30 December 2009

Blue Moon Ski

Calendars, of course, are social constructions--more or less arbitrary things for imposing the human animal's rational concept of time on the natural world. Very useful for business, religious, and administrative purposes, of course. Our Gregorian calendar is a bastard thing, roughly based on the solar year with 12 Babylonian months of approximate moon-cycle length. (If the world were created by a Babylonian mathematician, the 12 months X 30 days = 360 days would give the perfect 360 degree circle of a year's time.)

But moon phases cycle over about a 29&1/2 day period, whereas our months are from 28 to 31 days long and years from 365 to 366 days long. Thus every few years we have 13 full moons in a year, with 2 full moons in a single month. The "extra" one is a blue moon.

A moonlight ski is always good, but a blue moon during the Nameless Days? Truly a special, magical thing: If you stand bathed in the blue moon's light, it speaks to you. How's she goin' there, moon? "Ah, you know how it is--she's gotta go:"

It's also the last day before Emily's return to college in Boston. Here she is, gliding from the darkness at the bottom of a run:

A Pine Marten person (Martes americana) is out hunting on this special night. Note the classic weasel-family's 2-track bounding pattern:

Speaking of bounding, wild wonder dog Molly is ready for a snack during a mid-ski pause:

With a temperature of about 0 deg F and no sun, it was cold starting out. A few hours later we were warmed up, ready for cookies & the ride home, and then a sleep with dreams of talking moons.

Happy Blue Moon!

28 December 2009

Happy Nameless Days!

What to do with a numerical remainder of days that do not fit with preconceived arithmetic notions of how time "should" function? This was a problem that vexed the Mayans with their 18 months of 20 days each, and the Parthians (Persian) with their 12 months of 30 days each. The solution? Five "Nameless Days" for feasting and partying!

The five Nameless Days correspond more-or-less to our time between Christmas and New Years, although the Protestant work ethic got the better of Western Civilization some centuries ago, and now these days have calendar dates and many poor souls have to work. Wassup wif dat? To their credit, the French revolutionairies tried to recover the five Nameless Days -- the Sansculotides -- with their Republican Calendar of 1793. Viva La Revolucion!

In addition to the feasting and partying, Nature beckons. Mornings are cool with frosty windshields:

But good cross country skiing despite the chill:

Friend Dave had a 100,000 mile knee rebuild a few years ago, found discretion the better part of valor, and put his skis away. But we still do a lot of hiking. Here's Dave cresting a ridge high above the Big Hole River valley:

At the top, MollyTheDog soaks up some sun and waits patiently for the human animals to catch up:

Mrs. Rover & I are dog-sitting HattieBeret, a huge, totally lovable, and (in this photo) thoroughly tired Bernese Mountain Dog:

WolfDogJack came along too, but he seldom poses for a photo unless Dave nabs him by the collar:

With three dog noses at work, we human animals were lucky to find this deer skull first. "Alas poor Yorick, I knew thee well:"

We climbed the snowy side of the ridge, descended the sunny side toward the river, and followed the railroad tracks back to the LandRover. For you rail fans, here's a nice example of a fatigued track (near a curve; this is called "spalling," I think):

We were careful to keep the dogs away from the river. In some places, water is flowing over the top of the ice before it finds its way back under:

Well, the sun is down and it's time for a pint in honor of another Nameless Day. Cheers!

24 December 2009

Skywatch Friday: Cutting the Christmas Tree

Daugher Emily arrived home from college this week, so it was time to cut our Christmas Tree. We drove to a favorite spot just a few miles from our home in Walkerville/Butte, Montana. Then it was a matter of hiking the hills until we found the perfect tree. "How about this juniper, with its pretty berries pulling their blue color from that patch of open sky?"

No, we like Douglas Firs for their fragrance and soft, friendly needles (unlike those poky pines or sharp spruce). "Here's a good one! Hand me that saw:"


Out of the woods, the roads are not icy. "Find a place to turn out the 4WD hubs. Here, by the friendly horses, so I can bring a bunch of grass and say 'Hi!'"

Back in Butte, America, the sun sets on the Mountain Con gallows frame (aka mine headrame), silhouetted against a bright blue sky:

The tree is up and partly decorated. MollyTheDog tells PhoebeTheCat about her role in it all--braving the wilderness and keeping the wolves & lions away during the great tree adventure of 2009:

Merry Christmas!

