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29 October, 2012

Some Mountain Photos

First, Silver Star. I saw this on a clear summer day. There was just enough wildfire smoke in the air to slightly blur everything. Normally, pastels make me yawn, and I like bold and saturated colors. But the almost impressionistic softness rapt me in happy appreciation.

Not far from the first photo, looking south across the river to Oregon, I caught sight of Mount Hood.  The cones in the foreground may be Boring Volcanoes, one of the best oxymoronic-sounding geologic names I know. 


On the same trip, returning home, I went through Chinook Pass for the first time. Just after peaking, starting down the west side, you come to this view of Tahoma/Rainier. Wordless.

27 October, 2012

Yes,...Yes They Doo

Idiomatic American English has a few favorite ways of communicating, "Yes, emphatically." There's always the insert-expletive approach, as in "Hell Yeah!" or the more inscrutible "Fuckin' A!" but I've always been more interested in the Socratic(ish) approach of bouncing back a question by way of answer. Once upon a time, you could say, "Is the Pope Italian?" but in my life that became frought with "No," and now at best you can ask "Is the Pope Catholic?" or "Does the Pope hide his head in the sand and pretend that the Church has no culpability in the widespread (ouch) pattern of priestly sexual abuse?"

The other popular question, and one which does avoids esoteric knowledge of papist hierarchy while maintaining a healthy American frontier orientation, is "Does a bear poop in the woods?"

F-ing A they do! A big momma bear poo.

The answer is clearly yes. This is no existential conundrum like that posed to dullards in the "If a tree falls and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a noise?" (Studies show that 57% of Americans actually pause to think about that one, having been raised to think that the world is centered on them.) 

I've walked in bear-riddled woods for several years now, and would offer the following observations to help provide a more precise answer. While bears do poop in the woods, they are not insistent on doing so. They'll poop in meadows or clearings if the mood strikes, and even in the woods, they'll often drop a steaming pile of former berries (and current ones, see photo above), on a trail or logging road. They do not require shrub-shrouded privacy. They're bears, dammit, and they'll poop where they damn well please.

The scariest bear poop I ever saw was not the large-ish shit pictured above, but an even larger one (not pictured; if this saddens you, you are a freak or a dedicated scatologist) up near the Canadian border, where grizzlies roam. It was late summer, when the high elevations finally melt(ish), and two of us came across a mighty dropping formed almost entirely of pine cones. This is the sign of a hungry bear, which is not a creature I want to meet personally (I reeked of berries, having brought a stash and snacked on them all day). 

Fortunately, most bears are a lot smaller. The foot-print above, for example, is barely bigger than my own hand-print. But small does not necessarily mean safe; this print was near the big plotz pictured previously, and so it likely belongs to a cub traveling with its mother. Based on my highly honed senses (I could see that the poop was crusty and drying and the footprint starting to collapse in on itself, I had listened when another guy told me he had seen both a day or two before), I felt like I was probably not stepping between cub and protective mom, avoiding the legendary danger of such a situation. 

When I have encountered bears, they have always been alone, and they have always run before I did. Mostly, they eat berries and moribund fish; they have more sense than to attack humans, unless said humans are bent on harrassing them gunlessly, or have obnoxious but tiny dogs, or have smeared themselves in liver. Legend has it that you need to act differently around a grizzly than a black bear, but I'm too lazy and fatalistic to learn which is which. It's the cougars that worry me more, to be honest, and who knows where they poop?

25 October, 2012


Smokey Valleys above Wenatchee
About a century ago, hellfire stormed the northwest, eating forests and roasting animals and people alike. Rumble-thunder lightning struck parched ground hard, and roaring flame exhaled firestorms whose smoke-clouds dwarfed their rainless thunderhead mom and flung embers with ferocity and intensity that made their lightning-bolt father hang his head. 

Little Smokes in Sagebrush Steppe

A couple of storms (not to mention a road crew and other inattentive humans) did wander into beatle-kill forest this year, sparking fires that did some damage to timber and homes, but nothing on the order of a century ago. Nothing on the order of what could happen, what many people think will happen, when we have a truly long hot summer and the fire crews get stretched too thin. This year, most of the big fires were late in the season in the NW, and some of the fuel is gone to ash, never to burn again. But the planet keeps warming, the trees keep dying and drying, and one of these years the perfect storm (violent and parched as a moonshiner trapped in a dry county) will char the Cascadian east.

