Thursday, August 29, 2013

Where Have All The Abbeys Gone?

I once had an editor tell me that my biggest (among many, apparently, according to him) weakness as a writer was that I was always too polemical, that I injected too much anger and/or humor into my writing (and too many foul words). So I lost my temper, cursed his lineage and then beat him to death with a rubber chicken. Ba dum ba! He was an asshole, anyway (he also told me that I used way too many parentheticals) (what did he know, right?).

But lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the role, or lack thereof, of anger in writing, specifically nature, conservation and/or outdoor writing. This probably comes as no great surprise, but I’m a big fan of provocation, agitprop and good old-fashioned outrage. I like my comedy, my journalism and my music to be angry, intelligent and sincere.

Unfortunately, it seems - to me, anyway - that while a lot of current environmental and conservation writing is both intelligent and  sincere in its great pains toward objectivity (more on that later…), it seems to be lacking a bit in the outraged sense of justice department, as if honest emotion, heartfelt opinion or (god forbid!) offending or insulting some person, group, thing, concept, scheme, plan, entity or idea so obviously and eminently worthy of offense or insult, somehow weakens your case or disproves your thesis.

I, too, have been a willing victim of this cult of objectivity (Breathless, Self-Serving Monologue Warning).

I have stood at the base of a giant, leaking corporate hog farm lagoon, with untold thousands of gallons of fetid, toxic, bacterial pigshit swirling about my feet, and had a slick-haired, smooth-talking PR flack tell me everything’s fine even as his hired goons grabbed at my camera. Could I call him a goddamned liar? Nope, because that would have been “taking sides.”  

I have attended a David-and-Goliath environmental regulatory agency hearing in which platoons of $300-an-hour hired Gucci Guns, fresh off the Lear jet, strode into the room reeking of the kind of smug arrogance and contempt that comes only from the knowledge of a pre-ordained outcome. And when the whole obscene, set-piece Kabuki theatre was over, when the bought-and-paid-for deciders had made their bought-and-paid-for decisions and then filed out of the room in jocular, back-slapping unison and the hired guns has snapped their briefcases closed in triumph and high-tailed it back to civilization and all that remained in the room was a small, shell-shocked group of ordinary, extraordinary people for whom the word “home” had forever changed, could I write “Corrupt Kangaroo Court Fails Its People?” Nope, because that would have been “biased reporting.”  (and bad alliteration)

I have watched, incredulously, as one of my life’s abiding passions, indeed, my life’s anchor - one that once tethered me and kept me from floating out to doom on the same riptide that has taken so many other fatherless latchkey kids - grows increasingly vile, cheap and desensitized to anything resembling respect, reflection, or restraint, instead becoming ever more corrupted, rotted, ugly, commoditized, fetishized, falsified, mythologized, branded, packaged, sold, traded, digitized, distributed and wholly co-opted by those for whom the act of hunting and killing is always something to be made easier, quicker, cooler, more efficient, more spectacular, more entertaining, and above all, more profitable.  Could I point to these people and say (or write) “You, sir, are a peckerwood of the highest order, and what you represent is a disgrace to the sport you profess to love.” No, because to do so would take speaking with a discordant voice, and in that industry, media included, unvarnished opinion - or at least unvarnished opinion of the wrong sort- is an undesirable thing.

But unvarnished, even raw, opinion is, in my mind, an absolutely crucial component to effective writing, if the purpose of your writing is to get people’s attention and focus it on what you’re trying to reveal to them. If, however, the purpose of your writing is to be promptly forgotten, or not even finished, then by all means strip it of anything resembling life or vitality. And I mean journalism, too.

And that’s where Edward Abbey comes in. As you can obviously tell from my header photograph, I am an Abbey acolyte. I still remember, with vivid clarity, discovering Desert Solitaire in the paperback rack at Noble Junior High School. It’s a cliché now shared by many, but at the time it was beyond transformative for me. I had never, ever read anything like that (until I discovered Vonnegut that same year. Then Robert Ruark’s books. Then Bradbury.  Then girls. Then my hand. That was a damn educational year…)

What was it about that randy, beer-swilling, gun-toting, philosophy-spouting, monkey-wrenching, misanthropic, womanizing, unapologetically contradictory - and kinda freaky-looking- iconoclast that stoked me so?

Well, it sure as hell wasn’t his objectivity and fair-mindedness and his even-keeled approach to making sure all the various “stakeholders” in the debate were fairly represented and given voice. Shit, no. It was his words. His energy. His unfettered joy in writing exactly whatever the hell he wanted to write, and reaction be damned. He wasn’t always right, and sometimes flat wrong, but he damn sure believed he was always right, and wrote that way. Compromise had no place in Edward Abbey’s writing, and that lack of compromise about what he loved, made you love it, too.

