Rick Shory

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grape cuttings, rooting in jars of water


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Growing grapes, part 1, propagation

Growing a few grape vines around your house is a different proposition than a commercial vineyard. Much of the information you will find is geared towards large-scale production. In this post, I am going to concentrate on backyard growing. There are significant differences in focus, both in propagation techniques, and in training the vines.

 You start a new grape vine from a “cutting”. A cutting is simply a section of grapevine. You get roots to grow from the bottom, and leaves to grow from the top, and then you have a new grape plant. Grapes will grow from seeds (except of course seedless grapes), but you’re not sure what you’re going to get. To propagate a certain variety, you want to use cuttings.

In grape growing, you prune off a considerable amount of vine each winter. This naturally provides material for cuttings. Most information about grape propagation is geared towards these winter cuttings, made from dormant, leafless vines. I’ll discuss these, but also alternatives.

To start a sizeable vineyard, a grower would, of course, be dealing with a great number of cuttings. The easiest way to get these is to section up the prunings from existing vines. So a lot of grape propagation information concerns the mass organization, storage, and rooting of these winter cuttings. On a backyard scale, however, not all these points apply.

To divide out a section of vine to make a cutting it takes, of course, two cuts. One is the lower cut, which will be the bottom of the cutting, where roots will grow. The other is the upper cut, the top of the cutting, from which the leaves will develop. In large scale propagation, it’s handy to be able to tell these ends apart at a glance, and so a tradition has come about: The lower cut is straight across the vine, just below a node. The upper cut is angled, just above another node. If you receive grape cuttings, they will usually be done this way. If you are dividing up grapevines to make your own, it’s a handy grammar. However, you don’t have to strictly follow this.

Cuttings are usually made with at least three nodes, such as the one on the left in the picture below. This gives nice strong cuttings.  You may be surprised how long three-node cutting are. You may have a hard time finding a place to store them. You may be bringing some home in your airline luggage. You may have difficulty digging a hole deep enough to plant them. So, if you are making cuttings, and length is a problem, you can make two-node cuttings, like the one in the middle of the picture. (Click on the picture to enlarge.)

Three grape cuttings, one with three nodes, one with two nodes, and one with four nodes.

Grape cuttings: 3-node, 2-node, and 4-node.

It’s fine to have more nodes, such as the four nodes of the cutting on the right.

I have had one-node cuttings grow, by accident. When I prune my grape vines in winter, I just chop up the small stuff with my pruners, and let it fall on the ground. Usually, a few pieces happen to land among the garden plants just right, and get watered just right, so that some time the following summer they start to grow. Roots come out below the node, and the node bud opens out into leaves. So, if one little section of grape twig is all you can get, you might be able to grow a vine from it.

small section of grapevine, with only one node, shown as an example of how small a section can serve as a cutting

Even a small piece like this can grow

Commercial propagation consists of bundling up the grape cuttings for winter storage, and then getting them to grow in the spring. You may read about technique such as burying them in sawdust or sand, using rooting hormones, burying bundles upside down, and using bottom heat in a propagation bed. I’ll explain what these are about, and how they apply, or don’t, to home propagation.

The basic issue of storage is to keep the cuttings alive, and keep them from sprouting too soon. The main reason cuttings would die is from drying out, thus the burying in damp sawdust or sand. This is reasonable for large bundles, but there is no reason for you to go get these materials for only a few cuttings. You can just keep your cuttings in vegetable bags, like any other produce.

As I’ll describe later, you can start your cuttings growing in the winter. But then you are faced with the problem of keeping the plants healthy until spring when they can go outdoors. So, unless you particularly want to do this, you should keep cuttings cold, so they stay dormant. If you have only a few cuttings, you can keep them in your refrigerator. For more, you can store them outside.

Freezing is not particularly a problem for grape cuttings. Any variety you are planning to grow, which is hardy in your climate, can stand up to your winter temperatures. However, in continental climates, winter weather is often very dry. Therefore, grape cuttings left out on the open ground can dry out. A convenient way to both avoid this, and keep the cuttings organized, is to slip them into plastic vegetable bags, and tuck these under a few inches of dead leaves or other mulch. In a mild, wet-winter climate like the Pacific coast, you don’t even need to bury them. Grape cuttings may be too long for a single bag. You can use two bags, one “telescoped” inside the other.

grape cuttings in plastic bags, showing that if cuttings are too long for one bag, you can use two bags, one overlapping the other.

Bags for long cuttings, one overlapping the other.

If you have plenty of cuttings available, the easiest way to start a grapevine is simply to plant a number of cuttings close together where you want your vine.

eight grape cuttings planted close together

Grape cuttings planted

Here, I put eight cuttings close together. This was in early March, but you can do it any time in winter the ground is not frozen. I did not use any rooting hormone, or other treatment. The ground was so stony, I could not plant all of them as deep as ideal, which would have been with only the tip above ground.

Still, six of the eight cuttings grew. This picture is from the following December.

the same eight grape cuttings the following fall

Grape cuttings after a season’s growth

The point of this technique is that, even though some of the cuttings die, you still get a grapevine going. Just pull out the dead ones and the extras, and leave the strongest. If you have lots of cuttings, which you will if you have an existing grapevine, or know someone who does, this is by far the easiest way to start a new one.

Incidentally, there does not seem to be any pattern to which cuttings take hold. In this case, the two that died, out of the eight originally planted, looked just as strong and promising as the ones that grew.

the two cuttings that died, of the eight originally planted

The two cuttings that died

This multi-cutting method does not, of course, make sense for a large-scale planting. For that, you want to be pretty sure each cutting will grow, so you can line them out in rows and end up with a vineyard. From cuttings just stuck in the ground, I have always had more than 50% grow, typically 75%. But that’s nowhere near good enough for commercial production.  Filling in 25% gaps would be a lot of effort. It would be almost as much work to take out the extras, from mutliple cutting planted at each spot.

The propagation techniques you come across in the grape literature are all about increasing the odds per cutting, so you get one grape vine from each thing you plant.  For home-propagating a few vines, these techniques may not apply. If you have lots of cuttings, you can get away with a low per-cutting success rate.

But what if you have got ahold of only one precious cutting, which you absolutely must make grow? Maybe you had to pay a lot for it, or it was all the source could spare. Maybe it came from halfway around the world, and you will never be able to get another. I stumbled on a simple, inexpensive technique that, for me, has given 100% success: Root them in water.

Nowhere in all the propagation literature had I ever heard of rooting grape cuttings in water, but it works quite well. It allows you to carefully monitor progress, as well as being interesting to watch. It would be far too much fuss for mass production, but it’s ideal for a few.

grape cuttings, rooting in jars of water

Grape cuttings, rooting in jars of water

Just put your cuttings in jars that have some water. Change the water if it gets too murky. Because there is plenty of water, the cuttings cannot dry out and die, unless you let the water dry up. You can put the jars outdoors, in direct sun, so any leaf growth is firm and strong.

grape cuttings that have been in water, laid out to show the details of roots

Cuttings that have been in water, growing roots.

If you look close at the picture above, you will see that the source of the cuttings did not much follow the “grammar” of number-of-nodes, and straight- and angle-cuts. But the cuttings are rooting just fine. The conventional wisdom is that grape cuttings grow roots from the nodes. However, as you can see, the roots are coming from the bottom of the cuttings, ignoring the nodes. Cuttings do have a tendency to put out more roots near nodes, but this is by no means strict.

Cuttings with roots at this length are ready for planting. Short roots like this are called the “rice” stage; little white rods like grains of rice. Roots let to grow to the “spaghetti” stage are more prone to break off. Longer roots don’t give much advantage in water absorption. They have to develop a new set of root hairs, from additional growth, before they can supply much to the plant.

Virtually always, cuttings in water will have leafed out by the time they root. This is the main thing you will have to fuss over.

Roots absorb water, and leaves expend it. A typical scenario is this: Grape cuttings are planted out during cool, wet weather. They look fine, the foliage fresh as lettuce, as long as the rains remain. Then, one day, the weather turns hot and sunny. The roots can’t keep up, and the leaves shrivel. In the extreme, the whole thing may die. It can also happen that the leaves shrivel up, but the cutting hangs on till it finally makes enough root growth to put out new leaves. Although a cutting like this may survive, it will be set back, and not make nearly as much growth in its first year as a cutting without this hardship.

What to do? Simply shade a newly planted cutting until it adapts. You can rig up special shaders in various way, but often the simplest thing is to just put a lawn chair on the sunward side of a new grape cutting. This would be on the south side in the northern hemisphere, on the north side in the southern hemisphere. A cutting can handle as much indirect sky light as there is, and it won’t have much trouble with morning and evening sunshine. It’s direct mid-day sun will that will dry it out.

You only have to shade a new cutting for a few days, or a few weeks at most. Soon the roots extend and send more water up to the top. The leaves grow and send food down to the roots. And the plant is in business.

Up till now, we have been talking about cuttings from winter-dormant vines. I found by accident that you can root green leafy summer shoots.

Once, I had a chance to get grape cuttings of a variety I wanted to try, but it was midsummer, not the usual time. I kept the cuttings in water, intending to study them. After some weeks, I noticed they were growing roots.

cuttings taken in the summer that have grown roots

Summer cuttings may drop their leaves by the time they grow roots.

This can take quite a while. In this case it was September, and by then the shoots had dropped their leaves. But I had a rooted cutting I could plant.

detail of roots on summer grape cuttings

Roots on summer cuttings

Later, I saw summer grape cuttings being propagated in a university research greenhouse. These were two-bud cuttings, and half of each leaf had been removed to reduce water loss. The cuttings were under an “intermittent mist” system, which is a method that works very well, but it rather complex to set up.  So, if there is a variety of grape you want to try, and the only time you can get cuttings is when they are fully leafed out in summer, you can get fairly good success by rooting them in water.

For various reasons, you may need to transplant a grape vine. If at all possible, do this while the plant is dormant and leafless. Leaves lose a lot of moisture.

In my experience, you can transplant a grape vine of any size, but a mature plant will be set back for about a year. It will take hold, as though it were a large, rooted cutting, but it will put out less growth the first year after transplanting, and produce fewer grapes. A large grape vine can be quite physical to wrangle, so take this into account in deciding whether you want to move a vine, or simply start a new one. You can have grape vines in full production, from cuttings, in three years.

Below is a picture of a one-year-old grape plant, dug up for transplanting. This grew from a cutting merely stuck in the ground, with no other help than regular watering. It is typical for a vine to make only a few to several feet of top growth the first year. It’s developing lots of roots, getting ready to take off following year. Now, there is more root than top.

one-year-old grape plant, dug up for transplanting

Grape dug up for transplanting.

Grapevines typically have a root system that consists primarily of relatively few long, snakey roots, rather than much of a root ball. Notice the plant in the picture: Even though more roots started from near nodes, the strongest root came from between nodes. This is just the way it happens sometimes.

Grapes are mostly woodland plants, where their roots have to compete with trees. Their roots grow long, to seek out what they need. For the backyard grower, this means that after a few years, you are going to be finding your grapes’ roots many yards away, mining water and nutrients from whatever garden beds they can get into. Be aware of this when choosing a planting site.

Grapes do fairly well with their roots under a lawn, but be aware of what this can mean. For some years, when I lived in a dry climate in Colorado, I grew grapes on the chain link fence that bordered my neighbors. The neighbors were much more lawn conscious than me, so the grapes put most of their roots over there, where they could get more moisture. Then, at one point the neighbors were going to sell their house, so in order to spruce up the lawn, they sprayed weed killer. The grapes took it up, and nearly died!

You can of course grow grapes in pots, but they are not naturally adapted to this.

grape vines growing in pots

Potted grape vines

This picture is of some grape vines, in their first summer, developing from rooted cuttings. It is only July, and the plants are already getting to unmanageable size. If they were in the ground, the roots would have extended at least as long as the vine top growth. But here, the roots are having to spiral around and around inside the pots. These plants are sustained by drip irritation, and their water demand is only going to increase. If the moisture were ever interrupted, the plants would be severely stressed.

Of course nurseries only sell grapes as potted plants. Typically, these vines are fairly small. If they had been let to grow large in pots, they would be significantly potbound. They are going to have to stretch out their roots some time. If possible, let them do it from the start.

Now, I would like to demystify some of the grape propagation information you are likely to come across. Often, terms are given without any definition, and techniques are stated without any reason why.

You may come across the term “callus” in grape propagation. Callus is whitish cauliflower-like growth that plants may form in the process of re-organizing their tissues.

callus on the ends of grape cuttings

Well developed callus on grape cuttings

Some varieties of grape develop a considerable amount of callus, which serves as a signal that roots are on the way. However, others grape varieties make no visible callus before roots pop out.

a grape cutting that has roots, but developed little callus before rooting

Some cuttings root with little callus

The propagation literature may recommend a certain operation to “callus” cuttings; that is to nudge them towards creating roots. This is what “callus” means, used as a verb. Keep in mind there may or may not be any visible change.

The main reason grape cuttings fail and die is that leaf growth outstrips the moisture roots can supply.  Most of the details of large-scale grape propagation are to get around this problem, so a higher percentage of the cuttings succeed, and a vineyard planting will requires less fill-in afterwards. Again, this is less important for a home grower, but it’s the reason behind the recommended methods.

A bud is ready-made. All it needs to do is open and put out leaves. However, for a grape cutting to grow roots, it has to re-organize its tissues to create these. Different varieties of grapes vary in the time-lag it takes them to do this. In the extreme, you can get a leafed-out cutting that still has no roots at all. To improve on that, you want to speed up the formation of roots, relative to top growth.

Rooting hormones act as “auxins”, which are a type of naturally occurring plant hormone. Plants produces auxins in their growing shoot tips, and the auxins are transported downward through the stem. If the stem is cut off, the downward travelling auxin accumulates at the cut end and stimulates the tissues to re-organize into roots. There’s more to it, but that’s the general mechanism.

This explains why reluctantly-rooting grape cuttings will finally get around to growing some roots when the buds open. The growing shoot tips produce more auxin. This is how the water method works. It provides life support until roots grow, no matter how long it takes.

Rooting hormone is simply externally supplied auxin. Much like natural auxin, it moves downward through the stem and accumulates at the lower cut end. The usual mode of application is by dipping the rootward end of a cutting into a powder or a solution, so the hormone starts near to where it’s needed. Then the cutting is planted in a soil-like medium.

It’s an open question whether rooting hormone would help cuttings root in water. Would the auxin accumulate in the water and help? Or would the water dilute it, and lessen its effect? From the product standpoint, this is usage beyond its specifications. From the plant standpoint, grape cuttings root fine in water without it.

Another aid to rooting is “bottom heat”. All else being equal, plant life processes go faster at warmer temperature. If we were to keep the bottom of the cutting, where we want roots, warmer than the top, the lower end should grow roots while the top is still dormant.

This is, in fact, exactly what happens. Bottom heat is much used in commercial propagation. However, when you start looking into it, you will find it amounts to considerable outlay in effort, equipment, and expense. You will have to decide if the investment is worth it for a few grape cuttings.

The idea of burying bundles of grape cuttings upside down for some period of time is to use nature as bottom heat. Since soil warms in the spring from the top down, this will make the root ends of the cuttings warmer than the tops. This technique could tip the balance in large-scale commercial production, if the weather and climate cooperate. However, think for a moment what’s involved in digging holes big enough to bury long bundles of grape cuttings. Not to mention, digging them all up later, to plant right-side-up. There is no reason to do this, to start a few new plants.

I have tried various things with water, to get roots while buds were still dormant. One time, I used winter-dormant cutting in late fall. I put them in water, in an indoor growth chamber about 70 degrees F. I knew that most deciduous plants have a “chill requirement” and the buds won’t open until a certain time period of cold weather has elapsed. I figured I could get roots, with the buds still closed.

Well, the plants had their own idea. The cuttings rooted well, but the buds opened too. By January, I had healthy, actively growing grape plants. Again, unless you particularly want these decorations, you should keep your cuttings cold, and dormant, till spring.

I tried the bottom-heat idea, with water. My system involved an aquarium heater, in the refrigerator. The bottom ends of the cuttings were held at about 78 degrees F, while the tops remained about 40F. This worked, to some extent, but it was a huge amount of trouble.

Coming soon, part two, grape vine training.

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The “big one” earthquake

This entry was inspired by a friend on the other side of the country, emailing to ask if I knew about this:

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/07/20/the-really-big-one

Of course, everybody in the Pacific Northwest knows about the Cascadia Subduction Zone, and the long overdue “Big One” earthquake. But it’s not going to sink in until it hits.

Near the top of my list when I bought my house was earthquake retrofit. A lot of gay guys, their first thought would be “Decorate!” Mine was “Earthquake safety!”

I researched, and it emerged that the most concrete (so to speak) thing you can do is keep the house from jumping off its foundation. That means bolting these big metal plates between the concrete and wood. At first I was going to do it myself, but like most one-time jobs I would have made a lot of mistakes, and have to re-do it later. So I got bids and paid for the work. A good thing too. I had bought the wrong length bolts. They would have poked all the way through the foundation wall.

I went with the contractor who was the most, shall we say, neurotic about earthquakes. I knew he was my man when my eyes began to glaze over as he rambled on about shear planes and foot-pounds. This guy was into it. He’d to the best job that could be done.

But of course, nobody really knows. Earthquake bracing is not something you can test, and then have a second try.

When the job was done and the inspectors came by to sign off, they expressed a range of opinions. One related a city in South America, I’ll call it “Terremoto”. Terremoto had similar architecture to Portland. Terremoto was struck by an earthquake of similar magnitude to what’s expected here, and “80% of the houses survived”. That sounded pretty heartening. On the other hand, another inspector thought the situation would be like your whole world inside a rotary clothes dryer for three minutes. Not so heartening.

But humans are pretty hard to kill off. The Johnstown Flood of 1889 is distant enough in human memory that it is no longer part of pop culture. If not for that Big One, there would have been no “the” Johnstown Flood. Johnstown flooded every time it rained hard. Tiptoeing across their city streets on planks, balanced above sluicing water, was a way of life. The decrepit dam upstream, which everybody knew about, had cried wolf innumerable times by resolutely not breaking in flood after flood.

The Big One for Johnstown arrived in the middle of the night, in the form of the homogenized remains of the lake and dam. This roiling mass was so high and swift it snapped the telegraph lines, precluding any warning. It had picked up various miscellany on its journey. Among these were the stock and infrastructure of a barbed wire factory. After covering Johnstown to a depth only its taller buildings poked above, the watery mass took a siesta. It clogged the arches of a bridge down from the city, and so lay as a lake over Johnstown, until rescue workers finally blasted the debris some days later.

So: Zero warning. Complacent population. Woken from sound sleep in the middle of the night. What do you think the death rate was? This was an ordinary town, with its share of babies, elderly, the bedridden and infirm. What percent? Less than ten percent. Pretty hard to kill off.

If I had the time to accumulate a Ph.D. in Sociology, I’d study what people do when the game changes. “Game change”, is, after all, what people worry about. Big game changes: Global warming. Economic collapse. Solar flare. Alien contact. Or personal game changes: Losing your job. Cancer. Your teenage daughter getting pregnant. But always, changing the game. The old rules are gone. You won’t know what to trust. You have to figure things out all over again.

In the sociology of it, there would be lots of questions: What’s the correspondence of people who come out on top in the new game vs. the old game? Are they the same persons? Is it random? Do new folks come to the fore, who nobody ever noticed in the old game?

More important for the individual, are there some personal qualities that go with being able to make it, no matter the game? If I had to guess, I’d expect those qualities would include health, good attitude, and a wide range of practical skills. What I suspect even more is that people who have not mastered the current game are less likely to make it in the new one. Particularly, if they are so wrapped up in preparing for some particular game change they’re out of touch with current reality.

Doom sayers are occasionally right, by the law of averages; but it seldom does them or anybody else any good. And they have low odds on the particular doom.

That said, I do have fairly complete earthquake kit made up, though housemates keep borrowing the duct tape. The tape is for strapping plastic over the hollow frames of the windows, after the concussions have smashed all the glass out.

For a couple years, we saved all the two-liter plastic soft drink bottles as they got empty. Rinsed, filled with water, and tucked away, they wait. In field work, I came to like these for emergency water. They don’t expand and contract with temperature and elevation, as those cubical water containers do, and so wear little holes in their corners. The cubitainers might only drip, but those slow drips add up to empty, when you finally open them in the middle of the desert.

Those two liter bottles could jostle around under the seats of the rig, all the summer field season. When we cleaned out in the fall, we’d play catch with them. They could survive a bounce on pavement, from up to a six foot drop.

So maybe we’ll make it through the Big One. Or maybe the archeologists will dig up my earthquake bracing plates and be impressed with my design makeover after all, how I artistically placed them all around the perimeter for feng shui. The sociologists will wonder why we needed so many plastic bottles to play catch.


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Poplars north of the Brooks

Title: Populus North of the Brooks Range: Temporary Adventives, or Yet Another Sign of Global Warming?

Abstract:

Populus L. is rare north of the Brooks Range in Alaska. Populus balsamifera L. (balsam poplar) is noted from a few refugia and Populus tremuloides Michx. (quaking aspen) is not reported at all. The current observations, however, find them both to be fairly common in disturbed areas such as roadsides and old gravel diggings. This may represent northward spread of these species due to climate change, or merely temporary survival after accidental introduction. These first observations are presented as a baseline, to allow determining this in future years.

Introduction:

The word “tundra” means “treeless”, and that is the character of Alaska’s North Slope, from the Brooks Range to the Arctic Ocean. In this open country, trees stand out. People have noted the few stands of Populus balsamifera L. (balsam poplar). One grove is at Ivishak Hot Spring, where geothermal warmth creates a microclimate equivalent to much further south. Scattered populations of P. balsamifera are known from along major rivers, where flowing water evidently contributes to warming the soil. One locally known site is a very steep south-facing slope in a sheltered hollow.

The limiting factor is evidently permafrost depth. Tundra soils are typically frozen most of the year, with only the surface thawing in summer. The permanently frozen subsoil, which extends to great depth, prevents penetration by tree roots. The common factor in all previously observed P. balsamifera stands appears to be that the soil thaws to greater depth than typical for the North Slope tundra.

Populus tremuloides Michx. (quaking aspen) is the tree with the greatest range in North America, being found in all of the 50 United States. Yet the range maps in both Flora of Alaska and of NRCS indicate it is not present north of the Brooks Range at all.

This observer, therefore, thought it was remarkable when he began finding both of these species near Tookik Field Station (TFS). Toolik is the site of many ecological surveys, with exhaustive documentation of all natural phenomena. Yet Toolik botanists were evidently unaware these two species existed in the vicinity.

Methods:

These observations were undertaken during a brief stint at TFS, 26 August to 7 September 2011.

The overall plan was to record parameters on each individual of Populus seen. The goal was to choose parameters that will readily show changes in health, biomass and/or abundance in future years. The parameters chosen were GPS location, height, age, and number of clonal stems. In addition, digital photographs were taken, though these may be of limited usefulness as hard data.

GPS locations were recorded using a hand-held Garmin GPSmap 60CSx. Positional accuracy was typically good to 2 to 3 meters. Locations were recorded as waypoints. Individuals of Populus were scattered, so there was seldom any ambiguity as to which waypoint corresponded to which individual. The datum was WGS 84. Waypoint coordinates included both decimal degrees and UTM. Waypoint timestamps were automatically recorded in Pacific Daylight Time (default time zone for the device).

Where coordinates are given in this document with no other explanation (for example: 68.03210853, -149.67015512) the first number is latitude and the second is longitude, both in decimal degrees. Positive latitude means north of the equator and negative longitude means west of Greenwich meridian. The datum is WGS 84.

Heights of individuals were measured using a folding 2-meter tape, and are given in centimeters, to the nearest centimeter. The number recorded is the maximum height of any stem from terminal bud tip, measured straight down to solid ground surface. Seldom was there sufficient slope that the “tallest” stem by these criteria was in question. Much of the local tundra is spongy, so “solid ground surface” could be indefinite; but all Populus were on sites having a hard substrate covered by no more than a litter of fallen leaves.

Determining individuals

Both observed species of Populus have a marked tendency to send up adventitious stems from their spreading roots, and thus to become clonal colonies. In only one case was there any possible ambiguity as to which aggregation of stem represented a clone. In this case, two clumps were near each other, not much more distant than the size of the clumps. In all other cases, clumps were widely separated.

At the observation time, deciduous tundra species were in the process of normal autumn senescence, their leaves turning yellow and gold. The different Populus clumps varied in shade of leaf color and timing of leaf fall, providing another means of distinguishing the various clones from each other, and from Salix (willows).

In the data record, each Populus clone is considered one individual. In the single ambiguous case, the two clumps are recorded as separate individuals.

Individuals are coded using the standardized NRCS species codes, followed by an underscore and a three-digit numerical identifier. The numbers are the order in which the individuals were found, 001 being the first. The NRCS code for P. balsamifera is POBA2, so the code for the first individual found of that species is POBA2_001. The species code for P. tremuloides is POTR5, so the first found individual of that species is POTR5_001.

In recording stems per clump, stems were counted as distinct if they had at least 1 cm of space between them at ground surface. This arbitrary criterion might possibly yield some confounding counts in future years, if stem bases widen to have less than this distance between. In most cases, however, stems were either well distinct, or closely aggregated. Clones that produced aggregated sprouts appeared to be rapidly proliferating. If such clones remain as healthy in future years, the stem count will increase to indicate this, even if there is some uncertainty in the number or stems.

Some stems were very short, but they were counted if they had even one recognizable leaf or bud.

Distinguishing species

P. tremuloides is easily recognized. The leaves have a distinctive shape range, from cordate to broadly lanceolate, often wider than long. The laterally flattened petiole, which causes the leaf to “quake”, is also diagnostic.

P. balsamifera would not be confused with P. tremuloides but possibly with some of the shrubby Salix (willows). All had yellow leaves (at the observation time), and some Salix leaves were similar in shape to P. balsamifera. However P. balsamifera stems have a distinctive upright growth habit with a central leader, while all local Salix are spreading. After eye training to develop a search image, P. balsamifera was easy to spot. An unambiguous diagnostic was the axillary buds. In P. balsamifera these have a large, pointed, enwrapping scale with a shorter truncate scale distal to (“in front of”) the large scale. Salix have a single sack-like bud scale.

Populus Axillary Bud

Axillary bud of P. balsamifera, showing bud scale structure common to all species in the genus Populus. This unambiguously distinguishes them from Salix (willows).

All putative Populus individuals were checked for these diagnostic characteristics.

Age estimates

Age of Populus individuals was estimated by counting bud scale scar rings. This is a non-destructive technique useful for estimating growth years of woody species where the plant can be observed all the way to the top.

Bud scales are modified leaves. When they fall off after bud break, scars remain on the stem similar to those left by the bases of petioles of regular leaves. Since the bud scales are in close proximity to each other, their scars form a visually identifiable “ring” around the twig where the terminal bud was that winter.

As the stem elongates out of the bud during the season’s growth, the first leaves are close to the bud scale ring, and close to each other. As growth continues, the leaf bases become spaced further apart, up to a typical maximum.

As stem growth slows in anticipation of dormancy the leaf positions again become closer together. When the terminal bud forms, the bud scales have no stem extension between them, and so their bases form another ring.

Bud Scale Scar Ring

Ring of bud scale scars on P. balsamifera stem, indicating sections that developed during two succeeding growing seasons. A few bud scales persist.

It is thus possible to read back along a stem and count the previous seasons of growth. The pattern of leaf/scale scars becoming more distant from each other and then close together again defines a year of growth. It is usually possible to read back at least 5 years at high confidence, often more.

Deciduous trees can perform two or more cycles of bud break and growth in a single year. This is rare, and usually due to extremely favorable growing conditions, unlikely in the arctic.

This scar ring count can only yield a minimum age, for various reasons:

As woody stems become older, the bark thickens, stretches, and cracks. This finally obscures the leaf/scale scars.

Many deciduous trees have the ability to persist as stunted seedlings for years, then grow rapidly when conditions improve. Coupled with bark roughening at the stem base, this could hide many years of a tree’s age.

If a stem is broken off, growth resumes from a lateral bud. All the growth information above the break is lost, though the remaining stub above the activated lateral bud indicates at least one year’s growth, and the change in branch angle is evident. The Populus stems observed had many partially missing tops like this, probably due to winter storm damage.

Similarly, aboveground stems may be completely removed by browsing, disease, or winter kill. If the roots re-sprout, as Populus easily do, scar rings can only count the years since this occurred. In a few cases the remains of dead stems indicated the clone was older than the oldest living stem observed. Usually, though, the group appeared too young for this to be so.

Search protocol

A “GPS track” was recorded while searching for individuals. This is a semi-standard technique used in rare plant surveys. The GPS receiver is set to internally record a position periodically by time interval, by distance interval, or by an “auto” algorithm combining both time and distance. The “auto” setting was used.

This track provides a series of locations that define a search path. Since recording is automatic, it does not distract from the search. Each track location is timestamped. This allows geo-referencing of the digital photographs by matching the photo file creation timestamp to the nearest track point timestamp. Timestamping also verifies observation date and time.

The track can later be displayed on a map to show the path searched. It can reasonably be assumed that any individuals of interest within a certain proximity to the search path would have been seen, the proximity depending on terrain. In the open North Slope tundra, this proximity would be at least ten meters either side of the search path. By this means confirmation of absence can be established for an area.

(This post is under construction.)


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Lubricating your Bicycle Chain

We were all out to lunch on a nice spring day.

“Have you been to ‘Damn Yankee’?” Anna asked.
“What is it?”
“It’s the new bike shop, up the next block.  I thought sure you’d know about it.”

I guess, since I don’t own a car and bike everywhere, people expect me to be up on all things bicycle.  I don’t even follow the Tour de France.  Does a long-haul truck driver, after his days in the cab, go watch cars drive around, for fun?

“Where is it?  I can’t place it.”
“Next door to ‘The Screaming Peach’,” she said.

“That name sounds sort of familiar,” I mused.  Anna is always up on popular culture.  She knows more about Princess Di than I ever will.

“It’s that new waxing studio,” she said.

I chuckled at the clever name.  I cringed at the thought.  Talking to me about hair removal is like talking to the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz about fire.

Anna needed to go by “Damn Yankee” to see if her bike were ready.  I went with her, walking my own bike.  She explained the name.  “The guy who owns it is a Yankee, from somewhere in the East.”
We entered a storefront nearly bare of furniture and goods.  A bike stand, the kind you clamp a bicycle in to work on, sprouted sideways out of the wall, rather than rising from the ground as I’d seen before.

Anna talked to the owner, Jimmy.  I looked around the shop.  I glanced at articles pinned up on the wall.  Truly a temple of bicycle worship, being created here.

“I can get anything by next-day delivery,” Jimmy casually remarked, “So I don’t need to carry a lot of fucking inventory.”

Damn!  I thought, He is a Yankee!  I was raised, in the Old South.  There, a guy would never use that kind of language in front of a female.  At least till she did first.  I warmed up to him instantly.

On the shelf I spied bottles of chain lubricant.  My supply at home was getting low.  I picked up one.  “You may never have to clean your chain again!” the label announced.  This was one of those fancy wax lubricants, supposed to flake off when it got dirty.

I had tried them before.  It had not been the end of chain cleaning.  The drive train still accumulated a thick, black layer of grime.  The consistency was different, more like asphalt, compared to the good old grease of yesteryear.  On second thought, it had been the end of chain cleaning.  The mess was so bad I gave up trying.

But I needed some kind of lube.  I may as well support this guy, I thought.  I had one question I was going to ask.  This was a brand I’d tried before.  Of course it claimed to be the eighth wonder of the world, in lubricating ability.  It did all right.  But its relation to wax showed up in an inconvenient way.  I congealed and clogged the nozzle, so you couldn’t get it out of the bottle.  I’m sure it would have been a great lubricant if you could.

I was all set to ask if they’d fixed this problem.  Jimmy cut me off.

“You don’t need that stuff!” he exclaimed, “Just put paraffin on your chain.”
“Uh, How do I do that?” I asked, amazed.  He was turning down a sale?

“This little crock pot,” he indicated the vessel on a side table.  “I just melt Gulfwax and dip in the chain.”  He demonstrated how he spiraled the chain up in a double coil, for a tidy footprint.

I was amazed.  “That’s all there is to it?”
“Yeah,” he said in his Yankee accent, “That’s where the wax lubes came from.  It’s all the racers have used for years.”

He demonstrated, “Let it work a few minutes, for the wax to soak in.  Wait till bubbles rise.”  While it was cooking he showed me assembled bikes treated so.  Their chains, rings, and derailleurs were silver rather than black.  It was incredible.  They looked naked.

I was warming up to the idea.  “I’m so bad about not lubing my chain,” I mused, “But this is interesting enough, I might actually do it.”

Anna had gone on.  Jimmy and I talked longer.  I was completely won over by his business attitude of helping the customer, rather than quick sales.  I was definitely going to patronize him again.

“So if I come to the back parking lot,” we ambled towards the rear door, “What storefronts are you next to?”

“Right with Solmon’s Deli,” he said, “And of course ‘The Screaming Peach’.”  He noticed my cringe.  “You know what I call that place?” he went on, “But I can’t say it in public.”

“Oh, come on.”

He didn’t need much encouragement, “The cunt shavers,” he shook his head, “One guy, they were getting him cleaned up for his wedding.  Waxed his balls.  Took most of the skin off.  Another guy does his forearms so you can see the muscles ripple.”

“If they’re that hard to see, I’d rather have the hair.”  I felt like sharing from my own repertoire of depilatory horrors, though I’d had mere brushes.  Jimmy and I were male bonding, after all.

“Before I bought my house,” I started my anecdote, “I lived in this communal place, owned by a young Sociology professor, Mona Palmer.  She’s very right on, fighting corporate power and all.  But she’s also quite the diva.  One day I came home, and all the male housemates were crowded around her in the bathroom.  She was doing a show-and-tell of waxing.”

At this point, a careful listener to the transcript tapes will hear a slight stumble in my narration.  I had barely met this guy, scarcely knew him.  But I had talked myself into a corner.  If I went on, I was about to come out to him.  Oh, well.  What’s male bonding, if you can’t come out?

I plunged on with my little story.  “Mona painted a layer of the wax on her forearm.  After it congealed, she ripped it off.  Much to my horror.

‘You want to try it?’ she offered.  She smiled innocently to the stricken knot of manhood.

‘Not me!’ I backed away.

‘Oh, you’d do it,’ she coyly chided, ‘For the right boy!’

‘No,’ I assured her, trying to keep my voice level.  I even attempted humor, ‘If he even knew what waxing was, he wouldn’t be the right boy’.”

By now Jimmy and I were in the parking lot.  I rode off on my grease-encrusted drive train.  I wondered later if he’d even noticed I’d told him I was gay.  Things like that used to go right by me too.


To my mind there are three levels of dirty work.

There’s normal dirty.  Like changing a tire.  On a dirt road.  In the rain.  While trying to find a level spot for the jack between the mud puddles.  While dodging the road-spray from passing cars.

There’s nasty dirty.  Like repairing a wastewater discharge pipe.  Which has been leaking for 15 years.  Into the 18-inch crawlspace you have to work in.  That’s festooned with cobwebs.  And laced with desiccated blackberry brambles.  And furnished with the occasional dead cat.

And then there’s working on your bike.

The merest touch, and your hands are contaminated with black grease.  The grease transfers by an unnoticed series of subsequent mere touches to every tool, surface, and article of clothing.  And the exterior of the dish soap bottle when it’s time to finally wash it off.  So it gets back on you when you put the bottle away.

Actually accomplishing work on the bike, that’s a lot worse.

The idea of paraffin-coating my chain held the promise that this would be no more.  A truly life-changing event.  I steeled myself for the ordeal of filth one last time.

The problem with living by yourself is you have to play all the family roles.
I was the unruly teenager, ready to dive into this adventure, devil-may-care.
But I was also the housewife, thinking about grease-stained clothing to launder.
And the middle-aged homeowner, worried that permanent oil dribbles on the flagstones might cut the resale value of the property.

The compromise was to work on a large sheet of butcher paper.  And this on top of a bed of absorbent pine needles.  The clothing solution was to wear as little as possible.  Only a faded pair of cut-off sweat pants, found wadded on a forgotten shelf.
And so we began.

I started the paraffin to melting in a shallow aluminum pie dish.  I floated it in water in one of my frying pans.  For some reason there were no old cans the right size in the recycling.  The pan looked tipsy, but I couldn’t wait.  I might lose my nerve.

I disassembled the bicycle.  I put the gunky rear wheel on the butcher paper.  I set the gunky frame on the long suffering picnic table.  I started to struggle with the gunky chain.

This was one of those chains with a link that would come apart without tools.  The first trick was finding the special link.  I looked.  I couldn’t see it.  I poked at the grease-encrusted spans and rivets.  My fingers were getting grease-encrusted themselves.  I gave up all pretense of elegance and just fed the whole length through the gears, inch by inch.  I had to scrape the grease back from the side of each link to see if it were the special one.  Finally, the link turned up.

I pinched and prodded, but the quick link was clotted with gritty grease.  The release mechanism was blocked.  I went and got pliers.  This delivered smears of black grease to various points of the toolbox.  I went and got solvent, biodegradable citrus of course.  This left more smudges.  I went and got old rags and toothbrushes.  This further anointed the kitchen and back room with dark smears.

Finally the chain came apart.  I dropped it into a jar and poured on citrus solvent.  Next, the rear wheel.  I dribbled citrus on the gear cluster and started brushing.  Chips of gritty black flicked off, and dirty orange-scented oil sprayed with each stroke.  I pulled strips of blackening rag back and forth between the gears.  It was a chill morning.  The cutoff sweat pants weren’t enough.  Fortunately, some of the rags were still wearable.

On the derailleur gears, the black deposits were so thick I literally peeled off the first layer.  As the bike got cleaner, I bore the brunt.  My legs and ankles were freckled by drops of flung spray.  Squatting over the awkward metal, I would sway back and get poked by the pine needles.  I had dirty orange solvent dripping down to my elbows.  Finally it was done.

Yes, the pie pan was too tipsy.  The hot wax spilled on the first try, but I got it back together.  Into that melted paraffin went the oddly silver chain.  I let it cook, then drew it forth.  I carried it outdoors to cool.  There was so much orange solvent splashed around the back yard, it smelled like Florida after a tornado.

I got myself unto the shower, and the gunk would not quit.  Smears of black appeared on the floor of the bathtub.  Of course chips of the tarry buildup had tracked into the bathroom on the soles of my bare feet.  They were now streaking into a craze of Chinese brushstrokes across the once-white porcelain.

Finally the job was done.  I think it’s been worth it.  Now, when I go pick up a rental car, I can shove my bike in the back seat and not leave permanent black stencil marks all over the upholstery.  The job of re-paraffining every couple of weeks is almost fun.  More like a science project now, than an autopsy.

But I’m a little nervous.  I can’t talk about this too much.  Sure, it’s nice to be clean and suave.  But what will people say?  I’m going so mainstream!  I have given in to the allure of waxing!


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North Rim

Cruising north out of Flagstaff, I suddenly realized where I was. I popped the library CD out of the deck and surfed FM channels.

Lately I have experimented with the cultural norm of listening to CDs. I’m sure everybody else, years ago, got their CD player, figured out what kind of music they liked, and built up their collection. They have their folder of tunes slipped in little plastic sleeves, and they run them every moment they are in the car.

Me, finally after months, I realized every rental car has a CD player. You can’t very well read while you’re driving, you can’t check email. It’s a workaholic’s nightmare anyway, so, to pass the time, why not?

I owned a total of one CD. I played it till I knew every song. Then I noticed, the library had CDs. Well, all you have to say is “library CDs”, and people nod knowingly. Maybe a good artist, but not his or her best. Why else would it have ended up in the library? But I was in for some long drives, so I stocked up.

To the Denver airport, it had been 60’s pop medley. Technically well done; but that psychedelic stuff loses something without the funk. Singing it, had to be either a Christian choir, or a gay chorus. I could not tell which. The world over, and probably all through history, groups of people who have the hardest time with each other, (Arabs vs. Jews, Protestant vs. Catholic Irish, Iowa vs. Nebraska) nobody else can even tell them apart!

Never thought of that before with gays vs. Christians. Both are painfully nice. Both are sadly misunderstood by the general population, who continually worry those people are going to try to convert them. And they both do great vocals.

Phoenix from the air looks like a toy city, but somebody stuck big chunks of rock in the model. Gaunt desert mountains jut abruptly out of checkerboard neighborhoods. The hours north, driving through hillsides of paloverde trees and blooming saguaro cactus, the tunes had been Boy George, Kenny Loggins, and Dan Fogleberg; none of them very memorable. I was pretty close to the bottom of the CD barrel by the time I arrived in the Ponderosa parks around Flagstaff. Now something better was out there.

The pines thinned mile by mile as I dropped in elevation towards the desert. The channel seek kept finding only NPR. Finally I caught it. Station KGHR, 91.5 FM, broadcasting from Tuba City. Oh, this was a prize! Navaho radio, “native voices”. I loved it.

There was an old woman chanting. Minutes of repetitive tones. Totally unintelligible to me. But, I expect, one of their traditional chants they have been singing at least a century of two. Not a bit “produced”. Raw sound, as though you’re in the room with her. I felt so honored. I felt like such a pahana tourist.

  “Pahana”: Hopi word for “white person”.

The purple, green, and chocolate hills of the Painted Desert rolled by. Next on the airwaves was a male singer, evidently off an album, more a radio kind of thing. It was a love song, but with that unmistakable Indian flavor. “…Her hair was black as chokecherries, her lips tasted like buffaloberries…”.

I couldn’t help wondering if the artist were messing with us. Buffaloberries (Shepherdia) are intensely tart, piquant. Too concentrated a flavor to take much of at once. Maybe Native men like their women that way. Maybe I like my men that way too. Maybe I am that kind of man.

But after the sensory overload of a buffaloberry, the aftertaste calls you back for more. Working in Western river bottoms where  those berries grow, I seek them out. Maybe this singer meant what he said after all. Makes as much sense as the Anglo “kisses sweeter then wine”. They both make you pucker up.

All too soon, KGHR faded out, as I cruised through The Gap, took the turn to Marble Canyon, and crossed the bridge over the green Colorado River far below.

I pulled off at Cliff Dweller, as we had prearranged. There were four rigs of us altogether. The young men and women piled out and went inside the restaurant for a pee stop. Edgar and I hung out.

“You ever been through here before?” he asked.

“This general area,” I replied, “Just a year ago, coming back from Havasu. North from Flag, but I turned back there,” I gestured south and east, “And went through Kayenta, four corners. And we had a project in Escalante National Monument just north of here, three, four years in a row. So I was in Kanab and Page. The first year I worked it, we camped up on this mesa a couple weeks, so remote we were helicoptered in. A lonely place. At night you could just barely see car lights way, way off in the distance to the south. Could’ve been this highway here.”

I thought about it, “But I haven’t been on this very road since, let’s see, 1977! A couple of us in the Northwest got this wild idea, to escape the rain and go to Tucson for the winter. We came through Jacob Lake, and I remember Marble Canyon. It was early October when we got there. Tucson had cooled down to a hundred and three at night.”

We laughed.

Towering to the north, behind the buildings, were the Vermilion Cliffs, tall stacks of red sandstone, roughly matching a set we had passed on the other side of the river on the way here. Here, the road followed a roughly level platform below the breaks, and the river canyon was a wide crack in the ground.

Edgar indicated the cliffs. “They say they’re slowly receding.” I knew what he meant. A hard layer of rock above, and a softer one below. Erosion takes the soft stuff away, undercuts the hard, till it spalls off in chunks. Over geologic time, the cliffs remain cliffs, but become farther from the river.

“Yeah,” I squinted up at the rock masses, deadpan, “I think they’re a little farther back since 1977.” Dry, geologic chuckles.

the vermilion cliffs

Vermilion cliffs.

Several miles west, we turned south off the highway onto a dirt road. I took it slow, for the little car’s low clearance, and to hang back from the other rigs’ dust.

It must have been a wet winter. Desert flowers were blooming all along the track. There were great bushes of white Prickly Poppy, tall spires of yellow Prince’s Plume, and, in places, almost a lawn of Desert Dandelion. In the distance, there were splashes of color across the valley floor that could only have been Globe Mallow. It was an absolutely saturated orange, so bright it didn’t look real. It was easily as solid a color as the red of the sandstone.

Grasses waved in the breeze and poked up tall between slats of cattle guards. I mentally inventoried the species, and thought of ways to teach lookalikes. These two both splay, but notice that one dangles down while this one sticks up. These two kinds look like an artist’s paintbrush; but, see, this one is random, while that one has two tidy ranks, like a stalk of wheat. Those hairs? The hairs are called “awns”.


I had arrived on the doorstep of Sky Island Preserve (SIP) the evening before. They are a conservation nonprofit, mission to protect and restore the local lands. Edgar’s project was to inventory the holdings and grazing allotments of two ranches they’d recently bought. The ranches were a huge, remote, and magnificent spread.

Sometimes, my job feels like a trapeze act, or being some kind of secret agent. I had been in email touch with Edgar a few weeks. He was interested in using our methods for his survey.

We too were interested in them using our methods. In scientific research, fame is important as money. It leads to money. If we can say such-and-such organizations (a long, impressive list) are all doing research based on our work, well then we must obviously be the leaders, tops in our field. So, you, Congress, or whoever, obviously should continue to fund us, bigtime.

One of our thrusts lately is getting all our stuff posted on the web, so even more people can use it, and further increase our fame. Well, the stuff itself works well, but it’s a matter of getting it across, how to use it.

I, of course, built most of the stuff, so it seems logical I should write it up. Well, the guy who built it is the worst to explain it, because he knows how it works. But there’s nobody else, so I am writing and writing and writing. Trying to imagine I don’t know what I know, can’t understand what I understand, and basically have never seen it before.

It’s pure gold when I meet a naïve user. Find out whether I am getting it across. With Edgar and his project, somewhere in Arizona, we had struck gold. Day by day, I would get polite, excited, but very baffled emails. Does it do this? Of course it does that, I would write back, all you have to do is this. Can it do that? Oh it was built to do that! All you need to do is go in and do such and so.

And I’m thinking, but I wrote that up. It’s right there in paragraph 142z, diagram 96a. Howcome people aren’t getting it? Well, I was getting feedback. This had to be front and center, while that could be back a few pages. Also, I was learning, people setting up a project are frazzled,  not in the leisure mode to wade through tomes of documentation.

Than, at the last minute, the download logger broke. The download logger tallies who downloads what. The download logger records the raw material for our long, impressive lists of users. Without it, we have no idea who has our stuff, if they’re happy with it, or are badmouthing us over some glitch we could easily fix. So in a frenzy, I pulled the plug on downloads, and posted:  “If you need stuff, ask me.  Send me email.”

It was obvious SIP, somewhere in Arizona, was not going to get it from our website in time. They’d helped us, so I wanted to help them. “Why don’t you send me down there a few days?” I asked the boss. He gave the nod. The secret agent part began. The dark car pulling up in the middle of the night in the rain. I bundled inside, and was soon winging through the air in a private jet. Ok, ok, a commercial airliner.

I wonder if real secret agents have to deal with this. The slip of paper with the rendezvous point. Nowadays, of course, it’s would be an electronic text message, mysteriously appearing in your mobile shoe-phone. Meet Saturday afternoon, 16:00 hours, 1913 E Mesa Park Ave. Somewhere in Arizona.

They forgot to tell me what city. Oh well, all in a day’s work. If I can write some of the leading field data acquisition software in the world, I can certainly work around a little detail like that.

I pulled up to SIP headquarters at the appointed hour. A few of the newly hired field people were there, and the rest soon arrived. Eight young men and two young women. This was a plum job, and Edgar had selected them from a broad field of applicants. Obviously highly qualified, they asked good questions, and dove right in to getting things ready.

I met Edgar. He looked at me in surprise. Finally he got the words out, “I didn’t expect such a big beard,” he laughed.

“What? Balding and pocket protectors?” I joshed.

“Yeah, more like that,” he admitted, “From computer programming.”

I nodded towards the new team. “That’s where I came from,” I said, “I’m a field guy from way back. After working enough projects with lame data collection, I finally lucked into a place where I could do it right. Make it work the way we need it to.”

Late into the night, we worked prepping, arranging and setting up. Still later in the night, I sat with Edgar loading, marking, labeling, and testing. Good for me to see what all I’d need to put upfront in my documentation, what questions would come up first. In the morning, I took the crews through the initial paces of the equipment, and we set out for our field site.


Three hours later we got to our destination, in the middle of utter, spectacular desolation. We pulled up to the old ranch house “It was completely unlivable when we bought the place,” Edgar had said.

The old ranch house.

The old ranch house.

A wiry little man, gray moustache, shirt off, was working in front of a side building. This was Clem, who had restored the old stone and adobe structure to habitability.

Us new arrivals hauled in supplies and rustled up lunch, taco salad, cuisine from the NOLS cookbook. We set up office mostly on porches, or even out in the grass. Space was too limited inside the few buildings, and much of that was still construction zone. Electrical power was from deep-cycle batteries, through an inverter.

After lunch, under the bright afternoon sun we held a session on plant ID. The teams were sure learning their weeds — that’s about all there were around the ranch buildings. Then we laid out a practice plot.

people looking on as we explain field methods

No matter what, we are always standing on sacred ground.

I think there is a gene that gets activated in a certain strain of young people, about the second or third decade of life. In me, it was set off by the threat of nuclear Armageddon, during the chilliest years of the Cold War. Ok, what if we bomb ourselves back to the Stone Age? How would I survive? What do you eat? Well, plants seemed likely. So I soaked up botanical knowledge like a sponge.

Maybe something psychologically like the Cold War is still going on, because I continue to meet young men in the throes of fascination with Edible and Useful Wild Plants. Different names: “Ethnobotany”, “Natural products”, “Alternative crops”, “Wildcrafting”. This team definitely held a good proportion of these folks. I felt very at home.

tiny flower

Under magnification, some things you recognize.

tiny flower

Others go abstract.

They were eager, but intimidated by the seeming scope of the subject. I tried to reassure them. “Hey, I can only remember a few new species per day. Only thing is, I’ve been at it longer. And I forget ’em about as fast as I learn ’em!” Chuckles from the crowd. “That’s what these are for,” I tapped a PDA. “Let the computers remember stuff for you. You just look, and tell things apart.”

I demonstrated why all the equipment was festooned with brightly colored plastic flagging ribbon. I flicked a PDA stylus off in the weeds and, rhetorically, “Could you find it now, without the flag?” Then, sidelong, “Mental note: Next time in Arizona, something besides orange.” All my flagging was the exact color of Globe Mallow.

Finished with a species, someone would ask about a new kind, “What’s this one?” We, the experts, turned it this way and that. The crew folks stood with pencils poised over Rite-in-the-Rain notebooks. We pointed out features, key points, mnemonics, lore, secrets. They dutifully jotted notes and sketched pictures. The name. How do you spell it? Is that “F” or “PH”?

It took awhile to get across to them how easy it could be. I’m not sure they entirely believed me, even by the end of my stay there. You don’t really need to know what a plant is. You just need to be able to tell it apart. Then, make up your own name for it, describe it in the PDA, and you can use that like any other identifier. It’s a placeholder name, an “Unknown Code”. But make it so someone else, later, can figure out what the Unknown Code refers to — take pictures or specimens.

view across the desert

View beyond the ranch house. In the dark of night you can only see one single light, far, far away.

In the slanting rays of evening, back at the house, Clem remarked, “Pretty nice front yard.” Understatement. The view stretched easily ten miles, long and broad through the expansive valley. The red slab of the Vermilion Cliffs stood as the north horizon. The lighter limestone slopes of the Kaibab Plateau shouldered in from the west. We, at the ranch HQ, were snuggled up into a southern tuck of that massif. In the eastern distance, a broad crack in the earth snaked across the plain; the rim of Marble Canyon, the walls dropping straight down. Far, far away, blue in the distance and at the limit of vision, lay the low-slung contour of Fiftymile Mountain in Utah, where we had camped in our study in 1999, my first season out here.

I could almost hear the background music, harmonicas and strings. This was the Old West, about as real as it gets anymore. Somehow laptop computers and Tungsten PDAs did not much spoil the effect.

Desert lilies among the stones.

Desert lilies among the stones.

I have friends who are experts on cowboy history. One surprise, leafing through their books, I learned real cowboys did not much look like the Hollywood version. The hats, for example. What we think of as a “cowboy hat” is such an archetype it instantly evokes the mystique, whether spotted in the Phoenix airport, the pancake house in Moab, or clopping on rake-heeled point-toed boots towards the Denver (gay bar) Wrangler. Yet, actual historic cowboy hats were nothing like that. The headgear was of great variety, but generally narrower-brimmed and smaller. A hat you’d see on Frank Sinatra would have been at home on a cowboy of similar epoch.

We look down through so many layers of cowboy romance, it’s hard to see what life was really like. Hints survive that it was boring, grueling, and made you really appreciate simple pleasures.

Who were the first cowboys? And what was life like in that new-minted realm, before there even was a word for “cowboy”.

Ok, here’s your chance to get in on the ground floor. The IPO of a new genre of romance. We don’t even have a name yet. But here we are, out in the prairies and mountains and riparian corridors. For an Unknown Code, let’s use “nowboys”, with the understanding we are of course of all genders, and gender preferences. That’s part of the romance, and trouble.


In the late evening, just before sunset, I hiked up behind the ranch house to have a look around. The land sloped up towards the top of the Kaibab Plateau. Tilted sedimentary layers generally followed the trend of the land, though they were scalloped and carved by small side canyons. I walked up onto one ramp, and the whitish limestone was studded with fossils. I had never seen so many fossils. Even I could recognize sea shells, things like clams and snails. Also chunks of coral, sticking right out of the rock. Nothing was preserved perfectly. Everything always looks a little careworn in the desert, but these ocean relics fit; as natural as the silvered trunks of Apache Plume.

It was mind boggling. There had been a sea here, and now there was no sea. Dried up, drained away — it didn’t matter. For all these water creatures, it would simply have been The End Of The World, so far as they, or any of their friends, knew.

Desert land, once a coral reef.

Desert land, once a coral reef.

On around the hillslope, the land was sculpted into steplike layers a few feet thick. I walked on older and older strata as I worked around into one of the side canyons. It seemed like the top of each layer, as it lay exposed, was thick with shells, and shattered branches of coral. Finger-size to wrist-thick, they matched the look of dead desert shrubs. The wood of those curving sticks lie broken but recognizable for years as they, ever so slowly, molder into the ground.

Was each one of these layers, too, an End Of The World? A huge storm, an ancient hurricane that smashed a reef, or poured a layer of mud on top, smothering and entombing all the shelled mollusks and coral?

This idea is not new with me, that most geologic features mark cataclysms. Yes, off the coast of Florida, limy precipitates settle from the water, particle by particle, like snow. Yes, sand dunes drift, their grains ticking in the wind. Yes, sometimes the stuff that will eons later be rock is laid down gradually. But many, many of the things we see mark The End Of The World.

About halfway up the Vermilion Cliffs are layers of purple and green. As far as I can tell, the same volcanic deposits that, by a quirk of tectonics, are laid out broad as the Painted Desert. The day those ash clouds fell from the sky, it was surely the End Of The World for any living thing there.

Farther south on the climb to Flagstaff, there is a point where the smooth, tawny sedimentary layers are suddenly overlain by chunky black basalt. The day that red-hot lava rolled forth, another End Of The World.

Back on the limestone, it seems the coral and shells are more abundant in the upper layers. Was the sea becoming shallower, the habitat getting better and better, in general, for our marine friends? And then finally, the ultimate End of their World, dry land.

When city life gets to be too much, I comfort myself with the thought about our civilization. When eroded and covered by the millions of years of geologic processes, it will likely compress to a layer a few inches thick at most. The traces of our building may be recognizable as a stratum slightly enriched in, perhaps, iron from all the re-bar, or copper from all the wires.


I slept that night out under the stars, nowboy style. It was a perfect spring evening on the range. Of course I got far enough from the ranch house to avoid most of the little prickly things that could pop a hole in your Therm-a-Rest. Weeds have their soft side. Filaree blooms pretty little purple flowers, early. A stand of wild barley shimmers in the breeze, pink, silver and sea-green, like silky waves of grain. But when they ripen and shatter, watch out. One thing that makes a good weed is a way to get it planted. Many of them have seeds like needles, velcro, or anti-tank weaponry.

Part of the nowboy way is passing along this culture of the Western outdoors. I couldn’t escape the sense that I was cast as the grizzled, venerable, and somewhat peculiar old nowboy. And my role was to teach, and guide, and set impossible tasks for the new young ones coming along, some of them their first time off pavement.

Mark my word, this nowboy stuff will be the heart-touching romance of the next century. There will be songs, movies, and even a rack of the 22nd century equivalent of paperbacks in the 22nd century equivalent of supermarkets. It’s got to be. We’ll be the heroes who saved the world from environmental destruction. Or else, even more romantic, who tried against all odds but couldn’t. Either way, we’ll be set.

All the more culturally iconic, we’ll be obsolete. Why bother with the mud and dust when Starfleet technology will allow you to map a planet from low orbit, right down to the microorganisms? There will be tourist re-enactments of ecology surveys. Little kids will go out dressed like us for Halloween (of course, with all the clothing wrong). And gay guys will fantasize about what it would have been like to do it with us in our dome tents, in those ancient, primitive, but heart-wrenchingly romantic days of yesteryear.

At first Clem, the wiry little handyman, rubbed me the wrong way. Then I realized why. We were in competition for the role of grizzled, vanerable, and somewhat peculiar old nowboy. The situation just set it up. After I got it conscious, it didn’t bother me any more. Plenty of elbow room out on the range. And why not a team of peculiar old nowboys?

We had some good laughs. One of the concepts it took the trainees a bit to master was how, on the PDAs, you didn’t quit a program. You just exit to the Home screen, and that puts it away for you.

Clem, overhearing, warbled, “There’s no place like Home!”

Picking up on that, “Just click here, three times,” I instructed, “On the icon of the Ruby Slippers, and say…”

Next day we went out to our first plot. After the long process of muddling around and getting the locations set up, we started on the vegetation. Away from my home ecosystem, I did not recognize many of the species.

Crouching over the plot, I examined a tiny plant. “Looks like a Steptonia,” I muttered.

“A what?” they cried. They had pencils poised over Rite-in-the-Rain notebooks, ready to jot and sketch.

“Oh, uh, like a Deadula,” I backpedaled, “You know, a dead plant. Stepped-on-ia. It’s been stepped on. You can’t tell what it is.

Sure enough, I lost my hand lens for awhile, even with the orange flagging, out among all the Globe Mallow.

Globe Mallow.

Globe Mallow.

After a couple of days, as their beards sprouted, some of the young guys started looking good to me. Of course I would never hit on a man who wasn’t into it, but I enjoyed being around them. It was the masculine ones caught my eye. The ones with the chiseled features, thick arms, or a certain aggressiveness — always out there asking the most questions, wanting to learn or help. I laughed at myself. So much for gaydar. Probably more likely to be gay were the skinny ones, the plain ones, the ones invisible in their quiet competence. The ones I never noticed. The ones most like I was at that age.

The night before I left, the wind howled, and a spatter of rain fell. Tents tumbled and loose gear went AWOL. We had figured out to knock the camp chairs over on their backs when nobody was sitting in them, or they would soon be in that position anyway, if not airborne. Still, it gave an alarming impression at first glance that somebody had gunned down the Senate.

All the electronics and printer paper went under cover when we were away. One of the first things I learned about the desert was, it may not rain as often, but when it does it’s just as wet as anywhere else.

No sleeping under the stars that last night. I’d stayed up late, one thing after another, showing them how to print, press, catalog, and through it all keep things from blowing away. It was late — by out-on-the-range standards, anyway — nearly 9:30 at night. I flipped the seats down and curled up in the rental car.

Spring flowers, and cliffs beyond.

Spring flowers, and cliffs beyond.

Next morning I said my goodbyes and headed out across the brilliant rain-washed landscape. Ok, rain-dampened. Across the Painted Desert there was a radio spot about Navaho and Hopi veterans, and how the different tribes handle their healing ceremonies; Navaho through the community, while among the Hopi it’s a family thing. Then more raw sound, kids in a classroom, singing something in native tongue.

Flying out of Phoenix, a cold front had come through, same system that brought last night’s wind up north. It was frigid for that time of year, below 90°F.


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May Day

“I saw some blue sky!” the man exclaimed.

“Oh, don’t hope on that,” I chided, “Here in Colorado, there’ll be blue sky soon enough. We’re always glad for some rain.

Maybe the first of May conjures up visions of balmy springtime, but this is the second time May Day has been blustery and spitting snow. The first time it dampened spirits at a Beltane gathering in Fort Collins. This time it made challenging another event that, I suppose, could be considered a sort of religious ceremony.

We were in the food line. There was fruit, cake, cold cuts, and a baked egg dish. Light breakfast fare after the service.

“Are you from around here?” I asked. People were from all over. One busload, about half the congregation of a church in Denver.

“I live in Virginia,” the man said, “It rains there a lot!” he chuckled.

I made smalltalk, complementing the East on being so green. You look different when you’re not on stage, I might have said. But I didn’t. It had dawned on me who he was. But I thought, you have to be Famous every minute. Let’s just let it be my little gift to you that you don’t have to be Famous with me. We chatted a bit more about the weather, and drifted on.

He was the Reverend Mel White, founder of Soulforce. He used to be ghostwriter for religious right leaders like Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham, and Pat Robertson. He fought for decades against the fact that he himself was gay. Then he finally accepted it, came out, and is now an activist. He had been the featured speaker here the past couple of days. Maybe he wondered why I didn’t recognize him. He has a different presence off stage. And, hey, all men without beards look alike to me.

So, this is how I spent my May Day weekend; at the Soulforce rally in Colorado Springs. I take the attitude that if you go to a demonstration, you do it for your own personal reasons, and have no expectation it will change anything. It was kind of fun, hobnobbing with all the other GLBT people and catching up on what’s going on.

I rode down with Jimmy Cole, a sweet older man in his 70’s. No spark there, but it was a good connection. Now that I think of it, kind of parental. Like with my parents. They are old, and somehow I get a lot out of helping them, serving them. Atonement? For being such a trial to them earlier in life? Guilt appeasement? Probably more like, now that they are old, roles are reversing. I get to be the parent, the one in charge, doing things. And what could be a better affirmation than to do little things that are easy for me, that only take patience and no other effort, but that obviously make so much difference for somebody else? Cheap cop out!

So, with Jimmy Cole, I was looking out that he wasn’t tiring himself, that his aching back was doing OK, that he was getting what he needed. We got to The Springs early, and made a stop at Garden of the Gods. We talked as he tottered as best he could on a short stroll among the towering red and white sandstone monoliths.

There were things about the weekend I didn’t much like, such as going to church. Nothing against church in particular, but sometime in my early 40’s I realized I had lost the ability to be in certain situations. The general pattern is, anything where there is a group of people, and I am in that group, and someone is standing up in front talking, and I am supposed to take them seriously. This cuts out all church services (except a few meditations like Quaker Meeting); school classes (unless, I get to talk, like at Speakers Bureau); most slideshows, presentations, ceremonies, etc.

It took me awhile to realize the pattern. I’d find myself wanting to either get disruptive, leave, or fall asleep. One way or another, get out of there. I trust it. I think the cosmic reason it happened was to get me out of school, so I would not waste any more of my life in structured education.

So, I really had to force myself to sit through the MCC church service. I get seething like this, even when I totally respect the people talking, and I like what they stand for. I can handle it about once a year. I made it easier by planting myself next to the handsomest man in the building, a straight ally of course, but with a nice ginger-colored beard, the only full beard the whole weekend, climbing all up his face and down to the edge of his neck.

The congregation held all sorts of people. I liked the little touches, such as the (woman) minister saying, “Rise, as you’re able” when it was time to stand up for the hymns or something. Acknowledgement of ability, and disability. Across the way I noticed a person, a woman who obviously used to be a man. Had done it fairly well. Like, “Transition, as you’re able,” I guess.

A trans woman once explained it to me. “Unless you start very young,” she had said, “Or spend a fortune on plastic surgery, you are never going to look like a natural woman. The bone structure of your face changes.” She was middle aged, and I had at first taken her for just that. Tall, rather angular, and, I have to admit, somewhat dowdy; but she carried it all in a feminine way. Her partner though, another trans woman, I don’t think will ever look like anything but a man in drag. Oh, well; we all do the best with what we’ve got.

The woman across the room had strawberry blonde hair, fine chiseled features, and would have been handsome as either gender. She was tall, and must have had a hard time finding high heel shoes big enough to fit. As I have learned to see trans folk, I am intrigued watching them, kind of like those optical illusion pictures that are two things at the same time. I see the gender they used to be, shifting back and forth with the gender they are now, the gender they feel themselves always to have been even when the body lied.

Another part of the fascination, as I learn more, is how their particular issues are so different than “gay” issues. For example gay men doing drag are coming from an utterly different place than trans women. Drag queens do their thing for camp, or outrageousness, or performance. For trans people, it’s part of a long arduous journey home, which asks sacrifices most of us can not even imagine. Of course it’s not so black and white, and we are all in the same big boat from oppression. I am in awe, though, knowing trans folk’s paths have been so much more difficult than my own, plain old white bread gay. By comparison, I’m almost mainstream. I mean, we’re even on TV.

After MCC we went and had our demonstration by this place called Focus on the Family (FOTF), at the north end of Colorado Springs. The gist of the rally was Dr. Dobson, who I had never heard of till somebody told me about the planned event a couple months ago. Dr. Dobson supposedly has a media listenership of hundreds of millions of people, in countries and languages spanning the globe. Dobson has been spreading homophobic distortions and half-truths to the point that a very good argument can be made that he is causing the death of GLBT people. Parents, for example, look to him for spiritual guidance. When their kids come out as gay, the parents get down on them so hard, reject them and tell them they are abominations, so there are suicides.

Anyway, there were some hundreds of us out there. The police were very friendly and cooperative. They closed off a street for the event, and set up parking. FOTF neatly sidestepped any confrontation by being “closed” for a few days, claiming some problem in the buildings.

The people speaking were very good. The whole thing felt more like a street fair. But it was cold. The foothills in the distance were dusted white, and the leaden gray sky spit snow. I was glad I’d come so well equipped, and I bundled up.

I saw a few people I knew. One woman, or how can I say it? A man and his partner were familiar. I recognized them from a campout the previous June. I went over and talked to them.

“Oh yeah,” he said, “I was trying to figure out where I knew you from.” His name was Andy. He and his partner Charlotte and I chatted a while. They told me about what had originally brought them to The Springs, and we caught up on news.

“I’m further along in my transition now,” he remarked by and by. Those 11 months ago, I had been introduced to them as a lesbian couple. I could only imagine all they had been through, underlying that casual comment about transitioning.

“You know,” I said, “I’m not sure I’ll ever understand trans stuff. But I’ve decided,” I quickly added, “I don’t need to understand it. My only job here is to say ‘Yes!’. Absolutely, unequivocally ‘YES!’. There are lots of people who will never understand my being gay. It’s the same thing.”

Sometimes with trans guys I am tempted to say something like welcome to the world of men. But it seems kind of pompous. I mean, who knows more about it? Me, who never had to do anything, or they who worked so hard for it?

Early afternoon, Jimmy Cole found me in the crowd. “I’m f-f-f-freezing!” he exclaimed, so we hit the road. We talked on the drive back north. The rally had been very pointedly non-violent, Gandhi-ian and Martin Luther King. All about loving your enemy, and not playing into their own small minded perspective.

“I don’t know,” I said, “Maybe I’m naïve, but why don’t we just sue them? How violent would that be? Just a civil suit, like a class action against some industrial polluter for example? Seeking compensation for them having ‘polluted’ the social climate so much some of us are being killed. It should be easy to show.”

“It’s ridiculous of course,” I went on, “But it would get attention, publicity. Which as far as I can see is the whole point. And it would hit them in the pocketbook, or threaten to. Which is the whole reason they’re fabricating this ‘gay menace’, to scare people into sending contributions.”

When Jim dropped me off, he was all excited to see the TV coverage. I was not intending to watch the news, knowing it would only get me incensed. I have been in the media a lot, mostly over 20 years ago when I was on peace walks and bike rides. I quickly learned the news story would always be wrong. Errors in things you’d expect would be facts — names, dates, places. But more, the spin they put on it. Always, the media clip would bear no relation to what I thought I was doing there. Not even opposite. Just no relationship whatsoever.

Jimmy I guess had higher expectations. About 10:00pm the phone rang. “It was about twenty seconds total!” he fumed, “They gave more time to a cat up a tree!”

They had showed our side. They had showed the response from FOTF, an “ex-lesbian” saying homosexuality was an abomination and against God’s law. And they had showed the Fred Phelps people, who had been picketing outside the MCC church.

There had been maybe 5 picketers total, waving colorful but nearly inarticulate signs. Some of the placards said things like “God Hates Fags” as you might expect. But there were others bearing the likes of “Pope in Hell” and “Thank God for 9/11”. I could not figure out what they were getting at but I though, hey, free speech. The picketers showed up just long enough for the cameras, then disappeared.

But on the news, it was like the rally, FOTF, and the Phelps people got equal weight. The Phelps people had at some point in the past even picketed FOTF, saying FOTF was too liberal. So the spin was like FOTF had the “balanced” perspective, and was middle-of-the-road.

A few lonely picketers outside the MCC church.

A few lonely picketers outside the MCC church.

Jimmy ranted and raved. “I’m going to call that station and demand they give truer coverage!”

“Good luck,” I said. It really was pretty obnoxious. Sure enough, I was incensed, as I had known I would be. I tried to calm him down. All I could think to offer was the long perspective. “One little rally is not going to change the world. The media is going to distort, dismiss, and marginalize us, just like they always have. Hey I have an idea. You might want to contact Mel White in person. Ask him how he keeps his faith in the face of all this. Because it’s always like this. Seriously, I think you should talk to him.”

The rally had been fun for once in a while. But in the middle of it I thought, here we are all just talking to each other.

The Speakers Bureau is much more my kind of thing. I can put my ideas in front of people I know have different opinions, and try to change them. There is no media between me and my listeners to distort my words. And I am doing the most effective thing, it has been shown, to sway the great 80% in the middle — put a live human face on at least one GLBT person.


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Biking Maui, part 8. Haleakala.

I got a taste of that climbing, and coasting, when I went up to Haleakala. I decided to take it easy on my legs and get shuttled up. At first, I made arrangements with the Haleakala Bike Company (HBC, 808-575-9575) in Haiku. I was going to be camping, so they gave me a very good deal. They considered the shuttle up to be only “half” of one of their tours, so they quoted me half price on their trip that left at 9:00 am. That came to only $22.25, very reasonable.

I waited about a week, timing my trip for what I hoped would be drier weather. A few days before I was scheduled, though, I made a new acquaintance, and we planned a day hike in the Haleakala crater. On the way up, he took me and my bike to Hosmer Grove. I canceled with HBC, and it was something of a relief. Getting from where I was staying in Kihei, all the way to Haiku by 8:30 in the morning, with full camping packs, would have been a pull.

There had been a certain elegance in the idea of coasting down ten thousand feet. I had a touch of disappointment, first talking to the bike company. They can only legally take bikes to the entrance of Haleakala NP, elevation about 7,000 feet. And then, technically, the destination is their shop in Haiku, which is not sea level. I shouldn’t whine. I saw their clients a couple times, masses of red-helmeted people coasting down the roads all in a string. By early afternoon they were getting into the lowlands. They looked like folks who maybe didn’t ride bikes much in their everyday lives. But, hey, they seemed happy.

Hosmer Grove campground is near the Haleakala National Park (NP) entrance, also about 7,000 feet elevation.  The “grove” is different kinds of temperate zone trees brought to Hawaii by the forester Hosmer, to see if they would be suitable for timber.  None of them were.  Something about falling over in storms.  But some of the species have found the Maui uplands very much to their liking in terms of growth and reproduction.  So the Park has to continually cut trees from the edges to keep the grove from spreading.  Otherwise forest would eventually take over the whole band of native shrubland, which the Park is mandated to preserve.  Why don’t they just cut it all down and be done with it?  Well, the grove is just too nice, I guess.  It’s full of twittering birds, and it’s such a comfort and haven after being out in the intense mountain sun, and sometimes intense wind.

Hosmer Grove is probably the least complicated place to camp on Maui.  There are no fees, and no reservations; first-come-first-served.  There’s drinking water and toilets.  You can make a campfire in a fire ring, and there is abundant free firewood from all the trees they have to cut down.  There are other campsites in the park, but they are in the crater, so out of the question for bike access.  I am going on about this because, reading the lists and descriptions before I got to Maui, it wasn’t at all clear what was what.

If you do want a backcountry experience on the top of Maui, the other camping areas are a substantial hike in. You can easily find out the details, but here’s a local tidbit that is not advertised.  The official picture is this:

  • you either camp with your own tent, no reservations needed, or
  •  you stay in one of the cabins, which require reservations months in advance, and even then there’s a lottery.

Now here’s the tidbit.  You can call the Park the day before you want to stay at a cabin. If the reserved party has cancelled, you get it for the night with your credit card number.

Looking east into Haleakala crater

Looking east into Haleakala crater, roughly in the direction of Hana.

I was happy to spend my days at Hosmer Grove. I had given up aspirations of biking to the top. I wanted to learn more about the geology and ecology of the volcanoes. I had already been to the summit on a car trip, and then again on my day hike into the crater.

It is a Maui thing to do to go to the summit for sunset or sunrise. On the first car trip, we timed it for sunset. Once was enough. Not much to see below, except clouds. Someone had big binoculars, and it was enlightening to look at the snow banks over on the Big Island, the thirteener mountains of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea.

Sunset from Haleakala, looking over the observatory.

Sunset from Haleakala, looking over the observatory. People who think it spoils the view call it "Science City".

But standing on Maui at ten thousand feet, it was cold. That sun took an awful long time to go down! My first evening at Hosmer, other campers were making their plans to waken in the wee hours and hitchhike up to the summit for sunrise. My one summit sunset had been enough. I figured the sunrise would find me just as well anywhere I was.

I took a leisurely morning on the nature trails, learning about Hawaiian plants, birds, and wildlife. This is my personal idea of fun. Being a botanist, it was like having traveled to another planet. Maybe to other people it would be nothing more than bushes that looked a little odd. But to me, here was stuff like nowhere else on earth. I could scarcely even tell what it was related to.

It really was like another planet. In scifi stories, the colonists bring earthly life forms in their starship to a new solar system. Then they are all marooned, for epochs. The surviving species mutate and evolve. Maybe clover grows into trees, grass starts bearing nutlets, bats don’t need to fly anymore and learn to walk. The stuff on these uplands really was like that, to my biologist’s eye.

About the middle of the day, I pedaled the mile or so up the road to the headquarters (HQ) visitor center. I spent a couple hours reading books, and bought a few. Now that some of my curiosity was satisfied about these strange life forms, I decided to go out and have another look at them.

Pulling out of the parking lot, I could go either uphill or downhill. I’d come from downhill and seen that. I cranked along, leisurely, looking at the endemic shrubland. Being from Colorado, the altitude was no problem.

Before I knew it, I’d gone a mile. Then another mile. I have no need to go to the top, I told myself. When I’ve seen enough, I’ll just turn around and coast down. Another mile. Interesting little tree there, with golden flowers like pea blossoms. And that bush with coral purple berries. The name of that’s in the book.

Another mile. Another. That bridge, I bet when it rains, there’s a waterfall over that black basalt. A little pool in the rock hollow now. How many people ever get to see that, zooming by in their cars? Eight thousand feet elevation. Here’s the pulloff to that crater trailhead, Halemauu. Guy last night at Hosmer was talking about hitching up here. And isn’t that cool! The park has made a special pullout, just for hitchhikers! It even says so.

What’s this? Only six more miles to the summit? Funny, it’s still pretty much the same vegetation along here. That mile wasn’t so hard. Now only five? The long runs of these switchbacks are uphill south, so you get a little extra push from the prevailing northerly breeze. Will slow you down on the descent too. Descent. I can just turn around and go down any time I please.

How did I miss a mile marker? Must’ve got broken off. Now it’s only, what? Three miles? Four? Leleiwi overlook, pretty neat. Bushes are finally starting to thin out. Nine thousand feet elevation. Just bare black and red lava. There’s a silversword plant. Another one over there. Like the ones they have planted on display at the summit parking lot.

And there’s the summit observation building, like a glass pagoda, on the ridge right up over there. Can’t be far. Another mile. Here’s the Visitor Center already. With those signs for the tourists “High Elevation, Walk Slow”. There’s the trailhead we took yesterday, a ways down the Sliding Sands.

OK, I’ll bike slow. Middle ring has done good up till now, but this last mile is steeper. Shift to the granny gear. There’s Magnetic Peak. I can see into the crater. Didn’t remember how this road spirals around. Who’s that honking? Pickup truck full of young guys, waving; a cart in back with their singletrack bikes. Passing me. OK, I’ll see you all at the top.

Now the parking lot. This handicap ramp runs up the ridge from here, skips the stairs to the top of the hill. And here we are. Time for a drink of water. I wasn’t planning on this. Anybody asks, I’ll say I was headed to the beach and took a wrong turn.

Me with my bike at the top of Haleakala

Hadn't really planned to bike up here today.

I’d done between 4 and 5 mph up from HQ, except for the last steep mile. I really wasn’t prepared for this. I was in shorts and Tevas. I’d brought a windbreaker and rain pants. Now I put them on. Rain could happen any time. As usual, clouds were washing around the mountain, a layer about at their typical 5,000 foot level. Kind of like slow-motion surf. Similar to surf on a tidal rock, a wave of air could splash clouds up over the summit in minutes. I had been lucky to have sunshine all the way, and the exertion to keep me warm. But the 5:00pm sun was lowering, and a lobe of cloud seemed to be reaching up for it right now.

Good brakes on the first, steep mile down. Then the switchbacks. The luffing nylon I wore served as much a needed airbrake as for warmth. Temperature was probably 40 or 50 Fahrenheit, but with no pedaling and the wind, my tootsies were chilly. Nine thousand elevation. Another switchback.

The occasional cars were courteous. I paused to let one pass, and what is that bare twigged bush below the pullout? A few leaves remain. It’s a peach tree; dropped its leaves obedient to day-length winter from its homeland, I guess. Grown from a pit somebody lobbed off here decades ago. Hawaii is like a giant terrarium. Anything you drop in doesn’t die, but grows.

Eight thousand feet now. Moving fast, but still this is taking awhile. There’s Hosmer Grove below, some clouds dancing up behind, but still in the sun. Another switchback. The bridge over the basalt watercourse. Man, this is a chilly ride! Imagine that, being cold in Hawaii. Glad I believed the literature, and brought some clothes! Now HQ. I shouldn’t’ve been so brusque with that man. He saw me on the bike and asked if I was going to the summit. No, just here to look at books. Shoulda known!

Last mile to Hosmer. Here’s the turnoff. A little uphill crossing a swale. Pedal. My feet are so cold they barely work. Chilled all over. Shivering. Finally, pull into the parking. Dismount. Pad on numb feet over to my tent. Pull on warmer clothes. The sun is winking low between the trees, just about to set. A new contingent of campers. Folks in the next site have set up at the fire ring.

“Hey, can I share your campfire?”
“Sure!”

The pink light of sunset caught shreds of cloud dancing off the slopes of Haleakala. It looked like the mountain was still erupting.

About nine o’clock at night, the clear sky clouded over and a soft drizzly rain began to fall. I was warmed up by then, and ready to bed down. The rain rattled heavy at times through the night. Once, I looked out and saw stars. Sometimes the droplets whispered, quiet as someone sprinkling from a saltshaker onto the tent rainfly. By morning, it was a steady Oregon style rain. Not always heavy but, for all you know, everywhere and everlasting.

I waited a couple hours to see if it would quit. It kept on. I’d planned to head down this morning anyway. I had brought the lightest weight compromise of warm clothes I could muster. I put on every scrap. I had wool socks and neoprene bike booties inside my Tevas. I zipped up the rain layers carefully; habits from the Pacific Northwest — don’t get wet in the first place because you aren’t going to get dry again.

I imploded my camp. Methodically, in the cramped confines of the small tent, I compressed and packed each piece of gear waterproof, then tossed the bag outside. Finally the tent itself. Collapsed, rolled up, shaking out as much water as practical. Strapped it all on the bike and set out.

Passing out the entrance station, I wished I had a picture. It could have been Vancouver. Your nylon-swathed bicyclist, perfectly adapted to the eternal wet. The bulky mass of the packs visually set off the vertical line of the rear wheel, seen from behind, reflected in puddles. The figure disappearing into gray mist.

A mile down the road, I came out from under the clouds. In another mile, I was in sunshine. Rainbows danced over the valley below. Down and down I went. A few more switchbacks, and I stopped to peel off layers in the warming sun. Here was another biker coming up, the other side of the road. We nodded acknowledgement to each other. He looked bewildered, but maybe it was just the exertion and concentration. He was lightly dressed, with only a tiny pack. I hoped the rain quit by the time he got up there.

I guess that’s a way to summit Haleakala. Start early, go light, and just tough out what weather you find. I had started down from Hosmer about 10:00am. The climbing biker would be to that level well before noon. He could easily make the summit, as I had, by early afternoon. Then, the wild ride down. It had taken me only half an hour from the top down to Hosmer. This leg I was on now, the tight switchbacks, I traveled in an hour, even with stops to enjoy the view and stow gear. By 11:00am I was at the junction of 377. It was all fast downhill then to Pukalani, and on down to the lowlands.

I did not go that way just now. The tight switchbacks below the park entrance curl through meadowy slopes of green grass and groves of eucalyptus trees. Ever on the lookout for camping options, I had noticed a place called Skyline Eco-Adventures at about 4,000 feet elevation. I mentally filed it as maybe they’d be into letting a bike tourist camp there, who was making a slow packed-out climb up Haleakala. All the rest of the area looked to be a private ranch, too open and exposed to just sack out unobtrusively.

From the junction, I went south on 377 to check out some places of botanical interest. The road climbed a few hot, slow miles. Then it was all downhill, first to the south junction of 377 and Kula Highway, then downhill north on Kula Highway all the way to Pukalani, then all the way down the Haleakala Highway to its junction with Hana Highway a few miles east of Kahului.

This last stretch, the six miles from near sea level to 1600 feet in Pukalani, had taken me a good hour and twenty minutes to climb with full packs (it’s where we met for the crater day hike). Going down, it was only 25 minutes. The road is straight, and steady downhill, and you can go as fast as gravity, aerodynamics, and your nerves allow.

So, with that rain, the lesson of biking Haleakala is: Be Ready For Anything!

Clouds in the Haleakala crater

Clouds in the Haleakala crater. Car is for, uh, SCALE.

Even though I didn’t end up biking all the places I first envisioned, a bicycle is a good way to get around Maui. Near the shore, it’s always warm, so you don’t need to carry a lot of layers. If you wear clothes that can get wet, you don’t have to worry about rain.

It took me awhile to appreciate the charm of snorkeling. This was mainly the process of figuring how to rig the equivalent of a tight-fitting mask that would work with a full beard. Snorkeling then was like effortless levitation, floating, in flight above this multicolored wonderland of rainbow-hued fish, coral, turtles, or whoever else was out that day. Sometimes, you could even hear the whales singing.

Lugging scuba gear on a bike would be a bit much, but snorkeling equipment is small and light. Perfect for the two-wheeled traveler.

If you’re into bike training, Maui offers lots of options. Out from Kahului, you could have long, flat fast rides into the valley and back. You could have steep twisty uphill rides, such as the north side of West Maui, or after you get out the Hana Highway a ways. Or, if you want to burn yourself out for the day, there’s Haleakala. Take it as fast as you can, as far as you can, then coast home.

Hitchhiking seems to be a standard Hawaii way to get around. I heard lots of people mention having hitchhiked, but I never saw anybody doing it. I take it then, they didn’t wait long for a ride! I never tried it on that trip, though I am a veteran of many years hitching in an earlier life. I don’t know how it would be hitchhiking with a bike, to connect the dots on some of the trips. But this is after all the land of aloha!