This Thing Called Courage

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Local Daylily Breeder

From today's Boston Globe

The quest - hybrids that flower longer
By Irene Sege, Globe Staff August 31, 2008
ARLINGTON - Mike Huben spends enough time working with flowers and thinking about flowers and savoring their blooms from February to November that one might think his small plot of earth would win some kind of garden beautiful recognition.
Not so. As dedicated to flora as Huben is, he is more scientist than showman. His primary puzzle? To develop hybrid daylilies that flower for longer than the few short weeks from mid-July to early August that is typical in the Northeast. The 400 daylily varieties and 3,000 seedlings that crowd his yard would certainly grow into fuller and more attractive specimens if he would just give them a little space. He doesn't weed or water with any regularity. The little white tags hanging on strings from many of Huben's plants record parentage but do little to enhance his garden's aesthetics. His one-sixth of an acre gets less sun than daylilies usually prefer.
What the deliberately suboptimal conditions provide is a setting that promotes survival of the hardiest. Since 2001, Huben, a high school math teacher, has named and registered nine varieties of daylilies, of which seven have long blooming seasons. A commercial nursery is evaluating another of his long-blooming hybrids for patent, and if it passes muster it would join a small cadre of patented reblooming daylilies, the most successful of which generate hundreds of thousands of plant sales per season.
"I have things that will bloom 11 weeks in my garden. Much longer in other people's," Huben said. "The reason I'm doing this successfully is I have a terrible garden. Most people fertilize and weed and water. That's the wrong thing to do if you're a plant breeder. If you're a plant breeder the key is selection. I have to give it conditions that deter and it reblooms anyway."
Daylily aficionados often try to create hybrids, whether for color or shape or size or length of blooming season, in part because of what Huben calls the "huge sexual parts even a blind person could deal with" that make cross-pollination so easy there are 62,000 registered day lily varieties. Huben, 53, is one of the few growers in the region concentrating on producing plants that are long-blooming, whether by building new buds or sprouting new stalks - the only ways to lengthen the blooming season of a plant whose individual flowers, as its name attests, last one day.
This year Harmon Hill Farm in Hudson, N.H., started including Huben's hybrids in its inventory of 900 varieties of daylily. Huben is a longtime member of the New England Daylily Society. He provides instruction to judges in botanical contests, acts as auctioneer at Society plant sales, and generally serves as what Harmon Hill owner Carl Harmon calls "a great ambassador for the daylily."
"There are very few people in this area who are hybridizing to start early and go all season. Around here that would be Mike," said Society treasurer Jocelyn Spragg. "He's pretty well known for his hybridizing goals."
The queen of long-blooming daylilies is top-selling Stella De Oro, which produces golden yellow flowers on and off from mid-June to the first frost. Yet 33 years after it was introduced, many daylily fans seek long bloomers of different colors that thrive in this climate. "A lot of people are a little tired of it," Spragg said.
In promoting his first registered hybrid, "Early and Often," an award-winning daylily with pale peach flowers that he introduced in 2001, Huben boasts on his website, "At last: a northern rebloomer that isn't yellow or gold." Of "Snowy Stella," introduced in 2007, he proclaims, "At last, Stella De Oro's rebloom is available in a near-white." Huben's ultimate goal is a long-blooming daylily with pure white flowers. He is so focused on this quest that he almost didn't introduce this year's entrant, "Vanilla Gorilla," which has cascading pale yellow flowers but doesn't rebloom.
"He's not known for super-fancy daylilies. He's interested in plants that rebloom. The ones that rebloom are not as fancy, but they're great garden plants," said Harmon. "His Early and Often blooms from early June to frost. Stella De Oro actually stops for a few periods and rests. Early and Often does not take any breaks. It's one of the backbones of his hybridizing."
One recent overcast afternoon, Huben pulled the stamen, with pollen on its end, from a purple daylily called Ruffles and Lavender and touched it to the stigma of a coral flower called Final Touch. In six weeks he'll have seeds to plant. "Maybe some of the offspring will bud-build more," he said. "Maybe I get something that's better looking than the parents."
Huben's quest requires extraordinary patience. During peak pollinating season, he works six hours a day in his garden. Snowy Stella is the product of four generations of cross-pollination and one decade of Huben's stewardship.
"Each generation takes two years to bloom, and I may not know if I want to use it until the third year. It's a long cycle," Huben said. "A lot of breeders won't make a cross unless they envision an immediate result."
Huben will ultimately reject most of what fills his yard, discarding the daylily that had eight buds, for instance, in favor of a sibling plant with 40. "When I grow 1,000 seedlings maybe I'll keep 20," he said. "I rule out a lot of things because they have too few buds or they don't rebloom . . . Plants that are weak growers don't perform and don't get a second look."
Breeding daylilies is only one of Huben's avocations. His garden is home to 200 other perennials, including a large white red-eyed hibiscus and pale pink phlox on a tower of variegated leaves. His flowering season begins in February with the small pale yellow flowers of winter jasmine and ends in November with lavender spheres of flowers on Japanese chives.
Huben also practices and teaches aikido and runs a website dedicated to critiquing libertarianism. He is fascinated by bugs, particularly mites and wasps that are parasites on cockroach egg cases, and is a member of the 134-year-old Cambridge Entomological Society. He returned from a year of collecting bugs in Ecuador with 7,000 pinned specimens, including a brilliant green scarab beetle, a clear-winged butterfly, and a huge grasshopper that clawed him bloody.
"I'm an all-round nerd," Huben said. "I find it important to switch between hobbies so I don't get bored."
As summer ends, Huben, who changed careers five years ago after a quarter-century in computers, prepares for a new year of teaching math at Boston Latin Academy. He won't have as much time to spend in his garden, but no matter. He plans once again to advise the school's greenhouse club.

Friday, August 29, 2008

McBridges to Nowhere Has Blood on Her Hands

SO IT'S SARAH PALIN as John McCain's Vice President. The Obama Camp has just commented: "McCain put the former mayor of a town of 9000 with zero foreign policy experience a heartbeat away from the presidency." And that is, indeed, a sobering thought. But one thing about Ms. Palin hasn't been mentioned, in my perusal of the politcal blogs since-- and that is her barbarous and reprehensible support-- her insistence, one could call it-- on the aerial hunting of wolves in her corruption-riddled home state-- one feather in a dismal cap of anti-environmentalism.

This is how it's worked, for the past five years: people who delight in the killing of things (many of them fat white rethug males, one would imagine) hightail it up to Alaska for this delightful pasttime. They board a small plane, with like-minded souls, and go out looking for wolves. Once a family group is found, they are harrassed out into the open, then shot from on high-- adults, juveniles, and pups. Sometimes they miss, of course, and wounded and bleeding pups are left to limp off into the wilderness, where they'll die a slow and solitary death. On other occasions-- this is for the really ballsy guys-- once the group is found, and chased out into the open, they're pursued for hours, to the point of utter exhaustion. Then the plane or helicopter lands, the men get out, and the wolves are executed at point-blank range, with a bullet to the head.

Nice, huh?

A group of environmentalists, and people with even a shread of human decency (dismissed as 'out-of-state tree-huggers' by the powers that be in Alaska) led by the Defenders of Wildlife, who have worked tirelessly to end this slaughter) managed to get an initiative on the ballot, for this past Tuesday's State of Alaska primary elections. (Twice in the past, Alaskans have voted to ban aerial hunting-- both times the governor and legislature, fueled by the the hunting lobby, overrode that mandate.)

Thsi year, Palin and the pro-hunting lobby, led by Safari Club International (no, not that Safari Club, or dubious Boston fame) sprang into action, and launched a massive ad campaign of the usual disingenuous obfuscation, saturating the air waves with their lies. Palin spent $400,000 of Alaskan's taxpayer money to help defeat the initiative-- when, again, twice Alaskans had said NO to aerial hunting. The last thing this country needs is another blockhead, more committed to big interests and lobbying groups than the will of the people.

As Obama said, America can do better. But can't we do better as a species as well? How is it possible that such a barbaric practice is deemed as sport?

Defenders of Wildlife has just released its reaction to Palin's appoitment, and it follows-- please help get the word out, as this issue is not be covered elsewhere.

Shocking Choice by John McCain

WASHINGTON-- Senator John McCain just announced his choice for running mate: Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska. To follow is a statement by Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund.“Senator McCain’s choice for a running mate is beyond belief. By choosing Sarah Palin, McCain has clearly made a decision to continue the Bush legacy of destructive environmental policies.“Sarah Palin, whose husband works for BP (formerly British Petroleum), has repeatedly put special interests first when it comes to the environment. In her scant two years as governor, she has lobbied aggressively to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, pushed for more drilling off of Alaska’s coasts, and put special interests above science. Ms. Palin has made it clear through her actions that she is unwilling to do even as much as the Bush administration to address the impacts of global warming. Her most recent effort has been to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove the polar bear from the endangered species list, putting Big Oil before sound science. As unbelievable as this may sound, this actually puts her to the right of the Bush administration. “This is Senator McCain’s first significant choice in building his executive team and it’s a bad one. It has to raise serious doubts in the minds of voters about John McCain’s commitment to conservation, to addressing the impacts of global warming and to ensuring our country ends its dependency on oil.”

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Rara Avis on Cape Cod

This is from today's Boston Globe. I was going to post about police brutality in Denver-- but there are other places to go to read about that, and not too many places where one can go to read about the unexpected appearance of beauty. So...and interesting, and wonderful, to note that tonight, when Obama accepts the nomination for president from the Democratic Party, and gives his speech in front of 75,000 people, it's the anniversary of Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' speech. Who could argue that we won't be seeing the realization of part of Martin's dream this evening? As someone put it recently, "Rosa sat down so we could stand up so Martin could march so Jesse could run so Obama could win." Amen.

