Thursday, July 31, 2008



The dread scourge of the plains.

And do we ever have them in abundance this year!

When I walk around the place they rise in frantic clouds ahead of my steps, flapping off in every direction.

The wild turkeys are happy at least

(That's a two-bit piece for scale.)


I have spent a great deal of time in Ireland over the last two and a half decades. Between personal visits and running small-group cultural trips I consider it almost a second home. I'm going to share a bit of "my Ireland" here from time to time.

A couple of caveats. First, I am not an Irish-American. I am an American with Irish roots and a personal relationship with the country. 100% American with no modifiers or hyphens. Second, I don't like paddywhackery. Paddywhackery is when the Irish are held up to ridicule through basically malicious jokes and stories. Most of which are just generic "Polish jokes" re-cycled. I like stories that are "real" in that they are rooted in Irish reality in one way or another. They reveal something, even while we laugh. If a native Irishman wouldn't laugh at it, why tell it? I don't tell stories I wouldn't tell my Irish friends.

The picture, by the way, was made at Brandon Creek, County Kerry. From here (not this exact place-- the launching point was a little more to the west) St. Brendan was said to have sailed to America sometime in the sixth century. (Yes, I know: Brendan and Brandon. Maybe later.)

There'll be more.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Environmentally Friendly Flatulence

From the Independent (UK)

Until recently, we may have thought that the most interesting things about kangaroos were their mean left hooks and, in the case of Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, their ability to rescue lost children from the wilds of Australia.

But, thanks to research carried out in Queensland for the past four years, and released last month, the marsupial's cleverest trick is its ability to produce environmentally friendly farts. Researchers have isolated the bacteria in the stomach lining of kangaroos that means their farts contain no methane, a greenhouse gas far more damaging than carbon dioxide. 

The team, led by Dr. Athol Klieve, believes that unlocking this secret could lead to the creation of more climate-friendly cattle. Between them, the flatulent farm animals produce so much methane that they account for 14 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in Australia, second only to power stations. But if the kangaroo bacteria were added to cattle feed, the researchers hope they could create herds with much lower carbon footprints.

You really wanted to know all about that, didn't you?


How do we shut our emotions down? Sometimes I'd like to be able to do that. A few nights ago I came across a photograph on the internet that turned me into a weeping wreck. A young boy, maybe 10, is accepting a folded flag from a Marine officer. No doubt from his father's grave. He is trying very hard not to break down. And he's doing a better job than I did. Seeing that photograph, I totally and completely lost it.

Why does this happen? I don't know anyone in the picture. I don't even really know the circumstances, only guessing at what the image "means." But I think it's a good guess. In fact, I think it is spot-on.

I think that when we are younger we are better able to suppress our emotional reactions to such things. And as we age we accumulate a larger and larger bag of memories, regrets, sentiments, and just plain old-fashioned feelings. Sometimes something comes along that triggers them, opens up the bag, and it all comes tumbling out. Whether we want it to or not, it all comes tumbling out.

Fear & Loathing in '08

Candidates, pollsters, and media-- oh, my! 

What a long season this has been already, with a little over three months yet to go. Like a roller-coaster, the dips and turns and whooshing swoops followed by the long, clanking climbs back up have been dizzying and occasionally entertaining. But in the end we are going to be stuck with the results, and I am fearful about that.

Neither candidate fills me with enthusiasm. I am very tired of having to vote every four years for the "lesser of two weevils." (Nothing personal, guys. You just don't inspire, OK?) We seem to have a choice between a Cranky Caretaker and a Precocious Cubscout. 

But one interesting outcome is how well the many different Americas that we  live with have been delineated. Well, I say they have been well delineated but you have to do a lot of between-the-lines work to get the picture. The media is not good at complex issues that cannot be encapsulated in a five second soundbite. We're a big, wonderful, great-hearted country, but we're also divided along many fault lines. Maybe that's a good thing. Maybe homogeneity ain't all it's cracked up to be.


And this is Maggie, usually known as Mags or Miss Mags and sometimes Piglet. She is a four-year-old Boston Terrier (A/K/A Boston Terrorist!). Active, bossy, companionable, funny. Fearless, except for thunder and lightning. (They make her think "Lap! Quick!") She loves nothing better than a long prairie-ride in our side-by-side UTV and rarely criticizes my driving.

Today is nail-cutting day. She doesn't like it, but she's very patient with me. She knows she gets a cookie at the end of the ordeal and she looks forward to that.


This is Emma. She is a six-year-old German Shorthaired Pointer. I rely on her a lot for her general savvy and her excellent senses. 

Emma has several distinctive barks or vocalizations. Some of them are--

1. Critter! (as for the deer)
2. Person!
3. Truck in our place!
4. Truck out on the road!
5. Wanna go look!
6. Come with! We'll look together!
7. Gimme sump! (b'fast, supper, water, cookie, etc.)
8. Why were you gone so long?!
9. Get away, Maggie, you little bitch! (very, very seldom used)
10. There's a mouse in here! Help me find!
11. Let's play!

Emma has grown and matured a lot since last year at this time, when we lost Murphy who was the Boss. (I might write about that sometime, but not now.) It takes GSPs quite a while to settle into being 'human.' Emma is just coming into her own.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Pocket Knife

A few day ago I received a package in the mail and did as I have done thousands of times in my life: I reached into my pocket and took out my pocket knife, which I used to open the package. While I was slicing the package open I began to think about the knife that I reached for so reflexively.

It was a Christmas present from a now long-dead uncle. I was barely a teen, and it was intended to replace a long line of cheap feed-store Barlows and miscellaneous junkers that I had used since I was about seven. I can still remember the thrill I felt as I opened the fitted cardboard box it came in. A Camillus it was, in the much-favored "Stockman" pattern. Three different specialized blades, each of them adequately factory sharp and later destined to be brought to the requisite razor edge.  The scales of the handle were dark bone with a little losenge of German silver on one side for the owner's initials. I dropped it that first time into my left hand pants pocket and savored the feel and weight of it there as it pressed lightly into my thigh. Of course I didn't know it at the time, but it was destined to live there for the next fifty-five or so years and still counting.

In those days every boy had a pocket knife of one sort or another. It was as essential as one's pants. You used it to cut the string off a bale of hay or straw, slice up an apple from the orchard, whittle on a stick, skin a squirrel, cut a twig to toast a marshmallow on, spread peanut butter on a cracker, remove splinters, pry a stone out of a hoof, cut a new set of bootlaces, or pare your finger nails. Not a day went by that it didn't see a dozen uses or more.

From the fifth grade on it was a given that every boy in school had a knife in his pocket. There was no secret about it, nor any need for its presence to have been a secret. The idea that we would do damage to each other was as foreign to everyone as anything could have been. There were two infallible indicators of the arrival of spring: the marble games would begin at recess, and the mumbledy-peg tournaments would begin. For those unfortunates not familiar with the arcane rituals of mumbledy-peg I will only say that it is a complex game played by sticking your knife into the ground in various rigorously prescribed moves.

The other day I read a news article about a high school boy who had been suspended from school. He had helped someone to move and a steak knife had apparently slipped out of a box and lay undetected in the bed of his truck until it was noticed by a security guard in the school parking lot. A concept called "zero tolerance for weapons and violence" dictated his removal from amongst acceptable people. I read that article and knew that I don't live here any more. None of my peers would have recognized that term-- weapons-- for our Barlows and Schrades and Cases and Camilluses.

I am sad for the boys who cannot know the tingly delight of a new pocket knife, a gift from some loving person who knew that nothing could please a boy quite so much. And in 2060 will any of today's boys have the pleasure of taking out their likewise aging companion and feeling the patina of its worn scales, looking at the blade that has been thinned and shaped by hundreds of sharpenings, and remembering the places it has been with them and the adventures they have had together? I wish the answer would be "Yes, many!" but I fear that is not so.

This reverie has been brought to you by one of those "old style boys" who hasn't quite yet lived up to being one of the new, improved citizens of our brave new world.

The Road to Town

Usually I wait 'til I have a whole big list of things that need to be done in town. But I hadn't been off the place for a while and today I decided I would venture in for a haircut and a hamburger (with fries!) at the local cafe.

The nearest town is thirty-two miles away, along a two-track road (one-lane) that is tarred about half way, then gravel the rest except for a little stretch of hard road just before you pull into the metropolis. I live just under two miles off of this thoroughfare, on a sand track that hasn't yet evolved into what could be fairly called a road. If it weren't for the deer and antelope, you could make the trip faster at night when the lights from on-coming vehicles can be seen a long way off and make topping those blind hills a lot safer.

The trip takes about forty-five minutes on a good run and the fuel cost for a round-trip is about $18 -- which is just about what the ferry ticket is from Inis Maan in the Arans to the mainland and back.

Islands in the Stream

Living on the plains is a lot like island life, which I am familiar with from the west coast of Ireland and the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Ranches here are islands in a sea of grass and sand intead of surf and foam. Some of the life rules of both environments are shared: have plenty of supplies on hand, plan for self-sufficiency, and be able to handle enforced isolation during periods of weather embargo. Islanders and plains ranchers are tough, independent-minded, often hard-bitten, and pretty much indomitable. (More about this later perhaps.)

All over the plains now are little islands of trees that mark the sites of old homesteads and ranches. The current trend of the loss of the Little Guy will just make more and more of them. Sometimes you see them miles out away from the road and you can't help but think that a family made a life for themselves there once.

Morning Visitor

Yesterday morning, one of my dogs (I live with two) gave her "Critter!" bark and alerted me that we had a visitor. She comes quite regularly, usually in the morning. I think she spends the night around one of the old barns on the place. No sign of a fawn, but that doesn't mean there isn't one nearby. She was unimpressed by the barking.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Happiness of the Birds

It rained this afternoon. A sudden, brief thunderstorm accompanied by a downpour. Usually thunderstorms pass over without rain, or I can see the rain coming down out of them, but it is miles away on the prairie. Today it came down tight on the place. And it made the birds very happy.

My garden is completely fenced to keep deer and rabbits out of it. As the rain fell the birds lined up on the fence, opening their wings to it and doing that fidgety little dance they do when they are enjoying getting wet and washing themselves while balancing on a thin wire. It was great fun to watch their pleasure from my office window.

They act the same way when I turn on the sprinkler in the garden, too. They gather, preen, wash, and do their little dance of delight.

Enemy of the Status Quo

That's High Plains weather for sure. You don't like the weather? Wait a few minutes. It'll change. Lately we have been having ferocious thunderstorms in the late afternoon and throughout the evening. Following a roasting hot day, the sky roils up, turns dark, and pretty soon there is a frantic ballet of ominous clouds surging across the horizon. We have lots of that here. Horizon, I mean. And thunder. Wondrous audio displays that easily explain the preoccupation of plains and Southwestern Indians with 'thunder beings.' Last night, far to the south, there were rolls of thunder that lasted for ten and twenty seconds without stint. Long, uninterrupted tympani solos that seemed to go on and on.

I'll probably mention the weather here quite a bit. It's of central importance to plains life. Ignoring it, or not taking it seriously enough, can be fatal.

Now I have to figure out how to put up some photos of some of the weather events that make life here so...interesting.

What the heck is this anyway?

OK, first post. Testing the water, you might say. I have no way of knowing where this will go, if anywhere, but just wanted to see what this blogg-o thing was all about. I guess I'll find out if I was meant to do this or not. Probably sooner rather than later.

I live pretty well off the beaten path. No neighbors to speak of and a long way from town, or anything else. So the computer is my window on the world, as they say. But I prefer to think of it as the radio room on a little boat at sea. And by the way, the winds where I live can make it seem you are storm tossed, for sure!

A bit tentative, I know, but I need to get the feel of this thing and see what I can do with it.