The Great Basin

The word, basin, has many different meanings here in the West. The rivers of the Eastern US erode mountains, carving valleys through which water flows to major river systems and then on to the ocean, but in much of the western US the underlying geology has created a different scenario. For the last 20 million years there has been significant stretching and thinning of the Earth’s crust here. As the crust thins, mountain chains are uplifted and the valleys between them drop. Many of us have driven across Nevada on Highway 50. The road goes up one mountain and drops into a valley over and over again. Geologists refer to these mountains as Horsts, German for eagle’s nest. And the valleys are grabens, German for ditch. Most of Nevada and parts of California, Oregon, Idaho, and Arizona is known as the Basin and Range Province.
The last great-unexplored chunk of American territory was that huge piece between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada, south of the Columbia River and north of New Mexico. In 1842 Col. John Fremont was sent by the US government to map that terrain. There was a persistent myth of the Buenaventura River, which was said to flow from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. This of course would be a convenient way for immigrants to get California. As Fremont searched for this critical passageway he found that every single creek and river flowed into an interior drainage. He explored both the Great Salt Lake and the Humboldt sink in Nevada. He soon realized that not only was there no major river but not one flowed into the ocean so he named this huge region the Great Basin.
The largest desert in the United States is the Great Basin Desert. This desert is defined by high elevation, very cold winters, relatively mild summers, precipitation mostly in the winter and finally by the indicator plant–the Great Basin Sagebrush a.k.a. Artemisia tridentata.
So we have three overlapping uses of basin. The Basin and Range Province is geologic, the Great Basin is hydrologic and finally the Great Basin Desert is the botanical.
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Acorn Woodpeckers

Autumn is the time to prepare for the coming winter. And right now I am watching one of my favorite creatures do this- acorn woodpeckers. These birds, like nearly all woodpeckers, are black and white with a splotch of red on their head. They are usually described as having a clown’s face. This, coupled with their raucous laugh, makes them easy to find throughout California and all the way to Arizona.
As their name indicates they are closely associated with oak trees. Extended family groups of them are busy now stocking collective granaries. The birds gather acorns and stuff them into holes they have drilled into the bark of large trees. As the acorns dry out they become too small for the holes and the birds then spend a lot of time rearranging the acorns. Insects sometimes infest the acorns, but for the woodpeckers this is a minor problem. When they revisit the granaries for food they either eat the acorns or feed on the insects that are eating the acorns.
But their unique claim to fame – to quote Walt Koenig, the researcher who studied them for 30 years – is their bizarre sexual behavior. In a granary group there can be up to six males cobreeders with three female cobreeders and six or more non-breeding helpers. The six males are all related, as either brothers or fathers and sons but they compete for sexual access to the three females, who are also related to each other. The females lay eggs all in one nest. After the eggs hatch not only do the breeding males and females help provision the young but the helpers also help. And just who are these helpers? They are the young, both male and female, from previous years. Sure sounds like one big happy family– but not so fast.
But their unique claim to fame – to quote Walt Koenig, the researcher who studied them for 30 years – is their bizarre sexual behavior. In a granary group there can be up to six males cobreeders with three female cobreeders and six or more non-breeding helpers. The six males are all related, as either brothers or fathers and sons but they compete for sexual access to the three females, who are also related to each other. The females lay eggs all in one nest. After the eggs hatch not only do the breeding males and females help provision the young but the helpers also help. And just who are these helpers? They are the young, both male and female, from previous years. Sure sounds like one big happy family– but not so fast.
To prevent incest the non-breeders must leave their family of origin and join another nearby family group. This only happens when a vacancy occurs due to death of a breeder. A pair of same-sex birds from one group fights another pair of same sex birds for dominance and therefore entrance into the new family. These very intense brawls Dr. Koenig calls – Power Struggles. The losers have to return to their natal group as helpers until another opportunity arises. Koenig has also found that joint-nesting females will sometimes destroy each other’s eggs.
Who knew about this ongoing soap opera in the woodpecker world?

Hula Hoop

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Malarkey. This old dog learned a new trick not long ago and I am loving it. A couple of years ago I began training for a climb up Mount Kilimanjaro. Shortly into the process I found a hula-hoop that my brother-in-law had left in our basement–hmmm. I picked it up — it was heavier and a bit larger than the ones of my childhood. I started hooping with it. It was a bit easier than those lightweight ones. I love to dance so soon I was hooping to some rather loud and energetic music.

I had seen flaming hoops at Burning Man and was quite intrigued. So I bought one and began using a flaming hula-hoop. Then I discovered LED hoops. These were fantastic — very flashy and not a fire hazard! I now have about eight Hula-hoops of different varieties. Fortunately for me there are some that break apart and so I can pack them easily for my travels.

I take my hoop everywhere. I have introduced hooping to the Batwa people of Uganda–also known as pygmies. I hooped at Murchison Falls along the Blue Nile, with the Maasai in the bottom of the Ngorongoro Crater. I hooped with Buddhist monks in the kingdom of Bhutan and in front of Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee. Hula hooping brings smiles to everyone’s faces especially when an older guy like me is doing it. And it is a wonderful way to stay in shape.

When it came time to climb Mount Kilimanjaro I took my hula-hoop. This past February I hooped on the on the roof of Africa at 19,340 feet. I checked with the Guinness Book of Records and no one has officially hooped that high. Even the 20-somethings who make up the bulk of hoopers are impressed with that one.

Hoops can be inexpensive and last a lifetime. As instruments of fun and pleasure they have an infectious, universal quality. I can testify to the joy on the faces of children and adults who hula hoop. This Sunday is believe it or not, world hoop day. There are about 200+ events occurring throughout the world including a big one in San Francisco. Hula Hoop for health and for fun – it is never too late to learn something new. Believe me.

Galls

Just imagine the gall of that Gaul to take a large bite out of a gall. These words, which are pronounced the same, are unrelated to one another. A synonym for the first word could be “audacity”; the second is a descendent from those pesky tribes who once irritated the Roman Empire and the final one is a remarkable plant growth created through genetic reengineering.
Most of us are familiar with the large round galls on oak trees – the so-called oak apples. But there are thousands of different kinds of galls. A gall is basically an abnormal growth on a plant. This can result from physical damage–caused by branches rubbing together, or an invasion of mistletoe or bacteria but most are created by the action of insects. An insect lays eggs in the host. The eggs hatch into larva and the larva release a complex porridge of chemicals. These chemicals in turn redirect the growth of the plant’s tissue into an entirely new pattern. The resulting galls are so unique in character that simply the shape of the gall can identify the species of parasitic insect. The gall provides sustenance for the developing larva, which pupates into a winged adult who then eats its way out of the gall and the cycle begins anew.
An extract from galls – Gallic Acid – has been used for centuries to make permanent inks. The US Constitution for example was written with iron gall ink. This chemical has also been used as a dye and medicinally as an antiseptic skin treatment.
Most gall making insects are neutral in their economic impact. However there are two notable exceptions. The first one is positive – members of one gall wasp family are the only pollinators of figs. The negative is the disease that nearly wiped out the entire European grape industry in the late 1800’s – phylloxera – is caused by another gall insect.
California is rich in gall diversity. Next time you are out hiking take a minute to find and appreciate these natural marvels, they are easily seen on oaks and manzanitas.

Near Death Experiences

If you live long enough eventually you may have several near death experiences. At least ones you interpret as near-death. But who knows really? I was in car wreck caused by my friend swerving to miss a possum crossing the road. Our little VW station wagon flipped over and over again– of course we were not wearing seat belts. When we finally stopped I heard Chuck Berry singing Sweet Little 16 from the 8-track tape deck. I was still alive but with a broken sternum and my friend had broken neck. Once off the Canary Islands I got caught in a severe riptide with no one around and barely struggled back to a tiny rock to recoup and then swam as hard as I could back to shore. On Wheeler Peak in Nevada at 13500’ I was caught in a severe electrical storm. Several folks got struck that afternoon. In 1998 four others and I got swept off our paddleboat while going through Crystal Rapid on the Colorado River. Those of you that have done this trip know that Crystal is one rapid you do not want to swim through! I came up under the raft in 48° water, certain it was the end of me. But wonderfully strong hands pulled me safely back onto the raft. Once near the top of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco I was pretty sure some Berbers were going to put an ice ax in my head if I didn’t pay them some money. I once startled three African buffaloes in the darkness that fortunately stampeded away from, not toward, my future wife and me. An aggressive male hippopotamus came charging out of the reeds at our tippy canoe in the Okavango Delta, we got away barely.

The most recent one was just several days ago. I was in northern Tanzania at a fairly nice hotel by the airport waiting for my flight home. I went to shower, turned on the hot water and walked into the stall. I went to adjust the cold-water tap and 220 Volts suddenly went through my right hand as I was standing in water. I could not pull my hand back. Finally – I’m not sure what happened maybe I just fell or I managed to pull my hand away – but at the next moment I was on the floor–alive and very, very angry. Several thoughts went through my head after I realized I wasn’t dead. First thank goodness this did not happen to one of my clients, the second – would this make me frightened to take future showers in Africa? The final thought was – what a stupid way to die. I’d rather fall off a mountain or get stomped by buffalo or snagged by a leopard but not electrocuted in the shower! How boring!

But the lesson is to live life fully. Don’t put off what you really want to do or what you want to say to someone. Life is precious and dangles by the slimmest of threads. Don’t waste it.

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