Friday, December 30, 2011

Coming to a post office near you

It's been a while since my last stamp post, but here's another. The USPS will be issuing these beauties, with artwork by Robert Giusti, on 20 January 2012 (which just happens to be my birthday). Click to embiggen.

Okay, the peregrine looks a bit hobby-ish to my eyes, and the depiction of the osprey could have been a bit more flattering, but I suspect most falconers and hawkwatchers won't complain too much.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve

Let the children have their night of fun and laughter. Let the gifts of Father Christmas delight their play. Let us grownups share to the full in their unstinted pleasures before we turn again to the stern task and the formidable years that lie before us, resolved that, by our sacrifice and daring, these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied their right to live in a free and decent world.

—Winston Churchill, 1941

Tea ceremony

She might think it's laziness,
Or another manifestation of eccentricity,
But to her credit she says nothing
As the tags from teabags accumulate on the counter.
Lemon tea when her throat was sore,
Orange and spice with Chinese takeout;
Masala chai to get to work in the morning,
Earl Grey to unwind at night.
Irish Breakfast to celebrate her heritage,
English Breakfast for mine;
Assam, Ceylon, Darjeeling.
Freed from their strings,
The little squares of coloured paper are like tickets,
Bringing the world to this little kitchen—
A world of sunny hillsides
& warm rain
& dark hands
& green leaves.
It might look like laziness,
But the tags are purpose-saved,
And one day I let them fly.
She doesn't like confetti
For the way it lingers,
Still turning up days or weeks or months later,
But her eyes sparkle as the tea tags flutter down about her head,
And she laughs in exasperated delight.
Of such small blessings
And such brief moments
Is a marriage in friendship made.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

photoblogging: NSOC meet, December 2011

For my friend, currently in California, who had to miss the snow-and-gravel cruise:

Vinyl makes them faster:
  • Rick's RS 2.5
  • Jesse's lifted WRX
  • Jon's swapped Impreza

Action shots:
  • Trevor's Alcyone SVX
  • Rick's RS 2.5 and Tank's Forester
  • Tank again
  • Not sure who this is, but that's not a mismatched bumper, it's masking tape

Going to the dogs:
  • Harper D.
  • Bayard wants to drive
  • Harp again, just because she's awesome

Saying goodbye to a friend:

Miscellaneous shots:
  • Nice wheels
  • Three Subarus in their natural habitat
  • One more of Harper, again because she's such an awesome dog

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A happy Thanksgiving

A purely personal note:

Bleak history notwithstanding (see below), I still believe Thanksgiving is very much worth observing, and should not necessarily be restricted to a single day in November. In my view, in fact, to give thanks is the only form of prayer that really has much validity or meaning. That's not to say, of course, that I never pray for strength or wisdom or luck, but when one asks for things from the powers that be...well, that can be a long wait for a ship that may not come. It seems to me, though, that anyone—regardless of their faith or spiritual traditions—may have cause to be grateful from time to time.

I wouldn't have believed it some months ago, but I find now that I have much to be thankful for. Most of the entries on my mental list are people, and many of them are readers of Flyover Country. I won't embarrass anyone by singling them out, and won't risk hurting anyone's feelings by leaving them out, so let me just say a general but very sincere thank-you to everyone who has offered their love and support, in person or at a distance.

Life is good, and looking better as time goes on, and I am truly thankful to be here.

Fifty-five years: a Thanksgiving story

Every American knows the story, or thinks so at any rate. In 1620, religious dissenters from England sail to the New World in a small ship, Mayflower, find a natural harbor, and establish the new Plymouth Colony, where they hope to build a new life and worship freely according to their precepts. Half of the unprepared colonists die the first winter. Local Indians take pity on the colony, teach them to plant and fish, the colony takes hold, a great feast of thanksgiving is held, etc., etc. And the story is true, as far as it goes. Of course, it doesn't usually go very far.

Plymouth Colony was not hacked out of the wilderness, but built on the site of an abandoned Indian village known as Patuxet. Epidemics from Europe had spread through the Native populations in what was to become known as New England, greatly reducing Native numbers and depopulating Patuxet entirely. The English Pilgrims did not encounter a single Native until March of 1621.

That first Native was Samoset, not a local but a visiting Abenaki from the coast of what is now Maine. He had met Europeans before, fishermen, and greeted the startled Pilgrims with the words, "Welcome, Englishmen." He soon returned with an acquaintance, named Squanto, who possessed greater fluency in English and was a local. Born and raised in Patuxet, he had been kidnapped some seven years earlier by an English slaver and sold into bondage in Spain. Ransomed by Spanish monks, Squanto eventually made his way to England, befriended a wealthy merchant who taught him the language, and later took passage to Newfoundland. Returning south to his home village, he found Patuxet deserted and took up residence among the Wampanoags at their principal town, a place called Montaup.