I know people who fight these fires, and hadn't really thought I'd be joining them, being about twice the age of the average line fire-fighter, and unable to jump in with advanced skills like meteorology, aircraft maintenance, logistics, GIS, get the point. But as the season wound down this year, someone approached me about maybe doing archaeology on fires. 

Smoke in the Gorge

Huh? Yep, there's a use for an archaeologist when there are fires on the loose. One of the main ways to fight a fire is to bulldoze a fire line, a gouge of bare earth that won't burn. And if you do that through an archaeological site, it's gone. No second chance to analyze that Clovis point in context, or to let that burial rest in peace. 

So what? There's a freaking fire, a lot of people would say, don't worry about some stone chips when lives are at stake. True, especially when the stake is about to flash ignite. But modern fire fighters are not scurrying around the active front, swatting at the flames. They're strategically setting perimeters, sometimes days in advance, and if someone with the right kind of data and eyes trained to see the sites can help that battle line avoid loss of something ancient or otherwise special, why bulldoze blindly?

I'm kinda hoping it will work out. Having not spent a couple of weeks in a tent, waking before dawn and eating camp food before hiking rugged ground in sweltering heat,I can imagine it fuzzily, happily. Doing something new at my age is good, and they wouldn't send an old guy into the maw of a firestorm, I figure.

23 October, 2012

Fresh Water Memories

Follow the Columbia up river for a while, past Pasco, over dammed eternities, and eventually you reach the upper, uh, reaches of Lake Roosevelt. Now and then, places like China Bend more or less duck the river valley's legendary winds, and lake becomes mirror. 

You pull over to take a photo, and of course the wind whips up, rippling the looking glass. But it's still worth clicking off a few shots. 

Reflections of ridges and hills in the water reel you into a horizon that joins crisp land with it's wobby inverted doppelganger. Symmetry's lower half smeared, but still pleasing.

Back home, weeks later, you trip across these imirages and decide to remove the real part, to flip and focus on the waterworld. Like a memory: impressionistic, not as sharp, changing with the wind, maybe opposite of how it really happened, but beautiful if you want it to be.

Salt Water Creatures

Sunny Side Up, Sting-ey Side Down

It's high time I stopped harping on politics, eh? Take a minute to remind myself that I live in an incredible place that has natural beauty. A place where I can walk by the shores of the Salish Sea and see wonders. Like a big old storm-cloud of a jellyfish, raining down sticky stings, its heart aflame with yellow lightning. 

Pterodactyls with cloaking devices in a night sky, or just duck-tracks?

A place where ducks walk the mudflats, take off into skies, and land in the sea and lakes, stitching land, sky and water. A place where enough nature perseveres to remind us that we are all connected.

A place where I can salvage a countertop, carve it just for the halibut, and find an appreciative recipient. 

I love Olympia, my town down by the water.


22 October, 2012

Redistribution is Scary

Following last week's debates, the media quickly settled in on a few themes and sound bites that, as usual, I didn't quite grasp. Even though I watched the debate, I guess I also failed to pay enough attention to body language, and spent time listening to what I thought mattered in America, which is the money, and a couple of things stuck out in my admittedly idiosyncratic mind.

Two things that Romney said stick firmly to the ends of an unstated policy that he and the GOP put forward at every opportunity. The policy should become clear as this post progresses, but first for the bites (dull and under-reported as they may be):
Thing 1: "The top 5% pay 60% of the taxes."
Thing 2: Under a Romney tax regime, "There will be no tax on your interest, dividends, and capital gains under $200,000 a year."

At first glance, nothing scary, and it even sounds truthy, but ultimately these things are obfuscation and bullshit.

The point of Thing 1 is that the rich pay more taxes than the poor because some of the poor pay no taxes, and because the rich have so much money that even though they can avail themselves of shelters and lower rates, they contribute more revenue. A rate of 13% tax on $10,000,000 certainly more cash than 28% of $60,000, but the fact is that it does not amount to a proportionate contribution, since the top 5% in fact control more than  60% of the wealth in this country. As the chart below illustrates, even if you only count net worth, the "top"* 5% control more than 60%, and if you zoom in on "financial wealth" which subtracts the amount of equity in the house you live in (i.e., shelter, as opposed to luxury crib or investment), the 5%-ers control 72%. If they contribute only 60% of the tax revenue, then they are doing less,  proportionately, than I am.**

This distribution, the control of the vast majority of US wealth by a small percentage of the population, is unknown to most of the American populace. A couple of years ago, an academic study revealed that Americans think that the "top" 20% of the population should control less than 35% of the wealth, and that they do control over 55% of the wealth. The truth is that they actually control nearly 85%.

As it happens, this is a situation that has become more extreme over the past few decades, ever since the 20th Century nadir of US wealth inequality during the Carter administration, when the 1%-ers controlled a mere 20% of wealth (sad that that seems so fair). As of 2007, this group controlled nearly 35% of the wealth. It is instructive, I think, that the 20th Century peak of wealth inequality was in 1929, just before economic lunacy and instability led to a crash that would not end without a decade of alleged socialism and then a world war. Don't believe me? Check out the data:

If the charts did not send you clicking elsewhere, then maybe you wonder why I digressed, and what ever happened to Thing 2. My intent was just to show that despite the current GOP/Tea Party dread of redistribution, we are 30 years or so into a redistribution that benefits their wealthy supporters. The rich have gotten richer, and everyone else has contributed to the effort.

Thing 2 is that the process is not over, and we commoners should be scared. Pitiful as my own life savings may be, and even though after 5 years come another 5 years until I am vested in my paltry pension plan, Washington state employees as a whole put a lot of money into "the market," where bit players like us are babes in the woods compared to the wealthy who can ante up millions and billions as individuals and small groups, able to demand results from their brokers, while each of the rest of us is one of a million.

The proles may no longer have pensions or 401K plans, but those of s in the shrinking middle class who do maintain a nest egg of sorts should be wary, because our numbers (if not our per capita wealth) attract the attention of the professionals who sway the market-bucket and pocket the slosh. The "top" 1% owned (as of 2010) a mere 35% of stocks and mutual funds, while the unwashed 90% had somehow held onto a whopping 20% of the same market…clearly a situation calling for rapid redistribution upward. And while the 59.8% share of the homes that people live in held by that same "bottom" 90% is often underwater and rarely liquid, the nearly 35% of pension account held by the same lump is also a part of "the market," and thus open to upward redistribution as well.

So that is why Mitt's tax plan is the scariest thing I heard in the 'town hall' debate. We in the shrinking middle class still hold enough cash to be attractive to the parasites who for some reason are still hungry, despite the gluttonous display of the past few decades. To sate that hunger, what better than a leader who encourages us to invest by promising that the profits will be (because almost no commoner will earn more than $200,000/year on investments) tax free? Sounds like a great deal, unless you are aware that the financial sector has a caste system, in which commoner mutual vends and public sector pensions are not allowed at the tables where the payoffs are large and predictable. The bait--tax free income--is calculated to make the gullible jump.

There are times when I lament the lack of differentiation between the Depublicans and Republicrats, but this debate was not one of them. Obama said that people whose income (not capital gains and dividends, taxed at a lower rate) was less than $250,000/year would see no tax increase, while those above would return to Clinton era rates (still way below the 90% tolerated by Ike Eisenhower).  Romney offered a sweet-sounding deal that could only be used to its utmost by people able to earn $200,000/year in investment income. Let's put that in real terms: My credit union pays 0.1% interest on savings; to earn $200,000, I would have to have  savings account of $200,000,000.00.

If I had that kind of money, I would not have a credit union savings account as one of my main "investments." If I were charitable, my interpretation of Romney's tax policy proposal would be that the guy is out of touch. If I were cynical (and I think I am), it would look like another ploy that acknowledges and strokes the American desire for upward mobility in hopes that it will override reason. Stop paying taxes like a chump, and join the investor class. Just don't come asking for a handout after we fleece you. Bailouts are for the big boys, fool.

* This "top 5%" stuff galls me. Reporters and pundits demand shorthand, but to substitute "top 5%" for  "wealthiest 5%" reinforces a semantic difference that actually shapes our culture in a significant way. The top 5% were mostly born into lives where wealth was already present and easily expanded compared to a poor person. The worked "top" implies superiority on any number of variables not having to do with money, but I refuse to stipulate that the richest 5% are more successful than I am in terms of moral, community, artistic, compassionate, environmental, and other dimensions.

** Disclosure: I control several thousand dollars of financial wealth. Twenty-something years after graduating college, I have amassed a fortune of less than $10,000. I will never retire.