The thing is, almost anyone can evoke place. There are legions of working travel, nature and conservation writers out there who (I’m guessing here, ‘cause I’m sure as hell not one of them) make a decent living by evoking a sense of place… adequately enough. Who report on a region’s issues or problems…adequately enough. Who hit all the key issues, get a quote or position statement from all the key players, maybe even weave the narrative around a little first-person longform riffing to give the piece some color, and do it… adequately enough.

But to evoke a sense of place with as much humor, rage, pathos, bravado, bullshit, outrageousness and sheer feeling as Abbey did is a rare thing, indeed. It stuck with you. But Abbey died in 1989. The world’s a vastly (or perhaps not) different place. I need a new Abbey. We all need a new Abbey to stick with. But I’m finding that not much is sticking with me these days.

Don’t get me wrong: thorough, sober, fact-based (more on “facts” later) environmental reporting is a crucial and needed thing, I guess, but I fear that in pursuing the grim, lifeless doctrinaire of objectivity, we’re losing passion. And interest. You simply cannot have one without the other. I don’t read as much nature writing these days as I probably should because it quite frankly bores me, the kind of thing you pick up, start reading and then just sort of…disengage from.

Where are the Abbeys? It’s not a rhetorical question. I really want to know, because we need some damn Abbeys, and quick.

Now, the case could certainly be made (and probably has) that we don’t need  anger and outrage, that anger and outrage are simply weak ad hominem literary devices used by inferior writers  to make up for a lack of depth, thoughtfulness and substance, and in my particular case you’d be absolutely right. I recognize my limits as a writer and thinker. Like most bloggers, I’m mostly just a polemic, ranting bomb-thrower with nothing terribly useful to offer up besides profanity and rhetorical outrage, which may be entertaining to a point, but doesn't really bring anything useful to the table.

But some writers can pull off anger, humor and deep thought, and in the process hook us and engage us totally with the issue. Abbey was one of them. And he did it the faintest pretence of “objectivity.” In fact, I’d argue he did it in spite of objectivity. Because, really, there’s no such thing. Science (and much philosophy) tells us, in a roundabout way, that there is no reality, that everything we “see” is merely an interpretation created by our brains based on patterns of light photons hitting the photoreceptors on our retinas. Those light waves are then converted to electrical nerve pulses that are sent to the brain in certain patterns, to be analyzed and decoded by said brains into mental images. Viola! Reality! So in a very real sense (such as it is…) “reality” is all in your head.

The entire concept of “facts” and/or “objectivity” is no different, really, just streams of information photons hitting receptors and being recorded, converted to electrical impulses and then sent to the brain for analysis and interpretation. And I promise you that whatever your brain’s computer spits out as “fact” at the end of this process - regardless of how immutable it may seem to you – will be contested by someone else’s equally obvious, immutable and diametrically opposed fact. Ever it was thus, and ever it shall be.  Just like quantum physics, no one’s yet managed to come up with a unified field theory of what constitutes factual objectivity, and no one is ever likely too, either. Your “fact” is my steaming pile of horseshit, and vice versa. Reductio ad absurdum

So screw it. Don’t try. Seriously, give it up. Because you’re simply bullshitting yourself if you think facts and objectivity are effective persuasive devices. They’re not, because they don’t exist except in your head. Generally, we’re wired to accept the facts our wiring and environment predisposes us to accept. Can you re-wire yourself? Sure, but it’s damn hard, and facts in and of themselves aren’t the best tool to do so, IMO.  Just look at the world around you. Do you think it turns on fact and objectivity? No. It turns on the eternal struggle between competing fact translation processes.  As  Cassius famously said (uh,sort of, more or less…), “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in our fucked-up noggins.”

That’s why I’ve always believed that opinion - pure, sweet, unadulterated opinion, the kind at which Abbey excelled - is the highest, truest and most intellectually honest form of truth. Because it’s your truth, and (impending metaphysical doublespeak gibberish warning!) there is no other truth besides the truth you believe.

And so naturally, I think the highest calling of writing, and yes, journalism, isn’t to go out and simply be a stenographer laboring under the laughable yoke of objectivity. It’s to attempt to re-wire others to see your truth, whatever it may be.  And despite what the fair-and-balanced-stick-to-the-facts objectivity cultists may say, there’s not a goddamned thing wrong with that, and much to admire (just as long as your truth jibes with mine, of course. Otherwise, you’re a lying, manipulative asshole…).

So dump objectivity. Tell the “fair-and-balanced” crowd to shove it up their asses. Go experience and write what you see and feel to be the truth regardless of who, what or how many it pisses off, offends or insults: Rage, disgust, wonder, sorrow and joy - as long as they are genuine - are far more powerful agents of change than the tepid, illusory gruel of “objectivity.” Because there’s always going to be a competing, equally “objective” truth. Make yours stronger.

