Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Nighthawk (at last!)

Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor)
Image from

I start to scan the evening skies at the end of August each year for the first migrating Common Nighthawks (Chordeiles minor) patrolling for aerial insects over the fields and meadows of my local natural area--so far to no avail. Now that it's the last third of September, I'd all but given up hope of seeing them this year. I figured that I had either missed them, or that the population had gotten so small that they simply weren't to be seen, since the species is in severe decline (likely for lack of appropriate undisturbed nesting habitat).

Then, on a lark (so to speak), I decided to take a walk just before dark last evening. The sky was mostly cloudy, though the clouds weren't so thick that a gauzy crescent moon couldn't shine through in the southwestern sky. A neighbor of the natural area was finishing-up mowing his lawn in the growing gloom, and over his yard there appeared a Common Nighthawk, undoubtedly taking advantage of the insects sent skyward by the lawnmower. This sighting was about three weeks later than I usually see these birds.

A colleague of mine, playing Frisbee golf in an urban park last weekend, reported seeing five Common Nighthawks cruising over the park. Now I know they're just migrating a little later than I am used to seeing them, not that they've disappeared altogether.

During the remainder of my walk, I noticed that there were still plenty of fireflies to be found, mostly in the lower, damper portions of the natural area. A large amphitheater of a wet meadow near the natural area parking lot offers the very best firefly show in the area each year, but the fireflies have been absent from that meadow for weeks. I was surprised to see them so abundant in other parts of the preserve.

When I got to work this morning, a colleague asked if I'd gone for a walk in the natural area last evening. When I told him that I had, he said that he'd gone for a walk, too, and had been surprised by the fireflies, just as I had. He thought that the last time he recalled seeing a firefly was the end of August. A wondrous event.

The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

From the blurb on the back cover:
The Professor and the Madman, masterfully researched and eloquently written, is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary--and literary history. The compilation of the OED, begun in 1857, was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, discovered that one man, Dr. W. C. Minor, had submitted more than 10,000. When the committee insisted on honoring Minor, a shocking truth came to light: Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at a British asylum for the criminally insane.
This was a compelling page-turner. But, it was also over-long, overwrought, and laden with purple prose and sesquipedalians (look it up!). I wish that I'd had a copy of the OED on my nightstand as I read the book, but even the two-volume condensed version of the OED (with a magnifying glass) weighs 25 pounds and won't fit on my nightstand!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

This I Believe

My local public radio station has been soliciting personal essays from its members, asking them to express the values that give meaning to their lives. Here's mine; I don't think it will get on the air.

Generally, I’m unhappy, and have been since 2003. I think that I had a bit of a revelation about why I’m blue (at least in part) last week while I was showering in the morning. It just "came to me" that I'm unhappy because I'm waiting for my life to start and (1) I doubt that it ever will, and (2) I'm getting pretty old to begin my life. I know this concept of "waiting for my life to start" needs an explanation. What I mean is that I'd like my life to have some time for me to pursue some of my interests, but nearly every waking moment of my life is committed. I'm not kidding. Of course, I'm fully committed at work (usually overcommitted, so I don't accomplish things at work that I'd like to accomplish, either, so that's no source of satisfaction), and my life at home is fully committed--something as simple as sitting down and reading a magazine article in one sitting is a real luxury in which I hardly ever (never?) get to indulge. So, when my life "starts," I'll have some time to read a magazine article, work in the garden, maybe write a bit, and ride my bike. Right now, I just shoehorn these pleasures into my life when I can sneak the time. For example, I read magazine articles just before I fall asleep while my wife is getting ready for bed; it usually takes me 4-5 nights to finish one article. My life's going to be over before it ever begins, and it's discouraging and depressing.

More thoughts.

I think that the second greatest factor contributing to my general down mood is my overwhelming impression that life, ultimately, really has no purpose. This feeling came over me most strongly a few years ago when I was riding my bike along a rural rail-to-trail conversion in eastern Pennsylvania's Lehigh Gorge State Park. The entire Lehigh River, at one time, was little more than a series of pools backed up behind stone dams that allowed miners to barge coal down to Jim Thorpe (then known as Mauch Chunk). The remains of the stonework are everywhere alongside the trail, and some of the ruins are massive. I thought about all those men and animals working all that time to build this huge and complicate navigation system, and in a little over a century, there's nothing to show for their labor except for some useless blocks in the river. What's the point?

99.99% of people and their work are forgotten soon after they're dead, and the majority of the remaining 0.01% are forgotten just a little bit later. So, why the hell are we scurrying around acting like anything we do is important?

Of course, this sort of thinking suggests that we should all be as hedonistic and selfish as we possibly can, since there's no point to life except our current pleasure. Part of my problem is that I can't reconcile that logical outcome with my personality, which is focused on frugality, restraint, and the long-range perspective. Maybe the conflict between what I should be doing logically and the way I feel like I ought to behave contributes to my feelings of depression and hopelessness.

Final thoughts. Certainly, the state of the world contributes to my feelings. I make my life in a career and job intimately related to the environment, and that environment--locally, regionally, and globally--is going to hell.

I remember a quote in the "people making headlines" section of our local newspaper on or about New Year's day this year. Someone asked CNN reporter Anderson Cooper what he thought about the state of the world. Cooper replied that the environment and the world are going to hell, and are going there fast. Anderson Cooper's traveled a whole heck of a lot more than I have, and he's had the chance to see some nightmare places that you and I can only imagine, so I give his assessment some credence.

It's very discouraging to me to devote my life to a cause, when (1) I doubt that I'm making much of a difference, even locally, (2) even what I do locally doesn't amount to a hill of beans considering the global meltdown, and (3) forces over which I have no control will probably completely overwhelm even my puny local efforts. Why even bother?

