Another clueless, airhead model

Monday, September 03, 2018

First Week in Wyoming

With deference to:

The Trees by Rush
The House at Pooneil Corner by Jefferson Airplane
When the Music’s Over by The Doors

Having parked the POV at my sister’s house in San Antonio I met my coworker, Boyd for this wildfire severity assignment.  The drive to Caspar, WY in our FWS truck consumed 27 hours with a night over in Amarillo.  Boyd is refuge manager for the South Texas Complex.  This assignment is a rarity for that position unless fire severity reaches Level 5 nationwide.  By then all qualified personnel are required to assist where needed.  To refuse is to be blacklisted from further assignments beyond his/hers duty station. 

Upon arrival in Caspar we reported to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) office.  It is an agency of the Department of the Interior as is my Fish and Wildlife Service. Its fire program consisted of 8 personnel, ranging from seasonal fire techs to engine captains to a Fire Management Officer.  Their area of operation is 6 counties from northeast to eastern Wyoming, covering hundreds of square miles.  The work routine was standing by until a fire was reported, possibly requiring 3 hours of driving.  Our first call was in the foothills of Alcova Lake resort.  Only a 10 minute hike with full gear and implement but still winding me. This was not unexpected.  In the past my mountain legs and lungs would come on line in 3-4 days.  That was the past.  I was unsure I would adapt as quickly at age 57. The fire tuned out to be a 10 x 10 foot lightning strike.  Unbeknownst to me this and 1-5 acre burns may be the norm for the duration. 

The following day brought continuous light rain, effectively reducing the chance of fire to zero percent.  When this occurs, the fire crew resumes other project work without worrying about extending too far from a reported fire.  Today’s project was in the mountains near Kycee, about an hour drive.  Our destination was a mountain meadow invaded by Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa).  There was unrest in the forest, there was trouble with the trees for the grasses want more sunlight and the pines ignore their pleas.  But the pines can’t help their feelings if they like the way they’re made and they wonder why the grasses can’t be happy in their shade?  Teams were broken up into one sawyer (chainsaw operator) and two swampers.  Swampers move branches and other debris away from the sawyer as he cuts.  Additionally we swampers piled the branches ten feet high.  Dozens of these piles occurred over the summer.  Come the first heavy snow the crew returns to burn the piles.  Now there’s no more pine oppression and the plants are all kept equal by hatchet, axe and saw.

The next day produced 3 small, local fires from .5 - 2 acres.  My two week mission is designated as a severity operation.  Over the years I’ve been in the shit, moped up after burned forests and on occasion worked severity details.  When a dispatcher request help we assist the county fire department but only if it’s a wildfire, not a burning structure or vehicle.  Thus far our crew never arrives on scene before the county FD.  The county has departments distributed throughout therefore, they have the advantage of any one fire truck arriving on scene before us.  What’s left for us is mopping up – putting out smoldering vegetation and/or cow pies.  We use two Type 6 engines (diesel F-350 trucks with a 300 gallon pump plus an incident command truck where the IC leader sizes up the fire and directs the operation.  Severity operations are a big deal here, stopping fires before they increase in size and create more damage.  The BLM crew regaled us with stories of fires that ran for hundreds – thousands of acres, consuming houses and other structures in their path.

For two days this week we didn’t have a fire despite potential conditions for such – high wind gusts of 50+ and low humidity. These 12-hour shifts mimic fire departments – hours of boredom punctuated by an hour or two of excitement.  When conversing with the crew my progressive philosophy is tempered by the ideology of the region.  This is a state which elected Trump by the highest percentage in the country. The present ideology is as ossified as its dinosaur fossils. President Obama is considered the evil mastermind of coal’s decline despite the fact that it can’t compete with the economics of cheaper natural gas, wind and solar power.  I hold my tongue, walkin’ around and I see/All the bullshit around me/Try and keep my mind on what’s going down/Can’t help but see the elephants around me.  I’ve yet to see a billboard or sign with a Democratic politician.  Liz Cheney, the eldest daughter of the Dark Lord himself (America’s 43rd president) is running for a second term.  For amusement I read her website rants, noting what she calls the war on the west. What does that mean? There was a war here once. That ended in genocide of indigenous people. 

Yesterday was two fires but at the first one we didn’t leave the engine because it was completely out.  That was caused by gunfire at a shooting range.  The second, on state land was also gun fire related.  Only 5 acres and another mop but at least we arrived while there were still flames.  Boyd calls this Turd Patrol because that’s all that’s left smoldering.  It's amazing how much I forget about the pain when I'm in beast attack mode on a fire. After an hour of extinguishing turds I have time to botanize, finding partially burned mountain bee plant and chard clumps of crested wheatgrass, an introduced species from Russia.  Nothing else though. All other grasses were obliterated by overgrazing. What have they done to the Earth? What have they done to our fair sister? Ravaged and plundered and ripped her and bit her. Tied her with fences and dragged her down.

