Sunday, July 21, 2019

Mulberry Trees

There is a duality to my work life that I have alluded to in the past. On the one hand, I spend my days trying to save the flora and fauna of this landlocked state of ours by pushing back against the tide of progress. On the other hand, I am helping pave over creation by ensuring that the aforementioned progress is built correctly. This dichotomy makes for an unstable taijitu in my soul and mind and, quite frankly, leaves me exhausted.

Tonight, though, I would like to focus on the yin side of this couplet. Trying to hold back the onslaught of development (especially in a conservative state such as Indiana) is rather like tilting at windmills. The goal is to preserve something of the heritage and function of the natural places in the state. As part of that process, it is my job to identify the flora I find as I do my surveys. Now, it;s not enough to just wander into a field or woods and say, "Well, yes, this is a wetland." No, I must identify as many of the plants I find and label them as per their Latin name. Tree species are usually the easiest, though I do get the random transplanted species or escaped species that puts a wrench in the works. Asian Pears (Pyrus sp.) I'm looking at you. One of the species that I run into frequently is the Mulberry (Morus rubra or Morus alba) with the red mulberry being the most common.

Why do I bring up this innocuous tree, you may ask? I shall tell you. I do not like Mulberry trees. I do not like them, Sam I Am. No, not in the least.

My dislike of these trees has less to do with my professional assessment than from a personal bias. The trees do show frequently in my field surveys, however, all they truly mean to me is that I am on the dry side if things. It is only when I am home and tending to my own gardens that my disdain for these trees comes out. It's not that they are particularly unattractive trees as their glossy leaves are uniquely shaped and Morus rubra has a sort of orange bark. I don't even mind the prolific fruit that they bear as they are fruit for any number of wildlife. No, my loathing of these trees comes from the simple fact that they will grow anywhere and truly they will grow anywhere. Any crack in the concrete or split in the asphalt, you will find one of these trees growing.

No matter how bad the soil or steep the incline the mulberry will be the first to grow. Of course, once the tree has established itself, there is little anyone can do to remove it as it's tap root reaches all the way to the molten core of the planet. This means that I am forever battling against these colonizers in my flower beds and tree rows in a desperate attempt to preserve my vision of this tiny patch of the world intact.

Much like my professional attempts to keep the developers of the world from paving over everything in existence.

Now, as a biologist, I know that Morus rubra and species like it (Don't you look away Green Ash - Fraxinus pennsylvanica) are merely doing what they are meant to do. Colonize disturbed areas, stabilize the soil, and provide shelter for slower growing species such as Beech (Fagus grandifolia) and Red Oak (Quercus rubra). Their vigor and tenacity are part of their genetic make up. In short, this is the way they are meant to be and no amount of pruning or chemical deterrent is going to alter that fact. I rather view developers in much the same way.

So what is to be done?

It won't do to have mulberry trees growing ad nauseum throughout the garden, but neither am I likely to keep them all from growing. Thus, in the spirit of the taijitu, I have decided to try to change my views on the matter. Instead of reaching immediately for my pruners or my spray tank of weedkiller, I will try to see if I can tolerate the tree where it is. The three trying to grow next to my house will obviously have to die, but the three or four growing inside the White Pine (Pinus strobus) windbreak planted by the developer of the subdivision next to us...well, perhaps those can stay. And perhaps, not every proposed development needs to be opposed quite so vigorously.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Intro To Red Dog 5443

At one point, Red Dog Mine was the world’s largest Zinc-producing mine by volume.  In the recent years, it fell to second place.  Rampura Agucha in India is now the world’s largest Zinc mine.

Red Dog Mine is located on the western edge of the Brooks Mountain Range in North West Alaska about 90 miles north of the village, Kotzebue, which is just north of the Arctic Circle.

The only way to get to the mine is by plane.  A runway, large enough to handle a Boeing 737 aircraft, is the lifeline that supports the mine.  Alaska Airlines has a contract with the mine.  Every Tuesday and Saturday weather permitting,Alaska Air flies in a 737 from Anchorage, filled with whatever supplies and people.  

A typical work stint is 2 weeks on, 1 week off, 12-hour workdays the whole 2 weeks.  No days off unless you are sick.  No stores or shopping center.  No alcohol allowed. No way to drive off to a store because the only road at Red Dog takes you to the shipping port about 60 miles west of the mine.  