It was Squanto who eventually stayed at Patuxet/Plymouth, gave the Pilgrims both seed corn and instruction on how to grow it, and shared his skills in hunting and fishing. It was also Squanto who introduced the English leader, John Carver, to the sachem of the Wampanoags: Usamequin, better known as Massasoit.

Massasoit was a man faced with a dilemma. Beset by disease and therefore weakened militarily, the Wampanoags and their neighbors had been losing ground to another local nation, the Narragansetts. But Squanto, who had lived amongst the whites in Europe, suggested that an alliance with Carver's Pilgrims might help the Wampanoags restore the balance of power. So Massasoit and Carver struck a treaty, each pledging to support the other if attacked by a third party.

With the successful harvest of 1621 came a three-day celebration, attended by all the surviving Pilgrims and about ninety of the Wampanoags. There was feasting (probably more venison than turkey, plus corn and other produce), prayer, footraces, wrestling matches, and quite possibly lacrosse games. The first Thanksgiving of legend...

Alas, the harmonious relations were not to last. Protected by the treaty with the Wampanoags, and with its food supply secured, the Plymouth Colony expanded over the years. Many Wampanoags were not entirely thrilled with the further concessions of land made by Massasoit. Worse, the colonists increased in arrogance as they increased in number. They were less interested in freedom of religion as an ideal than in freedom to exercise their religion, and impose it on their Native neighbors.

Massasoit died in 1662, and was succeeded as sachem by his son Wamsutta, known to the English colonists as Alexander. Wamsutta was far more skeptical and far less patient with the colonists than Massasoit had been, and after a year or so as sachem he was abruptly summoned to Plymouth by the Pilgrims. He fell ill, and died on his way back home to Montaup; many Wampanoags believed (and many of their descendants still do) that he had been poisoned.

Wamsutta was in turn succeeded by his younger brother Metacom; his English appellation was King Philip. Like Alexander, Philip was arrested and hauled off to Plymouth—several times—but apparently was clever enough to avoid being poisoned. While he cooperated with the colonists just enough to maintain his autonomy, he secretly began to organize resistance to the English, approaching even traditional Wampanoag enemies to build a coalition against the whites.

When, in 1675, the English hanged three Wampanoags, open hostilities broke out. The first engagements were spontaneous, taking even Philip by surprise, and soon the war spread beyond Massachusetts throughout New England. Settlers panicked, and even "accultured" Indians who had converted to Christianity were under suspicion; many were imprisoned in what amounted to concentration camps. Even the Narragansetts were drawn into the war, on the side of their former enemies the Wampanoags, after English settlers attacked a neutral Narragensett town and massacred its inhabitants.

Despite their early successes, the tide soon turned against the by-now outnumbered and more lightly armed Natives. In April of 1676, Canonchet, sachem of the Narragansetts, was captured and executed by an English firing squad. Soldiers captured Philip's wife and son in August of 1676; they were condemned by the Pilgrim clergy in Plymouth and sold into slavery in Bermuda. Shortly thereafter, Philip himself was killed an a brief fight at Montaup, his home village and long the center of Wampanoag power. That power no longer existed: by the end of "King Philip's War", fifty-five years after Massasoit and John Carver celebrated "the first Thanksgiving", almost all of the Native people in New England had been killed, sold into slavery, or exiled to Canada.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

NFA field meet, October '11

Not a typical meet, as warm weather and other factors prevented us from doing any actual hunting last weekend. We kited a couple of the falcons, did some manning and creance work with new hawks, and otherwise kicked back. I'll remember this meet for archery, knife-throwing, and Chinese checkers as much as anything. (Also the sugar- and creamer-packet fight with Kelly.) It was good to be back at the Schneidereit place after too many years away; good also to see that Ivan has a beautiful family and that this piece of land will remain a treasured family ranch for at least another generation.

Photos follow...

"Give Me Something"

Monday, October 24, 2011


The eyes of the doe are perfect.
Large, luminous, liquid, lovely,
they reflect the world through which she walks
and yet do not reflect the world's nature,
for they are perfect,
and the world is not.
The eyes are pools of beauty,
and even deeper is the spirit behind.
The spirit knows things the doe cannot.

Her sistren are apt to be taken down
by those who speed through the world unmindful
of their impact on the gentle and the sensitive
and the beautiful.
But the spirit guides her clear.
The wolves are long gone from these parts,
the cougars barely a rumour,
but never having seen them, she picks her way through the woods
still aware.
No way to tell, looking at those eyes
brimming with innocence and wisdom,
how many winters she's seen,
or if she's seen winter at all.
The spirit has seen them all.

And yet even the spirit can be taken by surprise.

Cupid is not flitting around
flashing his pink bottom at the world
and making the woods ring with childish laughter.
Cupid is up a tree,
with paint on his face
and strips of rags hanging from his clothing
that move like leaves in the autumn wind.
And wary as she is
of wolf and cougar and all the hazards of the world,
not everything can be planned for.
And one day she will stand just so,
and the arrow may find its mark.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Trapping weekend

The guiding concept for our expedition was simple: Trapping hawks is fun, but trapping hawks socially is even better. The strategy was not a whole lot more complicated: a western party led by Anita Johnson would meet up at Kearney and trap their way eastward, while an eastern band led by yours truly would start at Lincoln and trap our way westward—and if all went according to plan, we would meet up somewhere in the middle. So simple, even falconers can do it. There was only one worry: Even as Donna Vorce and I were planning this trip, we were aware that September is too early to expect to see many passage redtails. On the other hand, we reasoned, it doesn't take many if you can be confident of catching the few you do see. Long story short, we got lucky enough.

[A bird in the hand is better than...anything. My photo.]

One reason we scheduled the trip so early in the season is that NFA has several apprentices this year; the hope was that, if they took hawks this weekend, they might have them hunting in time for the NFA field meet a month from now. Well, the pressure is on now: Three apprentices were looking for birds this weekend, and by Sunday evening, all three had new redtails.

We trapped the first, a nice little tiercel, shortly before sunset on Saturday, and though it had been a long and unproductive day to that point, suddenly none of us felt tired. A moment of silence was observed for the pigeon that brought the tiercel to us. Then, as dusk fell and we loitered on the little-traveled rural road, visiting amongst ourselves and trading stories of the day's misadventures, a pair of killdeer, a flock of Canada geese, a bald eagle, and a coyote—all unseen but unmistakable—added to the sound of human conversation, and we were reminded how good it is to be outdoors on a glorious autumn evening.

[Dusk in the Platte River Valley. My photo.]

After dusk had turned to full-on darkness, the trapping parties went their separate ways. Anita, Doyle Daiss, and Chris Remmenga all had places to be, and so departed for their respective homes. Apprentices Caleb Schwartzkopf and Tyler Meitl headed for North Platte, set to trap again on Sunday with sponsor Art Graves. The rest of us (Donna, Pat Stull, my apprentice Amanda Kaufman, her sisters Cassie and Kelly, and me) drove to a nearby WMA, with Amanda's new tiercel hooded and trussed up in a nylon stocking. Upon arrival, Amanda and I put anklets and jesses on the hawk while Donna, Pat, and the girls set up camp.

There's something about camping—the movement necessitated by chores, the murmur of conversation, the ability to choose bright light or darkness or anything in between just by moving closer to or away from the fire—that is uniquely conducive to manning hawks. And if there's a more enjoyable setting in which to man a freshly-trapped hawk than by a campfire, surrounded by friends, I can't imagine what it would be. We snacked on apples and crackers and cheese and venison, we watched the sky, we talked late into the night, and we handled the tiercel, getting him accustomed to the sounds (and, briefly, sights) of camp life, easing him into his new world. Finally, in the small hours of the morning, we put the newly-named Azazel in his box, unrolled our sleeping bags beneath an impossibly clear sky shotgunned with stars, drifted off to the soft trilling of a screech-owl, and slept the sound sleep of the contented and exhausted.

[A girl and her hawk: Amanda with Azazel. My photo.]

The next morning we awoke to a kingfisher rattling through our camp and two ospreys gliding overhead. Azazel got some more manning time, Pat and Donna went on a coffee run, and we unhurriedly broke camp. Doyle rejoined us for a couple hours of desultory "trapping", if it can be called that when we caught nothing, and then we all headed home. Elsewhere, Art's group was still at it: Caleb trapped a female redtail on a pigeon harness Sunday morning, and Tyler scored a tiercel on a bal-chatri Sunday evening—again, in the last moments of daylight.

So, a success if not a rousing success: Three hawks sought, three hawks caught, and a good time had by all. Donna and Doyle will be out trapping again in a couple of weeks when their schedules are more conducive to training. If I join them, I'll post that up as well. Meanwhile, we're already discussing making this trip "the first annual". We might shoot for later in the season, we might add some different trapping styles to our repertoire, but for certain we'll be doing this again.

[Taking my turn with the manning. Photo by Pat.]

The camping group. L-R: Donna, Amanda with Azazel, Mark, Cassie, Pat, Kelly. Photo by Pat.]

[Azazel. Photo by Pat Stull.]

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

"So. Central Rain"

R.E.M. have left the building.

The band broke up today.

Here's a nice version of what may be my favourite R.E.M. song:

The correct pronunciation, if you happen to be wondering, is "Southern Central Rain".

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Stellaluna and Wilbur will kill us all: a review of Contagion

It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that (when time permits) I read a lot of books on science. My friends are, however, sometimes surprised by my collection of "scary disease books". I have books on plague, books on smallpox, books on Ebola. Sensational popular science writing like Richard Preston's The Hot Zone and The Demon in the Freezer, insightful memoirs by noted virologists like Joe McCormick and C.J. Peters, historical analyses like Scourge and Justinian's Flea. The one I go back to over and over again, though, is Laurie Garrett's The Coming Plague, an engagingly-written, exhaustively-documented overview of the field of emerging diseases.

The Coming Plague addresses not just emerging diseases and the microbes that cause them, but often the ecological circumstances that lead to a zoonotic outbreak. For example:
  • A political revolution isolates a region devoted primarily to ranching from its usual markets. Out of necessity, the ranchers become farmers, clearing and plowing land to grow crops for which they had previously traded. A formerly uncommon mouse, its original habitat disrupted but suddenly presented with a superabundance of food in the form of corn, increases greatly in numbers and begins to live commensally near humans. The mouse sheds a virus in its urine, and half the people in town become infected through eating contaminated food or breathing in dust from swept floors; half of those people die bleeding. This is Machupo, or Bolivian hemorrhagic fever.
  • After several years of drought in the already dry Four Corners area in the southwestern United States, a winter of heavy snowfall brings an infusion of moisture. The following spring and summer, vegetation rebounds, and piñon trees take the opportunity to produce a large seed crop. Deer mouse populations explode due to the sudden abundance of food, and as in Bolivia the mice increasingly come into contact with humans, shedding virus in their urine. Again, people die, this time gasping. This is Sìn Nombre or Muerto Canyon virus, a previously unknown hantavirus that causes acute respiratory distress syndrome.
  • The practice of hunting primates for bushmeat allows a virus from infected chimpanzees to enter human hunters or butchers, probably on several different occasions at different times and places. The chimpanzee virus adapts to its human hosts, becoming a new species (or two) in the process. The construction of a transcontinental highway and an attendant increase in travel, prostitution, and intravenous drug use allow the virus to expand its range beyond central Africa. People die rotting, unable to fight off viral, bacterial, and fungal infections. This is HIV and the global AIDS pandemic.
Varied and wondrous are the diseases in The Coming Plague. Some are widely known, and widely feared, by the general public. Others are widely known but taken all too casually. And still others are obscure, perhaps mercifully so. There exist, for example, a herpes virus found in squirrel monkeys, and another in spider monkeys, that seem to do their hosts no harm whatsoever. But when these viruses are transmitted to Old World primates, they trigger devastatingly lethal leukemias and lymphomas. Not scary enough for you? Okay...but these cancer-causing viruses are airborne.

* * *

So I was anxious to see the new Steven Soderbergh movie Contagion, but also a bit apprehensive that it might disappoint me, that it might get the science wrong or gloss over the science altogether. I'm happy to report that Contagion does not disappoint. Like The Coming Plague (it turns out that Laurie Garrett was a consultant on the movie), it tells a very scary story without sensationalizing it.

Basic plot summary: Scattered individuals fall ill with what appears to be a respiratory infection but rapidly escalates to meningitis or encephalitis. These isolated illnesses develop into clusters, which grow into a global pandemic. Mayhem ensues. The movie follows a few patients, as well as doctors from the CDC and WHO and others struggling to avert, understand, and ultimately survive the emerging crisis.

On both an individual and societal level, the film gets human nature right. An excellent cast helps: the big names are Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Elliott Gould, and Jude Law, but many other fine actors breathe life into believable and variably sympathetic characters. No mustache-twirling villains here; the closest approach is Law's character, a blogger ("six million hits a day") with a penchant for conspiracy theory who is not immune to corruption, but he seems to be more self-deluded and opportunistic than willfully evil.

Likewise, the public-health worker (played by Chin Han) who conspires to abduct a colleague from the WHO (Marion Cotillard) has a reasonable and sympathetic motive: a hostage from among the world's medical elite makes it less likely that his village will be overlooked if and when a vaccine or treatment is developed.