 But just don’t expect to sell it anywhere, because, well, truth, even passionate, heartfelt truth, doesn’t sell for shit. Paying markets want listicles*. So write the truth for yourself, write listicles for dough.

*Oh, just Google it…

Monday, August 26, 2013

Juniperus Virginiana Justgotohellus*

* Not its actual taxonomic name, but it should be.

See those evergreen trees behind that stylish, classy, impeccably-trained dog? That's Juniperus Virginiana, otherwise known as the eastern redcedar. If you look closely at the background, you can see more of them, like a dark, evil, ever-growing smudge on the horizon.

They are a bane, a pox, a nightmare; bushy, aromatic cockroaches that cover the prairie like a malignant cancer. If unchecked by fire, cutting or other means of control, they spread unbelievably quickly, and form equally unbelievably dense stands of trees that, quite literally choke out everything else. How quickly? In Oklahoma alone it's estimated we lose 300,000 acres to cedar infestation every year. That's 700 acres, a day!

They're bad news for just about everything, including quail, quail hunters and quail hunters' dogs. It's so bad that in some areas I hunt, if I didn't run Astros/Alphas on the dogs I'd never have a clue where they were. And this on the allegedly treeless Oklahoma plains. And although the trees in the picture are bush-like and rather small - like some benign shrubbery - don't let that fool you: redcedars can and do get properly huge, especially in the protected draws and canyons so prevalent in my part of the world.

And it's not like you can just walk through, or under, rather, a grove of redcedars. Their branches extend all the way down the length of the trunk. So not only will a thirty, forty, or fifty-foot-tall redcedar choke out every other tree around it from above, its lower branches are so low and so dense that it effectively chokes out any kind of movement under it, too. Get a bunch of large cedars growing in close proximity, and they form about as gloomy, dense and utterly impenetrable a wall as you're likely to encounter.

So yesterday we took a drive down to the in-laws' homestead (the same place where this pic was taken, but at different times) to do a little scouting and to cut some firewood (and no, you can't burn eastern redcedar in a fireplace or stove, or at least I refuse to. Even seasoned for years, it still burns too hot, too quickly, too irregularly and produces way too much popping for me to feel comfortable burning it in large amounts).

There's quite a bit of dead-standing walnut and oak in the various draws and canyons of the property, but the problem is, many of those dead-standing trees are completely swallowed in forests of large, mature eastern redcedars. In fact, most of those dead-standing hardwoods are dead-standing precisely because they're surrounded by forests of large, mature eastern redcedars...

So here's the procedure for cutting firewood in eastern redcedar country: First, identify what tree you want to cut down for firewood. Then, count how many redcedars you must cut down to reach it. Then, start cutting. But you can't just take your chainsaw, walk up to a cedar and cut it down. Oh, no. First, you must cut your way to the trunk of the tree (remember all those dense, lance-like ground-level branches?). Then, once you've cut a path to the trunk, you must fell the cedar tree away from the path you're cutting to your firewood tree. Because that's also the path onto which you're going to (hopefully) be dropping your firewood tree. When the cedar tree falls, it will of course hang up in the tree next to it, so you've got to repeat the process all over again, and in all likelihood that tree will hang up in the tree next to it, and so on. Lather, rinse, repeat...

Once you've finally got a sort-of path cleared to your firewood tree, you've got to make damn sure that you fell the tree exactly where you've cut your path. If you don't, it will of course start to fall directly into an adjacent cedar tree, and hang up. And then you're screwed, because then you have to go cut that tree down, and hope it doesn't hang up in the tree next to it. Lather, rinse, repeat...

It's a dangerous, exhausting, time-consuming, frustrating, equipment-breaking, wildly inefficient way to gather winter heat. I spent five hours yesterday cutting cedar trees, in the process repeatedly getting stabbed, poked, whacked, scratched, bitch-slapped, impaled, dehydrated and heatstroked, just so I could go back next week and spend another five hours cutting a pick-up load of actual firewood. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The older I get, the better "woodstove-as-rustic-decoration-and-potted-plant-stand" sounds. I could really get into "Blizzard's on the way. Better call the propane guy!"

Friday, August 23, 2013

Old Glory and Bullet Holes

Continuation of a theme...

A mortally wounded mailbox along US 160 in far southeastern Colorado in the middle of the seldom-visited, largely unknown, unloved, overgrazed and hauntingly beautiful national grasslands of the southern plains, a scattered patchwork of thousands of abandoned Dust Bowl-era homesteads bought out by the government and surrendered back to the grass.

On a topo map the hundreds of small grassland parcels are shaded, and on some areas of the map where the grasslands intersperse with unshaded private ground, the pattern resembles a crazy, hopscotching checkerboard of folly. Other areas of the map containing denser, larger and more closely spaced grassland areas remind me of giant Rorschach blots. There's a metaphor there somewhere.

It is a gaunt, haunted, and largely unpeopled land totally unappealing to the conventional aesthetic of pleasantness and comfort. Of course I love it. Nothing out here now but a few scattered ranches, in the fall a handful of itinerant bird and antelope hunters, and on the wind the ever-present whisper of long-ago dreams turned bad.

 “Neither a land nor a people ever starts over clean. Country is compact of all its past disasters and strokes of luck–of flood and drouth, of the caprices of glaciers and sea winds, of misuse and disuse and greed and ignorance and wisdom–and though you may doze away the cedar and coax back the bluestem and mesquite grass and side-oats grama, you're not going to manhandle it into anything entirely new. It's limited by what it has been, by what's happened to it. And a people, until that time when it's uprooted and scattered and so mixed with other peoples that it has in fact perished, is much the same in this as land. It inherits.”

                                               John Graves, Goodbye To a River

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Union Jack and Bullet Holes

What is surely one of the loneliest, most inhospitable, amenity-free and least-photographed "Welcome To" state signs in the lower 48. My favorite kind. County Road E0200, Cimarron County, Oklahoma, a few miles west of the ghost town of Mexhoma, Oklahoma on the OK/New Mexico border. No Man's Land.

On the way to Colorado a few years ago, I took that forgotten and empty road, just because. Why else? I pulled over at the state line to eat my lunch, and as I sat there on the tailgate of the truck I pondered that sign. A Union Jack sticker and bullet holes. An interesting combination. Vastly different, but the same, really, both saying "I was here", one borne of adventure never to return, the other perhaps borne of frustration and anger, never to escape. That or just plain dumbshit ignorance and access to a six-pack and a gun.

I'd never know. I tossed my bread crust at the prairie rattler curled up underneath the sign, (no cute tourist pictures to be taken in front of this one...), listened to the wind for a while, watched a hawk trace a few looping circles in the sky, then got back in the truck and drove off. I was utterly alone.

"I will never forget, myself, starting across the sere Oklahoma Panhandle at dusk one cold February evening and becoming so depressed by the melancholy of its emptiness that I almost had to turn back. It was perhaps because of that drive across the Oklahoma Panhandle at dusk in the winter that I began to read narratives of travel in Siberia ...

                                            Larry McMurtry, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Coffee, Quail and Moonglow

I slip out of the house into the cool, pre-dawn darkness and walk to the end of our gravel driveway with a cup of coffee in one hand and a pair of binoculars in the other. The nearly-full moon hangs low in the western sky, and to its left Jupiter shines bright and hard. I lift the binoculars and there they are: Io, Europa, Callisto and Ganymede, the four easily-observable Galilean moons that ring Jupiter like tiny jewels.

They are beautiful, hanging up there in the velvet sky, and I never tire of watching them, but I am not standing here in this chill half-light just to stargaze. I sip my coffee and wait. It doesn’t take long before I hear it: the soft cadence of quail calling all around me.

I’ve found myself doing this every morning for the past few weeks as the promise of fall gradually becomes a welcome reality. I drink my coffee outside, watch the stars and listen to the neighborhood quail talk to each other, dreaming of dogs and birds and cold mornings afield as the sky slowly brightens above me.

Eventually my own reality intrudes and I must go back inside, make breakfast, see children off to school and go to work myself. But the memory stays with me and serves as a balm to the routine craziness of everyday life.

I’m sure there are those who would scoff at the notion that listening to a bunch of birds whistle at each other is a form of mental health, and that modern pharmacopeia is the answer to whatever demons - real or imagined - might ail my spirit.

Thanks, but I’ll stick to the birds. The call of a wild quail is, for me, a far more effective anti-depressant than anything cooked up by Big Pharma. When I want my willy to work, I'll take their pills*. When I want to feel better about the world, or myself, I'll walk outside and listen for a quail. Thankfully, no one has yet figured out a way to synthesize and bottle that. 

*Just for the record, my willy works fine without pills, not that there's anything wrong with that...

Monday, August 19, 2013

Chigger Hell

I recently returned from an assignment in Mississippi, which, prior to this visit, was one of those states I've never had the pleasure of visiting. I can say without hesitation that Mississippi is a beautiful state. The weather was delightfully unseasonably cool, the people were gracious, charming and friendly, the accommodations were first-rate, the food was fantastic, the tea was sweet, minty and cold, the bourbon was delicious, and the landowner's conservation efforts to bring back wild quail were laudatory and inspiring.

But I will never, ever go back there, or anywhere back east or south again, without an industrial-sized can of "Deep Effing Woods GTF OFF!" (which is a bit stronger than regular Deep Woods OFF!), because I came back from Mississippi with a raging case of...chiggers.

If you are fortunate enough to live in a place with no chiggers, then just Google them. If you do live in Chiggerland, then I'm not telling you anything you don't already know.

I hate chiggers. Intensely. I grew up with chiggers, suffered their disgusting, parasitic habits my entire life, and when I finally moved away from Chiggerland to a sparser, more arid, less chigger-friendly clime, I rejoiced. And stopped scratching.

But the downside to living outside Chiggerland is that you get lazy, let your guard down. You forget the evil, the misery. Then you make a return visit to Chiggerland without taking precautions, without preparing yourself. And that's when the little bastards get you.

And they got me. Lesson learned.

OK, so the picture isn't a real chigger, it's a Berkley Chigger Craw (a soft plastic bass bait for you non-anglers), but the photographs of actual chiggers (actually it's the larval stage that feeds on you) are so repulsive I couldn't bring myself to use one...

So, to reiterate: if you're traveling to any region where "here" is a two-syllable word, be sure to pack your "Deep Effing Woods GTF OFF!" Apply liberally and often. You'll thank me for it. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Coming To Terms With The Dropper

I hate to rig them, hate to cast them, hate to get them snagged in trees, hate to lose them (Oh yeah! Four bucks worth of flies down the drain instead of only two!) and hate to constantly pick them out of the Gordian knots my shitty, unschooled, unpolished, self-taught (i.e. completely wrong) casting gets them in, but damn it, eight times out of ten when I catch a fish, I end up catching it on the cursed dropper.

So I mutter, swear under my breath (and often above it...) and go right on rigging up the evil little bastards, eyestrain, wallet drain and anger-induced high blood pressure be damned. I'm getting better at it. Much better. Almost - but not quite - comfortable, even.

But one of these days, I fear I'm going to experience the snarl that breaks the trout's back, and when that happens I swear I'm gonna say to hell with it, fling the whole sorry mess into whatever river I happen to be fishing and stomp back to my baitcasting, bass-fishing Okie birthright. Because sometimes you just want to chunk a big-ass spinnerbait.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Still Life With Brook Trout*

Last year during our annual Okie Exodus to Estes Park, I managed to finish out my four-species trout slam (through the barest of technical definitions) by catching a single brook trout that some might consider a bit, uh...smallish. How smallish? Well, smallish enough that I actually didn't realize I had caught a fish until the damn thing came rocketing out of the water on my backcast and zoomed past my head into the shrubbery behind me. And bear in mind, I was using a three-weight. A tiny three-weight.

I found the poor little bastard hanging six feet up in the bushes, so I unhooked him, measured him against my pinkie finger trophy mark, snapped a quick picture for verification purposes, put him back in the water, declared flyfishing victory (quietly, and with an admirably straight face...), then got the hell out of there as quickly as possible in case anyone had been watching me.

So this year I was striving to complete the brookie part of my slam with a little more dignity, a lot more grace, and hopefully with a fish that could at least be measured in inches rather than grams.

Mission accomplished. Still small, but at least he stayed in the water when I set the hook. But just like last year, this was the only brookie I caught, mainly because I kept catching mostly native cuttthroats in the creek where I was supposed to be catching mostly invasive brook trout. Native pests. Here are my thoughts on those vermin... They should just get rid of those damn things so the brook trout can have a chance to flourish**...

* Please don't sue me, John Gierach.
** I kid, I kid...

Friday, August 9, 2013

What Once Was...

A page from the 1941 edition of  "Upland Game Birds of Oklahoma." The pamphlet, published by the Oklahoma Game and Fish Department (now called the Department of Wildlife Conservation), describes small, but most definitely present-at-one-time populations of both sharptails and sage grouse in Oklahoma.

There is, of course, much documentation of the historical presence of, and (justifiable, I hasten to add) lamentation for, the ensuing disappearance of charismatic megafauna on the southern plains. We all know that grizzlies, wolves, elk, mountain lions, black bears, pronghorn, etc. were once common on the prairies (Teddy Roosevelt once went on a wolf hunt in SW Oklahoma). Of course, so were native tribes, and we all know how well it ultimately worked out for both indigenous peoples and large predators...

However, up until I found this pamphlet in an OKC used bookshop a few weeks ago, I myself knew precious little about the pre-to-early-settlement gamebird populations on the southern plains, which are my personal charismatic megafauna.

Oh, I knew all about prairie chickens, of course. But I had no idea, no idea at all, that those lonely sagebrush hills where I now follow the dogs in pursuit of my beloved bobwhite quail once held sharptails and sage grouse, too.

Can a land hold some vestigial memory of what once was but is now gone never to return? I believe so. The plains are a palpably sorrowful and tragic place, perhaps our most sorrowful, a region crowded with ghosts that linger on just beyond the conscious periphery of memory. I can feel them all around me whenever I walk across this landscape and imagine what - and who- came before me.

And it's fascinating, in a decidedly bittersweet way, to imagine that, in addition to all the homesteaders, cowboys, trappers, explorers, Native Americans, bison, wolves, bears, elk, mastodons and everything and everyone else that left an imprint in this swirling dust before me, I now know there are two more ghosts out there walking these plains, two more faint and dimming after-images of what was once a bright and searing now.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Ahead of the Curve?

 I was perusing Facebook yesterday (as I am wont to do when I need to see how much happier, wealthier and more fulfilling everyone else's lives are than my own...) when I came across an interesting link via Tovar Cerruli's FB feed. 

It was a link to Backcountry Hunters and Anglers  (a great group, BTW) position statement on using drones as hunting aids. I hope they don't mind me pasting that position statement here verbatim, because it's worth a read...

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems (commonly called “drones”) are increasingly important in the military and have high potential to contribute to the fields of wildlife biology, search-and-rescue, agriculture and many other applications. However, in private hands there is small but growing interest in using these highly sophisticated remote-controlled aircraft to scout, monitor and stalk big game. BHA believes this technology represents a widespread opportunity for abuse, and if not regulated poses a significant threat to fair chase hunting and fair distribution of hunting opportunity.

According to the UAVs Industry Association: While military operations continue to dominate current UAS applications the future will see increasing use of UAVs in parapublic and civil roles. It is important for the growth of the industry that paths to the civil market are opened as early as possible and UAVS takes very seriously the challenges of operating UAVs in the civil environment. According to an article in the New York Times, one company sells 7,000 civilian UAVs a year, more than the US military drone fleet. As one industry promoter predicted, “the sky is going to be black with these things.”

A YouTube video posted January 2013, depicts a Norwegian man stalking a moose with a remote controlled UAVs. The moose seemed perplexed, as it watched the machine hover above and monitor its every move.
It takes little imagination to visualize how an unscrupulous hunter or outfitter might use these powerful machines to scour a mountain range looking for a bighorn ram or harass a pronghorn herd across the distant prairie.
While Backcountry Hunters & Anglers acknowledges the potential use of UAVS for purposes of science and game surveys, we feel strongly that state wildlife departments should curtail their use to protect the principles of fair chase and fair opportunity. While government cannot “legislate morality,” we have a responsibility to make sure that hunting remains a primitive pursuit involving woodcraft and skill, not merely exploiting technology.
Accordingly, BHA support state chapters to work with their respective state wildlife authorities to ban the use of UAVs to aid or assist in hunting before this technology becomes established.

Abso-freakin'-lutely. Kudos to BHA for taking a proactive stance on what is sure to be a damned scourge in the near future. Modesty should prevent me from mentioning this, but what the hell, modesty has never stopped me before, so I'll go ahead and point out that I had the same idea back in August...

From this F&S blog post.

The brilliant cyberpunk novelist William Gibson may, or may not (it's attributed to him, anyway) have once said, "the future is already here - it's just not evenly distributed yet." Why, you may ask, am I leading off this ostensibly hunting and/or fishing news blog post with a quote from a semi-obscure cult sci-fi novelist? Because the future of game camera technology is here - it's just not evenly distributed, nor is it quite tailored for hunting...yet.

From this story in the Boston Globe:

They are better known as stealthy killing machines to take out suspected terrorists with pinpoint accuracy. But drones are also being put to more benign use in skies across several continents to track endangered wildlife, spot poachers, and chart forest loss. Although it is still the ‘‘dawn of drone ecology,’’ as one innovator calls it, these unmanned aerial vehicles are skimming over Indonesia’s jungle canopy to photograph orangutans, protect rhinos in Nepal, and study invasive aquatic plants in Florida...Relatively cheap, portable, and earth-hugging, the drones fill a gap between satellite and manned aircraft imagery and on-the-ground observations, said Percival Franklin at the University of Florida, which has been developing such drones for more than a decade.

That's right. Drones. Forget those old-fashioned stationary game cameras. Personal scouting drones will be the next big thing for hunters. Maybe not now. Maybe not in five years. But at some point in the not-too-distant future, some enterprising company is going to design and market a personal drone geared toward hunters. Bank on it. According to the story, right now anyone can cobble together a viable home-made drone using off-the-shelf components for less than $2,000. And with advances in technology and miniaturization, the cost to do so will only continue to decrease.

I first got the idea of drones as scouting tools after listening to this NPR radio story a while back, and when I saw the story about using drones as conservation tool, I became convinced that it's just a matter of time before we see the first "hunting celebrity endorsed" scouting drone.
Thoughts? Reaction? Am I nuts? Bigger question: is it ethical? Would you use one if one existed?

A William Gibson reference and a shout-out to NPR in the same blog? Yeah, I'm cool that way...Anyway, it's gonna happen. And probably pretty damn soon. And the industry will trot out the same tired old excuses it trots out for every bad idea and questionable technology designed to make modern hunting even further removed from where and what it once was. Easier. Faster. More convenient. More efficient. More certain. And much, much worse.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The More Things Change...

 Move along folks, nothing to see here, just the continued death of the plains is all, and really, who gives a shit about that place? It's all flat, ugly and windy. Not one bit of charismatic photogenic megatopography (to bastardize a wildlife biology phrase) to be found anywhere. No pretty mountains to worry about, no babbling brooks or whispering vales of trees to pine over. Just a bunch of empty space, really, with no obvious intrinsic value at all, so fuck it. Plow it all, I say. Make it useful, profitable, industrial. Yeah, that's it. Just one monstrous, unbroken agricultural-industrial park stretching from Texas to North Dakota. If we're going to ruin an entire region, then by god, let's do it right. And it's nice to see we're off to a helluva good start...

From this press release (released last week and seen by pretty much no one) from Pheasants Forever

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will accept 1.7 million acres offered under the 45th Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) general sign-up, lowering Conservation Reserve Program total acreage to 26.9 million acres. Now at a 26-year program low, Pheasants Forever calls this depletion a modern low point for conservation, one which will have serious ramifications not only for wildlife, but for the nation's soil and water quality as well.

"While we thank USDA for recognizing the need for holding this CRP sign-up and applaud the landowners who are participating in conservation, this news of CRP's historic low acre total makes it even more apparent there are grave concerns for the health of CRP, our nation's most successful conservation program responsible for countless benefits to water quality, soil resources and wildlife," says Dave Nomsen, Pheasants Forever & Quail Forever vice-president of governmental affairs.

"Since 2007, we have lost more than 14.7 million acres of CRP, accounting for 26 percent of the program and setting a 26-year low for total acres enrolled. CRP is significantly below the 30 million acre enrollment benchmark maintained for more than two decades.That 30 million-acre mark had been providing record benefits in terms of soil, water, and wildlife resources," continued Nomsen.

During this spring's 5-week signup, the Department received 28,000 offers on more than 1.9 million acres of land. USDA selected offers for enrollment based on an Environmental Benefits Index (EBI) comprised of five environmental factors plus cost. The five environmental factors are: (1) wildlife enhancement, (2) water quality, (3) soil erosion, (4) enduring benefits, and (5) air quality.

"These recent CRP losses combined with an agricultural climate rampant with conversion of native prairies and wetlands, bulldozing and burning of shelterbelts, woodlots, and dry wetlands - is having a catastrophic impact on our landscape," said Nomsen. "In the aftermath of this announcement, the American people need to recognize what is taking place on their countryside, especially across much of the northern Great Plains. This is not for just the health of pheasant, quail and other wildlife.At stake is a high quality of life in rural areas, loss of America's hunting tradition, and environmental benefits important to a sustainable agriculture system."

CRP is a voluntary program designed to help farmers, ranchers and other agricultural producers protect their environmentally sensitive land. Eligible landowners receive annual rental payments and cost-share assistance to establish long-term, resource conserving covers on eligible farmland throughout the duration of 10 to 15 year contracts.Under CRP, farmers and ranchers plant grasses and trees in crop fields and along streams or rivers. The plantings prevent soil and nutrients from washing into waterways, reduce soil erosion that may otherwise contribute to poor air and water quality, and provide valuable habitat for wildlife. Plant cover established on the acreage accepted into the CRP will reduce nutrient and sediment runoff in our nation's rivers and streams.

Of course, the news comes as no great shock to anyone following the issue. Too much money, too much greed, too much willingness to do something that is a demonstrably and historically bad idea. And not nearly enough advocates for a region that virtually no one, save a few prairie rats, gives much of a shit about. As but one recent example of the scope of what's happening,  I will (begrudgingly, since I'm no longer there) direct you to a F&S blog I wrote last year about the staggering loss of  prairie in this country since 2008...

Sky-high crop prices and unlimited government-subsidized crop insurance have triggered the conversion of a staggering 23 million acres of grassland into row crops since 2008, according to a new study that used satellite data to estimate the loss...According to the story, the report found that 11 states had experienced habitat losses of at least one million acres in the past three years, and that habitat losses were greatest in counties that received the largest amounts of federal crop insurance subsidies. According to the group, Farm Bill conservation programs must be fully funded and the federal crop insurance program must be reformed to avert long-term environmental disaster.

Twenty three million acres of grass, gone. Twenty-three million acres of habitat, gone. In just the past five years. Obscene doesn't even begin to describe that kind of destruction, but just try to name me one other ecosystem, biome or region where that type of scorched earth activity would be allowed, tolerated, and even encouraged? Sonofabitch, what we need are some cute-n-cuddly prairie penguins or baby seals or landwhales or something, quick. Or giant trees. Yeah, trees. Somebody please get us some goddamned redwoods so we can name them Luna and then recruit hairy, idealistic college kids to fling themselves in front of the combines...

 And it's not just the northern plains. You see it everywhere you go from the Texas panhandle up into Oklahoma, Kansas, eastern Colorado, Nebraska, basically everywhere. When we drove to Colorado last week I saw more newly-installed center-pivots than I'd ever seen before, aquifer issues be damned. I saw corn growing where for years I'd seen only shortgrass or sand-sage prairie. Things are changing, and changing fast. Incidentally, that F&S blog post got five comments, one less than a "man bites cobra" blog post I wrote the same month. So it goes in 'Murka...

But what's that sound? Could that be the sound of a great, growing feedback loop of  greed and stupidity poised to come 'round again? From Donald Worster's excellent "Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s"...

"A widely respected authority on world food problems, George Borgstrom, has ranked the creation of the Dust Bowl as one of the three worst ecological blunders in history. The other two are the deforestation of the China's uplands about 3000 B.C, which produced centuries of silting and flooding, and the destruction of Mediterranean vegetation by livestock, which left once-fertile lands eroded and impoverished. Unlike either of these two events, however, the Dust Bowl took only fifty years to accomplish. It cannot be blamed on illiteracy or overpopulation or social disorder. It came about because the culture was operating in precisely the way it was supposed to. Americans blazed their way across a richly endowed continent with a ruthless, devastating efficiency unmatched by any people anywhere. When the white men came to the plains, they talked expansively of "busting' and "breaking" the land. And that is exactly what they did. Some environmental catastrophes are nature's work, others are the slowly accumulating effects of ignorance or poverty. The Dust Bowl, in contrast, was the inevitable outcome of a culture that deliberately, self-consciously, set itself that task of dominating and exploiting the land for all it was worth."

More to come on the plains in future blog posts, including a truly fascinating historical railroad document I picked up a couple weeks ago at a used bookshop in OKC that beautifully illustrates how the more things change, the more they stay the same...

Goodbye to a Legend...

 Just got back from vacation in Colorado, where - while enduring the tourist hell that is Estes Park - I experienced the following: lost $237 worth of flies, bumbled my way into my first-ever nude photo shoot while fishing Rocky Mountain National Park ( To clarify: I wasn't butt-nekkid, but the model sure was, at least until my deer hair ant whizzed by her face...), watched (or smelled, rather) the second-hand weed smoke wafting down upon us from the nice elderly hippie foursome renting the condo above us, managed to get, for the second year in a row, my trout slam (cutt, brown, brook and rainbow), watched as my oldest son caught his first trout on a fly rod, and lost - at the rod tip - the largest brown trout I've ever hooked.

So that's where I've been lately. Sadly, however, when I finally cracked open the computer to see what was shaking on the Interwebs, I discovered that John Graves had passed away.

From Henry Chappell's Home Range (via the Dallas News)

John Graves, considered by many to be Texas’ best and best-loved writer, died early Wednesday at his home near Glen Rose. He was 92 and had been in declining health for several years.
The Texas that Graves portrayed in Goodbye to a River and other works was the real place — plain, harsh, unforgiving and magnificent. His work was devoid of chauvinistic baloney, boosterism or cheap romance. “In a way,” he once said, “I was trying to explain Texas to myself.” He also defined Texas for thousands of readers.

Steve Bodio also has a great post about Graves that's well worth a read, along with a link to an excellent 2010 Texas Monthly feature on Graves. If you want to get some insight into a truly brilliant and original mind, go read it.

A few months ago when I was still vainly trying to produce interesting, non-SEO optimized stuff for Field & Stream, I wrote a blog post about a quote from "Goodbye to a River." The blog post itself was forgettable, (it garnered one solitary comment) but Graves' passage is not, so I've pasted it here (first graf is mine, from the blog)...

On the very last page of "Goodbye To A River" after Graves has returned from his trip, he attends a party, where a woman asks him if he had been at all lonesome on his solitary voyage. This was his response:

"I liked her and had known her all my younger life, as I had most of the other people in town. But it was a good place to be, and the thermostat on the wall was set at seventy-five degrees, and outside the windows the cold sleet mixed with rain was driving down at a hard slant, and far far up above all of it in the unalive silent cold of space some new chunk of metal with a name, man-shaped, was spinning in symbolism, they said, of ultimate change. In that place the stark pleasures of aloneness and unchangingness and what a river meant did not somehow seem to be very explicable.

Somebody's wife was waiting for an answer. "Not exactly, I said. "I had a dog."

Damn, but John Graves was a helluva writer, the likes of which I doubt we'll be seeing much of any more.That hopelessly old-fashioned style of prose just isn't Tweetable enough to be relevant for today's single-serving readers.