Monday, March 4, 2019

Riding and Writing the Day Away

By Bob Ferris

I am old enough to remember Anna Maria Alberghetti and my parents taking me to San Francisco to see her in Carnival when I was pretty young--probably ten or eleven.  But she is not on my mind today.  I am thinking about my morning ride on a wet road with deep puddles gobbling up the bike lane on Anna Maria Island in Florida after a pre-dawn downpour. 

Why? About a third of the way up the island I came to a place where the bike lane was filled with cars and as I passed I saw a bright red bike on the ground and people rushing to help a woman to her feet.  Setting aside my concern over the irony of trying to save a downed biker while making it unsafe for others on bikes, I glanced at her quickly and sped to the unoccupied section of the bike lane.  She was short and somewhat round with hair that looked dyed and permed.   I could not tell if she was a victim of gravity, age, or was struck by a car.  By the time I reached Anna Maria's midriff a fire truck and ambulance were exiting the station with their sirens blaring and heading south.  I continued north and dove back into my thoughts.  Kind of.

My bike at the hammerhead shark at Bayfront Park on Anna Maria Island, Florida.
I have been writing a lot lately and I have been writing a lot about bikes and biking.  Seeing the poor woman put me in mind of the ephemeral nature of it all.  In the past four years since my retirement I have written eight novels and one novella.  I am currently working on my tenth offering with the rest sitting in that eighty-to-ninety percent state that probably is more like seventy-five percent done.  I find myself at that point where my posterior is still planted firmly on the vitreous porcelain appliance and I must make that decision soon to complete my business or rise in abject defeat.  Or go fishing.  Or biking.

Part of my hesitancy is literary cowardice and the rest might be sheer laziness born of habit.  I have written throughout my career and have always had editors waiting on the sidelines to take the mostly formed but unfinished and make me look clever or credible.  This last is something that I might not otherwise do on my own.  Training wheels but probably needed particularly as I am now working in long-form fiction which is well outside my competence and comfort zone.  But still I am there.

On my ride I think about the last two fictional paragraphs I wrote on the topic of the dangers of biking on a slick road.  Something that combined biking, aging, writing, and predators.  It is where I put my efforts when not rattling on here or writing in my family's genealogy blog.  Here below are the two paragraphs in question from The Assumption City Shuffle (working title) which is shaping up to be a complicated melange of friendship, aging, writing, biking, war, and murder most foul.  (My career was complicated so why shouldn't my writing be?)

As I pass over the bridge back to Longboat Key and over Beer Can Island where they can no longer drink beer, I realize that I do not really know what I am going to do with this body of work.  I could bite the bullet and hire an editor, but I really need a graphic designer and an illustrator too.    So I sit, not completely ready to do my business but also not inclined to jump up and call it quits.  Perhaps I will be inspired by the woman on the red bike who in spite of her condition braved the wet road and rode.  I hope she is fine and maybe I will be too.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Tricky Currency of Climate and Coke Machines

By Bob Ferris

I recently had an interchange with someone on science.  What a surprise?  The discussion started with salvage logging and drifted towards climate change.  I played the science card and he countered with "common sense."  This made me think of William Happer who was recently tapped by Trump to lead a panel on climate change.  It also made me think of Coca Cola vending machines.  What? Let me continue and I will get there eventually.

William Happer speaking at Heartland Institute's notorious climate conference.
My discussion with this gentleman went south when I asked him if he was familiar with sixth order polynomials.  He answered that he had no idea what I was talking about.  And yet it seemed he felt his view on these topics was as valuable as those who were not only familiar with these mathematical devices, but used them and more complicated functions regularly.

I then asked him if he went to college.  One year in business, he replied.  I spent roughly ten years in college in disciplines relevant to our conversation.  I started to think of our exchange as currency.  He was essentially telling me that a dime had the same value as a dollar.  This is a ridiculous notion, but there we are again and again.

But it is really worse because this gentleman's dime is not really the appropriate currency of the discussion.  It might be a US dime if we were talking about business, but it is more like a Canadian dime when it comes to science.  Discounted.  This is where Dr. Happer comes into play.  He's the figurative Canadian dollar, a currency of value to be sure, but something trying to be spent in the wrong country and not of the same value.
Canadian one dollar coin known as the Loonie.
Dr. Happer has had a distinguished career.  He has won awards.  But not in climate sciences.  Moreover, he has acknowledged that his labors in this arena would probably not pass peer-review.  How does he know that he is figuratively trying to pass Loonies as dollar bills?  He knows this because he has tried to float his views on climate change within his own professional society and they were soundly rejected.  It is important to note that the effort in question dealt with the organization's consensus statement on climate change which by its very nature is already diluted and compromised.

The Coke machines.  Everyone who has lived near the border of Canada and the US knows that Coke machines reject Canadian quarters with a disappointing clunk.  How in this can a machine so simply detect this important difference when many in our country cannot recognize equivalent differences in those purported to be experts?  There is a sadness in this.  Clunk.

Lastly, there is the greater question of Happer himself.  I have degrees in the biological sciences, but I am not a microbiologist nor biochemist.  I have not worked nor published in either of these sub-disciplines.  Therefore, I would not feel comfortable sitting on a panel discussing microbiology or biochemistry.  It would be embarrassing for me.  But Happer seems not to feel a similar sense of intellectual humility.  I have always been a fan of the film Local Hero (1983).  In this movie Burt Lancaster plays the eccentric and comical character of Felix Happer to great effect.  He is Happer to me, but he could be replaced comically by this more current Happer if he persists in his efforts to be something that he not and play the fool for the emperor who wears no clothes...especially when it comes to science. 

Friday, February 22, 2019

I am Often Filled with Re-Egrets

A Snowy with yellow dance shoes.
By Bob Ferris

Yesterday my sister and I took my mother on a two-hour tour by boat.  We went to the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium facility near Longboat Key and boarded a pontoon boat with a double handful of other tourists.  It was a busman's holiday of sorts for me as I have led perhaps thousands of similar interpretive tours over the years.  I've done these in the Santa Cruz Mountains.  Likewise in tide pools at Natural Bridges and hanging with elephant seals farther north.  Most of this was during my college years but later there were wolf tours or trips on the Chesapeake when I was expected to weave an entertaining tale of preloaded facts, teachable moments, and what I would consider cocktail biology that fills the air with something that might bring a smile or be remembered.

Black Crowned Night Heron
Our biologist was new, but good.  She made me remember a time when I was quick, agile, and so intellectually armed with fact after fact and story after story.  Now I'd need notes and a refresher course.  I have filled my post-naturalist mind with too much other policy and administrative gunk to have the other free-flow as it once did.  Age too probably takes its toll and the science stories change with time as they should. 

It was good to sit back and observe.  This is tough because you cannot help but go through the process of critique.  It is how we are trained.  I would have said that differently or emphasized that rather than that.  But mostly this was a case of ordering or tone much like song covers played differently but really mostly the same.

I am what I am and mostly restrained myself, but there were moments when I piped in.   Like when someone wanted to know what a copepod looked like and I offered up that they were a little like miniature silverfish.  Sure that probably works.  Could have helped.  But I regret the Snowy Egret.

At the bird rookery we visited there where lots of birds mostly egrets and herons.  There were a few Great Blue Herons and lots of Great Egrets, not to be confused with the white morphs of the Great Blue Herons.  Occasionally cormorants would cruise in and out with other egrets and herons that were hunting on the surrounding rocks.  There was a promise of Roseate Spoonbills but they hid or were absent.  And then there was a small egret that our biologist identified as a Snowy Egret.  I corrected her as the bird had black rather than yellow feet.  So what is it, hotshot?  (She did not add the hotshot.)

I didn't know and part of that is the complexity of egrets and herons.  There have also been some name changing over the years and a few non-native birds adding themselves to the mix.  My guess would have been that it was an exotic Cattle Egret, but that is just a guess as it could have been a Little Blue Heron or Reddish Egret.  The only thing I knew for certain was that it was not a Snowy.  I suspect that we cling to what we know.

Hard to think of nature as simple when looking at this single evening shell collection from Longboat Key, but some people do.
This also brings to mind the idea of the complexity of nature.  Nothing is simple which speaks to the folly of seeing natural relationships as simple or linear.  People often cling to what is easy, but predation, climate change, food webs, and many of the other challenges we now face do not live in the land of easy or simple.

As the tour ended I am sure that people walking down the gangway were grateful for the dolphins we saw and sorry we did not see sharks, seahorses, and manatees.  For me it was more about memories and how a catfish caught in an otter trawl net defying extrication in front an audience is so much like trying to draw blood from a reluctant deer while the cameras roll or holding your breath while waiting for imprinted Trumpeter Swans to take flight after ultralights take off and circle beckoningly.

I had exchanged a knowing smile with the biologist as the one fish she sought out of her aquarium tank found the one hole in her dip net.  This type of experience is part of the language of being a biologist and working in nature and with animals.  It is why we chose our profession and it often makes us story tellers, because nature is frequently like a play filled with many characters that cannot be grasped adequately by hearing one line or seeing a single scene.  There are lessons here.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Age in the Mirror of Self Delusion and Assumptions

Standing on the Florida beach next to my 97 year-old mother.  I look young.  Yeah, that's the ticket.  

By Bob Ferris

Time and age are relative, they say.  Sure.  I think of this today because this past week I met two fellows my age (i.e., born in 1952).  One I met over an argument in a fishing tackle shop and the other over lunch while watching white pelicans feed with brown on grouper guts at a fishing dock (I ate fried shrimp).   We each saw the other and made assumptions that were wrong.

Deschutes River red side rainbow.
Let's start with the argument.  I was introduced to a guy, also named Bob, from Oregon who lived much of the year in Florida.  We arm wrestled a bit about the relative value of "common sense" versus science while making our purchases.  We entered this fray with vigor via salvage logging and danced across his homespun illogic until we reached climate change.  I think we were scaring the customers so we took it outside where we eventually drifted to talk about the Metolius River in Oregon and the challenge of flinging little bugs long distances into gin-clear water.

Once in the parking lot this Bob told me in a conspiratorial tone that the secret of catching red sides there and on the Deschutes was knowing the holes and making the effort to hike to these remote salmonid Shangri-Las.  How far?  At least a mile, he responded.  Straight up a mountain? No, pretty much flat.  This short interchange made me understand how he saw me: as someone challenged to walk a couple of miles.  Ouch.    What part of me said that?  Okay, there was that time five years ago in late winter when I fished Drift Creek three miles down and three up where I was winded carrying gear and wadders on the return, but I was hiking with guys in the thirties.   A mile back and forth was cake.

Me and my old and patched Tilley.
The second man was someone named Gary who was from Ohio, not Indiana, who lived part of the year in Florida and mentioned several times that he loved fried foods.  This was just before he describe his offense at being told that he was of a size that could not go parasailing in Mexico.  He was barrel-chested and small armed.  He had trouble climbing in and out of his bench seat at our shared picnic table.

Ohio Gary fished too and we talked about snook and snappers caught from a boat.  I thought him old or older.  Sliding down that mountain without digging in his toes or finger nails.  As we got up to leave he told me was 66 hoping to reach 70.  I'm 66 contemplating buying a bike that will last me 30 years.  I saw him as older and he treated me as younger.   We were the same age, but seemed comfortable in this reality based adjustment. 

We all are complicated stews of assumptions, perceptions, delusions, and interpretations.  I wore my much patched Tilley hat fishing yesterday thinking myself somewhat Hemingway-like with my old hat and month and a half growth of white beard.  My younger sister tore away that self-image by telling me I looked like a deranged gold miner.  More Walter Houston (above) or Gabby Hayes, not Ernest at all.  And so it goes.