Crested Wheatgrass (Agropryon crestata)

Mountain Bee Plant (Cleome serrulata)

Tomorrow I’ll wake up at the hotel and start dressing in layers. The Leukotape on my arches is to offset hotspots as a consequence of several days of PT with fire boots and a 45 pound vest.  Next, a section of nylon panty hose over both knees prevents the bite of knee braces.  The left knee will be replaced in January, joining my artificial wrist.  The right knee is braced up from straining too much to compensate for the left. Nomex (fire resistant fiber) trousers’ are followed by liner socks, hiking socks and fire boots.  I wear a t-shirt until I need the yellow Nomex shirt.  Having donned my clothing and braces I count out the medication to get through the day.  If the grinding of knee bones or fibromialgia flare up becomes intolerable I opt for Tylenol and Codeine.  Black market Vicodin for mountain hiking.  Dark web Prednisone increases VO2 max.  Today it’s was a 1000mg ibuprofen day.  Aw, comfortably numb!

After 5 days of boots and vest PT and fires I start adapting to the physical routine and relish the increased expansion of air in my lungs and strength in my legs.  I’ll lose it all within a week on the gulf coast flat lands.  One week to go.

Curly Cup Gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa)

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Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Going, going.....

I’m at the hills. A statement I made often during my childhood to notify the parents where I would be for the day. If they seemed concerned I didn’t take note.  If I returned for water it was available from a garden hose.  I may or may not have returned for food until the day ended.  These hills were the southern extent of the Texas hill country, that geographic region of calcareous-kartz, cavernous topography from San Antonio to north of Austin and on.  My brother (and occasionally sisters) explored those hills in the days of 4-channel TV, no cell phone, no cable and no video games.  My hills uplifted to 100 feet then sloped down to the Salado Creek watershed.  My only notice of the flora at that time was to avoid the eye-level dangers of Spanish dagger yucca  (Yucca treculeana).  Trails were worn down from foot traffic and biking, offering access to our secret sites of hidden campsites and vertical caves where fear of danger was overcome by the tug of curiosity.  Shimmying down into those caves we never thought they were perfect for denning rattlesnakes.  I recall hoping to find an additional tunnel down there at 20 feet. I never did and now they are covered forever by asphalt and concrete.  




The entrance to the hills was at the bottom of my neighborhood, now a line of houses extending another 300 feet.  I entered from a cul de sac, wondering when houses will surround it.  The trail is well worn with dense overstory of cedar elm (Ulmus crassifolia) and Texas persimmons (Diospryros texana). 

It’s a western aspect, favoring drought tolerant species.  Spanish dagger and Buckley's yuccas (Yucca constricta) are interspersed among shade tolerant vines and shrubs.  

Spanish Dagger Yucca
Branches are festooned with ball moss (Tilandsia recurvata). Not a true moss but a bromiliade related to pineapple.  A western and drier aspect make for less ground cover and relatively easy hike off trail to view yuccas a little closer.  I hear birds of unknown species, taking a moment to record their sounds on my phone.  Late, I was informed they were Northern Cardinals by my biologist colleague.

Ball Moss

I move north and down slope to undulating trails which still accommodate mountain bikes and motorcycles.  Trails I too once biked on.  Prickly pear (Opuntia engelmannii) is not uncommon on this side.  Slightly less common is bird pepper (Capsicum annuum), the only native pepper in Texas and it's official state pepper.  A  velvet ant catches my attention momentarily.  Actually a wingless bee, I give it plenty of space.  According to the Schmidt sting index it rates level 3.  The highest level is 4.  A fire ant sting is rated level 1.

Bird Pepper

Velvet Ant (genus Dasymutilla
The trails are not that different now but I do notice signs of attempts by trucks to drive on them along the creek.  I try to find solace in hoping rednecks will grow bored with this endeavor and move on to other self-destructive hobbies. 

I also take comfort in that housing development won’t extend this far due to watershed flooding.  I see signs of this flooding – strewed flotsam and jetsam around trees and in the creek where my brother and I would jump into without fear of bacterial phages or bone-breaking debris.  That 4-foot dam of unknown origin is still here, defaced by graffiti but showing little degradation.  

Salado Creek

We would fish behind the dam for perch or crawdads and one time catching an American eel (Anguilla rostrata).  I doubt it exist anymore in this region of the creek.  I walk south along the creek, noting plants adapted to periodic flooding – green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) and cottonwood (Populus deltoides).  The eastern side of the creek flattens out with little understory vegetation other than trees, a consequence of high velocity sheeting action from floods.  

Cottonwood on east bank of Salado Creek with Green Ash in the background
The trail is on higher ground, just enough elevation difference to favor cedar elms, live oak (Quercus virginiana), indigo bush (Amorpha fruticosa), giant ragweed (Ambrosia trifida) and horse apple (Maclura pomifera).  Again, there are signs of graffiti.  This time on trees.  I pondered that disconnection a boy or young man would have with the magnificent of nature around him.  To venture this far into the woods only to deface it is a failure of our society.  Then I notice metal tags on the trees, dozens of them with numbers. Each inscribed with a measurement in inches, probably the circumference.  A study of some kind?  Most are on cedar elms with the occasional live oak.

