For the past two years, monarch numbers have been on the rise. Let’s continue this trend!
One of my many travel dreams has been to visit central Mexico where the monarch butterflies migrate. Seeing their giant orange clusters overhead would be awe-inspiring, and it if I timed the trip around Halloween, it would also give me the opportunity to witness Día De Los Muertos in the many village cemeteries in that same region. It would be such a cultural and environmental treat to bear witness to these things.
So many travel dreams, so little time.
I had all but given up on this particular dream due to global climate change and other environmental disasters. The prevalent news in recent years about monarch butterflies has been that they’re fluttering towards extinction. It is upsetting to contemplate.
As we humans encroach on their habitat, there has been less milkweed for these butterflies to consume. Our overreliance on the weed killer called Roundup is destroying not only milkweed but a whole host of other native species, and it’s migrating into the food chain. (Please, please, PLEASE do not use Roundup! Ever!)
Then, add deforestation, roadside mowing, real estate development, and water diversion, and you present these creatures with some pretty insurmountable hurdles to fly over. And human-caused climate change, with its droughts, fires, and mega storms, has been a disaster for monarch populations as well.
But there is some moderately good news. For the past two years, the monarch numbers have been on the rise. The most recent count was 335,479 monarchs observed in the known overwintering sites in California and Arizona. That’s a stunning increase over the mere 2,000 counted two years ago. The next count was 250,000, which was exciting, but more than 335,000 is miraculous.
Unfortunately, monarch migration is still considered an endangered biological phenomenon. These recent counts, while encouraging, could be a minor blip in the statistics. These numbers can vary drastically from one year to the next. To maintain a stable population, we would need numbers to be in the low millions, preferably for ten years in a row.
There are ways we can help, though.
Do not use Roundup or insecticides. (EVER!!!)
Plant milkweed that is native to your area. Join me in purchasing seeds from Save Our Monarchs. They even provide ways to get free milkweed seeds from them, but if you can afford to pay, it will help their cause.
Only buy FSC certified wood for your construction projects. Illegal logging in Mexico is destroying monarch habitat. Certification by the Forest Stewardship Council ensures that you’re not purchasing wood from these forests.
Educate others about the plight of monarch butterflies.
So, will I be taking the Mexican butterfly journey of my dreams anytime soon? Well… it’s complicated. I’m struggling with the concept.
Part of me thinks that if I ever want to see this migratory miracle, I should go now, because it probably won’t last much longer. (That’s also how I feel about seeing glaciers and islands that are barely above sea level.) It’s discouraging, feeling like you’re racing against a destruction clock to see the beauty of the natural world. But there is something to be said for bearing witness while one can. If that were all there was to it, it would lead me to think that I need to go sooner rather than later.
Tourism is one of the very things that is pushing these butterflies off the cliff. The oyamel forests of central Mexico get 150,000 visitors each year during monarch season. These people pollute. They trample the soil, they cause erosion and forest degradation. And more and more businesses are created to cater to that tourist trade, using up more resources and creating even more pollution. In our own special way, we are loving these butterflies to death.
So maybe I should set aside this dream permanently, for the sake of the butterflies. But then I won’t be able to blog about the experience and educate a wider audience. I don’t know. I’m so conflicted. Where should I draw the line? What do you think?
What we don’t know about the sun is a lot. I find this mildly disturbing, since we rely on the sun for our very survival. But at some point you just have to accept the fact that some most things are beyond our control.
In early February I was reminded of a blog post I wrote in 2013 entitled, There’s a Freakin’ HOLE in the Sun! It sprang to mind because the sun is acting all weird again. This time, however, social media (and, in fact, media in general) took this information and ran with it, whereas in 2013 it was a mere afterthought. I think that says more about the evolution of our sources of information than it says about the evolution of the sun.
But on February 2nd of this year, scientists observed something going on with the sun that they’d never seen before. It started fairly routinely, as a solar prominence. These happen all the time. It’s those loopy, jet-like bursts of plasma that shoot out into space from the sun’s surface, only to fall back again and subside. They almost look like a breaching whale, if both the whale and the water were on fire.
There was nothing special about this particular prominence. As a matter of fact, they seem to burst forth from the sun at this location, around 55 degrees latitude, every 11 years in the sun’s 22-year cycle. But this one decided to get creative. Part of the plasma broke free of the jet and got sucked up toward the sun’s pole, causing it to get caught up in a vortex, and then it completely circumnavigated the sun at about 60 degrees latitude.
It seems that the sun is experiencing some frightfully stormy weather, because when scientists measured how long it took for this plasma to circumnavigate, it was determined that it was traveling at the rate of 60 miles per second. Holy moly. You wouldn’t want to be crossing the street when that sucker blasted past.
I think this event is pretty cool in and of itself, but the media had to take it to a whole new level. The headlines were screaming that a piece of the sun broke off. Poppycock. It was plasma. Saying that the sun broke apart under these circumstances would be like saying a piece of Hawaii broke off when Mauna Loa erupted. Everybody calm down.
Scientists aren’t sure why this polar vortex happened, but we learn more about the sun every day. We do know enough about it to predict that it is approaching the solar maximum in its cycle, and that will most likely happen in the summer of 2025. During this time, the sun’s magnetic poles will switch places. Again, this is routine. It happens every 11 years.
But the sun has been unusually active during the last few years of this cycle. As in, it’s acting up way beyond all scientific expectations. Big doings on old Sol, it seems. So yeah, there’s that.
For current images of the sun, check out the Solar Dynamics Observatory website. And hold on to your sunglasses, dear reader. Who knows what surprises the sun has in store for us in the next couple of years.
I’m about to describe the entire disease cycle. Brace yourself.
I’m not trying to scare you off, dear reader, because the information I am about to impart is rather fascinating in my opinion. But if you are easily grossed out, or if your tolerance for disgust is anything less than moderate and you’re about to sit down to breakfast, you may not want to read beyond this point. You have been warned.
I learned something new today. There has been a pitched battle going on since 1980, and most Americans and Europeans have had the luxury of not even knowing about it. And yet winning this battle, as we may do soon, would potentially prevent 3,500,000 people per year from experiencing a painful, debilitating, and disgusting disease.