Humdinger of a find
Rara Avis Appears on Cape

By Stephanie Ebbert, Globe Staff August 28, 2008
Sandra and Charles McGibbon, backyard birders, were having dinner on a deck in Dennis when their friends told them to keep their eyes peeled for a hummingbird. It wasn't the ruby-throated hummingbird typically seen on the Cape. They thought it was something special.
Little did they know.
The broad-billed hummingbird was a first-time visitor to Massachusetts and only the second ever spotted in New England. While it may be enjoying a summer on the Cape, it actually belongs somewhere in Arizona.
"My husband and I knew it was something very different," Sandra McGibbon said by phone. "So we came home that night and got on the computer and identified it as best we could."
The discovery of the brilliant adult male hummingbird touched off a birding frenzy this week in Dennis. Visitors from around Massachusetts - and one couple from West Virginia - came for a peek at the hummingbird in Ron and Marjorie Murphy's backyard.
"We're just having fun with it," said Marjorie Murphy, 66, who counted more than 150 signatures on the yellow pad she left outside for visitors. The hummingbird has been accommodating guests, she said, returning for feedings in the morning and evening. A newcomer to bird-watching, Murphy has asked the more seasoned McGibbons - friends who take turns hosting dinner and cribbage every two weeks - because she couldn't find the species in her book of East Coast birds. "There was nothing in there, obviously," she said.
The McGibbons called a master bird bander who documented and banded the bird, and reported the sighting to the Massachusetts Audubon Society, New England Hummers, and, a website sponsored by the New England Birding Journal.
The birders were beside themselves, said Charles McGibbon. "It was like they found the Holy Grail, honest to God," he said.
Then came the inevitable: The bird debuted in its own YouTube video.
The casual observer could be forgiven for concluding that rare bird species have been landing in Massachusetts too often to be called unexpected guests.
The far-fetched visitors here include a red-footed falcon from Africa that stopped over in Martha's Vineyard four years ago and a Ross's gull, native to the Arctic, that entertained birders in Newburyport in 1975. The Massachusetts Avian Records Committee has recorded some 600 sightings of other rare or out-of-range birds that don't belong here.
"Just about anything possible in North America has occurred in Massachusetts or will eventually," said Tom French, assistant director of MassWildlife. The number of out-of-range birds reported in the Bay State stems from the number of birders watching, French said. They never tire of trilling at the unexpected.
"For a lot of people, bird-watching is a game. It's a challenge," said French. " 'What can I find that's unusual next?' And 'If I look hard enough and long enough, I'm going to find something that no one else has.' "
The McGibbons immediately knew they had discovered something uncommon, if not unprecedented, in their friends' backyard. Unlike the ruby-throated hummingbirds found on the Cape, this bird has an iridescent blue throat, a green belly, and a reddish orange bill with a black tip.
After identifying the bird online Saturday night, Charles McGibbon had a hard time sleeping, his wife said. He wished he had gotten a picture. The next morning, they raced back over to take pictures and video and were lucky enough to find the bird was still there.
The Western United States is rich with hummingbirds, some of which wander east. Calliope, Rufous, and black-chinned hummingbirds have all been spotted in Massachusetts. Two years ago, Sandra McGibbon found a Rufous in her garden and had it documented and banded as well.
But usually, McGibbon's yard is home to red-bellied woodpeckers, chickadees, and a Cooper's hawk. She offers grape jelly to the Orioles that summer on the Cape. Each morning, a pair of Carolina wrens comes to her porch and whistles to demand breakfast by 6:30. She hand-feeds them meal worms.
She has spotted migrating birds including an American redstart and a yellow warbler. But she is not a birder who will travel far and wide to spot and list rare birds.
"No," she said. "I travel out to my back feeder."

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Sing for Your Health

This from today's UK Guardian

'The only thing better than singing is more singing," said Ella Fitzgerald. Perhaps such a statement is to be expected from a world-famous artist with an era-defining voice, but she wasn't the only one to wax lyrical on the benefits of a good vocal performance. "He who sings frightens away his ills," said Cervantes. Even John Harvey Kellogg - Mr Cornflakes himself - had this to add in 1931: "Singing promotes health, breathing, circulation and digestion."
Singing might be fun, might be joyful and uplifting, might inspire poetry and paeans. But could it actually be good for you? Oh yes. It seems that Kellogg was on to something.
Singing is also in fashion at the moment. BBC1's Last Choir Standing has taken it on to Saturday-night television, while this month the Sing The Nation project organised a programme of group singing events around the country that culminated in a nationwide singalong on August 24 to mark the Olympic handover from Beijing to London.
Last year, the government announced £40m of funding in the National Singing Programme to get every primary-school pupil singing regularly. And there are, apparently, now more choirs in this country than there are fish and chips shops.
But there is also an increasing interest in the physical, psychological and emotional benefits of singing. In December of this year, the charity Heart Research UK will run a Sing for Your Heart week to raise money and also to highlight the health benefits of singing. And in September the Sidney De Haan Research Centre for Arts and Health at Canterbury Christ Church University will host a conference to explore the role of music and singing in health, social care and community development.
The Sidney De Haan centre undertakes research and provides evidence to support their aim of getting the NHS to provide "singing on prescription". Professor Grenville Hancox, director of music at the university and co-director of the centre, says, "We are convinced that it is a powerful tool. Research we've just done involving international choirs and over 12,000 people identified several particular benefits of regular group singing, including specific examples of people who say it helped them recover from strokes or heart attacks."
The research available on singing identifies some key physical benefits. It exercises major muscle groups in the upper body. It is an aerobic activity that improves the efficiency of your cardiovascular system and encourages you to take more oxygen into your body, leading to increased alertness.
Aerobic activity is linked to stress reduction, longevity and better overall health. Improved airflow in the upper respiratory tract is likely to lessen the opportunity for bacteria to flourish there, countering the symptoms of colds and flu. Singing also aids the development of motor control and coordination, and recent studies have shown that it improves neurological functioning.
But the benefits of singing extend beyond the fizzing of synapses and the whizzing of oxygenated blood cells. "There is an increasing appreciation that the way people feel about themselves is going to have an impact on the budgets of the NHS," says Hancox.
"If people are content they are less likely to encounter physical problems." He points out that feeling better through song is not a new discovery. "There is evidence to suggest that in their infirmaries, monks used to sing to each other as part of the healing process. And other cultures use singing constantly as a means to live."
There is nothing like singing for generating that feelgood factor. "It's almost indescribable," says singer and singing coach Helen Astrid. "It's an incredible endorphin rush. You feel like you've got a spring in your step. You feel like you're being totally true to yourself. It is like making love in a way. You're using your whole body, everything is involved."
But as well as the sheer pleasure of opening your mouth and belting out a tune, there's also evidence to show that singing can have a tangible impact on your sense of wellbeing in a variety of ways. Professor Graham Welch, chairman of music education and head of the school of arts and humanities at the Institute of Education, University of London, says: "There is currently a lot of interest in wellbeing and social inclusion and an increasing interest in how music in various forms can support a sense of being part of society and increase your self-esteem. A great deal of research is being done into music and medicine and how music can ameliorate pain."
Indeed, research published in the Journal of Music Therapy in 2004 suggested that group singing helped people to cope better with chronic pain.
Colette Hiller, director of Sing The Nation, is convinced that singing with other people can help individuals connect to each other, and to their environment. "Think of a football stadium with everyone singing," she says. "There's an excitement, you feel part of it, singing bonds people and always has done. There's a goosebumpy feeling of connection." She cites some research in Italy that demonstrated a link between the vigour of local choirs and the level of civic engagement.
Nikki Slade, who runs chanting and voice-work classes for everyone from City bankers to addicts at The Priory, believes that the benefits of singing are linked to the primacy and power of the human voice - and our basic instinct to use it. "People are naturally free and expressive," she says, "but it's something that has been lost on a day-to-day basis."
You need only watch the evolving behaviour of your friends at a karaoke night - from shy microphone-refuseniks at the start of the night to stage-hogging stars by the end of it - to see that, basically, everybody wants to sing. Though some find it harder than others to take the first steps. Madeleine Lee, a singer/songwriter, singing coach and practitioner of "holistic song therapy" (which uses voice work to help individuals confront insecurities and explore their creativity), says she has worked with clients in their 80s, helping them to finally realise a lifelong urge to sing.
She says, "There is no such thing as not being able to sing. It's the most natural thing, but you can be so conscious of it.
It's a question of unprogramming all those voices that say, 'You can't do that' and 'You can't sing.'"
One of Lee's clients, Jo Finnigan, agrees that singing happily can have powerful implications for the rest of your life. "I could already sing," she says, "but Madeleine helped me not try so hard, to be able to sing effortlessly and openly. It felt much more a part of me and that carried into my life. I felt more confident about being myself."
But it's not only in the realm of holistic medicine and alternative healing that the basic power of singing is acknowledged.
"The point about singing is that it is something we all did when we were born, regardless of colour, creed or anything else," says Hancox. "All the billions of us on the planet sang and for the first nine months of our lives relied on the manipulation of our voice's pitch to meet our basic and fundamental needs."
Advocates of singing lament its diminishing role in our lives: from the days when we sang round the piano in the pub and to pass the working day, to soothe babies and to mark moments of celebration and sorrow. Singing is sacred and everyday, ritualistic and spontaneous. It makes us better, and makes us feel better. And we should all be doing more of it.
"Even if a person does it only once a month, it makes an extraordinary difference," says Hancox. "It's a staggering thing".

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Golden Triangle

THE SUBLIME WEATHER continues here. This is a typical pattern we get into at this time of year-- four or five dry, exquisite days, each one a tad warmer; then a day of showers as a front comes through; then four or five more exqusite days, started off cooler than gradually warming. And such it is now. The front is coming through tomorrow, though right now there isn't a cloud in the sky and since there's no moon, the heavens are star-flung. The crickets are really going to town, everywhere you walk on a night like this, even along Main Street downtown. The other night we did a big walk down by the Mystic Lakes. On the return trip back to the car, it was just dusk, a long, slurring twilight at the backside of the lake-- and I'm not sure I ever heard so many crickets, and in such variety. There was the regular chanting, everywhere-- as well as solitary players on the edges doing their own thing-- but also this other sound, like the shaking of tiny bells, and one could understand how the Native Americans perhaps were inspired to make their rattles. I closed my eyes and listened, letting the sounds envelope me-- and the more I listened the more there was to hear, and the more moved I became. It seemed I was plunging down, down, into an ocean of cricket sound. Really amazing. When I was a boy, we would sometimes spend the night at my grandmother's farm out in Arlington-- yes, Arlington had farms then, especially way up in the hills, where my grandparents had built their house in the 1920's. The apple orchard came right up to the house, and when we slept over in late May, the smell of blossoms coming into the room was like an incantation. Looking out you could nothing-- I mean, really, nothing-- unless the moon was out. Later in the summer when the crickets would really get going, my brohter Bob would complain that they were keeping him awake-- he couldn't sleep with their sound.

"Just pretend," I told him, "that they're saying sleep sleep sleep..."

