Even experts have a hard time separating immature meadowhawks.

This last I haven't been able to confirm, but I suspect it's a juvenile of yet another meadowhawk species, the yellow-legged.

The fact that dragonflies are so difficult (or at least more difficult than birds, for me) is half the fun.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Fastest dog in the West

Two years ago [link], I wrote about the Running of the Wieners hosted by the Platte-Duetsche Society of Grand Island, and how Maxine finished second in her division thanks to a tactical error on my part.

We missed last year's ROTW, but returned yesterday with Maxine and Anya. Anya, as usual, had no idea that there was a race going on and finished last in her heat, but Maxine won hers and then went on to take first place in the final.

As always, a lot of fun, and Nebraska Dachshund Rescue brought a good number of foster dogs (we transported two ourselves); hopefully the exposure will result in some adoptions.

Some photos of people and their dogs dogs and their people.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

"Never Going Back To Memphis"

Shemekia Copeland on Letterman:

Monday, September 13, 2010

The color of cats

I like sled dogs. Yes, I keep dachshunds, and yes, I admire many other sporting breeds, but I also really like huskies and malamutes. Part of it is their utility, their love-to-work, please-can-I-pull-something come-on-let's-go-for-a-run-in-the-woods attitude. But another part is their looks: they look a bit like wolves. This does not mean that sled dogs are especially closely related to wolves—all dogs are closely related to wolves, and the resemblance between a husky and a wolf has more to do with convergence than with affinity. Still, I like the look, and on some level aesthetics do matter.

I've never considered myself a cat person, but I do have aesthetic preferences for some cats over others. My favorites have always been so-called mackerel tabbies, with irregular stripes in shades of grey that function well as camouflage. My friend Julie says she has trouble getting good pictures of her mackerel tabby, Pinduli, because her camera's autofocus won't lock on, so effectively do Pinduli's stripes break up her outline. That's my kind of cat—and I'm probably a bit slow for not figuring it out sooner, but there's a reason why.

Last summer, Scientific American published an article [official link here (full article only available to subscribers or for a fee), or full text without pictures here] entitled "The Evolution of House Cats". RTWT, but the scientific highlight is that, based on DNA analysis of various wildcat (Felis silvestris) subspecies and of domestic cats, multi-focal domestication has been ruled out in favor of one-time domestication of F. s. lybica in the Fertile Crescent, in conjunction with the rise of agriculture and the corresponding increase in house mouse (Mus musculus) populations.

Cultural change begetting ecological change begetting domestication... Fascinating stuff, but what really arrested me was the accompanying color photo of a wildcat: mackerel tabby. Of course! Without consciously knowing what a wildcat looked like, I had nevertheless gravitated toward wild-looking domestic cats.

Enter my daughter. Ellie has been begging Susan and me for years to let her have a cat. I'm not really sure how or why she became fixated on cats—it's not as though we've ever had a shortage of critters around the house—but the presence of those other critters was always (might still be) a valid excuse for saying no. In the end, though, and despite Susan's allergy to cats, Ellie wore her down. And then the two of them wore me down. So I agreed (reluctantly) that we might have a cat, but suggested that it might be better if that cat looked like something out of the wild.

Boy howdy, did we end up with a wild-looking cat. Here's the recipe:
  • Cross a Siamese and an Abyssinian and you get an ocicat, a spotted domestic.
  • Cross a domestic cat and an Asian leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis) and you get a Bengal cat.
  • Now cross an ocicat with a Bengal cat and you get a cheetoh.
  • Cross a domestic cat (usually a spotted breed like an Egyptian mau or a Bengal) with a serval (Leptailurus serval), a wild cat often kept as a pet in Africa, and you get a savannah cat.
  • Finally, cross a cheetoh and a savannah cat and you get a "cheevannah".
If F1 crosses were used at each step—which of course isn't likely—the resulting cheevannah would be five parts domestic, three parts wild (two grandparents would be servals, one an ALC). Even with that wild blood diluted by using later crosses, the cheevannah looks quite exotic: Ellie's cat, Challa (not challah like the Jewish bread), has a reddish stripe down her spine, spots on her sides, stripes on her legs, and rings on her tail. She might or might not end up with cheetah-style teardrop markings below her eyes.

Challa is very social, yowling pitifully whenever she's left alone, and following us like a puppy whenever she's not. Her idea of play is all about stalking, pouncing, clawing, and biting, but she seems to have learned (after being sprayed with water a few times) that our finches and sparrows are better left alone. And after several carefully supervised introductory sessions, she and the dogs seem to be getting along fine. It's been an interesting experiment, and it's gone much more smoothly than I had expected.

And yes, despite all the scratches on my hands, arms, and legs, I'm really enjoying the wild child.

Taste of the North Woods

I'll do another ginger beer review sooner or later, but meanwhile I've discovered another treat: spruce beer. Apparently this is big in Quebec and Newfoundland. The one I found (at Rocket Fizz) is from Empire Bottling Co. in Rhode Island. This milky-white soda smells like high-altitude/high-elevation conifer forest and tastes...sprucey.

I'll be going back for more soon.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Made in America

West-central Indiana is just about as flat as you think it is: not billiards-table flat, not a geometric plane, but you would have to go a long way to find anything like a hill. This used to be prairie, or more accurately the prairie-dotted-with-trees ecosystem known as savannah, but for the last hundred-fifty years or so the rich, black soil has been intensively farmed. You see mostly corn, some soybeans; rows of trees between farms; and, here and there, small towns with small, neat houses. The names on the mailboxes and in the telephone book come from England and Ireland, Germany and Sweden, with a few Polish and (more recently) Spanish surnames thrown in for good measure. This is the land that produced "Small Town" and "Rain on the Scarecrow" and "Cherry Bomb", and while John Cougar Mellencamp gets the songwriting credit, I suspect that even he would tell you the Indiana countryside did much of the work.

The landscape gets a bit more industrial, though, as you approach Lafayette, and behind a high chain-link fence on State Road 38 is a mile-long factory building: home to Subaru of Indiana Automotive, or SIA. I've come here to take the tour. After checking in with security, I park in the visitors' lot, and walk toward the lobby. Before I even reach the building, I encounter a recycling station, the first of many I will see, for while the automotive industry as a whole may have a sinister reputation among environmentalists, SIA is one of America's greenest companies.

In the lobby are three cars, representing the three Subaru models built here at SIA: Outback, Legacy, and Tribeca. SIA builds Outbacks and Legacies for the Americas (the same models for the rest of the world are built in Japan), as well as Subaru's entire output of Tribecas. It's worth noting that while Subaru has five factories in Japan, SIA is the only place outside Japan where Subarus are manufactured. It's also worth noting that SIA is a manufacturing plant, not just an assembly facility: Rolls of steel come in, finished cars roll out. Thanks to the arcane rules of international commerce, the engine and transmission are considered of Japanese origin, but SIA's cars boast a U.S. parts content comparable to that icon of the American road, the Ford F-150 pickup. (And much higher than most other "domestic" cars.)

[A truckload of 2011 Outbacks ready to leave Lafayette. Good access to interstate highways as well as rail lines is one reason SIA located here.]

SIA is also one of three U.S. facilities producing the Toyota Camry. Toyota owns a 14% interest in Fuji Heavy Industries (FHI), Subaru's parent company, and SIA builds the Camry under contract. This is nothing new; SIA once stood for Subaru-Isuzu Automotive, a joint venture between those two companies. (The SIA logo, I'm told, is 51% Subaru blue and 49% Isuzu red, reflecting the original ownership of the company.) Vehicles produced here have included Isuzu pickup trucks, the Isuzu Rodeo/Honda Passport, the Isuzu Amigo, the entirely forgettable Isuzu Axiom, and the sadly-now-extinct Subaru Baja. (On which more later.)