The most despicable character is actually Paltrow's philandering patient zero, but while her misconduct does give the virus additional opportunity to spread, her benign conduct is just as destructive. This raises the point that, while the virus is certainly the major antagonist in the film, it is not really a villain in the usual sense. A virus lacks any sort of consciousness, knows nothing and cares nothing of human concerns. Terrifying in its effects, it is nevertheless not malevolent, it just is—life (or proto-life) at its most basic, replicating itself and incidentally leaving destruction in its wake, facilitated by the frequent contact within dense human populations and the ease and ubiquity of global travel.

I went into the movie looking for errors. Happily, I didn't find any. I'm just an interested layman, of course, but as far as I could tell, all the virology and epidemiology was spot on. The specific virus depicted in the movie (MEV-1) is entirely plausible, enough so that "hypothetical" seems a better descriptor than "fictional".

The film's commitment to realism extends to dialogue in which doctors talk to other doctors like doctors. A lesser movie, for example, might include a line such as "We should isolate the patients with higher fevers; they may be more contagious." Obviously another doctor would know this, and so the line is intended as explanatory dialogue for the audience. In Contagion the line is "Put the more febrile patients down here"—no explanation necessary for medical personnel, and so none given to the audience, who may or may not have "febrile" in their working vocabularies. When explanatory dialogue is included, it's always in a believable context: for example, the EIS officer defining R0 ("R-naught", a measure of transmissibility) to bureaucrats in a state health agency who are clearly not themselves epidemiologists—they are considering postponing the declaration of a state of emergency because it might adversely affect holiday shopping.

The drama in the film is never overplayed. Plenty of people, including major characters, die in the movie, but Soderbergh stays away from the usual format: a close-up shot of the patient, loved ones in emotional anguish nearby, sad violin music playing just in case we were about to miss the point. Contagion shows death more matter-of-factly, and more starkly: a delirious patient staggering into the road and being hit by a truck; a child left alone and found unblinking and lifeless in his bed; a doctor, discovering that she has contracted the disease, arranging for her contacts to be traced in one scene, and encased in a body bag, about to be interred in a mass grave, in the next. Combined with Soderbergh's refusal to dumb down the dialogue, this approach gives Contagion the gravitas of a documentary without making it any less a thriller.

Ultimately, the scariness of Contagion lies specifically in its realism. It is, in a sense, the opposite of The Andromeda Strain, which offers an easy deal: suspend your disbelief for as long as it takes to read the book or watch the movie, in exchange for some dramatic tension. This film is a wake-up call: Steven Soderbergh, Laurie Garrett, and the other people involved in making Contagion are using dramatic tension to try to dispel disbelief. The next big disease that will threaten humanity's existence, or at least life as we know it, is not an exotic life-form from outer space, waiting to hitch-hike on a probe returning to earth. It's here already. EVF-1, or something like it, is just waiting for a small ecological change to unleash hell on earth. The message of The Coming Plague, and of Contagion, is that it's not a question of if, but when.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


Pendleton is the best-known marketer of trade blankets in the States, but credit for the creation of the blanket trade must go to "Canada's Merchants", the Hudson's Bay Company. Chartered in England in 1670 and headquartered at York Factory (now in Manitoba, but originally the commercial capital of Rupert's Land), HBC was established to compete with French fur traders and served for a time as the de facto government of British North America.

Along with firearms, cookware, beads, etc., European fur traders often paid their Native and Métis suppliers in wool blankets. The iconic HBC product is the "multistripe" or "candy-stripe" blanket, a white point blanket with headers in "Queen Anne's colours" of green, red, yellow, and indigo—although other blanket-makers (including Pendleton) copied this design, so closely is it associated with Hudson's Bay that stripes in those colours have been incorporated into the modern company's logos. Nevertheless, HBC point blankets were and are made in a variety of other colours, some of which have changed with the whims of fashion while others (notably red, green, and blue) have remained constant or nearly so.

The blanket below, royal purple with white points and headers, is a one-off design, made only in 1953 to commemorate the coronation of HM Queen Elizabeth II. It is consequently among the rarest of the 20th-century Hudson's Bay blankets, and to my mind one of the very prettiest.


[Another regal personage]

Word has just come down, incidentally, that the Canadian Forces are reverting to their old names: Maritime Command will once again be known as the Royal Canadian Navy, Air Command will once again be the Royal Canadian Air Force, and Land Force Command will be simply the Canadian Army. Defence Minister Peter Mackay intended the renaming as a nod to the services' "proud history and traditions", but Canadian republicans have derided the move as "abject colonialism". [Links to BBC and CBC.] A reminder, either way, that among Elizabeth's titles is Queen of Canada.

[Link to the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, Nebraska. Among their artifacts: the oldest known surviving point blanket.]