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