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22 December 2009

Solstice Greetings 2009

All cultures of the Northern Hemisphere have some sort of festival to mark the winter solstice. Over the years and cultures, these have included the Saxon's Modraniht, Persian Yalda, Babylonian Zagmuk, Jewish Tevet, and of course the Christian version (based on pagan festivals), Christmas.

It's an important moment. From our perspective on Earth, the sun halts its sinking arc and northward journey, and soon the days will turn longer. From the sun's perspective, the northern pole of Earth quits tilting away from the sun. At any rate, it's a time to cast off our grudges and fears, embrace our friends and family, and celebrate our hopes for better (and longer!) days to come.

And what's a winter solstice celebration without a bonfire?

A bonfire that gets so hot everyone must move away, take off their clothes, and roll naked in the snow. Well, we'll leave out those last two parts:

MollyTheDog has her own version of the time-honored celebration. She builds a dog-cult elk bone circle in the front yard:

Merry Solstice (whatever your holiday of choice) to all!

17 December 2009

Skywatch Friday: Divided Skies

Butte America is at the headwaters of the Clark Fork River in southwest Montana. Our water flows to the west slope (Pacific Ocean side) of the Continental Divide. Historically, Indians and white trappers called the upper Clark Fork valley "the lodge of the white-tailed deer"--this was because the deer sought out saline seeps and wintered in the relatively snow-free valley. Note the lack of snow in this photo of lower Mill Creek (the many electrical lines and substation served the once great Anaconda Copper Mining Company smelter and railroad):

South a few miles from Butte, up and over Mill Creek Pass, is the Big Hole River valley. This water flows to the east slope (Gulf of Mexico). Clouds dump their snow on this side of the mountains, thus leaving the Clark Fork valley in a "rain shadow." For a cross country skier, this means that the Sugarloaf Mountain (aka "Mount Haggin") ski area gets much more snow (especially early in the season) than The Moulton ski trails near Butte. Here's MollyTheDog on the freshly groomed Crooked John loop:

A day later, 8 inches of snow covered that nice grooming job, making a good opportunity to take the backcountry skis for a trek around the Little California loop (this turns off from Crooked John, the main access loop):

Along the trail are some old cabins used by logging crews more than a hundred years ago, when the Anaconda Company clearcut all the timber to feed its smelter and mines. The old cabins lend the area a sense of place, and whether hiking, elk hunting, or skiing I like to stop by--like visiting a familiar friend:

Happy trails!

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13 December 2009

The REAL Wolves of Butte Montana

Speaking of wolves, MollieTheDog & I took a hike just north of Butte, Montana, after the play about wolves (see previous post). Ooh, what's this big puppy track?

Yep, a wolf. Just to be sure it wasn't an errant neighbor dog, MTD & I  tracked it a mile or so, found a spot where it had bedded with another wolf or two for the night, and left this unmistakable (full of bones and fur) scat:

Later, Mrs Rover & I went to the holiday potluck at the Quarry Brewpub for another form of wild life. Little Brother A.J. participated in the uptown Butte ice sculpture event earlier that day and texted Mrs Rover to remind us to check out his work in front of the pub:

"Mug #138, EcoRover." Hmmm... if I could only get pub owner Chuck Schabel to fill that mug for the price of a pint!

After the potluck, more wildlife on display. Not sure who the artist was, but this sculpture of Moishe (from Where the Wild Things Are) was getting some attention:

Butte, America: Where the wild things are!

Wolves, Sheep, and Human People: An Environmental Play

I am currently blessed with an ambitious and intellectually challenging graduate candidate, Emma MacKenzie, who is working on an MS thesis about public discourse regarding Montana's wolf hunt following the reintroduction of wolves to the northern Rockies. Recently, the US Fish & Wildlife Service deemed that wolf recovery had met population targets in Montana, and so the gray wolf was de-listed (i.e. it's no longer protected under the Endangered Species Act). Montana sold permits this year allowing hunters to kill up to 75 wolves statewide. The state ended the hunt after 72 wolves were reported killed. It's been a hot button issue around Butte, Montana, and throughout the region.

