Gossamer Tapestry

Reflections on conservation, butterflies, and ecology in the nation's heartland

Friday, September 28, 2007

Late Eggplant

Even though it's very late September, I'm still getting great stuff from the garden. Here's part of yesterday's haul. I'm amazed by how well the eggplant has done this year. These are the heirloom Asian variety Pingtung, which I grew from seed this spring (thanks again, Urspo). The sweet red pepper in the foreground is Nardello, and the red bell pepper in the background is Wisconsin, both also heirlooms. The Nardello did great, and both varieties taste good. I was hoping that by using a variety named Wisconsin and going the heirloom rather than hybrid route, I might avoid problems with poor yield off of otherwise healthy plants that I have typically experienced when trying to grow bell peppers. Alas, it was not to be. My 3 plants produces a season total of 3 bell peppers. Oh, well, most things have been very successful this year. This weekend, I may actually have to harvest and freeze eggplant- they're doing that well for me.


Thursday, September 27, 2007

More on "The Question"

First of all, thanks to all for the thoughtful, insightful comments regarding yesterday's posting. It was part of my goal in writing it to stimulate the exchange of interesting ideas and perspecives. I'm pleased that this has happened. Coincidentally, today's New York Times contains a great opinion piece by Vaclav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic. He's talking mainly about global climate change, however I think that a lot of what he says also applies to other large-scale environmental issues like species extinctions. It's interesting that Havel posits the question as a moral imperative.

Whenever I reflect on the problems of today’s world, whether they concern the economy, society, culture, security, ecology or civilization in general, I always end up confronting the moral question: what action is responsible or acceptable? The moral order, our conscience and human rights — these are the most important issues at the beginning of the third millennium.

We must return again and again to the roots of human existence and consider our prospects in centuries to come. We must analyze everything open-mindedly, soberly, unideologically and unobsessively, and project our knowledge into practical policies. Maybe it is no longer a matter of simply promoting energy-saving technologies, but chiefly of introducing ecologically clean technologies, of diversifying resources and of not relying on just one invention as a panacea.

I’m skeptical that a problem as complex as climate change can be solved by any single branch of science. Technological measures and regulations are important, but equally important is support for education, ecological training and ethics — a consciousness of the commonality of all living beings and an emphasis on shared responsibility.

Go read the whole thing. It's good stuff.

Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan


Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Why is this important?

An idée fixe has crept into my life lately, and I’m frustrated my lack of a good response to it. Although many people intuitively grasp the notion that conserving the world’s biodiversity is important, there are others who want an explanation of why we should be bothered. It often comes up in interviews with the media. Sometimes the question is asked directly- other times it’s subtler. I’m often asked, particularly regarding insects, what the ecological role of a particular species is. What does it do? The unstated question is what is the value of trying to preserve it.

I gave a talk on butterfly conservation for teachers over the weekend. The same question emerged there. Last year, a teacher became frustrated with my reluctance to provide simple answers. She was trying to lead me to expound on the importance of butterflies as pollinators. And while it’s true that butterflies are pollinators, it’s also the case that they are relatively minor players in that role. If butterflies were to vanish from the planet tomorrow, most pollination would continue unabated. Do butterflies have to do something, particularly something that is important to humans, to be worth saving? Does anything?

I went to a morning of media training last week. We were reminded of the importance of a questioner’s sense of WIIFM (what’s in for me) when responding. In a world where people seem increasingly unwilling to consider any point of view other than their own, I felt like I was being asked to be an enabler by taking that approach.

Yesterday, this month’s Scientific American arrived in the mail. There’s an article in it about a new approach to conservation. The authors were arguing that making the case for the intrinsic value of species and attempting to conserve hot spots (areas with high degrees of biodiversity) isn’t working. We should refocus our efforts on those species whose loss would precipitate some tangibly negative effect for humans. The article set my teeth on edge, because it felt like giving up. It seemed to make the concession that we will lose most of the planet’s biodiversity anyway, so we should focus efforts on those species that it’s easiest to make a case for saving. People may well be too self absorbed, but we should just go with that and meet most people on their own grounds. We can’t expect more than that.