Okay, I've got badly off-track with all this business talk. Hardly my forté. Where were we? Oh yes, the lobby... Well, the lobby is much as you'd expect: glass cases full of trophies, flower arrangements on the tables, comfortable sofas, etc. Less expected, although it makes perfect sense: a framed photo of "Crocodile Dundee" actor Paul Hogan posing with a first-generation Outback, alongside his trademark hat and a largeish knife. Clearly the folks at SIA have not forgotten that the Outback, more than any other car, secured Subaru's niche in the American market. As the SUV craze was beginning, Subaru was without a truck platform on which to base an SUV. Their solution was to upgrade the Legacy station wagon into "The World's First Sport Utility Wagon", employ Hogan for a bit of Aussie cachet, and essentially invent the crossover vehicle before that term came into being. Subarus were already capable soft-road and off-road vehicles, thanks to their symmetrical all-wheel drive (AWD) system; but after a series of Outback advertisements starring Paul Hogan, the public knew it.

As tour coordinator Tom Elger arrives, the receptionist very politely confiscates both my camera and my cell phone, which I had quite forgotten has a camera as well. Tom explains that Subaru and especially Toyota are concerned that trade secrets might be divulged through photography, which sounds reasonable, but then why invite the public in at all? I don't ask that question aloud, just surrender my optical contraband and don the radio headset which will allow Tom to be heard by everyone on the tour even in the noisier parts of the plant. Our group includes a family with kids, a class of engineering students from Purdue University, and a trio of engineers from Fender Guitars—a treat for Tom, who has been playing for thirty-odd years and owns a Telecaster. While many Subaru enthusiasts such as myself take the tour, businessmen also make the pilgrimage to Lafayette to learn what has made Subaru in general, and SIA in particular, so successful.

[Virtual tours here.]

One of those factors is Japanese-style management. SIA has a relatively "flat" organizational chart, meaning there is minimal hierarchy: Tom cites just five levels from associates on the factory floor to the top SIA brass. The atmosphere of egalitarianism is enhanced by the fact that each employee wears a uniform shirt embroidered with his or her name—even the "suits" don't wear suits—and the executive staff work in open-plan offices. These measures are meant to facilitate communication, which is crucial to kaizen: an ongoing process of small refinements, most suggested by the associates themselves, aimed at greater efficiency and quality.

Kaizen is behind one of the SIA plant's most notable achievements, its zero-landfill status. When FHI first proposed this as a goal in 2002, many at SIA were skeptical that it could be achieved. But employees made suggestions that made zero-landfill a reality in 2004, two years ahead of schedule. A few examples:
  • Packaging, especially cardboard boxes, has been reduced. Most parts are now shipped and stored in reusable plastic bins, which are later sent back to the suppliers for re-use. (As an additional benefit, injuries associated with utility knives used to open cardboard boxes have been nearly eliminated.)
  • A water-borne paint system has reduced both the solvent content of the paint and the amount of paint waste per vehicle. The now-reduced excess paint is sluiced off and the volatile compounds used to produce alternate fuels.
  • Recycling stations found throughout the plant are not the familiar plastic bins but re-purposed shipping barrels, made of cardboard with steel lids. When their time comes, they are themselves recycled.
  • Food waste from dirty dishes in the cafeteria and employee break areas scattered throughout the plant was formerly combusted in a waste-to-energy scheme, but more recently has been composted.
  • Even the plant's dust is recycled. Welding dust and floor sweepings are sent out to a company that extracts the metals.
Result: If you've taken out your kitchen trash this week, you've put more waste into landfills than SIA has in the past six years!

I listen carefully through the headset as we wend our way through hallways and over the factory's catwalk, but despite Tom Elger's best efforts to include everyone (not just the Fender engineers and Purdue students) in the discussion, many of the technical aspects of the tour go straight over my head. My notebook records a few trivia items: The enormous transfer press used to stamp out body parts from rolls of steel is three stories tall, with another two stories under the factory floor; it was brought in from Japan through the Panama Canal, up the Mississippi and and Ohio Rivers, and unloaded at a specially-built port in Madison, Indiana. Die sets are retained at SIA, all the way back to the 1990 Legacy, for manufacturing replacement body parts. There are seven miles of conveyor chain in the Paint department. Ostrich feathers from South Africa (female ostriches only, due to their feathers' lower oil content) are used to dust the cars in Paint. The Trim & Final department finishes each car to trim-line spec; non-standard upgrades (window tint on a model that's not usually tinted, for example, or upgraded shift knobs and pedals) are completed not at SIA but at the SOA (Subaru of America) facility next door, which is considered a port for tax purposes.

At a certain point, I lose the ability to retain information on the manufacturing process, but I am particularly impressed by one point. The Toyota Camry line is entirely separate, but on the Subaru side of the plant, Outbacks, Legacies, and Tribecas are all produced on the same line, and the volume (hence speed of production) can be varied depending on demand. (Tom describes this as an "open, flexible" architecture for the benefit of the engineers and students.) Cars come through in no obvious pattern: you might see three Outbacks, then a couple of Legacies, then another Outback, a Tribeca, another Legacy, and so on. But SIA's computers are in constant communication with each other and with suppliers' computers, so that as each car makes its way through the line, the correct set of seats and wheels and tires shows up right on schedule.

Because of this unique arrangement, SIA does not stockpile cars. Every Subaru on the line has been paid for, either by an end user (a driver who has placed an order) or by a dealership. This is one reason Subaru didn't have to run a fire sale during the worst of the recession, whereas the Detroit automakers did. So, fewer opportunities for bargain-shopping, but more stability for what is still a small, niche-oriented carmaker—and for its employees, none of whom were laid off.

SIA would seem to be a great place to work, in fact. Newly-hired employees spend their first few weeks learning their jobs on the line, apprenticing with experienced associates, for half the day; the other half, they work out on company time to build up strength and endurance. Breaks are frequent, and each worker returning from break goes to a different station within his or her work area. As a result, repetitive-motion injuries and fatigue-related accidents at SIA are very infrequent compared with the rest of the automotive industry. And SIA employees do not buy health insurance through the company—SIA picks up the tab for health care as part of its compensation package. On-site recreational facilities, on-site child care, recognition for kaizen suggestions...small wonder there's no union.

As the factory tour winds down, I begin to anticipate an extra bonus: Knowing my interest in environmental matters, Tom has offered to give me a firsthand look at another of SIA's proud achievements. SIA was the first (and, as far as I know, is still the only) U.S. auto plant to be certified as a wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation. At the tour's conclusion, Tom spends a few more minutes chatting about guitars with the guys from Fender, then excuses himself to go fetch a car.

After retrieving my camera and cell phone, I emerge from the lobby into bright late-July sunshine and rummage in the pockets of my cargo shorts for my Serengetis. A few minutes later, Tom pulls up in a 2005 Baja. "Nice choice," I tell him as I climb in, and he grins in reply. Based closely on the Outback wagon, the Baja is what Australian drivers call a "ute", a car with a pickup bed. Think of Chevy's El Camino, if you must, but the Baja's predecessor, the Subaru BRAT, is probably a better example. Anyway, the Baja had enormous potential Down Under...but, for reasons known only to Subaru's global marketing division, was sold exclusively in North America. Quirky, but then that's been the company's reputation. Sales were underwhelming, and the car was only made from 2003 to 2006, but it has a loyal following among Subaru fans and resale prices (always a strong point for Subarus) have scarcely dropped at all.

As we drive past a row of Outbacks serving as company cars, Tom expresses his hope that a new Baja might be in the offing. When I ask if he's heard rumors to that effect, he quickly disavows any inside knowledge. In fact, he says, new models are attended by deep secrecy. When SIA first started building the new 4th-generation (2010) Outbacks, even the assembly workers couldn't see the car in its entirety: the cars were covered as they came through the line, and each associate was expected to lift the cover only as far as necessary to do his or her particular job. Drivers on SIA's test track didn't get a good look, either, as the cars were disguised with foam and tape to prevent anyone from seeing the car's lines before its official debut to the press. No way would he have advance notice of a new Baja, Tom says, just out-loud wishful thinking.


