Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Finding Compromise in "Logging Jobs vs. Environment" is the Wrong Goal

Senator Wyden has released a new plan for management of Oregon & California Railroad trust lands, a plan that I think is intended to replace, update, or supersede the Northwest Forest Plan that Bill Clinton signed into law in 1994 for O&C lands. I'm glad new science is being brought to bear on an old problem, but I think the approach is wrong. I disagree with it's broader objectives, and thus with some of the specific things it tries to do.

Wyden's plan relies on the recent work of two well-regarded scientists, Norm Johnson and Jerry Franklin, men who helped craft the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan in the first place. The broad objective is to create a plan whereby these lands can be sustainably logged forever without dramatically sacrificing ecological protections. This is not an unworthy goal. I think we should approach all our resources this way, starting with the question "if we have to use this, how do we make sure we're not using it faster than it replenishes on its own?" But a consistent problem with that idea is that people with a profit-driven interest take an optimistic view of what's sustainable. Fisheries get overharvested because a certain fishery will have a few good years because of factors nobody has any control over, so everyone upwardly revises their idea of what's sustainable, and then our ability to monitor the decline in population lags a few years, so the population crashes in response to the increased harvest and it takes many, many years to recover. The same can happen with forests if managers assume that what's sustainable now will continue to be so five years down the line.

Clear-Cut near the source of the Lewis & Clark River
I'll freely admit, I'm not sure there's anything to doubt in the science of sustainable forestry they're relying on for this plan. The plan has the support of the Pacific Rivers Council and the Wild Salmon Center, solid natural resources protection groups, and it relies on good science, with adaptive management and rigorous scientific review built in. Johnson and Franklin are likely smarter than me, and are certainly more experienced ecologists than myself, and I've only had the opportunity to read a couple of Johnson's academic papers, which I admired for their well-balanced emphasis on both the social and environmental issues raised by forest management, and none of Franklin's. But I think the focus of Wyden's approach to the social matters is misplaced.

I'm always leery of any reduction in natural resource protections. The Sierra Club, Environment Oregon, and Oregon Wild (which I must disclose I  have the pleasure of volunteering for) all disagree with the O&C plan. Narrowing the stream buffers that protect the riparian habitats salmon and so many other species depend on, even if only in specially designated areas, is a worrisome idea. Limiting the ability of activist groups to file lawsuits against logging actions is even more worrisome. Allowing clear-cuts, even in selective "variable retention harvesting" patches intended to mimic the natural variability of a fire-prone habitat mosaic, is not necessarily a great idea when global climate change has thrown natural variability out the window.

Fires get BIG!

Wildfires now regularly reach intensities never seen before. As annual snow pack decreases due to changes in global climate, there's less spring melt to feed streams and wet forests, so forests that haven't been logged in some time get more dry and more prone to fire. That's basic fact right now, and I could do a whole blog post just about that. But selective thinning for fuel load reduction is different than trying to create a perpetual, sustainable harvest regime based on what we know of past conditions, in an era when past conditions don't mean anything. We don't know what the wildfire regime is going to look like in five years, we don't know just how habitats and species will change and migrate over the next decade independent of all our best efforts to manage and control. There's an argument to be made that we should use logging to try to artificially force forests to match past natural conditions, but the system is not stable, so stable harvest is not really going to be possible. Fires have been getting bigger and more out of control every year, and we need to protect what we've got, not continue to harvest based on what the fire regime was like in the past.

It's the wrong kind of sustainability for our present situation. Right now, given climate change, I think conservation is a higher priority than smarter resource extraction for (mostly) private profit. Adaptive management of lands conserved for their own sake is the way to go, and harvest should be allowed to happen as part of that management, not as the main goal of that management. We have to consider whether our public natural resources should even be allowed to be extracted for private profit. Apparently the answer everyone comes to these days is yes, but should it be?