Dracunculiasis is poised to be the second human disease to be completely eradicated in all of human history. (Smallpox was the first. Three cheers for vaccinations!) And oddly enough, we have Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter to thank for this upcoming victory.
Dracunculiasis has been around for about 3000 years, but it disproportionately impacts the more poverty-stricken amongst us. It’s typically contracted by drinking contaminated water, and it is usually only found in subtropical and tropical regions of the planet, because the strange and twisted process that results in this disease requires temperatures between 77 and 86°F, so, historically speaking, we’re talking about Africa and South Asia.
A few things must happen before a human has the misfortune of coming down with this nauseating malady, and yet more revolting things must occur before that human can help pass the disease along to others. I’m about to describe the entire disease cycle. Brace yourself.
We shall enter the cycle by meeting an interesting little creature called a copepod. (We could enter at any point in the cycle, really, as cycles are, by their very definition, circular, but these guys are kind of cute, so they make as good a starting point as any. Give me a bit of credit. I’m trying to ease you into this as gently as possible. given the circumstances.)
Copepods are tiny little crustaceans, typically 1 – 2mm long, that live in both fresh and salt water. There are at about 13,000 species of copepods that we know of. Each has its own unique and quirky anatomy. They are really important to have around, because they feed fish, and taken all together, they are most likely the largest biomass on earth. Only krill can really compete with copepods in the biomass contest.
Copepods are vital to the planet, in that they get rid of a sizable chunk of the human carbon emissions that we so selfishly produce. Also, no saltwater aquarium could thrive without copepods. They’ve been around for at least 500 million years, since the early Paleozoic Era.
If you have eaten any type of seafood whatsoever, especially if it’s under-cooked, or eaten any creature that eats seafood, or if you have swallowed any unfiltered water, accidentally or on purpose, or drank water directly from the water supply systems in New York City, Boston, or San Francisco, you have consumed copepods. Quite likely you do so on a daily basis. This is often nothing to worry about, but as I said, there are many different types of copepods.
Some copepods have been linked to cholera. It’s a rare American who comes down with cholera these days. (But think twice before time traveling to the 1800’s.)
And then there’s the copepod that dracunculiasis cannot exist without. This little guy is called, interestingly enough, the Cyclops.
Yes, they have a single, large eye. Hence the name. They are also called water fleas, and they can jump out of water much like a dolphin can. I don’t find these guys to be as cute as some of their cousins, but I might be biased now that I know their role in this story, which is about to get much more gross.
It’s only fair to mention that it’s really not the cyclop’s fault. It is just swimming around, minding its own business, not plotting to become a disease vector for a scourge that most white folks have never heard of. No. The little cyclops is a victim, too.
The real villain of this story is dracunculus medinensis, a parasite whose name translates as “The Little Dragon from Medina” because it was particularly common in the city of Medina in what is now Saudi Arabia.
It is more commonly known as the Guinea worm, because it was also very common along the Guinea coast of West Africa. Fortunately for the locals in both areas, Guinea Worms are no longer endemic in either place.
So the Cyclops is swimming along, looking for sustenance, and he comes upon the larvae of our evil little dragon. He chows down, not realizing that the larvae will remain alive inside him, and will in fact hang out there long enough to transform themselves into much larger larvae. If the parasite gets very lucky, the copepod in which it resides will then be swallowed by some clueless, thirsty human.
Once swallowed, the copepods die in our digestive tracts, and that releases the larvae, which then make their escape by penetrating the person’s stomach or intestine. They then take refuge in the abdominal area for the next two or three months. During that time, they develop into adult worms. If they’re male, they’re only about an inch and a half long, but the females… oh, the females! They get up to 39 inches long. (Are you feeling queasy yet? Because it gets worse.)
Once they’re adults, they mate, and the male dies. (He probably wouldn’t want to stick around to see this next bit, anyway.) The female, all 39 inches of her, migrates to the human connective tissue or nestles itself along bones, and it continues to develop the larvae within her. About a year after the human has first taken that fateful drink of unfiltered water, the female worm decides that it’s time to go.
It doesn’t leave quietly. It migrates to the skin, usually on a lower body part such as a foot or leg, and an ulcer forms. Once the ulcer bursts, the worm, all 39 inches of her, emerges, still alive. It can take 3 to 10 weeks to do so. I’ll spare you the images, but if you are truly curious, you can find hundreds on line.
Whenever the emerging worm comes in contact with fresh water during this seemingly endless process of traumatizing its host, the worm releases hundreds of thousands of larvae into that water in a milky cloud. That larvae is then eaten by a Cyclops, which is then consumed by a human (or, unfortunately, a dog or a cat), and so on and so forth.
So what, besides trauma and humiliation, is going on in the human during this time? Well, as the worm emerges, it is wrapped around a stick to maintain equal tension. Believe me, you don’t want to rip the worm in half, leaving much of it in your body to calcify, causing severe pain and swelling. A calcified worm can also cause arthritis or paraplegia, especially if it has wound its way into the central nervous tissue. Also, if the worm ruptures inside you, it will cause intense inflammation.
It’s bad enough that the worm is taking its sweet time, but it’s also releasing a toxin as it exits, and that toxin can result in nausea, rash, diarrhea, dizziness, swelling, blisters and itching. Aspirin or Ibuprofen can help a little. But you can expect to be in pain for a further 12 to 18 months after the worm hath turned, so to speak.
But meanwhile, inch by inch, day by day, the worm gets wrapped around the stick. Patience is a virtue. The site of the ulcer must be kept clean during the entire process.
After the worm is gone, it’s prudent to use antibiotic on the wound. One percent of all victims die from secondary infections. In centuries past, entire villages would come down with dracunculiasis all at once. Some scholars believe that the “fiery serpent” mentioned in the bible was actually an epic infestation of Guinea worms.
In addition, since the year 1674, it has been proposed that the Rod of Asclepius, which has since morphed into the symbol for the medical profession, actually represents a Guinea worm being wrapped around a stick. Blech. I’ll never be able to look at that symbol in the same way again.
If you’ve made it this far, you deserve a cookie. I will give it to you in the form of reassurance that we are making quite a bit of progress in eradicating the Guinea worm for good. That’s fortunate, because there is no vaccine, and once it’s in you, there’s no cure except to let it run its course.