Emma wrote & directed students in a short, three-act play about the benefits and problems associated with wolves, A WOLF IN SHEEP'S CLOTHING [poster image by Kirby Rowe]:

Cast: Emma MacKenzie, Joker; Jackie Dumke, The Economy; Stephanie Gruss, Mother Nature; Pat Munday, Environmentalist; Justin Ringsak, Wolf; Kirby Rowe, Lamb; Ginger Singer, Rancher Woman. As the Environmentalist, I found Ginger's portrayal of the angry ranchwoman (think Barbara Stanywyck in The Big Valley) very convincing!

Modeled on Augusto Boal's "Theatre of the Oppressed," the final act was performed three times. Audience members were invited to participate by taking the place of an actor and redefining that actor's role, or creating a new actor & role.

In developing the characters, their roles, and the narrative, Emma used Greimas' semiotic square along with other rhetorical and semiotic tools. With the semiotic square, the basic dialectical opposition of two initial terms (e.g. wolf vs. rancher) gives rise to new meanings. For example the environmentalist, as a meaningful actant, arises out of the opposition between wolf and rancher (or nature and culture). Here is an early version of the ideograph (a map of related cultural meanings) that Emma developed to help guide her narrative:

Act I included sock puppets representing (left to right) Lamb, Ranch Woman and Wolf:

Here is Act III of the play after some audience members have stepped in and modified the discussion, with (left to right) Frank Ackerman as The Economy, Noorjahan  Parwana as the Rancher Woman, Kirby Rowe as Lamb, Gretchen Miller as Environmentalist, Justin Ringsak as Wolf, and Stephanie Gruss as Mother Nature:

In addition to the fundamental problems of wolves killing valuable ranch livestock and the environmental value of wolves, discussion emerged over the private property rights of ranchers, the use of public land for livestock grazing, and the question of preserving private land as open space for ranching vs. subdividing it into house parcels. While there are no easy answers to balancing such conflicts in the contemporary West, it was a good discussion and I thank Emma for creating this production, students for working on it, and the Butte public for participating in it.

Thanks also to the Hummingbird Cafe for hosting our rehearsals and final production!

10 December 2009

SkyWatch Friday: Life at Minus Twenty & the Air Quality Problem

I enjoy these cold snaps when the temperature goes to minus 20 or 30 deg F at night, and does not rise above zero for days on end. But it does make for air quality problems.

Air quality problem? In the pristine Northern Rockies of Montana?

It's easy for me not to think about. After all, I live in Walkerville, the old town on the hill above Butte (looking northeast from the west side of the Butte Hill toward Walkerville):

On the hill, the air is crystal clear. But Butte, Montana, like many high mountain valleys, suffers from air inversions:  cold, dense air flows down from the surrounding mountains and is trapped in the valley. Air pollution -- primarily wood stove smoke and vehicle exhaust -- is also trapped. The sun cooks it into a nasty bluish-to-brownish goo, i.e."smog."

Compare this view (looking south east from the west side of the Butte Hill toward "the flats") with the photo above:

Good news is, the weather is supposed to break in the next day or so. Warmer air and wind will sweep the stagnant smog away, and improve the quality of life for the denizens of the Butte Flats and other cities of the Mountain West.


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07 December 2009

Life at Twenty Below

It's been a year since Montana's last cold weather. I seem to have forgotten. But soon it all comes back to me.

Stepping out this morning into the -20 deg F or colder air, I inhaled a deep breath and felt that familiar, tingling sensation as my nose hairs froze stiff.

In uptown Butte below Walkerville, exhaust heat rises from buildings and moisture condenses into graceful plumes of icy steam (lots of wood smoke haze, too):

Then there was the seemingly deafening sound of an inch of dry, powder snow ("cold smoke," as we skiers say) crunching under my boots. While skiing in these conditions, skis generate static electricity in gliding over the snow and stick because of the "electrostatic friction." Sometimes, in walking at night, I swear I have even seen the snow sparking at my heels--but that's probably just a hallucinogenic effect of the cold.

Cold air contracts (remember "PV = nRT" from your chem class?) and becomes a better conductor of sound. I could hear the routine morning signs of cars, children, dogs, and the local ravens from afar.

On the east side of Butte, the warm waters of the Berkeley Pit (a former open pit copper mine, now a toxic lake) generate the infamous pit fog that creeps down to the flats, rubbing its shoulders along neighborhoods along the way:

The bright morning sun felt warm, but in passing through a shaded area where a cold air drain (depression in the ground) lets cold, dense air flow from the hills above to the valley below, I remembered to rub my stinging cheeks so as to prevent frostbite.