Of SIA's 836 acres, 620 are developed, leaving just over 200 for recreation and wildlife. Among the animals that live here or make use of the habitat while on migration are coyotes, white-tailed deer, beavers, bald eagles, Canada geese, great blue herons, and snapping turtles, plus of course all manner of beetles, bees, dragonflies and butterflies. As Tom drives and narrates, I see a shady woodline, a wildflower meadow that includes both native and naturalized plants typical of the area (lots of Queen Anne's lace in bloom), and a rather ordinary-looking pond. I'm expecting our rapid drive-through to be followed up with an opportunity to walk around and take photographs, but apparently Tom has an appointment in town early in the afternoon and we only have time for this brief look, which doesn't even include the heron sanctuary inside the test track. Oh, well.

No one, if suddenly transported to SIA's wildlife habitat, would mistake it for Blackwater, or Brigantine, or Yellowstone or Yosemite. This is, first and foremost, an industrial site. Nor are any of the species found here (not even the eagles, really) particularly rare. But that is not the point. While threatened and endangered species grab headlines, and their management is obviously important to preserving our natural heritage, it is also important to provide space for common species so that they can remain common. SIA's habitat provides food, water, and cover; while it's certainly not as rich as the original savannah, it's more beneficial to most wildlife than cornfields and beanfields. And, as SIA's employees justifiably point out: No one made Subaru set aside land for wildlife, just as no one forced Subaru to operate zero-landfill factories. They did it because it's the right thing to do.

And if that also benefits Subaru's corporate image, that's as it should be. Consumers vote every time they spend money. Why not vote for a company that is a good corporate citizen, one that treats its employees and customers with respect, one that takes steps to help the environment at the local and global levels?

Back at the front of the SIA building, I say goodbye to Tom, find my car in the parking lot, and turn in my pass at the security gate on the way out. The harmon/kardon stereo belts out Mellencamp again as I point the Outback west toward home. Leaving Lafayette, cornfields blur to the sounds of "Walk Tall" and "Check It Out" and "Pink Houses". Ain't that America...

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The water that runs, a year later

I'm starting to fall seriously behind on blogging, as other things (including the aftermath of a flooded basement) have taken priority, but will try to post every now and again. This is from about two weeks ago, when we once again kayaked the Niobrara River. [Link to last year's post.] With the obvious exception of Mike (who was, however, present in spirit and in a few small vials of ashes), we paddled with pretty much the same crew, and this time completed the standard 25.3 miles from Cornell Launch to Sunnybrook Camp. Rather than post repeat pictures of the same waterfalls, I'll concentrate this time on sights from the lower half of the river:

The obligatory shot of Ellie in her kayak. She's really starting to hate the sight of me with a camera pointed in her direction, but at least she's smiling in this one...

Big Cedar Falls. This is cold water. Really, really cold. I wish I was there now. (The heat index in Lincoln lately has been anywhere from 105 to 115.)

Another falls, farther up Big Cedar Creek.

An unnamed falls. Or, more likely, a falls which has a name, but I don't know it.

We laugh in the face of danger...and then we do what the sign says.

Lower part of Staircase Falls, where it empties into the river.

Middle Staircase Falls reminded me for some reason of Ocho Rios in Jamaica, only here there's no one hustling you for tips.

Upper Staircase Falls.

One of several dragonflies to make a temporary perch of my paddle. (Lots of dragons on the river this year, so I may soon have another dragonfly post.)

Another small, "unnamed" falls, except that this one really might be, since it's all of about three feet high. I propose the name Three Feet Falls.

Last year I lamented not having photographed Deb's keeshond, Queso. I had no intention of making the same mistake twice. (Actually, I do that all the time...but this is not an example of that phenomenon.) Deb swears that Queso is a high-energy, even hyperactive dog at home. But put her on the water and everything is groovy.

We reached Sunnybrook just ahead of a thunderstorm, but the worst of it was back in Valentine. Half the town lost power, there were several fires started by lightning, and once again the streets were flooded (if this keeps up, the Chamber of Commerce may ask us not to come back), but we didn't lose any vehicles this time around. Susie's Forester (yes, she's also in a Subaru now) did just fine; no need to pull the kayaks back off the roof. She came along primarily to babysit; next year I hope to get her in a boat so she can see the river for herself.