So for those workers at the end of their 2-week work stint, they are more then ready to fly out.

The mine operates year round.  They mine the raw zinc and lead from the earth, then process it to its rawest form and load the raw mineral onto large dump tracks.  The trucks drive down the only road out of the mine to what they call Port Side.  At Port Side, there are 2 massive buildings--storage buildings, 250 feet wide and about a ¼ mile long.  The dump trucks fill these building up during the off-season. 

Port Side is about 60 miles west of the mine.  It sits at the edge of the Chukchi Sea.  This is where the mine exports its yield, via cargo ship. 

During the summer season, Port Side is hopping with workers. About 80–90 people work Port Side for the shipping season.  The Chukchi Sea freezes over starting late October through early June.  The window of time for the cargo ships to get close to Red Dog Port Side is when there is no ice, July-October.      

The coastal edge of the Chukchi Sea is rather shallow, not deep enough water to dock a cargo ship on a traditional pier or dockside.  The ships can safely get just 3 miles off the coast and have enough water under it once they are fully loaded with zinc or lead. 

The ships get loaded 3 miles off the coast of Alaska in open ocean via barge.  
Foss Tug Boat Company built 2 custom barges, designed to be loaded with raw zinc and lead and with the ability to offload the product using conveyor belts into the cargo hatches of cargo ships.

Red Dog Port Side loads the barges, 5443 metric tons of zinc or lead per barge load.   Foss Tug boats drag the barges 3 miles out to the ship and tie the barge alongside the anchored ship.  The barge crew cranks up the conveyor belt system on the barge and begins to offload the 5443 tons product into the cargo ship.  

This cycle continues around the clock until the ship is loaded.   

Two different classes of ships come to Red Dog Port: the Handymax class with 5 cargo hatches and the larger Panamax class with 7 cargo hatches.  Handymax ships hold 9 barge loads where as the Panamax can take as many as 16 barge loads. 

When I worked at Port Side my job or part for this operation was Ship Agent--more or less liaison between the Port Side operation, Barge operation, and Ship operation, overseeing and being the communicator for the loading process.  My role required me to stay on the ship while it was being loaded: help tie off the barges when they came along side and help the ship’s crew with the documentation of the loading sequence and the amount of product that got loaded onto the ship. 

My contract had me working 3 week on 10 days off.  
A relatively easy job, though some eyes.  Really, it was more of an endurance test.   

When we were loading a ship, it was a 24/7 operation. Weather permitting.

When a ship came in to be loaded, one of the Tugboats would run me out to the ship.  The tug would pull alongside the ship while it was still moving toward the anchor area. I would climb up the rope ladder that the ship's crew hung down.  Once aboard, I would send down a rope to the tugboat so I could hoist up my bag of personal effects to live out of during my stay on the ship.  

Once the ship was anchored, one of the loading barges would be making its approach to come alongside the ship.

I would help tie off the barge to the ship.  The barge would start its 3.5-hour long offload. By the time the barge was done with its offload the second barge would be coming towards the ship.  Around the clock this process would go until the ship was loaded.

I would have about 3 hours of downtime once a barge started its offloading.  It was during those 3 hours that I would sleep, eat, get caught up on paperwork.  

Get 3 hours of sleep, wake up to get the empty barge untied from the ship.  Tie up the next barge.  Go back in and get another 3 hours of sleep.  About an hour of work, then 3 hours of down time to sleep, the cycle would go. 

It took 2 days to get the smaller Handymaxes loaded.  A Panamax would take 3 days.   

Panamax. Hatch 1 being loaded.  

I can still hear the barge chief make his calls over the radio.
“Commencing offload at whatever time. 5443 tons to offload.” He would do the same once he was done offloading.  “ 5443 tons offload complete at….”
The number 5443 will be stuck in my head forever.        

Standing on the highest mast of the one Panamax.
The next Panamax in the distance, anchored waiting to be loaded

Once a ship was loaded, the next ship would be anchored nearby waiting to be loaded.  We would not stop the loading operation unless weather conditions where too bad for safe loading.  Onto the next ship it would be.  