Remember Roslyn and Jimmy Carter? They established the Carter Center to promote and expand human rights. Jimmy got a Nobel Peace Prize for co-founding it.
When Guinea worm disease came to the Carter Center’s attention in 1980, there were an estimated 3,500,000 cases reported each year, across 21 countries. Through the Carter Center’s efforts of educating people about the importance of filtering their water, providing those filters, and isolating and supporting infected people, the disease has nearly been eradicated.
This article about the Carter Center’s eradication efforts is what sent me down this wormy path. I’ve always been drawn to the macabre. It would take someone like Jimmy Carter to take on such an unsexy albeit necessary project.
In 2022, there were only 13 reported cases of the disease worldwide, and those occurred in Chad, Ethiopia, Mali, and South Sudan. Each of these countries are in the midst of civil unrest, causing health educators and medical supplies to be put at risk, and making it all but impossible to reach the people. This last stretch of the eradication marathon is perhaps the hardest. If we don’t stop the Guinea worm cycle in humans, cats and dogs, the parasite could get a foothold once again.
Still, we’ve made astounding progress toward worldwide eradication. Now is not the time to give up. For this, Jimmy Carter deserves our gratitude. (But if you plan to thank him, you may want to hurry. At the time of this writing, he is 98 years old.)
I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t wish Guinea worm disease on my worst enemy. I’m probably going to have nightmares about it, even as I sleep in my nice home with its excellent sanitation and clean, treated water. The Guinea worm seems to have paused in its journey long enough to remind me that I have done absolutely nothing to earn such good fortune, and I should never take it for granted.
Never forego the opportunity to add new words to your vocabulary. Doing so is especially gratifying if they refer to something so foreign to your experience as to seem otherworldly. If you can throw in a little bit of potty humor for good measure, then so much the better, as far as I’m concerned.
I came across the terms “bletted” and “medlar” in a roundabout way. Repressed adolescent that I am, I must confess that what really drew me in was a less title-worthy term for the medlar, which is “open-arse”. It seems that this was the name more commonly used for this fruit for 900 years. In other places, the medlar was called “monkey’s bottom” or “donkey’s bottom” or “dog’s bottom”. That’s all understandable, given what a medlar looks like.
Those names hardly make me want to rush out and try what was considered a delicacy in medieval Europe and is still popular today in countries near the Caspian Sea where it originates. But what intrigues me the most about this fruit is that it was once so popular, and it has such funny nicknames, that you’d think we’d have at least heard of it in the modern era, but I am willing to bet that 99 Americans and Europeans out of 100 never have. It was certainly news to me.
So how did the medlar drop off our radar? Well, for starters, it’s not an easy fruit to eat. You might even say it goes against your instincts. That’s where bletting comes in.
This is a Mediterranean fruit, and there it can be plucked and eaten right off the tree. But if you try to do so from a tree in a European climate, you wouldn’t like it, and you might even regret it. It could make you violently ill. Still, the tree itself is rather pretty in autumn. It’s green, yellow, brown, and blood red.
But the fruit? First of all, it doesn’t give off a “come hither” vibe, does it?. I’d be afraid it was poisonous if I didn’t know better. And oddly enough, you don’t harvest it until mid-November or December, when you’d much rather be inside by a warm fire, and when the fruit is still hard as a rock. Once harvested, you then put the fruit in a crate of sawdust or straw, or put them on racks with a lot of ventilation, in a cool, dark place, and forget about them for a few weeks until they start to rot.
Yes, I said rot. That’s what’s known as the bletting process. Medlars will look brown and squishy and feel kind of grainy at this stage, but they’ll also be extremely sweet. At that point you can eat the inner flesh right away, or you can use it as a colorfully sweet contrast to your cheese course. You can also make it into jelly, chutney, brandy, cider, or as a filling for tarts.
In medieval Europe, medlars were one of the only sources of sugar to be had in the wintertime, and they were therefore highly prized by many, even if some found them to be an acquired taste. They’re mentioned in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, as well as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Medlars probably sank into obscurity because tropical fruits such as pineapples and bananas became cheaper and more accessible after World War II, and you could get them year-round. Why bother harvesting a fruit in the frigid dead of winter that then had to bletted, taking up space for weeks, when you could run down to the corner shop and buy alternative winter sugar sources, no muss, no fuss?
Medlars could teach us much about how fickle fame can be. It makes me wonder what things loom large today that will be forgotten about entirely in 80 years. That adds a whole new layer of complexity to the concept of time travel.
“Wait. What? You’ve never heard of Kalamata olives? That’s it. I’m going back to 2023.”
Tales of who you were will eventually be overtaken by a swirling fog.
All families have their stories. There’s the time Uncle Bob decided to throw his drink out the car window, only the window was closed. The time my father’s car overheated while crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, and the only liquid he had to put in the radiator was laundry detergent, so not only was traffic backed up for miles, but when he got moving again, he left a trail of suds. The time my grandfather went outside, pitchfork in hand, to have a calm, quiet talk with my aunt’s abusive husband, and the guy left and never came back. No one knows what my grandfather said, but I sure wish he had lived to have my back like that.
I know tons of stories about my parents and grandparents, siblings, uncles, aunts, and even a cousin or two. But it occurs to me that I don’t have any complete stories about great grandparents or any generations older than that. Little bits and pieces have come down to me, but they’re either incomplete, implausible, or disputed.
For example, I know there is a Prussian officer somewhere in the family tree. I’ve even seen a picture of him, sporting the spiked helmet and the monocle, but I’m not even sure where that picture went after my mother died. I don’t know his name or how he is related to me. And I vaguely remember my mother saying there was some Czechoslovakian in our bloodline way back in there, but I don’t know how or why, and it sure didn’t pop out when Ancestry.com analyzed my DNA. My mother once showed me the coat of arms of a distant relative, and there was a unicorn in it. Yet my cousin swears there are no coats of arms in that branch of the family tree. I have no idea how my great grandmother felt when my maternal grandmother left Denmark and went to America without speaking English or knowing anyone but the husband who awaited her. What did they say to each other when they parted ways?