The lean towards increased logging comes from the idea that logging creates jobs, but that idea is outdated and no longer accurate. In Lincoln County, timber harvest more than doubled from 2009 to 2012, but employment went down. In Lane County, there was a 75% increase in harvest over the same period, but a 14% decrease in wood products manufacturing jobs. Why the disconnect? Because logging in Oregon is a truly extractive industry, and fully a third of the trees harvested from our forests get exported as logs or as chips for use elsewhere. The logs get extracted from our public lands and shipped to Asian markets, the processing and manufacturing jobs get extracted by increased mechanization and shipping of raw materials overseas to support manufacturing jobs in places where labor is cheaper and tax breaks are higher, and the profits get extracted by owners. Logging just doesn't create jobs like it used to, doesn't benefit Oregon's economy like it used to, and we waste obscene amounts of money subsidizing the practice.

In fact, there's reason to believe the reduction in forest harvesting was not such a bad thing. Want to know what happened from 1988 to 1996, when harvests in the Pacific Northwest fell most precipitously? ECONorthwest reported, in a document titled "The Sky Did NOT Fall: The Pacific Northwest's Response to Logging Reductions," that while harvests fell 86% on federal lands and 47% overall in that time, yes, jobs in the lumber-and-wood-products industry fell 22%. But total employment, reflecting a much larger population than just the lumber-and-wood-products subset, increased 27%.

ECONorthwest proposed two main causes for this, with many contributing factors. Cause one: Logging's importance to the economy had already diminished by a good deal. This is because of the timber industry cutting jobs and wages in union-busting tactics in the 1980's, before the Northwest Forest Plan was even in place. By 1990, the timber industry was only 3.1% of the jobs in the region, and decades of overharvesting had the resulted in predictions that there would be a crash in timber production in the 1990's anyway. It wasn't all about the spotted owl, people.

Cause two:  Un-logged forests became more important to the economy, and this here's the not-so-obvious part. Do you really think Intel or Nike would want to be in Oregon if their headquarters were surrounded by clearcut wastelands and brown rivers that couldn't support any form of recreation, much less salmon? If their employees didn't want to be here, they wouldn't be here. Logging is a messy business that leaves a lot of cleanup and restoration work for others to take care of, it damages the land and the water and the species that rely on a healthy wild ecology, and the fact is, people want to live near beautiful forests. Other jobs came and more than replaced those lost.

I get that rural counties used to relying on the tax income from the logging industry, and, later, on compensatory payments from the federal government to offset the economic damage of forced reductions in logging, are hurting. Services are being cut, county governments are unable to govern, and people in the government are losing their jobs. Law enforcement has been devastated by the lack of funds, and people are suffering. But another point to note in all this is that many of these counties have dramatically lower property taxes than the rest of the state, rates they were able to maintain because they got funds through logging, and the populations of these counties keep voting against raising the property tax. As one article notes:
Voters in Lane and other timber-dependent counties have been resistant to raising property taxes in part because they're accustomed to the feds picking up most of the cost of county services and giving them low tax rates. Josephine County residents pay 58 cents per $1,000 of assessed value for county operations, the lowest rate in the state. Curry County follows just behind at 60 cents and Lane County's rate is $1.28, the seventh lowest. In comparison, Multnomah County's rate is $4.34.
There are better ways to stimulate local economies than logging, even if that's been their traditional driver. A recent study found that National Wildlife Refuges are economic engines all their own, and pumped $2.4 billion into the economy, supported more than 35,000 jobs and produced $792.7 million in job income for the people who engage in, facilitate, and manufacture products that allow outdoor recreational activities. For every $1 appropriated to the refuge system in Fiscal Year 2011, the refuges contributed $4.87 in total economic output. Not too shabby an investment.

I'm not suggesting that converting all these lands to wildlife refuges would solve all the county problems, but I am suggesting that it's time to stop blaming the owl, the murrelet, and the salmon. It's time to stop pointing the finger at laws designed to benefit us all, which protect the natural resources that make our state a beautiful place full of wonders that people travel from around the world to see. If this is about jobs, put up a jobs bill. If this is about county funding, find another way: create incentives for companies to move there, earmark a few federal projects to take place in those counties and stimulate things that way, maybe even make the landowners of those counties pay more in taxes for the services they need.

There's a lot to like in Wyden's bill (summarized here). It takes a reasonable approach that balances a perceived human socioeconomic need with environmental protections. If there was enough data to support the idea that increasing timber harvests would solve the problem, I'd be all for it. But there isn't, and I didn't see anything in my reading on the matter to suggest anyone was seriously proposing we keep some proportion of the logs in Oregon until they're processed into finished products or anything that would really create jobs. What we need right now is more conservation, and logging-industry lobbyists shouldn't be able to convince anyone that the problem will be solved if only a few profiteers at the top can get a compromise on natural resources protections and use low-wage jobs to ship raw materials overseas and then sell a finished product back to the Americans they just deprived of real employment opportunities. That tactic is a different kind of short-sighted, however many times the word "sustainable"appears in the plan.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Spring/Summer Hike: Larch Mountain

Early this year, an old D&D buddy of mine (Yes, D&D. Shut up.) contacted me about hiking Mt. Whitney, and asked if I'd like to join. I was excited, and immediately told him yes. Afterward, it dawned on me that it might be a kind of big undertaking, and I realized I was going to have to do a lot of training, ideally with my friend Benji, who agreed to be my buddy-system pairing for the Mt. Whitney hike. This blog post is just gonna be a little about one of those hikes we did as training, with some photos, and a little bit of additional information thrown in for good measure as we go along.

Our first hike was up Larch Mountain. For those of you who don't know, Larch Mountain is just a little ways east of Portland, and the summit can be reached from a trail that starts at beautiful Multnomah Falls, which really is a tourist destination all its own. It's one of the many waterfalls that cascades down the cliffs of the Columbia Gorge in this region, and is worth visiting in every season. Even if you're not up for the hike up the mountain, even if you're not up for the hike just to see the top of the falls, if you're ever gonna visit Portland, you should go see Multnomah Falls, check out the interpretive center and learn a little about the history of the region, have some ice cream and coffee, maybe even enjoy the restaurant. In any case, the hike up the mountain begins with a hike up those cliffs.

At the top you can see a great view of quite a few peaks in the region (Rainier, Adams, St Helens, Hood and Jefferson). Interestingly, there are no larch trees on Larch Mountain. It just got that name because the old-time loggers who were the first Europeans to climb it confused the noble-fir for larch, which only grows east of the Cascades. There's still a lot of beautiful old-growth forest up there, which is surprising for a place so close to Portland and its logging history. Larch Mountain also adjoins the Bull Run watershed, which supplies Portland's drinking water, and after years of fighting, Oregon Wild and other groups managed in 2009 to achieve protections for the Larch Mountain area as part of the Lewis and Clark Mount Hood Wilderness. A lovely set of maps of that achievement can be viewed here.

We did it as an out-and-back trip, though there are options for loops that aren't much longer, and if you just want to see the view from the top, you can simply drive to the upper trailhead, just a short walk from the summit. A couple experienced hikers shouldn't have too much a problem with this hike . . . but we were not experienced hikers. First of all, we were woefully underprovisioned. We went up a mountain with full bellies, tons of water, and a couple oranges. Sweet jeebus, we were loopy on the way down. Our blood sugar was demolished. There are a couple spots where you have to cross picturesque streams using even more picturesque log-bridges with a handrail on only one side, and on the trip down the mountain we were starting to get dizzy, so those bridges were mighty menacing. Second, we probably shouldn't have tried to do this monster hike as our first trip out. It's about 14 miles on your feet, and takes most of a day to complete. Our joints were really achy the next day.

However, we DID get some beautiful pictures.

One of those many, picturesque streams we crossed.

Western Columbine (Aquilegia formosa)
VICTORY! (View from the summit, Mt. Hood in the background)

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Water Dragons

I love anime. I really enjoy my Trigun, my Bebop, and my Ranma, and I rewatch them from time to time. One of the better movies to come out in a long time was Spirited Away, by the ever talented Studio Ghibli. This is a fan-art image of one of the main characters, Haku the (SPOILER!) river spirit.

I've heard that some people have no idea why they chose a dragon to represent the spirit of a river. Why not a fish? Why not a bull/man creature like Achelous of ancient Greek legend? Is it arbitrary enough that it could as easily have been a unicorn or a griffin, or any creature off this list?

How is a river like a dragon? Well, that's a complicated question. I know you come here for ecology reading, and I normally prefer to focus my academic reading in that direction, too, but the confluence (Hah!) of several things has resulted in me writing this piece about rivers and their morphology, and really, geological processes are a major part of how ecology functions, so here goes.

Lets talk about erosion for a minute first. Streams and creeks in high mountains often flow directly over bedrock, but as you move down toward the bottom of a watershed, you come across boulders, then cobbles, then smaller cobbles, gravel, then sand and silt. This happens as the the exposed rock of mountains get drenched in rainwater or snow, which later freezes and expands, enlarging cracks. Boulders crack off the side of a cliff face like a calving glacier, and water flows around them. Those boulders, too, crack and shatter, and over time the whole process turns mountains, the jagged, jutting bones of the earth, into rolling hills. Next time you're in an airplane, look out the window at the landscape and think about how the contours of every mound in the earth are shaped by epochs of wear and slumping caused by water. Our world is older than we can wrap our little heads around.  

A river, in its natural state, jumps and writhes; it whips back and forth like an angry snake. This image is a drawing of the Mississippi River over geologic time. It changes like that both by its natural flow wearing new bends in its own bed, and also by the effects of periodic flooding and deposition of sediments, which can cause it to jump its own normal banks to a whole new part of the floodplain. How does that work? 

When floods happen, a river swells to exceed its ordinary channel boundaries. It spills over into the floodplain and deposits silt everywhere. Rushing waters knock things around quite a bit, and sometimes an area that was a highly sinuous, meandering reach with slow flow might see a series of avulsions where those meanders get cut off, curves get abandoned, and the channel becomes a straighter, faster flowing reach along a steeper gradient. Imagine rolling a ball straight straight down a steep hill instead of carrying it down a trail with a ton of switchbacks. Rivers do that, and when they do, you get these abandoned channels in the floodplain, you get oxbow lakes, you get geological traces of the monstrosity of the river. Traces that can be mapped. 

Now check out this sexy beast:

To the right, there, that's a segment of the Willamette River, baby sister to the Columbia, yet still the 13th largest river in the US, a more modern, computerized mapping project showing similar change to the image above of the Mississippi. In ancient times, glacial floods from the Columbia, which carved the great Columbia Gorge out of the continent and pushed enough sediment around to create rows of hills across Washington that look like the teensy rows of sandmounds left by retreating waves at the beach, deposited as much as 5 meters of sediment in the southern Willamette Valley, more than halfway across the state from where the Willamette River meets the Columbia. In the northern Willamette Valley, at a lower elevation, closer to where they meet, the sediment deposition was as much as 35 meters deep. 

But even in more recent history, the beast has still been deadly. Few early European settlers in the 1850s tried to claim land anywhere near the river, preferring to settle on the upper margins of the densely forested floodplain where they still had access to all that lumber, but some measure of safety from floods. After several decades of almost continuous work by the Army Corps of Engineers and local interests to improve the channel and control flooding, the upper Willamette especially was still prone to frequent channel change. It took until the 1930's for things to stabilize enough that even 50% of the Willamette could be bordered by agriculture.

 If you've read my blog before, you may have come across the post in which I talk about how water flows through the riverbed as much as over it, if not as quickly. One of the results of this is that an awful lot of gravel and sand gets moved around. As long as the river flows, more sand will always be brought down from up high. Fortunes have been made just mining the gravel and sand from rivers. But this also means that rivers require a certain amount of . . . maintenance . . . in order to be reliably usable for commerce. 

When the Columbia River was first being used to access the continent, none of this work had been done. The mouth of the Columbia was very wide, and very shallow, and the navigation channel was different every year; sometimes there were four channels a ship could use, sometimes one. It's hard to overstate the danger this posed to early European explorers trying to get through. However well a river pilot thought he knew an area, the channel he'd used last time might not be there anymore, and the ship could run aground without any warning. A typical shipwreck in the 1850s could cost 40 human lives and a whole shipload of cargo, which represented the livelihoods of many tradesmen and businesspeople waiting at the port. It was 1879 before the US Army Corps of Engineers tried to narrow the mouth of the channel in an attempt to make the flow deeper.

Is it any wonder the spirit of a river can be represented as a dragon? Over the course of eons, the slender claws raked the landscape, gouging ice into the greatest of mountains to wear them down to hillocks, the body writhed across the floodplains and for centuries destroyed all we could hope to build, and the mouth could swallow entire ships whole. 

Nowadays, we keep our dragons rather tightly chained, muzzled. We dredge and we build levees and seawalls to lock them down into beds we like for them. We chain their power with dams that suck the energy out of them, turning what was once a powerful flow into more a series of lakes.

But, I suppose . . . that's a post for another day.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

News & Views

For months now, I've been sorta tinkering with a rather large, educational blog post about how rivers work, and haven't been able to tie it up in a nice little bow, and I've been kicking around the idea of a big post on biomagnification and how that works, but haven't made any progress. I've realized these larger projects are just keeping me from writing, and the blog begs for more attention than that. I know I don't have a lot of actual loyal readers, but I want to write more than I actually am anyway, so here goes.

My news feed is what prompted this post. I got a slew of articles to poke through in my inbox, and I noticed a theme tying three of them together. It was pretty disturbing, actually, but the kicker in the third article is what made me decide to post.

First was this piece about the drought hitting the Klamath Basin, and how it's affecting the wildlife refuge there. Turns out the allocation of water between the tribal, ranching, and other interests in the area, doesn't leave a lot for the wildlife refuge. Since there aren't any officially endangered species there that require water be set aside for them, the 54,000 acres of refuge are likely to stay dry until the fall rains hit, which means a major part of the Pacific Flyway is not going to function as a wetland.when it needs to for all the migratory birds that could really use a pit stop on their long trip.

The next article was this one about coal exports, and the big crowds expected to protest at the DEQ office meeting today (Tuesday, July 9th). DEQ only wants public comments narrowly focused on the technical role of their permits and what they can authorize in one place, but the public is concerned about all the much larger issues related to exporting energy, to the global warming effects of all that coal being burned regardless of where it gets burned, and to the myriad issues related to transporting all that coal across large swaths of the country to get it to an export terminal. Even the Army Corps of Engineers is refusing to look at region-wide effects. Are they abdicating their authority? Shouldn't someone be responsive to the very clear will of the people in this?

The last was an article about how scientists are warning of bigger and badder forest fires. It talks about how the average fire s now 5 times bigger than it was in the 80's, and how all the scientific modelling doesn't predict the crazy huge blazes we've seen because all the models are based on historical data, and the conditions have changed. But what really got me was the irony of the ad placement. 


In case that isn't displaying right, the highlighted text says: 
Along with an extended drought and wild weather extremes, fire profilers have to take into account a new, explosive fuel type on the Western landscape: houses. By the Forest Service’s reckoning, nearly one-third of the homes now built in the United States are on the fringe of settled areas, where timber and chaparral meet stucco and cul-de-sacs.

These houses in fire-prone zones are referred to by some fire professionals as suicide subdivisions, and their popularity drives up the cost and complication of firefighting.
And the big red arrow points at an ad for a new housing development in Madras, Oregon, which is in a fairly dry part of the state, and located east of Mt. Jefferson.

Suicide Subdivisions, indeed. I wish someone had put that ad there on purpose, but I know it tends to just be electrons shuffled into place almost at random according to some ad allocation algorithm. If you visit the link, it looks like someone decided to take it down, though. Smart, if a little too late for me to catch a screen capture. Just HAD to share.

Anyway, I saw these three articles and it worried me how often these days we're seeing stories that are so connected, yet so rarely are the connections drawn. Seeing themes like this in the news will be an everyday occurrence very soon, and the juxtaposition of "more development, more coal, more new neighborhoods" against the global warming-related problems of "bigger fires, drier wildlife preserves, agricultural challenges" will seem an everyday thing. Our natural resources are scarce and delicate, and we're not treating them that way.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

California Tiger Salamander: Habitat & Scarcity

Yeah, yeah, it's been a while since I posted, I know. I've been tinkering with this one (and a couple others) for a while, but decided to break it into two or more posts just to finally get something up, to let any interested readers know I'm still alive. So, since I was asked to talk about about California Tiger Salamanders (CTS) a bit, here goes. I worked on a number of projects with CTS concerns in my years in consulting in California. I learned a lot about them, and I really enjoy talking about ecology, so these guys are particularly interesting to me.

California Tiger Salamanders are a fantastic example of adaptation to weird circumstances, so before I can describe them and their life cycle, I have to describe their most essential habitat: Vernal Pools. Oh, how I love vernal pools. A vernal pool is a depression in clay, or in regular soils underlain by bedrock, in such a way that it sometimes fills with water and then dries out. The exact timing of that varies from place to place, but a lot of them are like clockwork, flooding every year and staying full for several months before they dry up, regular enough that a whole ecological system has sprung up around the resources they provide.

See, when a vernal pool fills with water, plants adapted to that specific type and timing of inundation start to spring up. Plants that want to bloom earlier are in the outer ring, where the water first begins to recede, while plants that like more summery weather bloom closer to the center, or sometimes in the very middle after the pool has entirely dried up. The spring bloom of vernal pools is gorgeous, and you get concentric rings of flowers adapted to different timing, in different colors, spreading across a landscape. Frogs and birds and other creatures are attracted, and the birds often carry in insects or insect eggs. Little egg-like things called "cysts" that have lain dormant in the soil for as long as it took for the pool to become inundated again (in some places this takes years) hatch, and the pool suddenly becomes full of freshwater crustaceans called "fairy shrimp," also specially adapted to vernal pool habitat, and also highly endangered.

Think mail-order sea-monkeys, except you'd get thrown in jail for mailing these.

In some places, the meadows are full of these pools, just because the soils are clay-filled and clay swells to a waterproof muck layer when it gets wet. Whole networks of vernal pools and little swales are formed by one topping its basin and its water flowing downhill to form another. In some areas, the clay layer is fairly thin, and if someone were to dig a hole just a few feet deep in the middle of a vernal pool it would drain like a bathtub and possibly never fill up again. Vernal pools tend to occur more in meadows and grasslands than in forests, because trees can penetrate the clay or break up the rock layer, or just suck up all the water before any creatures can take advantage of it as anything more than a short-term watering hole. If it isn't there regularly enough and long enough, it isn't actually a vernal pool, it's just a puddle, and no vernal pool species can either find their way to it on the backs of animals or evolve adaptations to it. If it's there too long, it's a pond, and you get fish and plants adapted to permanent water. And since meadows and grasslands are prime building, farming, and cattle grazing space, vernal pools got fairly well wiped out. There's not a ton of them left.

Because the habitat is so rare and delicate, lots of the highly specialized plants and animals adapted to their conditions are endangered. So it is with the California Tiger Salamander. Something you have to understand is that being endangered doesn't mean that the creature lives a lonely life, searching across an empty landscape for a mate. It just means that there's not a lot left, and often this is measured in comparison to the former geographic range of the species. In some rural patches around Santa Rosa, CA, for example, when the right time in the rainy season hits, and they get a good drenching, if you went out for a walk you'd be hard pressed NOT to find a California Tiger Salamander. I've heard people grumble about this. But Santa Rosa just happens to be one of the last remaining areas that hasn't been overly developed, and also happens to have the right kind of clayey soils in a thick enough layering to hold vernal pools, enough so that agriculture and ranching haven't destroyed it.

The point is, there used to be many, many more places that could support this species. When a species gets winnowed down to just a few populations, even if they're incredibly dense ones, a single bad year can wipe it out. One too many droughts in a row, one outbreak of disease, one too many stressors imposed by climate change, and they don't come back. That's why the Endangered Species Act exists.

Anyway, CTS live in vernal pools for part of their life, and in mammal burrows for the rest, and return later when it's time to breed. That's all I've got for now. Next time I'll tell you all about the life cycle of the species, how the males and females approach mating differently, touch again on their fantastic gills, all that.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Meandering Thoughts on Science and Discovery

I occasionally refer to myself as a scientist, but I am not really a scientist. I do not practice science. I do not perform that non-dogmatic, self-correcting investigatory process; who has the time or the funding for that? When I'm being more honest, I call  myself an ecologist, but I am not really an ecologist, either. An ecologist is a variant of a scientist, a subclass, an offshoot. I am not a scientist, ipso facto bingo bango, I am not an ecologist. When I'm even more honest, I think of myself as a naturalist, a delighted observer, a watcher, a person who enjoys stories and finding connections. I have the interest in becoming a scientist, and more than the average amount of scientific literacy, but I don't know if I have the patience or temperament to make it a vocation. No, I love learning about science, and applying scientific practices and knowledge in all kinds of ways, and sharing that knowledge, but I am not a scientist.

But this is why I have such a wide range of interests. There is never a lack of interesting things to learn, or of incredible stories to hear or tell. In the last couple years, I've picked up a moderate fluency in American Sign Language, I've studied sociology and a little bit of gender studies, I've learned a ton about the Pacific Northwest in its ecology and history. The world is full of stories and connections, networks, systems, economies, and ecologies. Any subject of inquiry can be broken down into an infinite variety of Venn Diagrams, tables, timelines, outlines, and charts, and if you just find the right connections and present the data the right way, you can tell a really great story about any human endeavor, any aspect of the physical world around us or the motivations that drive the great river of human history.

Sure, the slow grind of learning or explaining the math behind astrophysics is a challenge, but once humanity reached the point of exploring in that direction, we realized we are made of the stuff of stars, we are sparks of life born from the exploded carcasses of celestial furnaces that burned hot enough to make the old alchemical goal of turning lead into gold look like the most pitiable child's play. Sure, practicing your scales on a musical instrument is a rote task of questionable value when looked at as a single repetition, but the way music can chill my bones and make me gasp or shed a tear is an undeniably transcendent experience. And sure, memorizing names and dates from history texts is boring, but when laid out the right way, one can see the rise and fall of empires, the messy business of murder, intrigue, betrayal, and greed interplaying with every possible variant of human nobility, on both political and personal scales, and the small decisions and accidents that changed everything.

I once was told that if you get down into the math and science of higher-level Einsteinian physics, you can see that causality and free will are very possibly a lie. If, when traveling at the speed of light, you can see a person catch a ball before you see it being thrown, then the throwing was written in stone, was meant to be and inescapable. Apparently, you can envision a person in spacetime as a worm-like creature formed of a baby at one end, and an adult at the other, with each cross section representing a moment of awareness in the creature during which it is unable to see what lies ahead of it, and only dimly aware of what was behind.
Now, I am not scientist enough, nor smart enough, to truly understand these concepts, but if a man is a worm, or a thread of some kind, then humanity, human experience, the human family tree, is a matrix of these, all tangled and interwoven. Our offspring are forks off of our own threads, our time with our lovers is a place where two threads join and merge briefly before continuing on in parallel or apart, our dearest friends are those threads we gravitate towards and run alongside, and twins are threads that forked at conception.

My mind fills with images of such a structure. I imagine it to be some kind of an intricately layered algal bloom swirling in all directions, with patches of different consistency, color, density, all of which varies with the condition, the demographics, and the spirit of humanity at any moment in history. Can you imagine that we might be part of such a felt mat of living fibers, all so unaware of themselves, so unaware of the structure of which the length and breadth of their experience is simply the smallest part?

This may all be pointless philosophizing, but that's one of the things I find myself loving about it. If you push out to the frontiers of human understanding of our universe, whether on the scale of galaxies or DNA, you begin to see just how little we may actually understand. And that is an incredibly beautiful, captivating thought.

Modern Physics impresses us particularly with the truth of the old doctrine which teaches that there are realities existing apart from our sense-perceptions, and that there are problems and conflicts where these realities are of greater value for us than the richest treasures of the world of experience.
---Max Planck