Indigo Bush

Live Oak.  Circumference ~ 10 feet.
I veer westward, the slightly more moisture of an eastern slope aspect promotes denser understory.  Texas persimmons with unripened fruit, guajacum (Guajacum angustifolium) and wafer ash (Ptelea trifoliata) increase.  Although the latter is not a true ash (actually a member of the Citrus family) it so named for its wafer-like seeds and ash-like leaves. 

Texas Persimmons Fruit

Wafer Ash and seeds

The ground flora diversity is sparse, mostly vines again stretching to the sunlight.  Two milkweeds, Net-leaf milkvine (Matelea reticulata) and swallow-wort (Cynanchyum barbigerum) have fruit (technically called follicles) which split lengthwise to disperse seeds to the winds on hair-like pappus.  Another vine catches my interest; it’s twining and leaf structure resemble diminutive cross-vine (Bignonia capreolata) and for just a minute I believe it. Then reality kicks in as I realize it is the non-native, invasive cat claw vine (Macfadyena unguis-cati). So named for its claw-like tendrils.  They look like chicken feet to me. 


Netleaf Milkweed Vine and follicle
Cat Claw Vine
Slope and brush increase, making me regret wearing shorts.  I trudge on, ignoring the scratches which  increasingly appear on the legs as well as accumulation of velcro-like seeds from hedge parsley (Torilis arvensis).  The forest opens to honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) and day flower (Commelina erecta).  

Day Flower

I face a wooden fence and garbage at the the pinnacle of the slope, the extent of development thus far.  I walk along it, bushwhacking through Johnsongrass (Sorghum halespense) and late blooming orange zexmenia (Wedelia texana), hoping to find calcareous outcroppings where the only known population of Sedum diffusum in Texas is growing. If I overshot it I can’t tell from the overgrowth.  I continue on my course, resigned to finding an opening in the fence line to walk back to the vehicle.  No sedum and no birdwing passionflower (Passiflora tenuiloba) to put an exclamation on the day.  Only fields of hedge nettle attaching thousands of seeds to my legs and socks. 

Orange Zexmainia

Hedge Parsley Seeds

This is the point in the story where you know I’m leading up to something.  Here it is – 

                                   ASS VINE (Funastrum cynanchoides)!!! 

 After twelve years I find it!  And not just one plant but a multitude of vines for at least twenty feet.  It had to be that plant but without a flower I need to cut it and smell the sap to be sure. Yep, smells like ass! Another milkweed, it is exceptional for butterfly nectar and a host plant for Monarch larvae.  I take a root cutting, hoping to propagate it back home.  

Ass Vine!

Now 20 feet of ass vine blocked the quickest route out.  With the fence on one side and dense thorn shrub on the other I decided to push through and tolerate the caustic searing of ass vine sap on my network of leg cuts and scratches. I found that opening – another swath of clear cut making way for drainage or is someone foolish enough to build in the path of it?  Forty years ago I walked on foot trails through this forested hill.  Now that trail is asphalt lined by houses. I’ll return this year, hoping not but knowing my childhood and hills will continue to vanish one tree at a time.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Moody Blues.  Sugarland, TX.

 50+ years and still going strong.  This is the 50th anniversary tour of the classic Days of Future Past album and played in its entirety during the concert.  My number one band to see on mushrooms - next time.

See them before they are gone because before all we have left is formulated, computer-generated dung that passes for music now.

Ruby-Crowned Kinglet wintering over in Angleton.

Doobie the ninja cat in the background.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Jethro Tull at Red Rocks Amphitheater, Colorado

40 total hours of driving to see the venue:  Jethro Tull at Red Rocks Amphitheater outside Denver.  It needed to live up to the legend and by all accounts succeeded and surpassed expectations.  

 The near capacity crowd of 9500+ tended towards middle age, all growing up with the music of Tull for nearly 50 years.  Masterful would best describe the show, a hybridization of rock and classical backed up with the Colorado Symphony.  At nearly 70 years old, Ian Anderson’s mastery of the flute has no equal.  His current band featured a phenomenal guitarist, Florian Opahle, who wailed on a 5 minute solo of Bach's Taccata and Fugue.

 I wanted Josh to see another icon of rock and he appreciated the raw talent but impatient with the 55 degree temperature and gusty winds. In 15 years he’ll realize what he saw tonight when the last of the great rockers are gone and all that is left is what dominates the airwaves today; automated, cookie-cutter performer’s compensated by auto-tuned, computer generated productions. 

The perfect closer - Locomotive Breath.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Bat House

There’s a street light at the end of my driveway which attracts moths and other flying insects that are hunted by bats.  Recently I discovered some of the bats were roosting under the wooden trim of a house next door.  I didn’t think they would pose a noticeable problem but could be exterminated if my neighbor found out therefore; I built a bat house to lure the critters to a safe haven.  It is installed 15 feet from the roosting area, on a 15 foot poll and stabilized with support rods.  At dawn I waited for the bats to return, hoping they would enter their new house.  They didn’t and I realized my expectation may have to wait a while for success.  More than likely they are Mexican Free-tailed Bats  (Tadarida brasiliensis).