The battery of a digital camera in an outside pocket will not provide enough current for the camera to function. Keep the camera in an inside pocket--which means removing mittens to fumble with buttons and zippers in order to let your fingers to sting with cold once you finally fish the camera out, turn it on, and focus.

A dog -- especially a 13-month Lab/Border Collie cross name of Mollie -- becomes especially energetic. The dense air must help her achieve aerodynamic lift and I swear she could jump over my 6-foot tall frame.

Inside, the heated air becomes super-dry and you can generate some serious sparks of static electricity just petting the dog or cat. And you quickly learn to ground yourself after taking a few steps across the carpet to welcome your wife home with a kiss!


Butte, America: it's not the Arctic, but you can feel it from here.

05 December 2009

Cross Country Skiing: first tracks of the year

Butte, Montana, is blessed with two excellent areas for cross country skiing (and virtually unlimited backcountry/Telemark terrain). Usually, we have good skiing by the time hunting season ends (Thanksgiving weekend). This is an El NiƱo year, however, which means we're off to a slow start.

I prefer skiing at The Moulton on National Forest land just a few miles north of my home in Walkerville. Butte/Walkerville are in the upper end of the Clark Fork River valley, which tends to be drier than the upper Big Hole River valley just over the Continental Divide. So I bit the bullet and made the "long drive" (about 30 miles) to the so-called Mt Haggin ski area on Game Range managed by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. I say "so-called" because although you can see Mt Haggin from the ski area:

it's miles away and on the other side of the Divide. Much closer is the landmark Sugarloaf Mountain:

It was a delightful afternoon. The windless, bright sunny skies made it feel much warmer than the air temperature of 8 def F--a Green Wax day for those of you that share an appreciation for classic skiing. The ski club has not yet gotten around to grooming the trails, but there is only about a foot of snow and others had set tracks a day or so earlier. The trails are laid out very wide and with a generally gentle grade (ideal for skate skiing), but if you do want to rest the great view give you a good excuse to do so:

Note the many dead and dying lodgepole pine trees. The dominant species in this area, adult lodgepoles are being killed by a decade-long outbreak of pine beetles. The beetle epidemic is fostered by global warming (historically we experienced temperatures below -30 deg F which limited the beetle population), the even-aged stands caused by the Anaconda Copper Mining Company clearcutting the region c. 1900 to provide fuel for its smelter and cribbing for its mines, and by the very nature of the lodgepole pine species--a short-lived species very susceptible to bugs and  fire. Yes, fire--this area is ripe for massive fires that could easily consume tens of thousands of acres (not to worry--the trees will grow back and the ecosystem will recover, as it did after the nearby Yellowstone National Park fires of 1988).

Well, back to skiing. Speaking of which, this was 13-month old MollyTheDog's first ski outing. I fully expected her to be a wild & crazy maniac--biting at the skis, cutting in front of me on steep downhills, and otherwise earning her nickname (DamnItMolly!). Instead, she went about this as if she'd been doing it all her life. Who'd a thunk it?

03 December 2009

Skywatch Friday: Giving Thanks

It's a beautiful world and there is much to be thankful for. Sometimes, simply while walking home to Walkerville from the little college where I teach in Butte, Montana, I stand agape at our Big Sky. Looking south to the Highland Mountains, a colorful sunset begins to develop:

Within minutes, the sun touches the horizon, the colors deepen, and the sky is aflame:

Walking to work in the morning, a full moon sets into the Clark Fork River valley:

After a successful hunting season, MollyTheDog is thankful that we butcher our own meat. Just a year old, she wasn't quite sure what to do with that first massive elk bone:

But soon she was an old hand at it (and our yard began to look like some sort of bone cult had been meeting there):

This cow and calf moose are thankful that hunting season is over and they can lie out in the open and chew their cuds in peace:

We are also thankful for good people. The day after Thanksgiving, a group of friends gathered at Don & Andrea Stierle's cabin at The Moulton just north of Walkerville. The group included Bill Macgregor and his son Alex, so there was of course a bonfire:

We're having a dry winter and there's not enough snow for cross country skiing yet, but until then there's good food, close friends, and the warmth of a big fire: