Sunday, January 31, 2010

Also sprach Zarathustra - Montana

In my mind - not all that long ago - the Dakota's were at the top of the Earth. Maybe I was just cartographically challenged, but it wasn't until I made a work trip to the Agriculture Canada research station at Beaverlodge in northern Alberta's Peace River region and looked at an airline route map after flying from Salt Lake City to Calgary to Edmonton to Grand Prairie and then realized that my "Top of the World" was actually half way to the Gulf of Mexico from there.

Jump forward to a year-and-half ago when I was visiting a research group in Sidney, Montana and saw some of the upper reaches of the Missouri River and the surrounding farmland that was once long grass prairie where ancient Pleistocene megafauna such as giraffe and horse, as well as giant short-faced bear and mammoth once roamed, and Bison bison and some brown bear then and now still do - the places where Native peoples, Lewis and Clark, fur traders, Cavalry soldiers, drovers, and Teddy Roosevelt came and went. The only images that still exist other than the land itself, are paintings like this one that hang in the the MonDak Heritage Center and Art Gallery - showing the landscape near the confluence where the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers meet, and where the buffalo once roamed and wolves watched (1).

Long-gone are the endless seas of mixed grasses with rhyming names:

Pseudoroegneria spicata
Festuca idahoensis
Bouteloua gracilis
and Hesperostipa comata

Bromus marginatus

Bouteloua curtipendula
Nassella viridula
and Elymus lanceolatus

and the grasses whose names rhyme less - though no less poetic - and which are also now only island patches surrounded by an ocean landscape of farmland:

Poa ampla
and P. secunda
Achnatherum hymenoides
and Andropogon gerardii

Schizachyrium scoparium
Panicum virgatum
and Pascopyrum smithii

Replaced now by coal mines with piles of spent shale and farms with waving sheaths of wheat - and new pioneers with dreams of Camelina fields. Yellow-flowered oil seed crops growing above oil wells - a short step from being changed through chemical engineering into JP-5 or JP-8 jet fuel or F-76 marine diesel, fueling newer kinds of prairie schooners that sail the seas of air overhead or the waters of the bounding main below - a promise of a renewable future for these lonely prairies - a new kind of home on the range, up in the big sky as well as down in the dark brown earth of this high plains place.

Home on the Range, Anonymous

There's a land in the West where nature is blessed
With a beauty so vast and austere,
And though you have flown off to cities unknown,
Your memories bring you back here.

Home, home on the range
Where the deer and the antelope play.
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day.

Where the air is so pure, the zephyrs so free,
The breezes so balmy and light,
That I would not exchange my home on the range
For all of the cities so bright.

How often at night when the heavens are bright
By the rivers were sweet grasses grew
Where the bison was found on the great hunting ground
And fed all the nations of Sioux.

The canyons and buttes like old twisted roots
And the sandstone of ancient stream beds
In the sunset they rise to dazzle our eyes
With their lavenders, yellows, and reds.

Oh, give me a land where the bright diamond sand
Flows leisurely down to the stream;
Where the graceful white swan goes gliding along
Like a maid in a heavenly dream.

When it comes my time to leave this world behind
And fly off to regions unknown
Please lay my remains on the great plains,
Out in my sweet prairie home.

Home, home on the plains
Here in the grass we will lie
When our day's work is done by he light of the sun
As it sets in the blue prairie sky.

Navy Launches Green Hornet
By Greg Grant Wednesday, October 14th, 2009 3:26 pm
DoD Buzz - Online Defense and Acquisition Journal

The Navy intends to deploy an energy efficient “Great Green Fleet” carrier strike group consisting of ships powered either by nuclear energy or biofuels with an attached air wing of fighter jets fueled entirely by biofuels. The “green” strike group was part of an ambitious energy efficient agenda that will include a radical restructuring of the way the Navy and Marine Corps awards industry contracts, laid out today by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, at the Naval Energy Forum in McLean, Va (2).

The Navy conducted the initial tests yesterday of a biofuel powered engine for a new F/​A-​​18 “Green Hornet,” Mabus said. He vowed the new plane would fly within three years. Hybrid electric power systems using biofuels will power the sensors, weapons and other electronic systems onboard the green strike group’s surface combatants. The strike group will demonstrate local operations by 2012 and will be fully operational by 2016.

Mabus said the Navy and Marine Corps intend to reshape their approach to awarding shipbuilding and weapons contracts to favor companies that provide the most energy efficient products. From now on, he said, lifetime energy consumption costs and the “fully burdened cost of fueling and powering” all ships, planes, weapons and buildings will be a “mandatory evaluation factor” used in awarding contracts.

“We’re going to hold industry contractually accountable for meeting energy targets and system efficiency requirements,” Mabus said. “We’ll also use the overall energy efficiency and the energy footprint of a competing company as an additional factor in acquisition decisions.” All new surface combatants will be built from the ground up with energy efficient systems installed, he said.

The Navy also plans to convert its fleet of 50,000 commercial vehicles at its many bases to electric and hybrid power by 2015. By 2020, half of all the service’s shore-​​based installation energy use will be powered by alternative fuels as well as solar, wind and geothermal sources. While readily acknowledging that biofuel prices are high, Mabus said prices will go down as biofuel production increases and that the military’s shift to greater biofuel use will incentivize more biofuel production.

Improvements to the traditionally fueled F/​A-​​18 engines will increase the fuel efficiency of each aircraft by three percent, Mabus said. Those improvements will not only allow the planes to fly further on the same tank of fuel but could potentially save 127,000 barrels of fuel per plane per year.

While Mabus said the Navy and Marine Corps have an obligation to do something today to reduce their impact on the environment, the Navy is particularly mindful of rising fuel costs as oil prices climb above $70 a barrel. To fill the 450,000 gallon fuel tank on the Navy’s DDG-​​51 destroyer today costs $643,000, said RADM Phillip Cullom, who heads the service’s Task Force Energy. That’s an improvement over last summer’s $1.8 million cost to fill the destroyer’s tanks when oil prices soared above $100 per barrel.

Additional fleet-​​wide energy saving initiatives include tests of a new anti-​​fouling coating to be applied to ship’s hulls and the installation of stern flaps on amphibious ships intended to increase fuel efficiency, Mabus said.

(1) The MonDak is that area shared by Montana and North Dakota at the top of the center of the United States. There is a ghost town named Mondak in Roosevelt County that flourished about 1903-1919. More details are found at:,_Montana#cite_note-0

(2) This official Navy photograph is remarkable in that the joint naval exercise shown is of two Japanese ships in procession with U.S. ships. This 60 years after the memorial plaque to the USS California shown in the preceding blog entry (Birds of Ford Island - Pearl Harbor).

Monday, January 18, 2010

Birds of Ford Island - Pearl Harbor

With the drop of a hat, I had to schedule a work trip to Hawaii this past week. A quick browse of my birding books at home made it clear that even though Hawaii is a part of the United States, at least from the perspective of Roger Tory Peterson, David Allen Sibley, and the National Geographic Birder's Journal, Hawaii is not a part of North America. So, after catching my flight from Baltimore to Dallas to Honolulu, and meeting up with colleagues at the Hotel lobby for dinner, we made a trip to Barnes and Nobel where I picked out A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Hawai'i - The Main Islands and Offshore Waters by Jim Denny.

My meetings were on Ford Island which is a part of the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor. I have discovered that history and modern function go hand-in-hand on military bases. Each morning when we pulled into the parking lot of the meeting center, we faced a plaque commemorating the resting place of the U.S.S. California that lies just off sea wall. A little further to the right is the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial - much smaller in perspective to the harbor than I expected, and with modern destroyers and cruisers docked in the distance with the U.S.S. Missouri, newly painted, off to the left. I wonder whether the officers, and sailors, and civilians who work here have to force themselves to conscientiously think each day where they are, like I do when I come up out of the Smithsonian Metro stop onto the Capital Mall - into a place of living history.

I had little time to myself the three days in Hawaii, so the only real opportunity I had for viewing and identification was the walks to and from the cafeteria in the Air Museum on the base. What struck me most was how easy it was to notice that there are different birds there, even though there were familiar birds as at home - the House Finch (G), Rock Pigeon (H), and House Sparrow (I). But for what was exotic, a quick review of the Hawaiian bird book indicated were intentional introductions that have greatly influenced the local fauna. The Cattle Egret (D), Saffron Finch (C), Common Myna (E), Red-crested Cardinal (F), and Nutmeg Mannikin (B) are are all firsts for me, but aliens to Hawaii. Being a novice birder, I double checked over two days of quick viewing to try to figure out whether what I was seeing was the uncommon Black-bellied Plover (A) and not the common Pacific Golden Plover - I won't feel comfortable with this identification until I return and have an expert's help. There were others I was not sure of their kind - was that or was that not a Blue-winged Teal, and were those Mourning Doves or Zebra Doves that just flew by? These will remain mysteries for now.

Regardless, there is much more time for birding that needs to be scheduled in for any future trips, at least for the roadside kind. My travel partner from work (1) was pretty accommodating for the little bit of birding I did while he was with me. The only time he protested was when I was about to whip out the binoculars at breakfast one morning while sitting at an open-air restaurant patio overlooking Waikiki Beach - something about some guy might get the wrong impression that I was watching women walk by and not really looking at birds. Well, we didn't really have that much time for me to gaze up in the trees looking for new-to-me tropical discoveries. Maybe next trip I will be able to see the "real" Hawaiian birds - not migrants or aliens, but the ones of only now imagined woodlands and highlands.

(1) Can you tell in the lower photograph of Waikiki Beach which is the flightless bird that migrated to Oahu on an American Airlines flight from Louisiana? Hint, he is the one whose long-sleeved-shirted plumage is distinctive from the native flightless birds of similar kind but with their distinctive floral print plumage.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Sudden Snow

We travel back west every December,
Home for Christmas,
Grown kids and and grand children in their homes,
No house of our own.

Early-morning drive to BWI,
Connecting flights through Midwest cities,
Hoping for good weather,
Eventually landing at PDX.

Whether clouds or not,
There, out the window, when
The plane gets low enough to the ground,
Postage-stamp-sized farm fields come into view.

Subtle brown earth tones where vegetables will grow in summer,
Accented dark and light-green hues of Douglas firs and lichen-covered oaks,
The approach skirts the Columbia River,
Parallel to the runways.

Oregon on this side, Washington the other,
Only minutes earlier Mount Hood was eye level,
Adams, Rainier, and Saint Helens peak above,
Rolling mountains beside and beyond.

No matter how settled we feel in the east,
Living so far away from what is still familiar,
Even without our own house to gather,
This place we still call home.

Hoar frost on trees in the
Willamette Valley, Oregon
It is funny how such simple weather phenomena as hoar frost still catches my attention. I first saw it in Oregon - white edged everything in view - when driving back from California from Christmas, right before New Year 1979. We had driven straight through from Visalia, and it was 13° in Corvallis when we pulled into town around 1:00 AM. Our house was so cold that we could see our breath, and when climbed into bed, our blanket crackled with little lightning bolts. Fortunately the pipes hadn't frozen - we never did that again. The last time I saw hoar frost was in Albany right before New Years. Driving from my daughter's house for some guest supplies, past Waverly Park, everything was tinged in frost - like over 30 years ago - but in the time going and returning from Costco, the white dust was rapidly disappearing - gone like years past.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Enough of College Football, But One More Worth Noting

Talk about fan brutality! Obviously there is no quarter for prisoners when it comes to the Big 12, particularly when their own teams lose. Following is part of a news report from the Columbia (MO) Tribune reporting yesterday's Missouri loss - not the Navy win - of the Tigers to the Midshipmen in the Texas Bowl (1). I love the introductory Discovery Channel metaphor that played off of an "11 hyenas" quote from Head Coach Ken Niumatalolo about Navy defensive team work.

Given the fan comments that followed the report, particularly calling for coaching changes, I suggest the Tribune writer could add another metaphor - this one from the the National Geographic Channel - as a way to respond to the fans comments and for where the University of Missouri administration could look for new coaching staff additions - particularly if there are future games against the Service Academies. From my point-of-view, Cesar Millan the Dog Whisperer could be an effective addition to the staff who would give insights into ways larger and superior mammals can learn to control smallish mammals, such as Chihuahuas from Hell, that swarm and confuse their larger prey before taking control.

Tigers Torn Asunder by Miniature Mids
By Joe Walljasper, Columbia Tribune
December 31, 2009

HOUSTON — The sport of football, as Missouri understands it, involves a lot of 6-foot-5 guys. One 6-5 guy catches a shotgun snap and throws it to another 6-5 guy while five bulky 6-5 guys get in the way of the giants in the opposing uniforms. This is the way it works, no?

Not necessarily.

Navy, with its quaint 260-pound linemen, proved that what is old-fashioned is not obsolete as it sliced the Tigers to ribbons in Thursday’s Texas Bowl.

Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo described his team’s approach as “11 hyenas taking down an elephant.” The Midshipmen’s 35-13 victory certainly had that Discovery Channel vibe, with the Tigers torn apart down by the river while the narrator assured us that this magnificent display of a brutal teamwork was simply the circle of life and no cause for sadness.

Afterward, Missouri’s players seemed more mystified than miffed, as if they couldn’t have solved this riddle in a hundred tries. Those miniature offensive players, all clumped together in the middle of field, firing out of their stances and diving at our knees, what was that all about? That triple-option play — with the quarterback, fullback or slotback capable of carrying the ball depending on what the QB saw — wasn’t it outlawed in the mid-1980s? And how could we be expected to complete our passes when nine defenders were dropped into coverage?

.....Missouri finished its season 8-5, which is not too shabby for a rebuilding year. Eight starters will return on each side of the ball. A star-studded recruiting class full of bigger and better 6-5 athletes waits in the wings.

Everything is rolling on the right track. But it is interesting to note that a team on a completely different track, a team with players who wouldn’t interest Missouri in the slightest, is capable of dominating MU in every conceivable way. There’s more than one way to slay an elephant.

(1) For the full Tribune article, and the fan responses, go to: