Saturday, February 26, 2011


Before the movie, and before computer-based role playing, an avatar was the earthly manifestation of a Hindu deity.  Thus, an avatar is the embodiment of a principle of life.  The live oak (Quercus virginiana) is an avatar of the South.  It is the state tree of Georgia and thrives from southeastern Virginia to southern Texas.  A mature live oak is beyond magnificent.  It can stand over 80 feet with a crown spread of 150 feet.  The spreading branches and narrow elliptical leaves create dappled light below.  Planted over 100 years ago in communities throughout the South, these spectacular trees dominate the landscape.  The live oak is surely a suitable persona for a god.

Two live oaks stand at Toomer's Corner in Auburn, Alabama.  Generations of students have gathered  there to celebrate college events.  Last fall the oaks were deliberately poisoned by a disgruntled fan of a football rival.  The perpetrator knew his herbicides.  He chose Spike 80DF, a Dow  AgroSciences product recommended for scorched earth applications.  Spike 80DF is "non selective".  It kills everything in its path.  The label warns not to use it anywhere near desirable species because a small amount in contact with the roots of trees may cause severe injury or death.  The label further informs that death may not come quickly citing as a product feature: "Slow brownout of treated plants".

The legendary "War Eagle" of Auburn fans have come out in force to wish the trees well.  More importantly, a team of horticulturists, agronomists and engineers have dug up and replaced the soil around the trees.  The perpetrator, Harvey Updyke, has been charged with felony criminal mischief.  If the Hindus are right, and gods walk the earth in manifest form, Updyke has more to worry about than his indictment.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Sopranos

No.  Not the TV thugs.  The boys who sing in the octaves above middle C on the piano.  Eleven years ago today Ernest Lough died.  Perhaps you do not recognize his name.  Many  will.  His recording of Mendelssohn's musical offering of the 55th Psalm is still available today and has sold over 6 million copies.  It was recorded first in 1927.  Lough sang in the choir of Temple Church, the private chapel of the members of the bar in London.  Microphones had just replaced the original acoustic recordings and the choir was chosen to pioneer the new method.  Lough had to stand on two bibles to reach the single microphone.

There is no sound that compares to the clear tone of a boy soprano.  A thrush calling from the woods has a similar quality but lacks the range.  The truly great, like Ernest Lough have just a short time to sing in this way that transcends description.  Before and as the voice drops, the very rich tone develops.  Lough was 16 when he made his recording.  Few 16 year olds on today's diet of proteins and vitamins maintain their soprano range.

Lough was certainly not the best boy soprano, but he set a standard that lured generations of boys to the choir.  His song is still a gift to the ear.  You can hear it on youTube today.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Why? How?

As the rhetoric about budget cutting heats up we are sure to hear outrage over what seem to some to be irrelevant research topics.  Those writing about grant funding excoriate undertakings the value of which is not immediately apparent.  My response - think carefully before you condemn.  Einstein said:  “If we knew what it was we were doing it wouldn't be called research, would it?”

In the Himalayas, the bar-headed goose migrates over Mount Everest (29,028 feet elevation) to move from winter feeding grounds in the lowlands of India to her nesting grounds on the high, barren plains of Tibet.  It does not seem possible. This is a five pound bird with no assist from Sherpa, oxygen tank or modern instrumentation.  She and her mate will lead their young on the return trip gauging and correcting for drift in heavy crosswinds, navigating their course so that 100+ mile per hour tailwinds add to their own 50 mph power to catapult them across 1,000 miles in a single day.  Why?  How?  Do we need to know?  We have the portable monitoring equipment.   Research could be planned.  Funding for such studies has not been available.

Happily, human curiosity is undimmed by poor prospects for funding.  Visit the website of the Institute of Unnecessary Research.  Settle in for a good read - and a wide smile.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Abraham Lincoln

Today is the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth.  I am thinking about an aspect of President Lincoln's life that is less often mentioned in his biography.  I am thinking about the woman he loved, Mary Lincoln.  While there is disagreement about the scope and nature of her mental illness, there is adequate anecdotal evidence that she was extremely troubled.   Neither society  or physicians of the day offered understanding therapies.  Involuntary commitment was common - in Mrs. Lincoln's case after a jury found her "insane". 

The depression and mania that so often overcame her are better understood today.  There are therapeutic choices.  But for the loved one of a person gripped by mental illness, there is still the reality of helplessness.  President Lincoln suffered alone with his wife's illness as she suffered unhelped by the reproach and rejection she faced.  I believe that some of the sadness so often captured in photographs of his face was caused by despair for his wife. 

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

pfu pfu' pfu pfu'

Recognize the sound?  Click here for the correct pronunciation.  Its the sound of a normal heart beating.  I first learned about the heart in 1954 on a field trip to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.  The Institute had just opened its giant model walk-through heart.  The two story exhibit would be the accurate size for a 220 foot tall person.  Throughout the model we excited children could hear the powerful, regular beat of a normal heart.  Pfu pfuPfu pfu'.  You can visit the Instistute's heart still.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States.  You would not know that from television advertising that tells me indigestion, fibromyalgia or problems in the bed room are our greatest plagues.  Recent news reminds us that womens's hearts, too succumb to the effects of poor diet, insufficient exercise, smoking and too much stress.  Heart disease kills more women each year than the next four causes of death combined, including all forms of cancer.  February is American Heart Month and Friday is Wear Red Day to raise awareness.  I have my outfit ready.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

No Bad Dogs

I have a friend who keeps sheep on 100 acres in Olympia.  Hers is a peaceful place where ducks, geese and the occasional swan settle on ponds.  Brilliantly stripped garter snakes hide in the bushes and moles do their job of turning and aerating the soil.  The sheep are the main attraction.  In their daily rhythm they move from the barn, through the sort yard, along the ditch and down “ewe lane” to their pasture.  In the evening they retrace their steps.  My friend works her sheep with dogs -  Kelpies and Border Collies.  To my eyes, newly focused by my recent retirement, this place is almost heaven.

The peace was shattered last week by brutality.  Two dogs from the neighborhood rampaged the sheep.  Two died from their horrible gaping wounds.  One lamb lived on to be discovered by my friend. Her face was torn off.  She had been partially eaten alive.  My friend’s only choice was to slit the lambs’ throat to end her misery.  Coyotes occasionally get into the fields.  My friend loses one or two sheep to coyotes each year.  But she loses more to dogs.  It is easy to tell the difference.  Coyotes strike at the throat and kill quickly.  Dogs are not practiced killers.  A dog confronting a 400 pound ewe can easily make contact but does not dispense a swift and fatal blow.  My friend’s experience with dogs run wild is a terrible, but not unusual demonstration of one of the challenges of our relationship with man’s first friend – the domesticated dog. 

Owning a dog is a responsibility – a responsibility to society and to the dog.  Without care, a dog can become a criminal.  Well known dog trainer Barbara Woodhouse wrote that there are no bad dogs, just inexperienced owners.  Her words are often paraphrased: no bad dogs, just bad owners.  All dogs can bark, run reckless and wild, steal food, dig and bite.  Those who do not are the lucky ones – they have been properly cared for.  They have been trained.  Their diet is nutritious, they are given regular exercise and attention, their bed is clean and secure.  The unconditional love they offer is returned with daily attention to their needs.

Every day in the news there is an account of harm caused by a dog who is not properly cared for.  Sometimes it is really awful.  Dogs have strong jaws. A big strong dog can exert more than 225 pounds of force in a bite.  Who is to blame when such force is unleashed in a neighborhood?  If you have a dog be grateful for her innate instinct to love and protect you.  But be a responsible owner.  Train your dog.  Her transgressions are yours.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Why Did the Elephant Cross the Road?

Short Answer: to avoid conflict with his human neighbors.  In China, India and Africa wild elephant populations are increasingly crowded by human activities.  Defending their crops, villagers barricade themselves in - and the elephants out.  Elephant habitat is broken into isolated pieces and herds are separated.  But resourceful Foundations and NGO's working with land owners and local government are providing safe passage linking preserves and wilderness areas.  Sometimes a land corridor - but increasingly a tunnel or overpass.  The latest is a 9-mile fenced-in corridor complete with a highway underpass on the slopes of Mt. Kenya.  You can read about it here. 

For over 50 years the remarkable David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust has been saving elephants who wander into trouble - one at a time.  The profiles in their Orphan's Project read as well as any children's book about helpless baby animals.  They successfully return these lucky ones to wild herds.  This is a shinning point of light in our troubled world.