Until recently, humans have nibbled around the edges of biodiversity destruction. Sure, we killed off a bunch of megafauna at the end of the last ice age. Islands have been hard-hit. We’ve lost a dodo here, a wooly mammoth there, but most of the species that were around before humans began civilizations are still here. That status is now changing. The people alive today have the potential to extinguish a sizeable fraction of the species on the planet. To no small measure, this generation will determine which species survive and which do not- and we will make this decision not only for ourselves, but also for every single generation that comes after us. Ever. To link these decisions exclusively to human needs, indeed to the particular needs of but one generation of humans, is an appalling act of hubris.

I wish I had a magic bullet-- a simple, clear sound bite that would convince folks that this sort of work is important. I’d be thrilled if someone criticized my work by claiming that it is insufficient, which it is, rather than irrelevant because there’s no evidence that the swamp metalmark butterfly might contain a wonder cure for cancer. Unfortunately, I’m coming up empty. Like so many things today, the realities of conservation are more complex and difficult than many would like it to be. I wish it were otherwise. But it’s not.


Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Camp Mesa

It was time to leave Camp Desolation. Our plan for the day was a short hike over to Mesa Lake where we hoped to set up a new camp. As we broke camp and descended to the shore of Desolation Lake, we were able to look up at the high country that we had been visiting the day before. It already looked very remote.

The shores of Desolation Lake

Looking back at the Sierra crest.
The first notch that we visited is just left of center (kinda like us).

If I have one complaint about this trip, it was the early onset of autumn. On previous trip, we have seen lots of blooming plants and butterflies into mid September. There was very little snow pack last winter, and they have had a drought over the summer, and I believe that this contributed to an early end to the growing season. There were a few flowers still in bloom, but really very few. The whole time we were above treeline, I saw only a handful of butterflies during the entire trip. This is my first visit to the high country since I have developed entomological interests beyond butterflies. I have no idea if the other insect groups were similarly depressed. We did see lots of grasshoppers, but limited species diversity.

Beautiful but autumnal scenery

Blue gentian

Blooming lupine. Usually we see thousands in bloom. This year there were dozens.

Bee on buckwheat

Still, the scenery made up for this. Mesa Lake is a beautiful, roughly cross-shaped lake. Like Desolation Lake, it has a beach. I actually did go to the beach one afternoon. I did not go swimming, nor did I really go sunbathing (I wasn’t about to expose more skin than I needed to in the thin air and High UV intensity at 11,200 feet). Still, it was fun to sit in the sand and watch the world go by for a bit.

Mesa Lake

On Mesa Beach. Pass the tanning butter.

We stopped for lunch about 150 feet from the lake. Out initial plan was to set up camp there, but we soon discovered that the entire area was a seepage slope and large areas of the ground were saturated with water. We found another site further uphill, and nestled in the first scrubby trees that we had seen in several days.

Square Lake living up to its name.

Fairy Shrimp

Sparkly Caddisfly

What's in there? Checking out the aquatic biologists' cache of equipment.

We stayed two nights at Camp Mesa. On our second day there, we took a day hike past Square Lake to a ridge overlooking Know Lake and Knob Peak. Square Lake was fun because, like Mesa Lake, it had lots of invertebrates in it. We say fairy shrimp, tiny diving beetles and lots of caddisflies. The caddisflies all incorporated a lot of mica flakes into their cases, which were very sparkly. We discovered that we were not the only ones interested in the aquatic biology. About 50 feet above our campsite, Leon discovered a cache with a couple of large plastic bins in it. We peeked inside; they contained seine nets, wet suits and the like. We left a business card in the cache- we’ll see if any of the aquatic biologists working there decide to contact us.

Looking west at Knob Lake and Knob Peak

Mt. Humphreys and the high country of Humphreys Basin

The view down to Knob Lake looks into a lower-elevation region where the forest begins thickening again. We did not go down there, but it was interesting to see the valley begin to take on characteristics of the western Sierras. The rise that we were on also offered some of the best views of Humphreys Basin as a whole. We could even see over to Muriel Lake- our goal for the next day, and the last place that we would camp before hiking back out to civilization.

Sunset from Camp Mesa

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Exxtreme Entomology

Today's first goal:
The notch in the crest

The third day of a backpacking week is often one of the most fun. The body has begun to adjust to both altitude and pack. By this time, the party is well into the wilderness, and the opportunity presents itself to leave camp assembled, ditch the backpacks in favor of a day pack, and do a day hike from camp. This year, the day hike provided some of the best entomology of the trip.

Desolation Lake

Camp Desolation

Out trip would lead us from Camp Desolation, above the shores of Desolation Lake, up to the crest of the Sierras on the north slopes of Mt. Humphreys. The goal was to peek through several of the numerous notched in the crest and have a look down the east slope and into Owens Valley.

Long-lipped Tiger Beetle
Cicindela longilabris perviridis

The breezy day began with great insects almost immediately. About a quarter of a mile uphill from camp we began encounering tiger beetles. It was so breezy that it was possible to creep up on them and take photographs. They are long-lipped tiger beetles (Cicindela longilabris), and the green form us characteristic of high elevations in the Sierras and Cascades. I had been hoping to see it on this trip, and we encountered dozens.

Circotettix maculatus

Orange-winged Grasshopper
Cratypedes neglectus? C.
laeteritus? Something else?

We had been seeing lots of grasshoppers on the trip, and I was able to collect three nice species of band-winged grasshoppers on the climb up to the crest. The most common was Circotettix maculatus. It has black wings and a noisy snapping and crackling flight. My grasshopper guide book describes it as being characteristic of high elevations in California. The second two species are not yet fully identified. One has beautiful orange wings when it flies. It has some characteristics of Cratypedes laeteritus and some characteristics of C. neglectus. I’m not sure what to make of it at the moment. The third species has lemon yellow hindwings and beautiful bright blue tibiae. I haven’t yet tried to identify it. UPDATE: The orange-winged grasshopper is Cratypedes neglectus. The one with yellow hindwings and blue tibiae is Trimerotropis verruculata.

The boulder field

Desolation Beach
Dude, surf's up! (It was very windy by now)

The trail to the crest follows a relatively gentle rise to a boulder-strewn flat area. With increased elevation, better and better views of Humphreys Basin come into view. We were surprised to see a sandy beach on the north shore of Desolattion Lake. Anybody wishing to go to the beach at over 11,000 feet can find the perfect spot there.

Leon on the final push to the first notch

The view into Owens Valley
You would never know from this picture that the wind was about 50 mph here.

Vertical elements and the view eastward

Once the boulder field is traversed, the hard part begins: a very steep climb up a sandy incline to the crest. In our case, the final climb was made more interesting by a strong wind that got more intense the higher we climbed. When we reached the first notch, the wind was blowing at somewhere between 50 and 60 mph.

A particularly rugged peak in the eastern Sierras

The views east from the crest were unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. What my photos can’t convey is the magnitude of the sheer dropoff into the canyons below. Owens Valley is visible in the distance, and the White Mountains beyond that. I have never before felt such a sense of standing on the edge of the world.

Upper Horton Lake
This photo does not capture how dramatic the dropoff is here.
Drop a stone over the edge and the first bounce is about 1,000 feet below.

Interesting stone formation on the ridgeline.
OK, stop it all of you, right now!

We continued north along the ridge until we came to the north edge of Humphreys Basin. From there we were able to peer northward over another divide and see the canyons and lakes of French Creek Valley. The walk home involved crossing more boulder fields than would have been preferable, but the effort was worthwhile. For me, this was the most rewarding day of the trip.

Looking north into French Creek Valley

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Humphreys Basin

The trailhead and a glimpse of things to come

The plan for the backpacking trip- which we actually adhered to- called for us to hike from North Lake, over Piute Pass and into Humphreys Basin, where we would spend the bulk of the week. The trail begins in a beautiful alpine pine forest, and leads relentlessly upwards. For about the first hour of hiking, there is not a lot of opportunity for photographing sweeping vistas, as the trail leads through fairly dense woods. As the day wore on, the trees thinned out, and breathtaking mountains came into view. Emphasis on breathtaking- but more about that later.

A rockfall provides a break in the trees and a view of the mountains

We stopped for lunch at Loch Levin, the first of many alpine lakes that we would encounter over the course of the trip. Trail lunches are always a treat on these trips. They typically feature tinned fish (sardines in Dijon mustard are my favorite), crackers, hard cheese, gorp, and jam- in this case Scuff Productions homemade raspberry- in a tube. The diverse foods combined with the expansive scenery always make lunch feel like a sumptuous banquet to me.

Loch Levin, and a break for lunch

As the day wore on, the exertion got more strenuous. Several features conspire to make the first day of these trips particularly taxing. Almost none of the food has yet been consumed, so the backpacks are at their heaviest. The body has settled into neither the physical effort nor the elevation. Even the geography makes things challenging: it’s the nature of the Sierras that the east slope is much steeper and more rugged than the west, and we always choose to ascend from the east. Of course, the steepness makes this approach both more rugged and more beautiful, so it’s ultimately worth the effort.

Late afternoon above treeline

Still, the effort was there, and by the time we actually reached Piute Pass, I was wiped. I was also feeling a touch of altitude sickness. Ron had wanted to climb up another rise just beyond the pass. I couldn’t do it (who knew how out of shape I really was? Ron usually has trouble keeping up with me). We set up camp much closer to the pass and called it a day.

Piute Pass and our first glimpse into Humphreys Basin

Sunset from out first campsite

On Monday, we woke to sunshine, but experienced the worst weather of the trip. In this case, worst weather means that it clouded up for about an hour and a half in late morning, and even sprinkled a few raindrops and ice pellets on us for about 15 minutes. Then the sun came back out. Yes, the weather on the trip as a whole was that good.

Early monring in camp.
Looking upslope towards the pass and the ridge that we would ascend.

Early morning in camp. Looking downslope towards Summit Lake.

We climbed the rise that Ron had wanted to ascend the day before and explored the Humphreys Lakes. I also started encountering lots of grasshoppers. I’m still curating them, but I collected at least four species of grasshoppers on this particular trip. Many had beautifully colored banded wings when they flew.

From the ridgetop looking back towards camp (middle left).
Summit Lake (foreground) and Muriel Lake (background).

Alpine Gentian (Gentiana newberryi)

Grasshopper Collector near Humphreys Lake

The Mighty Mt. Humphreys

Our travels Monday took us to a bit of land between Forsaken and Desolation Lakes. These names make the scenery sound quite grim, but in reality it had an amazing untamed wildness about it. It felt wild and lonely. We ate dinner beneath the alpenglow on Mt. Humphreys, a peak that would loom over us for the rest of the trip.


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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Media Madness - Update

Last night's broadcast on the Monarch migration went well. You can see a video of the broadcast here.


Monday, September 10, 2007

On the Plane for Reno

The backpack to the Sierras is over. It was grueling, exhilarating, and wonderful. Our itinerary was a bit different from previous trips. We have typically flown into San Jose where our hiking buddy Ron used to live. Since our last trip Ron and his wife Sharol have moved to the Olympic Peninsula of Washington- a much less convenient point of departure for the trip. So this year, we all convened in Reno on the Friday before Labor Day, rented a car, and headed off for the mountains.

Crossidius ater

The trip got off to a fine start. The plan was to drive down to Lee Vining where we would get our wilderness permit. We had a minor problem with the car and had to pull over briefly. While Ron and Leon looked at the car, I checked out the Rabbitbrush on the side of the road and promptly collected a fine specimen of longhorn beetle (Crossidius ater). It seemed a good omen. We arrived in Lee Vining to find that permits for hiking the next day had all been issued. We headed off for some nice views of Mono Lake, grabbed dinner and a motel room, and planned to go back the next morning.

Mono Lake

Saturday morning we got a permit that would allow us to begin a seven-day hike into Humphreys Basin via Piute Pass. Since we had the rest of Saturday to hang out, we visited the gold-mining ghost town at Bodie State Park. The town was a fascinating slice of the old West. It is deliberately being kept in a state of "arrested decay." We took a guided tour of the stamp mill (the facility where gold was extracted from the ore), a testament to the dangers of unregulated capitalism if ever I have seen one. The town’s architecture was like something straight out of a spaghetti western. I especially liked the graveyard.

The ghost town at Bodie

Old mining equipment

Arrested decay

The stamp mill

Weeping angel grave stone

We took the back road back into Lee Vining, and I did some fairly unproductive collecting along the way. We then drove south to June Lake, a woodsy town in the lower west slopes of the Sierras. We spent the night in a motel that caters to the fishing crowd, and had a wonderful dinner at a restaurant called the Eagle’s Roost. Appropriately for our last night of fresh produce for a week, the Cesar salad was superb there.

On Sunday Morning we were up early, breakfasted in June Lake, and went on to Bishop where we drove up to North Lake at about 9,300 feet to begin our hike. The day was sunny and warm (hot in Bishop). By mid afternoon, we would exceed 11,000 feet, an elevation that we would not go below again until the following Saturday.

The high country that awaits us

To be continued: The (ugh. My aching back. My feet hurt. I can’t breathe) first day of hiking.

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