Standing on Top of the the Mast.
Tugboat Sidney Foss in the background 
I once went 14 days without touching land.  Load one ship, go to the next.  All the while getting 3-hour catnaps at a time for sleep. 

That was the hard part of the job--enduring lack of good solid sleep.  

The best part of the job was living and working on the ships. Meeting the ships’ crews.  Eating their food.  Trying to have conversations and learn about their culture, families or towns.  Most of the time the crews either didn’t speak English, or they had one or two that had limited English skills. 

It was a very interesting way to work.  

The majority of the time, the ships’ crews were Filipino or Chinese, but I was on ships with crews from Greece, Turkey, Russia, Poland, Myanmar, Indonesia, and India.  
I always looked forward to working on the ships with Indian crew.  The food was amazing.  

The best and most memorable ship was the ship with an all-Turkish crew.  Only the Captain and Chief officer spoke English.  The second officer travelled with his wife and 2-year-old daughter on the ship with him, which was unusual.  

It was very strange to see a little 2-year-old running around a cargo ship in open ocean off the coast of Alaska.  

That ship had the most amazing cook on board.  I have no idea what it was he made for us.  But each meal was over the top.  Turkish food was outstanding.  The best part was the cook pulled me into the ship’s kitchen, and he made it clear to me that his kitchen was welcome to me.  

He opened the refrigerator and pointed to all types to various Mediterranean cheeses, prosciuttos, salamis, cucumbers, and the best olives that I have ever eaten.  He said to me the best he could in broken English.  ‘Help yourself, for whenever you get hungry…midnight snacks.’   

And snacked I did.  Those olives… 

I worked at Red Dog Port for 3 loading seasons.  I helped with loading about 64 ships during my time. That was some time ago.  About 10 years.  I miss it.  

I’ve been thinking about Red Dog this passed week. They always start the loading Season July 1st.

Perhaps, some day, I’ll get to go back. 

So many stories to tell from my time working at Red Dog. Watching Brown Bear meander over the arctic tundra just a few hundred yards from Port Side camp.  Strolling the beach and coming across a washed up Walrus carcass.
Many crew member stories from the many ships that I was on. Getting told by a 20 something year old Indian nationality crewmember, that my English isn’t proper.  And many stories of friends that I made at Port Side. One of them, the legend of Portside, is Maxine.  She is one of the cooks at Port Side and is in a way a mother figure for the Port.  She and I still stay in contact through social media. I hope to reconnect with her in person to kick her ass in cribbage. She is one dirty player with a big heart.    

Standing on the forward Mast looking down at crew spooling in ship line

Three of the four Foes Tugboats huddled together alongside one of the ships

Monday, June 17, 2019

A Grammar Interjection

The last months have been busy, so I fall back on my old friend, grammar.

Today, I give you interjections.

In one school of grammatical thought, interjections are a classification of English words, like nouns, verbs, pronouns, and the rest.  Interjections are words typically used in dialog or informal writing: well, eew, uh, um, yes, no, huh, aha, hey, wow, and lots of other words.  The point about interjections is they, well, interject into a sentence, usually with some emotion or emphasis.

Three interesting things about interjections.

1.  Interjections (in traditional writing) are always separated from the rest of a sentence with punctuation, usually a comma and sometimes an exclamation mark.
Well, yes!  I did know that the eggs were spoiled, but I didn't think that mother would mind eating them.
2.  The placement in the sentence does not really affect how we use interjections.  We still put commas around them.
That's the funny thing about cats, huh, you can only skin them one way, right?
3.  Like nouns and verbs and almost any other type of speech, interjections can be people, swear words, and more.
I don't want to walk through this horrible field, Randy!  Oh, hell!  It's been raining in Indiana for weeks, and, oh, drat, Mike, I have enough water in my boots to fill a bucket!
Here are a few more (remember, these can act as other parts of speech but can interject as interjections):
no way
oh, dear
any swear word
onomatopoeia, too?

What else you got, huh?

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Monte Carlo

“The knowledge lingered so that I would suffocate from it.
Sleep came so that I would wake breathless, anew.” When Knowing Eyes Meet

Monte Carlo had no issues crawling up Appalachia -- but she wasn’t quite sure why I drove her out here to these foreign lands at her old age. Getting down Appalachia felt more burdensome, and I did my best to keep from rolling us off the mountains. Monte Carlo drank a bunch of gas -- although not as badly as I had calculated before taking my first trip alone with just my 70s built car and my extraordinary naiveté beyond the Hoosier border. 

Turn the music up! Monte Carlo had a Sherwood stereo system in her, and we both rode the sounds of New Wave music and listened more closely to its uniquely relatable lyrics. Monte Carlo appreciated my singing, too; because it must have kept her occupied from the worry of us wrecking, or followed by a salivating serial killer, or stranded with bears and Bigfoot, or killed by a falling boulder-- or worse than all that: pulled over by a cop!

Like Monte Carlo, I appreciated the frequent gas stops. I needed to get out and walk around; to feel my independence and to make sure that I was still confident in executing this trip. Ah, a strange notion, Independence. I felt powerful knowing the ocean was really not too far away at all and that I would succeed in reaching that great wonder -- despite my original self-doubting and my parents excessive worry over Monte Carlo’s condition -- for she carried a lot of her burdens.

Wilmington had its own heaviness, too, with thick sea air and heat that could lull one to naptime. Still...I was ecstatic to have made it to my destination! I struggled to find the downtown, traveling many streets lined with huge, old and somewhat dilapidated mansions and dull, tired, and nearly exhausted shopping centers. Monte Carlo didn't care. She was more relieved to be back to civilization near some mechanics shops, if need be. When I finally found the village, Monte Carlo rolled her windows down to take in the sleepy air, and I cranked up the Eurythmics -- to share with the pedestrians my success at finding them. Monte Carlo and I drove up, down, over, and across that village like we were interested in purchasing the place. This, I asked myself, could be my new home? Sea gulls? Southern homes? Big porches? Faded signs and brick alleys? Old, Civil War monuments? Ocean?

And then Monte Carlo hit the brakes. What the heck?

We were witnessing an anomaly. I must have done a double-take, for Monte Carlo drove us by the scene real slow-like, to make sure what we were observing was accurate. Two men about my age were walking down the street...and they were clearly and undoubtedly, openly and uninhibitedly...holding hands.

Yes. Two young men were holding hands! And while the sun -- hung over them! Other pedestrians -- walking with them, behind them, ahead of them; they did not seem to flinch or recoil or miss a step. And stranger than all, the couple was...smiling?

So, it was true? 

I parked Monte Carlo – she and I needed to compute this scene.

So, it was true.

Interested in Oceanography at the time, I had picked UNC-Wilmington as a possibility due to their well-known science curricula. Texas A&M at Galveston would be my second choice. Actually, reverse that, because I put UNC at the top after reading in some Blue Boy magazine that Wilmington was outrageously gay friendly at that time. Texas, not so outrageously.

I had to know if what I read was true. Seemed awfully convenient that UNC at Wilmington was one of my picks....

That's why I really came to that seaside town in North Carolina. That's why I would eventually leave it. But, before I did leave, I momentarily grew a small spine at the moment. I felt compelled -- despite a truly terrifying sense to escape -- to look for more of this strange new openness.

I parked Monte Carlo up the street. She warned me not to go too far and, before I do just that, to keep her windows cracked so that she could cool off in the hellish heat. Businesses in the village appeared closed or shuttered but for a coffee shop a half-block down and a touristy looking one where Monte Carlo had soon wheezed to sleep. I went through the tourist store, walked down each aisle of trinkets, t-shirts, wind chimes, jewelry, and candles -- but with my eyes on any locals who might give way hints to their orientation. No one appeared to have the slightest urge to entangle each other by the hands like the two guys outside.

What about that coffee shop? I talked myself into checking it out - but not until I grabbed my college-ruled notebook from Monte Carlo where I had shoved stapled UNC information and outlined some forgettable story ideas. 

Everybody sat close together in the tiny coffee (and ice cream) shop. It looked uncomfortably close, frankly. I guessed that most of them were students: books opened, young faces glowing in calculations and absolution, and their young bodies clothed in made-to-look-old-but-really-new shirts and jean shorts. A sense of awareness among their kind was obvious to me in an instant. So, it was true after all. Yet, when eyes were eventually cast my way, I instantly crawled into my notebook and scribbled words meant to impress upon the viewer that I didn’t mind his looking -- but, I could take it or leave it because...because I didn't need anything in the world but this here iced tea and this mostly blank notebook. 