There is this place I know that I really like going to. It's the side parking lot of the local Whole Foods Store (before that it was a Wild Oats, and before that something else, ad infinitum). It's a very urban area-- a side parking lot, bordered on its back by a very steep incline, which goes up to a railroad bed. Behind the railroad bed, in fact rising up above it, are a number of warehouses, their backs to be specific. One of these warehouses hosts a big four story U-HAUL building, with an old red-brick soaring chimney stack at one end; the next warehouse down is where my gym is, on the bottom floor. We usually stop at the Whole Foods store after going to the gym, where my workout partner and very dearest friend Vonn likes to get a bite to eat. On the edge of the side parking lot, there are three soaring Robinia pseudoacacia, which I call the Three Sisters, or Les Trois Soeurs. They're really very beautiful. There's a hawk, actually a pair of hawks-- red-tail, I believe (one of my totems!) that live here, and I frequently see one, or sometimes both of them, in the trees, or on top of the chimney stack behind them, or on top of the U-HAUL sign. I haven't seen a nest, so perhaps they're still young-- or perhaps the nest is further up the (railroad) line.

I think most people would see this place as rather ratty and unlovely-- certainly unmemorable. After all it's just a side parking lot, and somewhat trashy, and there is a line of old telephone poles and lots of hanging wires running along one side, and several dumpsters, and lots of extraneous trash. But I love it-- I've loved it for years. Perhaps because it's a kind of Golden Triangle, connecting three of my favorite things-- Black Locust trees, hawks, and railroad tracks. But somehow the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I feel very drawn to this place. There is a peace here, a really deep and wonderful energy.

I visited it today on the way back from the gym. It was about four o'clock, and there was a lovely breeze about. The Black Locusts were swaying. And then came the wonderful kerrr of the hawk's cry, from somewhere-- I couldn't see it, but that was okay. And I got to thinking how this was Holy Land to me. And then I got to thinking-- what if there were a religion, where each square foot of the earth was Holy Land, and every person numbered among the Chosen? Now that I could go for. (Picture depicts the 'National Champion' Black Locust, in Wolcott, New York-- magnificent!!!! )

Friday, August 22, 2008

Environmental Pic of the Day

ITALY: August 20, 2008
A volunteer from the Marine Turtle Rescue Center holds a newly hatched sea turtle before the shore on Linosa, a small volcanic island south of Sicily.
About 60 newly hatched sea turtles lost their way during their ritual passage to the sea and marched into an Italian restaurant instead, a conservation worker said on August 18.
The baby turtles -- which ended up under the tables of startled diners at the beachside restaurant -- were probably thrown off track and lured by the eatery's bright lights, said Antonio Colucci, who was called to help rescue the group.
The stranded turtles, which had hatched on a beach in the southern Italian region of Calabria, were released into the sea.
Story by Paulo Siqueira

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Most Beauitiful Night of the Year

WHEN I WAS A LITTLE BOY, many people would come door-to-door, selling their wares: encyclopedias, baked goods, shoes (yes!) hairbrushes, vacuum cleaners, etc-- Here in the Boston area, it is said that the fear of the Boston Strangler actually put many many door-to-door salesmen and businesses out of work-- people, especially single people, were afraid to open the door. 'Night Schools,' too, and Adult Education Centers, saw huge drops in enrollment. Which reminds me of one of the more compelling accounts of that terror time: one day, when the Boston Strangler was still very much at large, a single older woman, 60 or so, who lived alone in an apartment building in Brighton, heard a knock upon her door. Before opening the door, she asked who it was; the man on the other side replied that he was the painter the super had sent up to do a small job in her apartment (this was a line the Boston Strangler used quite a bit, apparently). As fate would have it, this woman was, in fact, expecting a painter to come up and do some work on her apartment 'sometime.' So she opened the door and let him in. Unfortunately it was the Boston Strangler. Once inside, he shut the door behind him-- and then he made some kind of untoward remark of a sexual nature. The woman immediately knew she had made a horrible, probably fatal, mistake; but she was a quick thinker.

"Shhh!" she admonished, raising a finger to her lips.

"What do you mean? Don't you do that to me!" the man replied angrily.
"My husband's sleeping in the other room," the woman whispered, hiking her thumb behind her.

The man left immediately, without another word. Creepy, huh?

But I digress. I was speaking about door-to-door salespeople. Anyway one evening this very large person came to our door. He was selling piano lessons, of all things-- isn't that wonderful? One thing this world needs more of is piano lessons, and, of course, the sellers of piano lessons. Anyway, poor as we were, and living in the projects, my mother was always a sucker for 'cul'cha,' and really sought to expose us to these kinds of things (which my father had no use for). So she signed my brother Bob and I up for piano lessons. On the appointed night we went to the music studio, much to our chagrin. An even larger person, with an Italian accent, was the only one there-- the salesman's brother, maybe. It was a small place. "Oh yes, yes, you've come for your first lessons," he said, rubbing his hands together. "Stay right here. I'll go into the back room and bring out your instruments." I turned to my brother 9I was a little fresh) and said, "Jesus Christ, what's he gonna bring two pianos out on his shoulders?" The thought of this gave us the giggles and we couldn't stop laughing. Anyway out he came a minute later-- carrying two accordians. One of them fell open as he carried it and it vomited out this crazy, funny WAAAAAAAA as it did, which made us laugh even harder.

"My mother's gonna kill you," I said. "We're supposed to be having piano lessons."

"No no, she's a'the same t'ing!' he said. "The keys! The keys!"

"Don't tell me," I said. "Tell her, she's the one springing for them."

Well, so we had our first accordian lesson. My mother was in fact quite unhappy when we got home and told her, and she called them up right away. But someone the guy talked her into it, and back we went the next week for our second accordian lesson. I had indifferent results, but Bobby took to it marvelously, and stayed with it for the next few years. My God, he could make that thing talk. But he dropped it, of course, when adolescence struck, realizing how nerdy accordians were adjudged in those days. I had bailed out long before that.

At any rate the whole point of this is that one of the songs we had to learn-- I don't remember many of them but 'Lady of Spain' was among these-- was, 'The Most Beautiful Night of the Year.' And that's all I could think of tonight, as my friend Carol and I walked Fionn for a few miles, into Happy Land and back. It's always at this time of year that the first chilly night comes calling, a harbinger of things to come, whisked into New England on gushy northwest winds out of the woods of Canada. And while very few around these parts welcome the cold, myself included-- there is something so exhilirating in the first chilly, star-flung night of late summer. As if the night has been dashed with a drop of two or something from a silver cruet, to crystallize the air. It's currently 58 as I write, with a magnificent waning moon on the rise-- a temp we haven't seen since April probably. The very air is an elixir, and of course I've flung wide every door and window. And, sitting on the back steps after the walk-- the stars!!!! Surely if there's an example of something going undervalued, ignored, and unappreciated, it must be the stars. As time goes on, and each generation becomes more and more removed from nature, do most of us even notice them? Do we even notice when there are none, or few, above us? Truly a crime, for I can't think of anything more wondrous. The most far-fetched traveler's tale of wonder ("A Tadgh's Tale," they call it in Ireland) seems banal and narcotic in comparison to the miracle of sitting on one's back stairs and being able to look up at stars. Most amazing of all: what we're seeing isn't even there at all. It's true-- some of the stars we see every night don't even exist anymore. How wild is that? The explanation is simple-- if a star is two million light years away, for example, and 100,000 years ago it burned out-- we won't see that for another 1.9 million years. Amazing. It's like looking down a vast, swirling time tunnel. If there were a tower one could climb, and it was so high one could see all the way back into yesterday, or the time of the building of the Taj Mahal, from the top of that tower-- most of us would be pretty impressed.

"Hey Jimmy! What are you doing?"

"Nothing, what are you doing?"

"Nothing. I'm gonna go up to my attic and climb the tower and watch that Monet guy painting in the fields of Provence, 120 years ago."

"Okay cool, I'll be right over."

But when we merely tilt our heads back at night-- we can actually see millions of years into the past.

Knowing this-- and, as they say, the more one knows, the less one needs-- one doesn't need much on a night like this-- an open meadow, a blanket to lie back on, a thick sweatshirt, and perhaps a warm body to share it with. Now that's living.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Anthrax Questions

Tom Dispatch
posted 2008-08-18 11:14:22
Tomgram: Six Questions about the Anthrax Case
[A TomDispatch recommendation: Bill Moyers had Andrew Bacevich on his "Journal" for an hour Friday night, discussing his new book, The Limits of Power (which is now the number one bestseller at It was nothing short of a tutorial for the American people on the three-pronged crisis that faces us -- economic, political, and military. Believe me, it's not to be missed and can still be watched at Moyers's website by clicking here. Make sure as well to check out Bacevich's two-part series on the American military crisis, excerpted from his book, which appeared at TomDispatch last week: "Illusions of Victory" and "Is Perpetual War Our Future?"]
Double Standards in the Global War on TerrorAnthrax DepartmentBy Tom Engelhardt
Oh, the spectacle of it all -- and don't think I'm referring to those opening ceremonies in Beijing, where North Korean-style synchronization seemed to fuse with smiley-faced Walt Disney, or Michael Phelp's thrilling hunt for eight gold medals and Speedo's one million dollar "bonus," a modernized tribute to the ancient Greek tradition of amateurism in action. No, I'm thinking of the blitz of media coverage after Dr. Bruce Ivins, who worked at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland, committed suicide by Tylenol on July 29th and the FBI promptly accused him of the anthrax attacks of September and October 2001.
You remember them: the powder that, innocuously enough, arrived by envelope -- giving going postal a new meaning -- accompanied by hair-raising letters ominously dated "09-11-01" that said, "Death to America. Death to Israel. Allah is great." Five Americans would die from anthrax inhalation and 17 would be injured. The Hart Senate Office Building, along with various postal facilities, would be shut down for months of clean-up, while media companies that received the envelopes were thrown into chaos.
For a nation already terrified by the attacks of September 11, 2001, the thought that a brutal dictator with weapons of mass destruction (who might even have turned the anthrax over to the terrorists) was ready to do us greater harm undoubtedly helped pave the way for an invasion of Iraq. The President would even claim that Saddam Hussein had the ability to send unmanned aerial vehicles to spray biological or chemical weapons over the east coast of the United States (drones that, like Saddam's nuclear program, would turn out not to exist).
Today, it's hard even to recall just how terrifying those anthrax attacks were. According to a LexisNexis search, between Oct. 4 and Dec. 4, 2001, 389 stories appeared in the New York Times with "anthrax" in the headline. In that same period, 238 such stories appeared in the Washington Post. That's the news equivalent of an unending, high-pitched scream of horror -- and from those attacks would emerge an American world of hysteria involving orange alerts and duct tape, smallpox vaccinations, and finally a war, lest any of this stuff, or anything faintly like it, fall into the hands of terrorists.
And yet, by the end of 2001, it had become clear that, despite the accompanying letters, the anthrax in those envelopes was from a domestically produced strain. It was neither from the backlands of Afghanistan nor from Baghdad, but -- almost certainly -- from our own military bio-weapons labs. At that point, the anthrax killings essentially vanished… Poof!... while 9/11 only gained traction as the singular event of our times.
Those deaths-by-anthrax ceased to be part of the administration's developing Global War on Terror narrative, which was, of course, aimed at Islamist fanatics (and scads of countries that were said to provide them with "safe haven"), but certainly not military scientists here at home. No less quickly did those attacks drop from the front pages -- in fact, simply from the pages -- of the nation's newspapers and off TV screens.
Unlike with 9/11, there would be no ritualistic reminders of the anniversaries of those attacks in years to come. No victims, or survivors, or relatives of victims would step to podiums and ring bells, or read names, or offer encomiums. There would be no billion-dollar (or even million-dollar) memorial to the anthrax dead for the survivors to argue over. There would be little but silence, while the FBI fumbled its misbegotten way through an investigative process largely focused on one U.S. bio-weapons scientist, Steven J. Hatfill, who also worked at Fort Detrick and just happened to be the wrong man. (Bruce Ivins, eerily enough, would work closely with, and aid, the FBI's investigation for years until the spotlight of suspicion came to be directed at him.)
This essentially remained the state of the case until, as July ended, Ivins committed suicide. Then, what a field day! The details, the questions, the doubts, the disputed scientific evidence, the lists of kinds of drugs he was prescribed, the lurid quotes, the "rat's nest" of an anthrax-contaminated lab he worked in, the strange emails and letters! ("I wish I could control the thoughts in my mind… I get incredible paranoid, delusional thoughts at times, and there's nothing I can do until they go away, either by themselves or with drugs.") Case solved! Or not... The "mad scientist" from the Army's Fort Detrick bio-wars labs finally nabbed! Or not...
It was a dream of a story. And the mainstream media ran with it, knowledgeably, authoritatively, as if they had never let it go. Now, as the coverage fades and the story once again threatens to head for obscurity (despite doubts about Ivins's role in the attacks), I thought it might be worth mentioning a few questions that came to my mind as I read through recent coverage -- not on Ivins's guilt or innocence, but on matters that are so much a part of our American landscape that normally no one even thinks to ask about them.
Here are my top six questions about the case:
1. Why wasn't the Bush administration's War on Terror modus operandi applied to the anthrax case?
On August 10th, William J. Broad and Scott Shane reported on some of the human costs of the FBI anthrax investigation in a front-page New York Times piece headlined, "For Suspects, Anthrax Case Had Big Costs, Scores of the Innocent in a Wide F.B.I. Net." They did a fine job of establishing that those who serially came under suspicion had a tough time of it: "lost jobs, canceled visas, broken marriages, frayed friendships." According to the Times (and others), under the pressure of FBI surveillance, several had their careers wrecked; most were interviewed and re-interviewed numerous times in a "heavy-handed" manner, as well as polygraphed; some were tailed and trailed, their homes searched, and their workplaces ransacked.
Under the pressure of FBI "interest," anthrax specialist and "biodefense insider" Perry Mikesell evidently turned into an alcoholic and drank himself to death. Steven Hatfill, while his life was being turned inside out, had an agent trailing him in a car run over his foot, for which, Broad and Shane add, he, not the agent, was issued a ticket. And finally, of course, Dr. Ivins, growing ever more distressed and evidently ever less balanced, committed suicide on the day his lawyer was meeting with the FBI about a possible plea bargain that could have left him in jail for life, but would have taken the death penalty off the table.
Still, tough as life was for Mikesell, Hatfill, Ivins, and scores of others, here's an observation that you'll see nowhere else in a media that's had a two-week romp through the case: In search of a confession, none of the suspects of these last years, including Ivins, ever had a lighted cigarette inserted in his ear; none of them were hit, spit on, kicked, and paraded naked; none were beaten to death while imprisoned but uncharged with a crime; none were doused with cold water and left naked in a cell on a freezing night; none were given electric shocks, hooded, shackled in painful "stress positions," or sodomized; none were subjected to loud music, flashing lights, and denied sleep for days on end; none were smothered to death, or made to crawl naked across a jail floor in a dog collar, or menaced by guard dogs. None were ever waterboarded.
Whatever the pressure on Ivins or Hatfill, neither was kidnapped off a street near his house, stripped of his clothes, diapered, blindfolded, shackled, drugged, and "rendered" to the prisons of another country, possibly to be subjected to electric shocks or cut by scalpel by the torturers of a foreign regime. Even though each of the suspects in the anthrax murders was, at some point, believed to have been a terrorist who had committed a heinous crime with a weapon of mass destruction, none were ever declared "enemy combatants." None were ever imprisoned without charges, or much hope of trial or release, in off-shore, secret, CIA-run "black sites."
Why not?
2. Why wasn't the U.S. military sent in?
Part of the reigning paradigm of the Bush years was this: police work was not enough when the homeland was threatened. The tracking down of terrorists who had killed or might someday kill Americans was a matter of "war." Those who had attacked the American homeland and murdered U.S. citizens would, as our President put it, be "hunted down" by special ops forces and CIA agents who had been granted the right to assassinate and brought in "dead or alive."
Why then, when acts of murderous bio-terror had been committed on American soil, was the military not called in? Why were no CIA "death squads" -- the tellingly descriptive phrase used by Jane Mayer in her remarkable new book, The Dark Side -- dispatched to assassinate likely suspects? Why were no Predator unmanned drones, armed with Hellfire missiles, launched to cruise the skies of Maryland and take out Ivins or other suspects "precisely" and "surgically" in their homes (whatever the "collateral damage")? Why, in fact, weren't their homes simply obliterated in the manner regularly employed in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and elsewhere? (In fact, it seems to have taken the FBI two years after their first suspicions of Ivins simply to search his house and even longer finally to take away his high-level security clearance.)
Once U.S. weapons labs were identified as the sources of the anthrax, why were no special ops teams sent in to occupy the facilities, shut them down, and fly those found there, shackled and blindfolded, to Guantanamo or other more secret sites?
Why, when the administration went to great lengths to squeeze off funding for terrorists elsewhere, was funding for those labs significantly increased?
Why, when those swept up or simply kidnapped by the Bush administration and then discovered to be innocent, were -- after secret imprisonment, abuse, and torture -- regularly released without apology or reimbursement (if released at all), did the U.S. government pay Hatfill $4.6 million to settle a lawsuit he filed in response to his ordeal?
Why when, according to the Vice President's "one percent doctrine," no response was too extreme if even a minuscule chance of a catastrophic attack against the U.S. "homeland" existed, were no extreme acts taken with a WMD killer (or killers) on the loose, possibly in Maryland's suburbs?
3. Once the anthrax threat was identified as coming from U.S. military labs, why did the administration, the FBI, and the media assume that only a single individual was responsible?
Read as much of the coverage of the anthrax killings as you want and you'll discover that the FBI has long taken for blanket fact that a single "mad scientist" was the culprit -- and, no less important, that that theory has been accepted as bedrock fact by the media as well. No alternative possibilities have been seriously considered for years.
For instance, it is known that a set of the anthrax letters was sent from a mailbox in Princeton, New Jersey, some hours from Ivins's home and the Fort Detrick lab in Frederick, Maryland. The question the FBI puzzled over -- and the media took up vigorously -- was whether, on the day in question, Ivins had time to make it to Princeton and back, given what's known of his schedule. The FBI suggests that he did; critics suggest otherwise. No one, however, seems to consider the possibility that the lone terrorist of the anthrax killings might have had one or more accomplices, which would have made the "problem" of mailing those letters into a piece of cake.
Is it that Americans, as opposed to foreigners bent on terrorism, are assumed to be unstoppable individualists, loners canny enough to carry out plots by themselves? Does no one recall that the last great act of American terrorism in the United States, the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, was a crime committed by at least two American "loners"? (The earliest reports in that case, too, blamed Arab terrorists -- plural.)
There seem to have been no serious al-Qaeda "sleeper cells" in this country, but how do we know that there isn't a "sleeper cell" of American bio-killers lurking somewhere in the U.S. military lab community?
4. What of those military labs? Why does their history continue to play little or no part in the story of the anthrax attacks?
In reading through reams of coverage of Ivins's suicide and the FBI case against him, I found only a single reference to the work his lab at Fort Detrick had been dedicated to throughout most of the Cold War era. Here is that sentence from the Washington Post: "As home to the Army Biological Warfare Laboratories, the facility ran a top-secret program producing offensive biological weapons from 1943 until 1969." And yet, if you don't grasp this fact, the real significance of the anthrax case remains in the shadows.
As with the continuing story of nuclear dangers on our planet, the terrors of our age are almost invariably portrayed as emerging from bands of fanatics, or lands like Iran said to be ruled by the same, in the backlands of our planet (some of which also just happen to be in the energy heartlands of the same planet). And yet, if we are terrified enough of loose or proliferating weapons of mass destruction to threaten or start wars over them, it's important to understand that, from 1945 on, these dangers -- and they are grim dangers -- emerged from the heartland of the military-industrial machines of the two Cold War superpowers, the U.S. and the USSR.
Put another way, the most conceptually frightening attacks of 2001 came directly from the Cold War urge to develop offensive biological weapons. Until 1969, the Army's biological-warfare laboratories at Fort Detrick were focused, in part, on that task. Plain and simple. After President Richard Nixon shut down the offensive bio-war program in 1969, the Army's scientists switched to work on "defenses" against the same. As with defenses against nuclear attack, however, such work, by its nature, is often hard to separate from offensive work on such weaponry. In other words, looked at a certain way, one focus of the Fort Detrick lab, which fell under suspicion in the anthrax attacks by the winter of 2001, has long been putting bio-war on the global menu. In that, it was evidently successful in the end.
There is irony here, of course. In the post-Cold War era, our worries focused almost solely on the deteriorating, sometimes ill-guarded Russian Cold War labs and storehouses for biological, chemical, and nuclear war. It was long feared that, from them, such nightmares would drop into our world. But in this we were, it seems, wrong. The labs with the holes were ours and -- what's more terrifying -- the possibilities for leakage and misuse are still expanding exponentially.
5. Were the anthrax attacks the less important ones of 2001?
If you compare the two sets of 2001 attacks in terms of death and destruction, 9/11 obviously leaves the anthrax attacks in the dust. Thought about a certain way, however, the attacks of 9/11, while bold, murderous, televisually spectacular, and apocalyptic looking, were conceptually old hat. It was the anthrax attacks that pointed the way to a new and frightening future.
After all, the World Trade Center had already been attacked, and one of its towers nearly toppled, by a rental-van bomb driven into an underground garage by Islamists back in 1993. The planes in the 2001 assaults were, as Mike Davis has written, simply car bombs with wings, and car bombs have a painfully long history. Even though in their targeting -- the symbolic mega-buildings of an imperial power whose citizens previously preferred to believe themselves invulnerable -- the 9/11 hijackers offered a new psychological reality to Americans, their most striking and unsettling feature was perhaps themselves. Those 19 men had pledged to commit suicide not for their country, as had thousands of Japanese kamikaze pilots at the end of World War II, or even for a potential country like hundreds of Tamil suicide bombers in Sri Lanka, but for a religious fantasy (behind which lay non-religious grievances). On the other hand, the 9/11 attacks were but a larger, more ambitious version of, for instance, the suicide-by-boat attack on the U.S.S. Cole in a Yemeni port in 2000.
On the other hand, the anthrax mailings represented something new. (The Japanese Aum Shinrikyo cult had attempted to make and use bio-weapons, including anthrax, back in 1990s, but failed.) If the al-Qaeda strike on 9/11 had only simulated a weapon-of-mass-destruction attack, with the anthrax killer, no imagination was necessary. An actual weapon of mass destruction -- highly refined anthrax -- had been used successfully, then used again, and the killer(s) remained at large, not in the Afghan backlands but somewhere in our midst, with no evidence that the supply of anthrax had been used up.
And yet, even as the Bush administration, the two presidential candidates, all of Washington, and the media remain focused on terrorism in the Afghan-Pakistani border regions, few give serious thought -- except when it comes to individual culpability -- to the terror that emerged from the depths of the military-industrial complex, from our own Cold War weapons labs. To that, no aspect of the Global War on Terror seems to apply.
6. Who is winning the Global War on Terror?
The answer, obviously, is the terrorists. Just last week, Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, made this crystal clear when it came to al-Qaeda. He testified before Congress that the organization "is gaining in strength from its refuge in Pakistan and is steadily improving its ability to recruit, train and position operatives capable of carrying out attacks inside the United States." In fact, it's been clear enough for quite a while that the Bush administration's Global War on Terror has mainly succeeded in creating ever more terrorists in ever more places. And yet, arguably, the anthrax killer or killers have, to date, gained far more than al-Qaeda. Looked at a certain way, whatever the role of Bruce Ivins, the anthrax killings proved to be a full-scale triumph of terrorism.
One theory has long been that whoever committed the anthrax outrages was intent on drawing attention (and probably funding) to further research and development of U.S. bio-war "defenses." If so, then, what a remarkable success! In the years since the attacks occurred, funding has flooded into such labs, whose numbers have grown strikingly. On September 11, 2001, reports the Washington Post, "there were only five ‘biosafety level 4' labs -- places equipped to study highly lethal agents such as Ebola that have no human vaccine or treatment -- a Government Accountability Office report stated last fall. Fifteen are in operation or under construction now, according to the report. There are hundreds more biosafety level 3 labs, which handle agents such as Bacillus anthracis, which does have a human vaccine."
The few hundred people at work in the U.S. bio-defense program before 9/11 have swelled to perhaps 14,000 scientists who have "clearances to work with ‘select biological agents' such as Bacillus anthracis -- many of them civilians working at private universities" where, according to experts, "security regulations are remarkably lax." And don't forget the Army's own billion-dollar plan to "build a larger laboratory complex as part of a proposed interagency biodefense campus at Fort Detrick." We're talking about the place where, as Ivins's crew was evidently nicknamed, "Team Anthrax" worked and whose labs are reputedly "renowned for losing anthrax." In these same years, according to the New York Times, "almost $50 billion in federal money has been spent to build new laboratories, develop vaccines and stockpile drugs." Some of this money was pulled out of basic public health funds which once ensured that large numbers of people wouldn't die of treatable diseases like tuberculosis and redirected into work on the Ebola virus, anthrax, and other exotic pathogens.
In these years, not to put too fine a point on it, the Bush administration has exponentially expanded our bio-war labs, increasing significantly the likelihood that a new "mad scientist" will have far more opportunity and far more deadly material available to work with. It has, in other words, increased the likelihood not just that terror will come to "the homeland," but that it will come from the homeland. Thanks to this administration, the terrorists won this round and future terrorists can reap the fruits of that victory.
Bruce Ivins, whatever you did, or whatever was done to you, R.I.P. Your lab is in good hands. And the likelihood is that, almost seven years after the first anthrax envelope arrived, the world is more of a terror machine than ever.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the American Age of Denial. The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), a collection of some of the best pieces from his site, has just been published. Focusing on what the mainstream media hasn't covered, it is an alternative history of the mad Bush years.
[Note on readings: Oddly enough, back in December 2002, as this site was going public, the very first TomDispatch guest writer, public health expert David Rosner, took up the issue of smallpox hysteria, pointing out that the disease was saved from total eradication on the planet by a U.S./USSR agreement "to make sure that the virus that causes smallpox would remain in storage awaiting a new opportunity to terrorize the world. For decades, both countries stored it, distributed it to various research labs and otherwise ensured that this public health victory would be turned into a potential human tragedy." He added: "Fear of smallpox has played nicely into the overall strategy of the Bush administration to militarize public health." It's a piece worth revisiting, as perhaps is "It Should Have Been Unforgettable," a post I wrote back in 2005 when the anthrax case had long fallen off the American radar screen.
More recently, Glenn Greenwald of has done superb work on the anthrax story. In 2007, he wrote a striking column, "The unresolved story of ABC News' false Saddam-anthrax reports," on some crucially bad reporting by Brian Ross and ABC, and he followed up after Ivins's suicide with a piece, ("Journalists, their lying sources, and the anthrax investigation,") that has more unsettling questions about the anthrax case than any other 16 pieces I've seen. It's a must read. Jay Rosen, at his always interesting PressThink blog, took up Greenwald's challenge to Brian Ross and ABC on its reporting and pressed the point home in two recent posts, here and here.
Finally, Elisa D. Harris, a senior research scholar at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, had a fine, thoughtful op-ed last week in the New York Times, "The Killers in the Lab" ("Our efforts to fight biological weapons are making us less safe"), which laid out in an impressive way the expansion of U.S. bio-weapons research since 2001.]
Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt

A Cab Ride I'll Never Forget

A friend sent me this wonderful true story this morning.

Twenty years ago, I drove a cab for a living. One night I took a fare at 2:30 AM, when I arrived to collect, the building was dark except for a single light in a ground floor window. Under these circumstances, many drivers would just honk once. But I had seen too many impoverished people who depended on taxis as their only means of transportation. Unless a situation smelled of danger, I always went to the door. This passenger might be someone who needs my assistance, I reasoned to myself. So I walked to the door and knocked. 'Just a minute', answered a frail, elderly voice. I could hear something being dragged across the floor. After a long pause, the door opened.A small woman in her 80's stood before me. She was wearing a print dress and a pillbox hat with a veil pinned on it, like somebody out of a 1940s movie. By her side was a small nylon suitcase The apartment looked as if no one had lived in it for years. All the furniture was covered with sheets. There were no clocks on the walls, no knick-knacks or utensils on the counters. In the corner was a cardboard box filled with photos and glassware. "Would you carry my bag out to the car?" she said. I took the suitcase to the cab, then returned to assist the woman. She took my arm and we walked slowly toward the curb. She kept thanking me for my kindness. "It's nothing", I told her. "I just try to treat my passengers the way I would want my mother treated.""Oh, you're such a good man," she said. When we got in the cab, she gave me an address, and then asked, "Could you drive through downtown?""It's not the shortest way," I answered quickly. "Oh, I don't mind," she said "I'm in no hurry. I'm on my way to a hospice."I looked in the rear-view mirror. Her eyes were glistening. "I don't have any family left," she continued. "The doctor says I don't have very long." I quietly reached over and shut off the meter."What route would you like me to take?" I asked.For the next two hours, we drove through the city. She showed me the building where she had once worked as an elevator operator. We drove through the neighborhood where she and her husband had lived when they were newlyweds. She had me pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl. Sometimes she'd ask me to slow in front of a particular building or corner and would sit staring into the darkness, saying nothing. As the first hint of sun was creasing the horizon, she suddenly said, "I'm tired. Let's go now."We drove in silence to the address she had given me. It was a low building, like a small convalescent home, with a driveway that passed under a portico. Two orderlies came out to the cab as soon as we pulled up. They were solicitous and intent, watching her every move. They must have been expecting her. I opened the trunk and took the small suitcase to the door. The woman was already seated in a wheelchair. "How much do I owe you?" she asked, reaching into her purse. "Nothing," I said."You have to make a living," she answered. "Oh, there are other passengers," I responded. Almost without thinking, I bent and gave her a hug. She held onto me tightly. Our hug ended with her remark, "You gave an old woman a little moment of joy." After a slight pause, she added, "Thank you."I squeezed her hand, and then walked into the dim morning light. Behind me, a door shut. It was the sound of the closing of a life.I didn't pick up any more passengers that shift. I drove aimlessly lost in thought. For the rest of that day, I could hardly talk. What if that woman had gotten an angry driver, or one who was impatient to end his shift? What if I had refused to take the run, or had honked once, then driven away? On a quick review, I don't think that I have done anything more important in my life. We're conditioned to think that our lives revolve around great moments. But great moments often catch us unaware, beautifully wrapped in what others may consider a small one.
[ Original Story by Kent Nerburn ]

Taking Stock as Summer Wanes

IT'S ALREADY STARTING TO CHANGE. You can see it in the slant of the light, the richness of the light, as if the light is loaded to its uttermost capacity.
From today's Boston Globe

By James Carroll August 18, 2008
TWO WEEKS from today the summer ends. What have you made of it? A couple of months ago, you thought surely this would be the season of quiet. You knew you needed a period of recovery, even if you could not say precisely - recovery from what? You aimed to steal afternoons from work, go to the beach, and contemplate the sky. Long walks, exercise, reading without a pencil in your hand, stretching out in the sand to watch the clouds - such was the agenda you imagined for yourself. In the summer, time has a different feel, perhaps because your first sense of it was set in childhood by the idea of vacation. The word comes from vacate, after all, which means to make void, to empty. On vacation, you were allowed to be vacuous, live in a vacuum, go vacant. Summer agenda? What the summer actually invites is no agenda whatsoever.
But it has not happened. Is it possible to be so exhausted as to be incapable of rest? Your nation feels that way this year. The interminable terms of the Bush administration have turned the United States into an apocalyptic road show, with nearly every aspect of life upended, all of it enacted on the edge of a precipice. The child-geniuses of Washington were rescued from their hysteria about Iran by the tread of Russian boots (and tanks) in Georgia, which sparked a new hysteria. And where was this sensitivity to tensions between Russia and its neighbors back when NATO's expansion drums were beating? Suddenly, the punditry began reminding you of all the wars that August spawned down through the years. (Ten years ago tomorrow, to take one, US strikes against Osama bin Laden began with Bill Clinton's cruise missile attacks against camps in Afghanistan.)
The nascent presidential campaign is reducing public discourse to bickering, with candidates poised to outdo each other in ugliness. Already, television commentary foresees the upcoming conventions as political survival shows, as if reality TV has any relationship with reality. The tanking economy, meanwhile, has thrown you and everyone you know back on your own resources. Forget the exotic journey. Even a day trip to the beach is measured in mileage. The weather's still hot, and already you feel the pinch of winter heating oil. Not even your home is a refuge from such stress, as you watch its value plummet. You aren't even thinking about selling your house, but you can't wait for the housing market to turn around, in case you change your mind.
The hit play on Broadway this year is "August: Osage County," and from what you know of it, the lacerating family drama renders the existential mood of this month perfectly. What else do people at the end of their ropes do but turn those ropes into whips? The Olympics, instead of being a global festival of athletic excellence, seem a replay of Cold War hyper-nationalism, with China in the self-appointed role of Commie nemesis. The Reds still cheat - in China's case by fielding underage female gymnasts. Geopolitics is trumping sport again, and that is sad.
Once, the calendar was crammed with saints' days and religious festivals, the pragmatic purpose of which was to offer ways out of the daily fray. Our secular holidays do a meager job of such release, and the innovations of electronic gadgetry have destroyed what remained of the divide between work and leisure. All of this has left you with the three-pronged question: how and when and where can you put the static out of your mind for a while?
Which brings you back to these two remaining weeks of summer. You used to think that you loved going to the beach for the water and the sand, for the communal gaiety, freedom of the bathing suit. But now, when you manage to get there, what strikes you is the sky. That vast blue canopy gave your forebears their first hint of transcendence. They thought it was an opening to the infinite. Even if you know better - the sky is nothing but a few miles of atmosphere - it draws you out of yourself. Self-transcendence is the transcendence that counts. And that is all you hope for in what remains of summer.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Saving Small Cats

We love people like this-- God bless the work. From the Cougar Network. (Picture shows Dr. Jim Sanderson with an Andean Cat, one of the world's Small Cats he is trying to save.)

While often over-shadowed by their larger and better-known relatives like lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars, small cats are important indicators of the health of an ecosystem, says a leading small cat expert who uses camera traps extensively to document and monitor mammals in the wild. Dr Jim Sanderson, a scientist with the Small Cat Conservation Alliance and Conservation International, is working to save some of the world's rarest cats, including the Andean cat and Guigna of South America and the bay, flat-headed, and marbled cats of Southeast Asia. In the process Sanderson has captured on film some of the planet's least seen animals, including some species that have never before been photographed. He has also found that despite widespread criticism, some corporate entities are effectively protecting remote wilderness areas. He cites BHP Billiton's bauxite project in the Bakhuys mountains of Suriname as an example.

"If run properly, these sites can be better protected than a national park because in a national park the public is allowed. In these areas no one is allowed except the workers and their behavior is tightly controlled and monitored," he explained. "So it is pretty easy for me to see a partnership between industry and the conservationists... In addition, they have money to support research projects." Sanderson has set up a large-scale camera-trapping project that will monitor the impact of bauxite extraction in BHP Billiton's 240,000-hectare concession. Although mining will be limited to a couple thousand hectares in the concession, Sanderson will use an extensive collection of images as a baseline to determine how wildlife is affected by the mining activities. The camera trapping has already provided Sanderson with insight on the behavior of resident animal species, including predator-prey relationships, wildlife densities, and mating and reproductive habits. "We have pictures of jaguars carrying armadillos in their mouths, and we have a picture of a puma wrestling a red brocket deer to the ground. So, we get some indication of what these predators are eating," he told "But we also get mating behavior. We have repeated pictures of jaguars copulating right in front of the camera traps. All of these mating-jaguar pictures are taken in May and June, which turns out to be near the end of the long rainy season. So we suspect that it's not true that these animals breed all year long, but in fact they breed at a certain time of year in response to rainfall, and have their young several months later during the dry season." Sanderson discussed his success with camera trapping (including his preference for film over digital cameras), the efforts to save wild cat species through the Small Cat Conservation Alliance, and small cat behavior in an interview conducted with in Paramaribo, the capital city of Suriname.

How you can help

When asked how people can help small cat conservation efforts, Sanderson said that small cats are typically overlooked by zoos. By simply asking to see small cats when you visit a zoo, it could help redirect emphasis and possibly conservation funding towards saving small cats in the wild. "Most American Zoological Association (AZA) zoos do not exhibit small cats because they do not believe the public wants to see them. They instead exhibit the large and charismatic small cats," he said. "When you visit a zoo ask to see something unusual — the small wild cats." Donations help too: Wildlife Conservation Network

Mongabay: What is your background and what sort of work do you do on small cats?

Jim Sanderson: I have a PhD in mathematics and was a practicing mathematician for 20 years. I decided to reeducate myself because I became interested in small cat conservation. I went back to school, got a degree in biology and then started my PhD in wildlife ecology and conservation at the University of Florida. I actually never received my PhD because my professor said I already had a PhD and had already published enough papers. While I was there I co-authored two books with my professor. One is in its second edition and we are working on the third edition. Since they basically kicked me out of the PhD program prematurely, I went to work with Conservation International. I had been doing my PhD on the Guigna, which is a small forest cat in the south of Chile that had never been studied before. All we had to go on was one picture of one living individual. The total extent of our knowledge of this cat was that picture and some stomach content of museum specimens, the last of which had been collected in 1919. Given these circumstances, people were very discouraging and funding was almost non-existent, but nevertheless I took a crack at it. In 1997 I was able to catch one and demonstrate we knew where they were. A year later I went back and caught eight in thirteen days and put radio collars on them. This was the first study ever of the Guigna.

That same year, I went looking for the Andean cat, which is the most endangered cat in the Americas. The Andean cat had been photographed twice: once by a professional photographer and once by a tourist from New Zealand who was traveling in the high Andes. So to start, I had a picture of an Andean cat taken next to an orange pole. All I knew was that it was from the north of Chile. Once again people told me I was crazy, that I would never find this cat, that I would waste a lot of time and money looking for it. But in fact after about six weeks I got my first sighting of the cat and when I approached to see it more closely, it came down to see me more closely. So at 4300 meters (14,100 feet) I began my pursuit of a cat that was just as curious about me as I was of it. The photographs appeared in the National Geographic in February of 2000. Based on those photographs we were able to start a full conservation program in all four range countries that was funded by the Wildlife Conservation Network. I am now a partner, one of the eight partners, of the Wildlife Conservation Network ( Our Andean cat project is still running there; it's a very successful project.
The Small Cat Conservation Alliance (SCCA) was founded in 1996 to address the conservation needs of small wild cats worldwide The SCCA's primary priority species are:
Andean cat
Bay cat
Flat-headed cat
Marbled cat
Clouded leopard
Fishing cat Its secondary priorities are:
Rusty-spotted cat
African golden cat
Chinese mountain cat
Margay I have been working in Borneo, China, and Sumatra. In China we went after something called the Chinese mountain cat. Now this is the cat that was described in 1892 by a Frenchman at the Paris museum. The skins were purchased during an expedition to China around 1890 and brought back to the Paris museum where they were identified by a French mammologist as a species of cat unknown to science. It was the last new cat to be described. When we started, we didn't know where to look. We didn't know its habitat and it had never been photographed in the wild. Over the course of a four year period I went back and forth to China to try to find where this cat lived. Eventually I came to one village where the Tibetans were wearing hats made out of this cat so I knew it was up in the Tibetan plateau somewhere. I gave numerous talks about my search for this cat and one young Tibetan man said, 'I've seen this cat. I remember when I was a child my father had skins of this cat. I am certain that this cat lives around my village.' He said that it lived on the eastern side of Tibet, on the escarpment next to Szechwan. 'We have to go to my village.' So we got on a bus. It was about an eleven-hour bus ride through the mountains of China. We arrived at his village and people had the cat skins. Nearly every house we knocked on showed the skin of the Chinese mountain cat. It was the Holy Grail. So at this point we were able to put out our camera traps, we knew where to look. The three of us, my Chinese student, a Tibetan, and I rode on a motorcycle and then walked up into the hills. We placed our camera traps and got the first pictures ever of the Chinese mountain cat. Carlos Driscoll later classified the cat as a sub-species of Felis silvestris. Therefore it is no longer considered the last cat ever to be described. That distinction now goes to the Bay cat. The second to last is the Andean cat. In Bolivia, Lillian Villalba, Constanza Napolitano, and I were able to capture an Andean cat at an elevation of 5,400-5,500 meters and put a radio collar on it. Now 5,400 meters (17,700 feet) is higher than any point in the continental U.S. This is truly the snow leopard of the Andes. Or maybe I should say the snow leopard is the Andean cat of the Himalayas. But this is the most endangered cat in the Americas and the reason is it doesn't show any fear of people. The Chinese mountain cat is afraid of people. It has been hunted to make accessories like hats, although this practice has now stopped because of the announcement of the Dali Lama to Tibetans to stop killing these cats, at least in the village where we were.

But with the Andean cat shows no fear of people and in the high Andes, the people attribute supernatural powers to the cat. These powers can be harnessed only if the cats are dead. So they kill the cats, typically by dropping a rock on them. Or as some people have described to us, they run up to the cat, throw their coats over it and then kill it. I have many pictures of Andean cats in small villages—far more than are in museums around the world, there is one specimen in the US—of people with these dead, stuffed Andean cats in their shops as good luck charms. Native Americans adorn them with silver coins and wool and carry them around as sacred objects. These charms are called titi and are not sold. They are considered sacred and are passed down through the family. The Andeans are always wanting more but these are very rare cats. So we have a conservation dilemma in that we are trying to save a cat that shows no fear of people but is coveted as a sacred object. This is a difficult problem to handle, particularly when the park guards are Native American and they stone the cat if they find it. I'm now working on the flat-headed cat and the Bay cat from Southeast Asia. Both are endangered.
Mongabay: Why did you decide to study small cats?

Jim Sanderson: I found back in the early 80s that all of the big cats had really been studied, but all of the small cats, which are the majority of cats, had never been studied. I could open up a book on wild cats and it would say nothing is known. We know only that it exists. We don't know what it eats. We don't know when it's active. We're not sure of its distribution. So, the small cats were largely unknown and no one was working on them. All the big cats — tigers, lions, pumas, jaguars, leopards, cheetahs -- had lots of studies. But the small cats, it was as if they were just left for me to do.
Mongabay: You have some pretty amazing experiences, as far as being able to find and also catch some of the world's rarest small cats. What's the secret to catching small cats?

Jim Sanderson: You have to have several things. You have to have a passion what you are doing. Without passion you're not going to be successful, because it is not easy. The second quality you have to have is patience. It turns out I have a lot of patience for these small cats, and I am willing to wait them out because I know that I'll eventually find them. Whereas I don't have a lot of patience when I deal with people, I have a lot more patience with animals. So I would say passion and patience is what it takes. Persistence is important too. You have to keep going when it looks like you're never going to find anything; you have to keep looking, because it's then that the animals are telling you something that you don't know. You learn the most when you can't find them for a long time. When you find them right away you don't learn as much.
Mongabay: So on that note, is there anything you can learn about the greater ecology of an ecosystem from the presence or absence of these small predators.
Jim Sanderson: These small predators occupy a wide variety of habitat. There's no arboreal canine (dog) but there are arboreal cats—cats that live mostly in trees. So as a result we have a lot more cat species than we can have dog species. Cats show greater variation in body weight — there's no dog as big as a tiger -- and they use space more efficiently. Some having these small cats in an ecosystem can tell you a lot. For instance, one of the cats we were studying is the margay in Brazil. We found it during the day looking around in the tops of trees during the day. What was is doing? It couldn't catch birds during the day, because birds you know can out-compete a cat in the tops of the trees. But it turns out the cat was eating bats. It was looking for bats that were roosting in the trees. So, that tells us a lot about the environment. When they are active during the night, they are out hunting rodents. When they are active during the day, they're hunting something else. They tell us with their very presence that there is a lot of prey out there. The health of the ecosystem can be determined by top predators, because their presence tells us that there is adequate prey for them.
Mongabay: Let's look at the human element in this picture. With the caveat that threats to cats are highly variable depending on where they are, what are some of the greatest dangers to small cats?

Jim Sanderson: Of course some of the cats share similar threats -- like habitat destruction, loss of prey, and hunting — but they also face widely variable threats in some cases.
The Andean cat faces three principle threats. Number one, it shows no fear of people. So, that's a problem when local people attribute supernatural powers to the cat and kill it (number two). Number three, the locals eat the same prey that the cat does, the small mountain vizcacha that look like rabbits. So, how do we deal with these threats? Well, the people have been hunting vizcachas for thousands of years, so it's unlikely they are going to change their behavior just because we tell them the cat needs to be conserved. What about teaching these cats to be afraid of people? Well, I have seen four in my life, and that's two more than anybody else that we know about. Of the 45 people involved in this project across the full cat range—Peru, Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia—only 6 have seen an Andean cat alive and they have been working on this project for four years. So, it's not like you see this thing everyday. But that's the threat that we have with the Andean cat, we are dealing with some very thorny issues here. People eat the same food and then they kill the cat when they see it. They chase after the cat, throw there coat over it and they just kill it. So that would be a more or less direct threat from humans. On the other hand, a small cat called the flat-headed cat, faces the exact opposite kind of threat. It doesn't compete with people for food. It doesn't eat chickens. It is a lowland specialist that eats only fish and frogs and is about the size of a small house cat. It lives in the swampy wetlands of Malaysia, Sumatra, and Borneo. But here the threat is palm oil plantations -- the unmitigated conversion and total loss of habitat driven by oil palm plantations. Without regard to any of the wildlife, all the trees are cut down and then palm oil trees are planted. And it is unmitigated, that is, there is nothing set aside to compensate for the loss of the land. Here the cat just loses its habitat without anybody caring about what happens. This is the biggest threat in South Asia is the replacement of habitat by oil palm. You can drive for hours at a time—five hours—and see nothing but oil palm.
Mongabay: Does anyone know the habitat requirements of the flat-headed cat? If you were to preserve riparian zones within oil palm plantations, would that be enough for it?

Jim Sanderson: Well that is a good question—we don't really know. But generally there are three animals in oil palm plantations: there are rats, palm civets, and leopard cats that eat the rats. That's about it. They are not wealthy in terms of biodiversity. I don't think preserving a riparian area in the oil palm would work and the reason is that the pesticide use and what goes into those streams would just clean out the fish and the frogs. But we don't really know because nobody has ever studied the flat-headed cat. We do know that the flat-headed cat is the most aquatic of the cats. It puts its head under water and looks for fish. When is sees prey, it goes right into the water. It typically fishes along the river banks.
Let me give you an example of how rare it is. If you put a camera trap out in the mountains of Sumatra you will record all five cats: tiger, clouded leopard, marbled cat, golden cat, and leopard cats. If you put your camera traps out in the lowlands, you are very unlikely to get a flat-headed cat or a fishing cat. I know of only one fishing cat camera trap picture in hundreds of thousands of camera trap pictures taken in Sumatra and I only know of three flat-headed cat pictures. These are extremely rare cats. The reason is the fishing cat and the flat-headed cat are both fish specialists and tied to water and the lowlands of Sumatra are being converted into oil palm plantations. So these small cats are in big trouble. We say that the big cats act as an umbrella species, that means that if we protect the tigers habitat and we work on the tiger and conserve tigers that they will serve as an umbrella species to protect the habitat that they live in. But the tigers are able to live in fairly high-density human situations. In India these parks are surrounded by people and we still have tigers. But when it comes to small cats, we are looking for them and we can't find them. Are they really under the wing of the protected species or have they disappeared? We don't know.
Mongabay: What can people do at home to help protect their small cats or wild cats?

Jim Sanderson: A more environmentally-friendly palm oil industry would be a great start. That would go a long way towards helping the cats of Southeast Asia which is, by the way, is a hot spot for conservation activity right now. Working in South America is a paradise compared to working in Southeast Asia. Increasing your awareness of these small cats is also important.
Mongabay: What about your organization —
Jim Sanderson: The site is a good way to learn what we're working on. A lot of focus has always been on the most endangered ones. My priorities are covered by the red list --these are always the rarest and least known ones: the Andean cat; the flat-headed cat; the bay cat which is endemic to Borneo; and the Guigna. My priority has always been the rarest ones and the ones that have largely been ignored. Most American Zoological Association (AZA) zoos do not exhibit small cats because they do not believe the public wants to see them. They instead exhibit the large and charismatic small cats. When you visit a zoo ask to see something unusual — the small wld cats. Conservation efforts for small cats do not cost nearly as much money as do big cat efforts. We learned to achieve a lot for a little. Any contribution helps. See the WCN website to help out the small cats with a tax free donation.
Mongabay: What about the Tibetan Cat? Jim Sanderson: Very little was known about the Chinese Mountain cat. The habitat was not surveyed and we didn't have any pictures of it in the wild. So when we set out to learn more about them, it was really hard to find information. After a long time we finally got on the trail. We finally were able to get pictures of it. What was the threat to the Chinese Mountain Cat? People where making accoutrements from the cat skins. They would kill the cat and make a hat out of it or sell it to the Chinese Muslim traders. They're the ones that have the shops that sell all the animal skins. So that was the threat -- direct killing. There is no other threat; the habitat is so huge that in the Tibetan plateau that habitat loss is not a threat. It is mostly used for grazing. But you have semi-nomadic herders who can't read or write and don't have a whole lot to do during the day when their livestock grazing. When they see that cats they catch them and skin them out. One person eliminated that threat across all Tibet — the Dali Lama. When he said, "I am tired of my people killing animals and wearing animal skins" people across all Tibet listened and stopped killing the cats and everything else as far as we can tell. I wish I had that kind of pull. This was just part of a longer statement that involved other issues, but of course this is a very political issue. So of course when the Tibetans started burning the skins the Chinese cracked down on them for political actions -- following the word of the Dali Lama. Even though it was a positive thing for conservation, it was a very politically charged time because people were listening to the Dali Lama.
Mongabay: Is domestication or keeping wild cats as pets much of a problem anywhere?

Jim Sanderson: It is not a common thing that you see these cats as pets — they don't make good pets. People put out food for Guignas sometimes, so the cats will come to get food but they don't come indoors of course. They shy away from people. But generally speaking I don't see that this is a big problem. In response to wildlife laws and state laws people are trying to cross wild cats with domestic cats to create crosses so they will have a more exotic house cats but usually they escape, of course.
Mongabay: What are some other small cats that are at risk?

Jim Sanderson: I am on the IUCN cat specialist group as a voting member. I see myself as representing the small cats and offsetting many of the other members who are large cat specialists and are well-represented on our group. Of course we are all colleagues and we all help each other, but when there are small cat questions, they look to me. On the opposite end from the forest cats is the sand cat, a desert specialist. It is a little cat which lives in the northern Sahara desert and in the Middle East. It feeds on rodents and lives in burrows excavated by other animals because cats are not excavators. This is another cat that lacks real analysis. We don't know what is happening to it. It is slipping through the cracks. I think there is one study on it now in Saudi Arabia. The black-footed cat is found in South Africa. It is so small it called the anthill tiger. It is a cat half the size of your house cat but it stands on the top of ant hills and screams. The marbled cat is another cat from Southeast Asia and south Asia. We believe is an arboreal specialist because of its big tail. It is much rarer than a clouded leopard, which we know a little bit about thanks to the work of Andy Hearn and Jo Ross in Danum Valley [An interview with Andrew and Jo in Borneo]. I have good people working on all of these now. Those are the people that are really doing the real work. I am just their assistant now.
Mongabay: It sounds like you have had some positive experiences working with industry in conservation efforts. Can you talk about the role that industry can play in protecting important wildlife areas.

Jim Sanderson: Yes, definitely. Right now I'm working at BHP Billiton's bauxite mine site in the Bakhuys mountains. They are going to remove the tops of mountains to get to the bauxite, which is used in the production of aluminum, but it is a long-range project: twenty-five years at a single site of a couple of thousand hectares. Their concession covers around 240,000 hectares and they control access to the whole area. No one goes in or out the gate and into this huge area without their permission. Workers are prohibited from hunting or harming wildlife in any way. This means the animals there are very well protected. It was a similar case at Collahuasi mine in Chile. This is one of the largest open-pit copper mines in the world but the wildlife was again protected because the workers' behavior at the site was very tightly controlled. They were either living at the hotel or bused back and forth from the mine site and there was a gate to get in. So you couldn't access the site unless they wanted you to get in and they restricted access to the public. So these mines that I've seen can be particularly good stewards. I always tell people that if run properly, these sites can be better protected than a national park because in a national park the public is allowed. In these areas no one is allowed except the workers and their behavior is tightly controlled and monitored. So it is pretty easy for me to see a partnership between industry and the conservationists. I think it's great. In addition, they have money to support research projects. So if people are interested in studying the wildlife or monitoring the wildlife, oftentimes they are more than happy to provide funding for that because they like to see people out walking around on their land where they are doing work and writing about it.
Mongabay: Do the results of research impact whether a company develops an area of not?

Jim Sanderson: Absolutely. In the case of Suriname, when researchers found a small fish that was endemic to a small stream, the mining company said, "Well, we will leave the bauxite in the ground. We are not interested in mining there." A finding like this gives conservationists the upper hand.
Mongabay: What about when the miners leave? These are long-term projects but someday these companies are going to pull out when they've extracted all the minerals. So then is there kind of a risk that these roads will then serve as conduits for development, like logging or things of that nature. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Jim Sanderson: That can happen, but we have plenty of time to act in between since these are long-term projects. First of all the companies have to repair the damage that they do. When they remove the top soil and the plants and trees, they have people there who document everything so they area can be restored as well as possible. The plants are put in greenhouses while mining is being conducted. In the Bakhuys, BHP Billiton is already looking for another company to handle the restoration even though they haven't started operations. They will be able to restore some of the sites where they did the exploration. In the 20-40 year interim before they leave the site we hope education can kick in and start to change the perception wildlife is only food for the pot or to sell, particularly to foreign workers. We've got time to look into the future and say, "We had better start teaching wildlife classes in schools to educate people."
Hopefully the standard of living in the country will increase during that time as well. As standards of living rise, the need to hunt declines. In developed countries most people who hunt do so recreationally. In poor countries people need to hunt for food or to sell meat to the market. They don't have licenses, they do have hunting seasons but nobody obeys them. In the US you can go to the store and buy beef cheaper than you can go out and hunt a deer, although this wasn't the case in the early 1900s when the total deer population was estimated to be less than 100,000 animals. That is about the time we started getting conservation rules put into place during Theodore Roosevelt's presidency. So we went through a period in the US where we nearly eliminated all of our wildlife and it seems like other countries are learning the lesson that we learned.
Mongabay: Getting back a little bit to the mining, how does damage from bauxite mining compare to damage from gold mining? It seems that mercury is a big problem with small-scale gold mining here in Suriname.

Jim Sanderson: It doesn't have to be that these mines are so dangerous. It is just the attitude of the company whether they are going to be responsible for the damage that they do. All mining causes damage. In bauxite mining they have to remove the forest and the soil to get to the bauxite deposits so it is incredibly damaging. It depends on how the company operates; whether they want to be good stewards of the environment or whether they don't care. Now often times the rules of the country are so loose that the companies are able to be whatever they want. It is only a company that shows responsibility that says, "We are going to work in accordance with rules that are stressed by the World Bank and not the countries themselves because their rules are too weak."
Mongabay: Let's look at your current work in the Bakhuys. Are you establishing a baseline to see how mining affects the wildlife and the forest?

Jim Sanderson: I am working at the Bakhuys mountains, which are west of the Central Suriname Nature Reserve. This is an area that as far as we can tell has not seen people for at least 50 years. No one lives near it and no one lives in it. There are two small tourist operations near by, but that is it. BHP Billiton has been exploring for bauxite deposits there for about four years and in order to do that exploration they put in some dirt roads. The whole area is about 520,000 acres. The bauxite deposits are relatively localized on the tops of mountains. They are interested in the highest grade ore deposits and these are few and far between. These deposits are only several thousand acres each and there are less than eight. They are also interested in exploring other parts but they haven't done that yet. They will probably do that in the future. What I wanted to do was establish a baseline of what was there as part of the environmental impact statement. Three years ago I started working on the environmental assessment of the area; focusing on the large mammals. I decided to use camera traps as part of the effort to establish a baseline of what lives in the forest. The camera traps revealed the richness of the area. The pictures started circulating around the company and they asked me if I would continue with the monitoring project to see what kind of an impact the mining was having. They wanted to see if we could turn the monitoring into a way to mitigate the impact of mountain top removal on the large mammals. So we kept on camera trapping and established a disturbance gradient to measure how mining activities would affect wildlife.
We have been doing this now for three years and still have another two years before mining is expected to begin. So we will have five years of baseline data before the mine ever gets really going. The trapping has revealed a lot about the animals and we know that if we keep running the camera traps we will eventually get pictures of all the species. Establishing the gradient before the mining starts allows us to understand the background and what factors — like rainfall and temperature — affect the background. It turns out that after three years we can pretty much say that there is no difference between any of the sites. It's true that only one or two sites show the very rare animals, but more common animals such as jaguar or pumas show up at every site — we don't have a single site that doesn't have jaguars or pumas. Once mining does we will be able to measure the impact on wildlife.
Mongabay: Expanding on camera trapping in general, because you have an amazing amount of data, but if you could explain what you can learn from camera trapping as far as activity times and predator-prey relationships?

Jim Sanderson: One of more obvious that we get from camera trapping is activity patterns. We can look at the time the picture was taking and plot the number of pictures that were taken each hour. If a species is taken more than one time in an hour we only count that as one picture for that for that species for each camera trap. In other words, if an animal sits in front of the camera trap for ten minutes we don't want to count ten pictures, we just want to count one picture. So we get at most one picture per hour per species per camera, and we make a plot of this. If an animal is active just during the day then we will only get pictures during the day and we won't get any at night. This makes it possible to establish an activity pattern for each animal. For instance from 800 pictures of tapir we know that tapir are mostly active at night. This is one of the obvious pieces of information that we can get from camera trapping. When mining starts we will be able to see if the animal's activity pattern change. Another piece of information that we can get is the distribution of animals. If you work with camera traps long enough you should be able to say 'this camera has a lot more picture than this camera and there must be a reason for it'. As it turns out we don't see much of a difference across any of our sites.

Another valuable piece of information is density, the number of individuals in the area. To determine this we need to have two opposing camera traps at each site and when the animal walks between the cameras, the camera takes a picture of both sides of the animal. For animals that are laterally asymmetric, like the jaguar which has different patterns on each side of its body, we can distinguish between individuals and can determine how many jaguar are using our study area. With the proper assumptions, we can calculate how many individuals are in a particular area and determine the number of females and the number of male. It turns out that these jaguars are occurring at multiple sites, so they are roaming around — both the males and females. When you put all this together, there are a couple pieces of information that can be used to monitor the impact of mining.
Mongabay: You've also captured some interesting behavior on camera.

Jim Sanderson: Thank you for reminding me. Of course, the camera captures also their behavior: we have pictures of jaguars carrying armadillos in their mouths, and we have a picture of a puma wrestling a red brocket deer to the ground. So, we get some indication of what these predators are eating. But we also get mating behavior. We have repeated pictures of jaguars copulating right in front of the camera traps. All of these mating-jaguar pictures are taken in May and June, which turns out to be near the end of the long rainy season. So we suspect that it's not true that these animals breed all year long, but in fact they breed at a certain time of year in response to rainfall, and have their young several months later during the dry season. They leave their parents in about a year, because we see the young in the camera traps following the mother around, and in about a year we see the young on their own in the camera traps. So, we are getting a little bit of a family history among the jaguars. But definitely they are not breeding all year long as near as we can tell.
Mongabay: Do you have any thoughts on digital versus film, what do you prefer for camera trapping?

Jim Sanderson: One of the things first that I would like to stress is that anybody, probably even a chimpanzee, can put a camera on a tree. That's not what I do; that's not my job. My job is to put the animal in front of the camera. So, that's a different task than putting a camera on a tree, and it involves many considerations. As for using digital cameras versus film cameras: I prefer film cameras. Now most people want instant gratification, so they want to walk out to the camera, turn it on, and see what they have. I prefer film cameras because they are faster. The latency time is the time between the sensor recognizing something has walked in front of it and the camera takes a picture. For a film camera the latency time is about half a second, certainly, at most, less than a second; whereas in digital cameras it's about two-and-a-half seconds. So with digital cameras, if you're not careful you can get a lot of pictures of "headless jaguars" or just the rear of animals, because of the delay after they walk in front of the camera sensor. The digital camera has to wake-up, turn on, and then it snaps the picture. With the film camera's latency time of less than a second, you get a picture right off the bat, as soon as the sensor picks it up, and it always appears that the animal is right in front of the camera. But of course the instant gratification is not there — you have to wait to develop the film. There are pros and cons. Digital cameras suffer a little bit less from moisture damage. Power requirements are higher for digital cameras than they are for film cameras but the digital cameras can hold a lot more pictures than film cameras, because a film roll is thirty-six pictures. In our test site we can go through thirty-six pictures in a week; we have to check film cameras more often than digital cameras. They cost about the same as a high quality camera but that comparison is deceiving. The question that most troubles me is when someone says 'well, I compared these cameras and one is cheaper than the other'. People should know that with camera traps you get what you paid for. If the objective is to save money than don't buy a camera trap at all, because they are very expensive. If the objective is to get lots of pictures then I suggest that people buy a good camera. The metric is the not the number of pictures but the number of useable pictures. If you want the cheapest camera, then that's a different metric."

Dr. Jim Sanderson is involved with the Wildlife Conservation Network, the Small Cat Conservation Alliance, IUCN Cat Specialist Group, the Small Wild Cat Endowment Fund, and the Feline Conservation Federation.