Unless you come from a culture that makes a habit of reciting the family history from generation to generation, or carving it in stone, then all the family stories that don’t get written down have a finite shelf life. In my family, It seems to be two generations. Beyond that, everything is pieces and parts, surrounded by a swirling fog.
If you’re not famous or infamous, eventually, these tales of who you were and what you did will be overtaken by that fog. On some days, I actually find that comforting. On others, I find it a bit scary.
We are all temporal beings. We are all part of the eternal ether, even though we debate whether that ether takes on a spiritual, philosophical, or physical form. We are surrounded by those who came before us, whom we have never met, and we, too, will surround the generations that come long after we’re gone.
Will we know? Will they? I’m thinking probably not. But it’s impossible to say.
If only it had not chosen to engage in a premature geobiological consumption event which resulted in such a catastrophic loss of human life.
Longtime readers already know how much I love our national parks. I wish I had the time, money, and stamina to visit every single one of them. I’ve learned a lot about our country with each new park encounter.
While researching parks that I have yet to visit, I happened to stumble upon one called Mystery Flesh Pit National Park. Naturally, discovering that there’s a park I’d never even heard of intrigued me quite a bit. I had to learn more.
This park, sadly, can no longer be visited. Its history is rather tragic. In the early 1970’s, we are told, James Jackson, an oilman, stumbled upon what turned out to be a large geobiological orifice just outside of Gumption, Texas. He decided to explore said orifice, and the subterranean superorganism turned out to be so large that it couldn’t be accurately measured. As is often the case, man’s first instinct is to profit off all discoveries, and the Mystery Flesh Pit was no exception.
Enter the Anodyne Corporation, which, post-catastrophe, was renamed the Permian Basin Recovery & Superorganism Containment Corporation. They saw the opportunity for great riches by mining the site’s organic resources, and while conducting their extraction operations, they enlarged and reinforced the organism, and opened it to tourists in 1976. It became part of our national park system in the early ‘80’s and was a very popular destination, but it had to close because of a horrific tragedy that occurred in 2007.
You can read the very detailed and extremely technical government disaster report here, but if I’m reading it correctly, a freak combination of a great deal of rain which caused an overflow of water inside critical sections of the superorganism, combined with a power failure and the inability of some very poorly maintained pumping equipment to keep up with the water volume, caused a choking action and subsequent vomit response within the superorganism at a time when there were an increased number of visitors within it due to holiday celebrations.
That tragedy resulted in the death of 750 visitors, and an additional 1,800 people were seriously injured. (I can’t imagine what it must be like to have your last conscious moments on earth be consumed with the fact that you’re essentially being digested and/or masticated.) To make matters worse, 18,000 residents of Gumption County were left with some horrific side effects due to the gastric ejecta which flew, well, just about everywhere.
But even worse than the loss of human life is the loss of such a precious natural resource for the American people. While it’s understandable that the federal government wants to avoid future gastric disasters, especially since it’s unknown if this superorganism, when sufficiently agitated, might become ambulatory, the end result is that park lovers like you and me will never again be able to visit this unique location.
If you approach the site of the former park now, you are presented with a tall electric fence and a warning sign that says, among other things, “Stop! This area has been quarantined for YOUR safety!” “Over 582 people have died attempting to commune with the superorganism.” (Which proves this sign is woefully out of date.) And, perhaps most startling, “There is nothing beyond this fence worth dying for.”
But there is a silver lining to this cloud. Mystery Flesh Pit National Park’s legacy is an extremely comprehensive internet archive that is not only educational, but also allows you to delve almost as deep into the ecosystem as you would have if you had been able to enter its big, fleshy maw to go exploring like so many others have done.
If you visit this archive, click on everything you see, because things that don’t necessarily look like links often lead you to yet another page, with yet more links that yield troves of fascinating information. I have, on more than one occasion, lost 3 or 4 hours wandering through this internet maze, learning something new every time. I highly recommend it.
There is entirely too much information to distill in this humble blog post, so, to whet your appetite, I’ll just introduce you to this one topic: The Fauna of the Permian Basin Superorganism. I hope these few fun facts will encourage you to delve into this archive in greater detail. You won’t regret it.
In my opinion, one of the most intriguing creatures that resides within the deeper portions of the superorganism is called a Gasp Owl. They are very elusive, so little is known about them. They congregate in broods and are easily frightened. They are called Gasp Owls because their breathing is quite labored, even in those specimens which seem otherwise healthy. I wonder if they used to keep the campers up at night? I suspect I wouldn’t get much sleep, knowing they were nearby.
Gasp Owls have often been mistaken for the fabled “Marrow Folk” on the rare occasion that they’ve been spotted by tourists.
Campers who overnighted within the deepest regions of the superorganism (surrounded by a mandatory electrical fence, of course) often surfaced with stories of hearing ritual chanting deep below. Sometimes they saw the shadows of creatures that could not be mistaken for any of the park’s many parasitic organisms. Scientists have found no conclusive evidence that Marrow Folk exist, but the chanting voices leave many unanswered questions. I wonder if any recordings of these chants are extant?
This historic national park flyer, which shows many of the parasitic organisms that tourists would often encounter in this unique ecosystem, gives you a small taste of how much we all can learn from this now defunct site. It’s heartbreaking to contemplate the numerous scientific inquiries that will now never reach credible conclusions.
Our nation, and in fact, the world, is diminished by our inability to enter the deepest bowels of this creature and conduct further study. If only it had not chosen to engage in a premature geobiological consumption event which resulted in such a catastrophic loss of human life. Contemplating the discoveries we will now never make is enough to make one weep.
For those of you who are gullible enough not to realize that this park is an extremely detailed and very hilarious work of fiction, here are a few sources that will explain how the whole Mystery Flesh Pit story has taken on a life of its own:
Life is such a precious gift, dear reader. Appreciate every second of it, even the terrifying seconds.
The weather outside was frightful, in the way that only seems possible in the Pacific Northwest. I’ll never get used to the weather out here. I actually had to learn a whole new vocabulary when I moved here from Florida. Microclimates. Atmospheric Rivers. The Pineapple Express. Rain Shadow. Graupel. And now, Freezing Rain.
There had been about an inch of snow on the ground when the freezing rain started around midnight. This was bad news, because I had to be back at work no later than 7 am the next morning. I usually leave early, because if there’s even the slightest delay in my 38 minute commute, it can throw a serious kink into my timeline, and the bridgetender whom I’m relieving might get testy.
It’s a good thing I got up an hour early. It was 18 degrees out and the freezing rain was still coming down. When I looked at Google Maps and saw what I had to look forward to on my commute, I knew I had to bolt out the door. The traffic was already horrendous.
I am not a morning person. I’d much rather sit in a stupor for a half hour and kind of ease myself into the day. Instead, I had to spring into action before the CPAP marks had even faded from my face.
Crossing the yard to my car was a challenge. Thank goodness I had the foresight to put winter trax on my shoes (another phrase that I’ve picked up out here) or I would have hit that inch thick, perfectly clear slab of ice that stretched from my front door to the horizon and probably would have slid 20 yards past Dear Husband as if I had been shot out of a cannon. He had actually gotten out there ahead of me so as to warm up the car. (How lucky am I?) In order to do this, he had to chip away at the ice on the door handle.
Instead of skating past him in an unchoreographed, flailing, screeching dance of utter helplessness, I minced across the yard as if I were a baby deer who was learning to walk for the first time. I was thinking about how I had won the lottery when I chose this husband, and also patting myself on the back for having put a frost blocker on my car the night before. At least I wouldn’t have to scrape anything off the windshield before I left.
But then I actually looked at my car for the first time. I discovered that it was encased in ice. Had there been time and motivation, we could have lifted it up in one piece and come away with a car-shaped ice shell.
Instead, we had to chip away at the frost blocker, which had adhered so solidly to the glass that I despaired of ever being able to drive the car again. Once we managed to rip it free, the sheet of ice that came with it broke in thick, gummy pieces like windshield glass does. That was an interesting coincidence.
I’ll say it again: the freezing rain was still falling, and it was 18 degrees outside. I was not living my best life. And I still had a 25-mile drive ahead of me, after approximately 4 hours of sleep.
In retrospect, the fact that I made it down our sloping driveway without incident was pretty darned impressive. The street in front of our house is very well-traveled, so much of the ice had been worn away. Still, I didn’t risk going more than 20 mph.
The night before, Dear Husband had suggested that we put chains on my tires, but when he told me I wouldn’t be able to exceed 50 mph with them on, I decided to risk the trip without them. Since I normally drive to work going, let’s say, substantially faster than that, that snail’s pace would have made the journey seem endless.
My car is all wheel drive, and in fairness, none of the cars I was to see that day had chains on, either. But had I known that I’d barely go above 35 mph, even on the interstate, I may have changed my tune about the tire chains. I won’t be making that mistake again. Tire chains are our friends.
The end of my street slopes sharply down into the valley, so it wasn’t long before I saw “Road Closed” barriers blocking my path. If I were younger and less brittle, I’d have called in sick and taken a sled to that hill. It would have been epic. Instead, I was forced to follow the detour signs, which routed me southward, despite the fact that I wanted, ultimately, to go northward.
After multiple twists and turns on residential streets in unfamiliar neighborhoods, I discovered, to my horror, that I was crossing my street yet again, now heading northward at least, but only about halfway down the hill. This was to be a long day.
I creeped further along this narrow road, which I probably couldn’t find again if my life depended on it. (Did I mention that sunrise was still 2 hours away?) And then the detour signs directed me to turn left. Apparently I was the first person to reach this part of the detour, because what I was looking at was an incline that, under the current conditions, was as slick as goose grease.
I made the turn and gunned the engine. In this case, that meant that I was trying for 25 mph. I was hoping that the momentum would carry me up the hill. And it did. Almost.
But then just as my front tires reached the top, I began to slide backward. And then at an angle. And when I pressed on the breaks, I discovered that they were frozen solid.
I won’t share my expletives with you. Suffice it to say that I was standing on the brake pedal, listening to the ice crack off the brakes, and thanking God that there were no other cars in sight. I finally had the presence of mind to pull the emergency brake, and I drifted to a halt on the shoulder of the road. Another foot, and I’d have been back in the intersection.
I had to gather myself. If I wanted to deal with this brake situation, I needed a level street. That could only be found at the top of that stupid little hill. Even though my backward skid had broken up some of the ice, it took me three attempts to achieve that goal. I let out a triumphant whoop.
Another strange thing about the Pacific Northwest is that there are sometimes stretches of road that make you think you’re in farm country, even though you know you’re still in the city. The transition is so abrupt that it’s startling. I was on one of those stretches. There were no houses in sight. Great.
So I creeped along at 5mph, pressing the breaks intermittently and hearing chunks of ice fall from them. Believe me, if I could have gone slower, I’d have greatly preferred that. But one makes do.
Finally, the brakes felt functional again. Because of that, this Florida girl got cocky. I was on level ground, so I let myself speed back up to 20mph. I felt like I was in a racecar.
When I saw the curve up ahead, I gently pressed the brakes and made it around the bend without incident. Yay, me! But after the curve, the road took me by surprise by sloping downward. Before I knew it, I was skidding again. At least this time I was facing forward.
I was too busy thinking about whether or not to turn into a skid to even consider expletives this time. I wasn’t sure if that rule applied to all wheel drive vehicles or not, and besides, every instinct within me was telling me to fight the skid. Meanwhile, I was heading right toward the hill that rose steeply up off that side of the road. Did I really want to turn toward that?
Brakes. Emergency brakes. Again, I drifted to a halt. I sat there for a moment, with my eyes closed and my hand gripping the emergency brake handle like the life preserver it had been.
I knew that if I called Dear Husband he’d have come and gotten me (assuming I could adequately explain where I was). But I didn’t want him out in this mess either. So I looked around, and saw that there wasn’t much hill left, and after that there was what looked like a well-traveled road with some traction to it.
I gently eased off the emergency brake and instantly started skidding again. This time, toward the other side of the road. This was really, really bad, because I had only just noticed that on the other side of the road, the hill sloped downward so sharply that if I plunged over the side, people would probably drive right past me without seeing the car.
I remember thinking that I wasn’t ready to die. And at that moment the idea of no longer being with Dear Husband was so acute that it manifested itself as a sharp pain in my gut. I was saying “No, no, no, no, no, no!”
I don’t know how or why, but the car righted itself and started sliding right down the street… and into the intersection of that busy road. Fortunately, no one was there at that moment to crash into. Suddenly I had traction again. Three cheers for traction! I got out of there.
The only reason I didn’t give up and go home at this point was that now there was nothing but well-traveled roads between me and work, whereas I’d have to get back on these crazy residential streets again to return home. And I knew that the ice was supposed to be melted off before the end of my shift, so getting home after work would be a breeze. Especially since most people had been sane enough to take the day off, so traffic was light.
The snow had obscured the pavement markings on the interstate, so most of us were going 30mph and giving the lanes our best guess based on the tire tracks ahead of us. It was slow going, but uneventful. I reached my bridge only to find out that the sidewalks and bike lanes were covered with that same shiny, inch-thick sheet of ice that coated my front yard. Thank heavens for my winter trax.
I made it to work at 6:59, and my coworker was very relieved, because the other two bridgetenders who were scheduled to man the two drawbridges to the west of me had called in saying they couldn’t get here, and our supervisor was scrambling to find replacements.
The bridge was covered in brine and pellets, and this sheet of ice seemed to be laughing at all our efforts. Nothing short of a flamethrower or a jackhammer was going to get rid of that thick blanket of ice. By now it was 26 degrees, so there was to be no thaw in the immediate future.
Seattle was quiet. It felt like I had the entire city to myself. So in the afternoon, with no one in sight, I decided to open the bridge for an invisible sailboat to see what would happen to the ice. I was hoping to see the entire sheet come crashing down. But no. It didn’t budge. What did happen, though, was still kind of cool. Water started pouring off the bridge from the underside of the sheet of ice. The ice was still there, but now, instead of looking like a sheet of glass, it took on a cloudy, milky tone.
Finally the end of my shift approached, and my coworker, bless him, showed up early to allow for the road conditions. That’s when the phone rang and a frantic supervisor asked if I’d be willing to work a double shift because he was still having staffing issues.
Four hours of sleep, a death defying drive to work, and then 16 hours before I got to go home after having moved to a second bridge? Ugh. So I suggested some alternatives. While he checked on those, I started driving. Some of the ice had thawed by now, but not all of it. I made it up one hill without incident, and was about to get on the freeway when the phone rang again.
I looked for a place to pull over, because the supervisor was now asking if I could at least work 4 more hours, and I could hear the desperation in his voice. I said I’d do it, but needed assurances that this 12 hour shift wouldn’t turn into a 16.
He said something, but I didn’t hear what it was because I had to throw the phone down. In my attempt to pull to the side of the road, I had hit a patch of ice which sent my car sliding sideways down a narrow side street with cars parked on either side.
What a helpless feeling. I was screaming and cursing and all of this was being heard over the phone, to my utter mortification. I slid for two blocks. But at least, when I finally settled gently next to a telephone pole, having caused no damage to my car or anyone else’s, the supervisor understood completely why my plans had changed and no, I couldn’t go to another bridge on that day for any amount of hours.
I sat there for quite some time because my heart was pounding, and I was feeling slightly nauseous from the adrenaline. I always thought I’ve been acutely aware of the fragility of life ever since someone I loved very much died unexpectedly, but this little caper made me realize I had slipped partway back into taking it all for granted. Now the hyper-awareness is back with a vengeance. Life is such a precious gift, dear reader. Appreciate every second of it, even the terrifying seconds.
I think I was in a little bit of shock, because I have no idea how I got my car out of its soft little nest beside the telephone pole without scraping the side or ripping off the side view mirror. The next thing I knew, I was headed toward the interstate. From there it ought to be smooth sailing. And it was. For a while.
Something told me to call Dear Husband to ask him to remove any lingering ice from our driveway. I didn’t relish the idea of going up even one more icy slope. I had had enough.
Unfortunately, I forgot to mention that I was actually running early because there were very few cars on the road. (Because they’re smart.) So when I got to the driveway, there he was, at its top, just starting the ice removal.
I was having several thoughts at once. Abort the mission! But there was a car right behind me. Gun my engine up the driveway. But what if I skidded into Dear Husband? So, stupidly, I turned into the drive without gunning it… and of course I slid back down into the street. Then, since DH had gotten out of the way, I decided to take one more run at it, gunning it the whole time. But I slid back down again, this time with the tail end of the car sticking into the street.
After the six slip day I had, I just sat there, feeling hopeless, and praying no one hit my car, while DH removed all the ice. Finally, I was able to summit our driveway, park, and head straight for our living room recliner, where I stayed for the rest of the evening.
That night, I dreamed that I woke up and every single thing in the world that didn’t belong to me personally had disappeared. I was crying and screaming for help, and wondering if everyone I loved was just a figment of my imagination. Thankfully, I woke up.
The next day I drove in to work. As one does. A few hours later, Dear Husband sent me this photograph. That particular ditch is very close to our house. This could have been me. I’m so glad it wasn’t.
A lot of things are percolating deep down, laying a foundation for change.
Note: I wrote this post about a week before I published it, so my information about the eruption of Mauna Loa will be out of date by the time you read this. Please consult the links I’ll provide below for more timely information.
After seeming to sleep for 38 years, Mauna Loa, the world’s largest volcano, located on the big island of Hawaii, has woken up. I say “seeming to sleep” because it is estimated that it took about 10 years for the magma to reach the upper magma chamber this time around, and that, in turn, lies 2 ½ miles below the crater itself. When you consider that the Hawaii hotspot, from whence the magma could be said to originate, is about 60 miles below the surface, you realize that any eruption is a long time coming. The amount of lava that we’ll see from this eruption is minuscule compared to the magma underground.
Mauna Loa has done a lot of swelling and shrinking over the years as the pressure below ground increased or subsided. That, of course, caused earthquakes. So if this volcano sleeps at all, it does so fitfully.
This current eruption began late in the evening of November 27, 2022 and, to date, the bulk of the lava is flowing toward the north. The lava flow has slowed down quite a bit today, which is a good thing, because it’s currently 1.7 miles away from Daniel K. Inouye Highway, the only major highway that crosses the interior of the big island. Its loss would be devastating. Authorities are now saying that the highway is no longer in danger, but volcanoes should never be underestimated, so we shall see.
The lava has traveled 12 miles, and it’s currently moving at a rate of 7 feet per hour. I don’t mean to make light of this event, but if you have to experience a natural disaster, it’s preferable to find one that’s laid back like this one is, so that you can outrun it. Still, volcanoes in general never cease to remind me how powerless we are over the natural world.
“Slow and steady wins the race”, as they say. This volcano has been erupting on and off for about 700,000 years, and only made it above the water’s surface about 400,000 years ago. It most likely will not become extinct for another 500,000 years. (Perhaps a better proverb would be “Patience is a virtue.”)
I’m particularly fascinated by this eruption because I visited Hawaii for the first time this past May. We drove the length of the Daniel K. Inouye Highway, and we went partway up Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa’s sister volcano. We didn’t ascend as high as we planned to because I started getting really loopy from the altitude and we decided that it was best to turn back. (It took me a few months to blog about it, but you can read that post here.)
We also stayed at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and that gave us the opportunity to see lava flowing from yet another volcano, Kilauea. As I said in that blog post, it felt as though I was gazing into the Beating Heart of Mother Earth, and I am forever changed by the experience. I have led a truly charmed life.
I’ve always thought of the Hawaiian islands as tiny little dots all alone in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and from that perspective, it’s understandable that when told a volcano is erupting, many tourists panic and change their travel plans. But when you get there and see things to scale, you realize that those fears are really unfounded. If a volcano erupted in the heart of Manhattan, nobody but those who live in Manhattan would say, “Well, I guess we need to cancel our reservations at that delightful bed and breakfast in Connecticut now.”
Yes, volcanos are dangerous. You shouldn’t get too close to a lava flow. And if you have breathing issues, you should keep track of the direction of the volcanic gasses and ash. Common sense dictates that one should avoid flying boulders and the like. And heaven forbid you get anywhere near a pyroclastic flow (but I’m happy to say that Hawaiian volcanoes don’t have that particular feature. It’s all about lava quality).
But as I said, most volcano action happens slowly, and with our modern technology we tend to get advanced warning. So I urge you not to alter your travel plans. I really wish I could go now, to see this spectacular eruption with my own eyes. (There is a live webcam, but it has only worked sporadically. Check it out, if you can, here. I especially enjoy watching it at night, but don’t forget to adjust for time change.)
During our time on the Big Island, we were able to observe Mauna Loa from many angles as it prepared itself for the spectacular transformation that we didn’t know was imminent. (Isn’t hindsight fascinating?) Even at a distance, it is, indeed, formidable, and the size makes it nearly impossible for our tiny minds to comprehend everything that was going on beneath the surface.
That is a perfect metaphor for change, isn’t it? We usually only see the change when it breaks the surface, but we often find out later that a lot of things had been percolating deep down, laying a foundation for change, for quite some time. Change will happen. (In fact, there’s a lot of change headed my way. Not to worry, though. It’s nothing horrible. When it surfaces, I’ll be sure to let you know.)
Change happens to all of us. It happens all around us. It’s part of life. But when next it happens to you, dear reader, here’s hoping that it will be as beautiful and as awe-inspiring as this eruption on Mauna Loa.
I know this post will ruffle feathers, so I wanted to start off by saying that I love dogs. I really do. I always have. But love brings with it a certain responsibility, and in order to make responsible decisions, one must have information. And all the information I’m providing below can be found if you read all of the links I provide. So here goes.
There are an estimated 90 million pet dogs in America, and they gift us with 4.5 million bites per year. While it’s true that “only” 40-50 Americans die each year from dog attacks, 26% of those fatalities fall in the 0 to 2-year old age range. These children never had a say in what dangers they would be exposed to. And it’s noteworthy that 77% of all maulings come from the family dog or a dog known to the victim.
Between 1982 and 2021, 931 people have been killed by dogs in the U.S. and Canada.
Still, when you consider that we’re talking 90 million dogs in America today, the odds of getting killed by one are startlingly small, almost to the point of insignificance. Unless, of course, you are a victim.
A responsible pet owner makes sure that her/his/their dog, regardless of its temperament, is not put in a position where harming someone is even a possibility. Dogs should be adequately trained, not allowed to roam free, not neglected or abused, and, whenever possible, kept away from situations that might trigger aggression or any type of startle response.
Now, here’s where I get controversial. Let’s delve into pit bulls specifically. I know several people who absolutely love pit bulls, and swear that their dogs are gentle and loving companions that wouldn’t hurt a fly. Yes, the odds are in their favor that this will remain the case. Statistically, it’s true that we humans are 21 times more likely to be killed by a mosquito than we are to be killed by a dog of any breed.
Choosing a pet should be more than just an emotional decision. Yes, I’m willing to concede that pit bull puppies are about as cute as they come. But you are about to allow a creature into your world who, once large enough, is physically capable of killing you or someone you love. (And bear in mind, two 6-month-old pit bull puppies once killed a 7-year-old boy.) Fortunately, most dogs would never make that choice. But it’s something to think about, especially if you have children or other pets.
When choosing a dog, you should consider the disposition of the breed in question. Pit bulls were not bred to be “nanny dogs” as some would have you believe. This article explains the long and complicated history of pit bulls, but the bottom line is that they were originally bred for bull baiting. When that became illegal, they were used in illegal dog fighting. Aggression is what people were seeking when they bred these dogs, and I guarantee that as you read this, pit bulls are fighting in rings all over the world.
A horrific side effect of the history of the aggressive manipulation of this breed is that pit bulls are still the most abused dogs on earth. That certainly doesn’t do anything to improve their disposition, and given that one survey indicates that 41% percent of animal rescue staff would lie about a pit bull’s personal aggressive history in order to find him or her a home, in this instance I would actively discourage dog rescue with regard to pit bulls. There are so many other rescue dogs out there who need your love and attention. I hope you’ll turn your eyes to them.
Pit bulls have a bite force of 235 PSI (pounds of force per square inch). That is similar to a lot of industrial machines that most parents would never let their children play around. There are actually many breeds with a stronger bite force, but pit bulls combine their bite force with an extreme level of tenacity. Some dogs just don’t let go.
Contrary to the persistent myth, a pit bull’s jaws don’t lock. It isn’t that they can’t let go, it’s that they won’t let go once they’re in frenzied attack mode. And to me, that’s even scarier.
When getting a pet, one’s first concern should be public safety, which, of course, includes the safety of you, your loved ones, your friends, and your neighbors. This is why the vast majority of us don’t have lions or tigers or bears curled up on our living room couches. It’s just a bad idea.
So, set aside emotions when making your choice. Look at cold, hard, statistics. They don’t lie. They don’t have an opinion. And below is some pit bull information that I found extremely easy to obtain. I’ll start with the most incontrovertible truth, and the statistic that would be all I’d need to know, personally, in order to give a pit bull a pass:
In the past 16 years, from 2005 to 2020, pit bulls have been responsible for 67%, or 380 dog bite fatalities, in America.
The next most deadly breed is the rottweiler, and they are responsible for 9%, or 51 bite fatalities. All other breeds pale in comparison to those two.
That, to me, is scary. But I hope it doesn’t scare you off dogs in general. The truth is, you have a 1 in 73 chance of getting bit by a dog in the US, and your odds of dying from a dog bite are 1 in 118,776. That’s not bad at all, actually. But from a logical standpoint, you might want to avoid the possibility of greatly improving your chances of being bitten or killed by avoiding the breed that does most of that biting and killing.
Even the Pitbull Federation of South Africa, an organization dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the American Pit Bull Terrier in South Africa, an organization that always wishes to portray the breed in a positive light, is realistic about these dogs. They strongly encourage sterilization, and in a public statement, they stressed that they feel that, unfortunately, “99% of pit bull terrier owners should not own a pit bull and that these dogs are owned not because the breed is loved by their owners but because of the standing owning this breed gives the owners in society.”
You’re probably wondering if I’m saying you should have your pit bull euthanized if you already own one. I know what it’s like to love a dog. I’ve thought long and hard about this, and my answer would be no, but with a few caveats.
If your dog has displayed worrying signs of aggression, then, sorry, yes, it should be put down. If you have small children, even if your dog has displayed no aggression, your dog should not be allowed around those children unless it is completely under your physical control and supervision. If you are unwilling or unable to provide a pit bull with the continual training and socialization it requires, or if you are not doing everything possible to ensure that your dog isn’t running the streets unsupervised, or if you are neglecting or abusing that dog in any way, then at a bare minimum, your dog should be taken in by someone who is willing to step up to the increased responsibilities that this breed demands.
Keeping your pit bull is potentially a life and death decision. I encourage you to check your emotions at the door and ask yourself if you are doing everything you need to do to ensure the safety of those around you. If you can say yes to that without hesitation, then go for it, but please reassess frequently to make sure you are not becoming complacent.
The biggest takeaway from this post, I suppose, it that, when it comes time to adopt your next dog, I hope you’ll consider all the other breeds out there who need your love and care, and choose one of those. Why throw the potential kill factor into the mix? Pit bulls just aren’t worth the risk.
In the interests of full disclosure, I currently have two dogs. Nelly is a mixed breed old couch potato who leaves the room when anyone approaches. Quagmire, the dachshund, can be aggressive. I discovered that when he bit a neighbor. (And I did the right thing and paid her doctors bills. I also make sure that my pets have all the necessary inoculations to prevent the spread of disease.)
Quagmire has also bitten me and Dear Husband more than once. Usually blood isn’t involved, but not always. I’m not going to lie. It does hurt.
Some people have encouraged me to euthanize Quagmire because of this. Instead, I choose to take the occasional risk, knowing that dachshunds have one of the weakest bite forces of any breed. In addition, Quagmire is an old, 15-pound dog who is missing more than half his teeth, and is therefore not capable of killing us.
However, it’s my responsibility to make sure he can never bite a visitor again. We keep him in our house. We don’t take him to public places. Our back yard is completely and utterly dog-proofed. And if we do have visitors, we have a soft muzzle on hand that we can put on him, which basically causes him to stand still and stare balefully at us.
Quagmire will never kill anyone. And he’ll never hurt anyone who hasn’t volunteered for such treatment (and that’s a short list). I feel we’ve done our due diligence.
In contrast, in the course of my life, I’ve been lunged at by several pit bulls whose owners were walking them on leash on busy urban sidewalks, and I’m sure those owners think that their dogs wouldn’t hurt a fly. That’s not responsible pet ownership.
But one pit bull encounter, in particular, stands out for me. I was in a convenience store, prepaying for gas. There was a van parked right at the front door, and I had to walk past it to get to the pump. I wasn’t paying much attention. I certainly didn’t hear any barking. There was no one in the driver’s seat, and the window was wide open. As I walked past, a pit bull came through that window and lunged at my face. I saw it all in slow motion. I felt his hot breath on my eyelashes. I was able to jump out of the way in time, but it was a near thing. I could have been disfigured for life.
And here’s the kicker: the pit bull owner came running out of the store and started yelling at me.
Are you wondering what to bring to Thanksgiving dinner? How about my book, Notes on Gratitude? Place your orders now! (Or any other time, since we’re on the subject.) And… thanks!
The citizens of Seattle are a little bit more sad today, because our beloved, internationally known, solo bus riding dog has passed away. According to this article, she had cancer and died in her sleep. She was only 10 years old.
I never met Eclipse personally, but as I note in my post entitled One More Thing to Love About Seattle, she was one of the many things that made me really happy to call this area home when I first got here. And this article in NPR entitled, Eclipse the dog, known for riding the bus alone to the dog park, has died tells you everything you need to know about how beloved she was. It includes a twitter post with hundreds of comments by those who will mourn her loss, as well as a delightful YouTube video that was made by King Country Metro about her, which I’ll post below.
Eclipse showed us all that some things transcend species, require no language, and will always make the world a better place. Those things are love and kindness. Thank you, Eclipse, for teaching us all. Since you always had your bus pass on your collar, I’m sure there was a bus waiting to take you to the Rainbow Bridge in style.
Are you wondering what to bring to Thanksgiving dinner? How about my book, Notes on Gratitude? Place your orders now! (Or any other time, since we’re on the subject.) And… thanks!