I appreciated his stare. I wanted him to stare. I wanted him to talk to me. How I would've died if he did!

Time to go. I couldn't do it. I suddenly realized that I opened myself up to receive information that I could not yet calculate in broad daylight, in a coffee shop serving ice cream to handsome men my age -- people more like me than I could ever have imagined existed. And in the daytime?

Monte Carlo knew, too, that I wasn’t ready for such openness. I wasn’t ready for such strange independence. She and I couldn’t escape Wilmington fast enough! What was meant to be a week’s stay became a 4-day trip all around. Monte Carlo and I had no issues flying over Appalachia - and that's about what we did. I returned home to Lafayette, thanks to Monte Carlo’s riding us to our safety and to that vast familiarity; returning us to greet surprised, yet relieved parents who said nothing more of the odd trip that I had planned for months, but in all honesty, failed to execute.

No harm done. 
I just decided Wilmington wasn’t right for me. 
I’ll try Galveston. 
A&M. … .

I was accepted, but my dad knew something, too. He knew that I wasn’t ready to live some place beyond Lafayette, Indiana. He knew I wasn’t ready to go to a big school like that way out there -- alone. He laid out a plan for me to go to Purdue - a mere four miles away -- to get on with my undergraduate. Sure, if I was still serious about Oceanography, then he would support me going to Galveston for further education. Only then. Only then.

So, I did what my dad wanted. I stayed. 
Yes, Lafayette: where I was born and where I was raised...and where I would remain. 
I went to Purdue. I didn't want to take Geology. Didn't they all work for oil companies? I chose a different major: Anthropology. I then chose a different major: Biology. Biology was more practical: Lilly. Industry. Paycheck. Anthropology? Adventurous. Humbling. Paycheck?

Eventually, I left Monte Carlo to a "friend" who abused her -- and to an extent, abused me. I had made a terrible mistake. The last I had heard, Monte Carlo was sold to someone who wanted to revive her. I would later leave for Indy to join my boyfriend who had just bought a house and was getting tired of driving back and forth -- and who was wanting to settle down. Twenty-eight years later, I am a Biologist working in Academia, as a cancer researcher...and a lab manager of both studies and students. I am a free, gay man partnered to that very same gentle man who beckoned me to stay with him in Barely-a-Ripple, Central Suburbia, Indianaville, living safely, predictably, and peacefully.

What of that younger me? No blame. I can still feel his desire to travel, search, and find. I can still feel his fear when discovering the thing he wanted most. I can still understand his reasoning to flee it.

Just the same, I don’t know what might have happened if I had actually moved to Wilmington and had become an Oceanographer…if Monte Carlo carried me back up and over Appalachia safely...if we survived the 90s and the death of New Wave so far from home...if we drank sweet tea and ate fresh seafood...if we monitored whale migrations and worked on research boats and if I had traded Purdue Pete for Tar Heel. 

I don't know if Monte Carlo and I could've survived that new kind independence; if she could've kept her metal from rusting all those years as I drove us deep into that Wilmington sea of strange.

Monday, May 20, 2019

"I Hope We Meet Again"

Jim Johnson is a tall man of slender build, white hair, and clear grey eyes. In all the years that I have known him, I have never known him to frown or be anything but positive. He is not the relentlessly upbeat person that causes instant loathing in an old cynic like me, but rather a calm and pleasant demeanor that even I cannot fault. He is a native son of Seymour, a small hamlet in southeastern Indiana that one passes on the way to Louisville and other parts south. Yet, ten years ago, I was fortunate enough to be able to meet him on a project just outside of town.

Now, I won't bore you with the technicalities of my job, but rather give you this synopsis. If a client wishes to impact an area with wetlands or streams, then said client must do mitigation. In other words, if you bulldoze a wetland or stream, you have to put it back somewhere else. Mitigation is exceedingly expensive and the permitting process would make a Vogon proud (if such a thing were possible). You must also know that very few people outside the industry understand any of this.

Thus, approximately eleven years ago, I was contracted to permit, install, and maintain a mitigation site for the local Economic Development Corporation. Permits take a long time to obtain (six to twelve months, typically) and it didn't take long for the process to become contentious. Enter Jim Johnson. A successful business man in his own right, he understood the basics behind any permitting process. He was able to bridge the gap between local obstinance and my Escher-esque explanations of the permitting process. I do not doubt that, without his help, the project would have never been completed.

It has been ten years now since the mitigation was installed and at least five years since last I visited the site. Last week, I decided to return to obtain some pictures for propaganda purposes. I called Jim and asked if he would meet me at the site. He rolled up in his black F150 smiling as ever waving a bottle of water at me as I parked.

"I kinda figured you'd be thirsty after walking around out there." he said tossing me the bottle.

That's the kind of man that he is. We talked for awhile about the site and how their lawyers had not been able to get closure from the regulators. I smiled and nodded as he talked knowing that they would never get there with their approach. Jim knew it, as well. The site had performed well over the years, and we walked about a little talking about this tree, that shrub, and that group of flowering things over there. Afterwards, I took him to lunch as all good marketing people should do. We talked about his farm and his grandkids. He gave me a brief history of the railroad presence in town and how it was named after John Seymour - the man that built the east/west rail line.

And then it was time to go. We walked out of the dinner and said our goodbyes. As he was walking away, he waved and said, "I hope we meet again."

I paused then, watching Jim gingerly pick his way across the tracks to his truck parked near the town square. Jim is 77 years old now and though I know the EDC would choose me to do any ecology work for them, it is not likely that this sleepy little town will progress much farther than it has. I stood there next to my truck listening to the carillon bells in the Presbyterian Church ring out "Nearer my God to thee."   I realized that it was likely that I would never see my friend again.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Book Value in todays Culture

What is the value of a book in today’s culture?

I find myself now and then thinking what it might be like to write and publish a book.  

Who doesn’t? 

Holding a book in your hand. Your book that you spent months, maybe years working through.  Completed in you hand and staring back at you.  Your title, your name.  It’s a very proud accolade to have under your belt.  

Then I start questioning. 

Stumble down never-ending thoughts. 

Who would read it?  
Why should I even consider publishing a traditional book?
After all, how many books are already out in the world?
And really, will having that accolade of being a published writer mean something? Or will it just be an ego boost for myself? 

Within the last year, three different people that I grew up with have written and published a book.

Two out of the three didn’t surprise me at all.  The third person was a complete surprise--that came out of left field.  

But good for them, I found myself saying as I scrolled through their Facebook posts.  Each of them posted a picture of themselves holding their published hard copy.  A few open boxes at their feet, filled with their new book along with a big smile on their faces.

It must be an exciting feeling.  

Then what?
What happens to those books? 
How many get sold?
How many actually get read?
How many end up on some bookshelves or nightstand?  
A reader noting to him or herself that it’ll be their next book to read.  But do they?

Today’s culture almost makes a book an antique.  Something special that isn’t necessarily understood or fully appreciated.

At the same time, the culture will put someone on a pedestal for writing whatever book or numbers of books. Almost as if, because they have written a book, some how they are more important and more all knowing.  

To prove this: Listen to the news when they are interviewing whatever guest about whatever topic.  The guest has usually written a book about the topic, which, yes, is a good resource.  But the guest somehow becomes displayed as the all-knowing person about whatever topic the new is reporting.  

And really the common viewer or listener of that news story won’t have a clue to who this guest is/was. Nor will they care.  But they will take his/her word because they wrote a book, right?

Another cultural phenomena regarding books or publishing a book: Should you be famous or should something happen to you that puts you into a momentary spotlight of fame. 

Your story isn’t true until you have written a book about your story.  

Most of the time those kinds of writers/stories are ghost written.  But yet the “Author” takes full credit for putting in the time to write that book.  That book will get purchased as a Christmas gift to your parents or grandparents. Only to be set on a shelf or nightstand for a while before getting put into the goodwill box.

It amazes me how many politicians have autobiographies…Just a thought.

Some really old books seem naturally to be considered valuable or more important culturally. That whole antique thing again.  

It looks old so it must be important or valuable.  Better hold onto it and put it on your bookshelves.  I’ll read it at some point…

I know I know.  The glass is half empty.  But then again I see some truth to my post.  Why else is there a chain of stores across the country called Half Price Books?

The last chance to make a buck on a book that has been sitting on a shelf too.