I often tell my friends I think humans are a scourge on the Earth. Sometimes, they excoriate and rebuke me for that comment. Even when I’m chastised, I still think the planet would be far better off without people.

(Actually, I'll concede that humans have contributed one positive thing to the planet: music.)

Here endeth the sermon.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Chimney Swift Meadows

Late last afternoon (September 20), I went for a walk at my local natural area (where this image was made). Soaring over the fields--and just over these fields, not over any of the other 100 acres of grasses and wildflowers in the preserve--were at least 50 Chimney Swifts (Chaetura pelagica) .

They were soaring, diving and hawking at all levels, from hundreds of feet in the sky, where they appeared as tiny dots, to just above the tops of the grasses. I've never seen such a swift feeding frenzy before; it was amazing.

I know where the swifts are gathering each evening in preparation for their southward migration: an old brick chimney associated with the heating plant of a college about a mile away. Watching the birds disappear into the chimney each evening at dusk is a fantastic spectacle, too.

Monday, September 14, 2009

September Desert Sojurn

Rare riparian area in the Colorado Desert (a subset of the Sonoran Desert) at the Whitewater Preserve, Palm Springs, CA

I had a job interview in the California desert cities (i.e., Palm Springs and environs) last week (September 8-11). It was hot! Each day was 104 degrees--except for Thursday, when it was 113 degrees! I'm not used to those kinds of temperatures, especially since our weather here in the Mid-Atlantic is cooling off nicely now.

Tuesday, September 8, was a travel day (first leg through Dallas-Ft. Worth; second leg DFW to Palm Springs). En route, we flew over Meteor Crater and Sedona in Arizona--my second view of both this year. I had my first set of interviews over pizza on Tuesday evening, and another set on Wednesday morning. Everything seemed to go well, but potential employers generally play with a real poker face, so I don't know how well I was received. No word yet.

The next day (Thursday, September 10), my brother-in-law rode his motorcycle over to Palm Springs from his home in San Diego and, together, we drove the Pines to Palms National Scenic Byway through and around the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, where these images were made.

Pines to Palms Scenic Byway (CA Rte. 74), just outside Palm Desert, CA. All of the green area in the Coachella Valley in the midground of the image is irrigated residential land and golf courses. The Coachella Valley receives less than one inch of rain per year; the Colorado River makes up the difference to keep the lawns, shrubs, and golf courses (all 130 of them) green. Scandalous waste!

Mt. San Jacinto (10, 834 feet; the tallest bump in the right third of the image) is the high point of the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument. The mountain rises straight up out of the desert behind Palm Springs. This view is from the west (opposite from Palm Springs), taken in the pinyon pine-juniper vegetation zone at about 6,000 feet in elevation.

Lake Fulmor in the San Bernardino National Forest. Despite its placid appearance, the lake (a pond, really) is choked with algae and the ground around the lake has been beaten to dust by thousands of fishers and picnickers.

When we came down out of the mountains and back onto the valley floor, we stopped at the Whitewater Preserve just off I-10. Formerly a private recreation area in which people paid to fish for trout in artificial pools watered by the Whitewater River, the facility has been purchased by a conservancy and converted into the Whitewater Preserve. The pools (and the trout) remain in place.

From the preserve's parking lot, it is possible to walk a 0.5-mile trail to join the Pacific Crest Trail. My brother-in-law and I hiked across the desert and the Whitewater River riparian corridor despite the intense heat. It gave me a new appreciation for what illegal immigrants face when they are dropped off by "coyotes" at the Mexico-Arizona border and attempt to reach civilization across the southern Arizona desert.

Looking northward toward Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail at the base of the San Bernardino Mountains, Whitewater Preserve, Palm Springs, CA.

My brother-in-law alongside the Pacific Crest Trail.

Whitewater River draining southeast from the San Bernardino Mountains at Palm Springs, CA. A few miles downstream, the river disappears into the gravel in its streambed.

My most interesting sighting while I was in the desert: roadrunners. I've seen Roadrunners (Geococcyx californianus) before in Arizona, but in California I saw them under what I considered fairly unusual circumstances. My hotel was next to a park with lots of grassy fields (more irrigation!). On Wednesday morning, I saw two of the birds searching for food in the park, right next to the driveway. Even better, the next morning, I was reading the newspaper on my ground-floor patio at my hotel, and one of the birds walked up to within 15 feet of my chair, stopped, raised its tail, and then walked on. It repeated this behavior twice more before it disappeared around the corner of the building.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Dogwood Silhoutte / Power Lunch

We've had perfect weather here in the Mid-Atlantic for the last three days: afternoon temperatures in the mid-70s, low humidity, a breeze, and cloudless skies--San Diego weather!

On my way back from a lunch meeting today, I caught a glimpse through a "window" in a grove of evergreens of a flowering dogwood tree (Cornus florida). The dogwood was backlit and glowed green and gold with almost an inner light. My image doesn't do it justice--the scene was far more dramatic and striking--but this will have to do. I made two dozen images, and this was the best at capturing the glory of a glorious day.

I imagine that everyone's had the feeling of being a bit disembodied, floating above their body and looking down on the whole scene. That just happened to me today at lunch. A colleague invited me out to lunch to introduce me to a new acquaintance with whom I likely will interact frequently in the future. My colleague is a no-nonsense, hardnosed guy who doesn't put up with much foolishness, plus something came up at the last minute so his time for lunch was constrained. The three of us starting talking, ordered our meals very quickly, and yammered non-stop through lunch. That's when I sort of felt disembodied--I found myself talking confidently and professionally to the new guy, but all the while I felt like "who's this 'fraud' inhabiting my body?" I guess I need to develop some more self-confidence.