25 June 2009

The Olm

There are an infinite number of species alive on Earth at this very moment. Evolution is an interwoven quilt of life, no part more or less significant to the large scheme of things, to the beauty and essence of life as a whole. We all possess unique ways of adapting to this unpredictable planet, ways of keeping the quilt of life still functional and flourishing. Some dominate; some linger in the shadows, avoiding attention as much as they can. Taking into consideration the changes that are now occurring on the planet, it is vital to remember that the subtle red threading in the quilt of life is just as important as the brightly colored patches of material that make up the quilt’s pattern. We all strive find to others of our own species to connect with, but there are organisms that live outside our everyday reality, organisms that go for years or even their whole life without seeing a human.

If humans are the bright patches of material that are used to make the quilt of life, then olms are the subtle red thread. Lurking in the caves of southern Europe, the olm is (Proteus anguinus) a blind amphibian that shares its genus with no one. It is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List (International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources), but it is considered endangered under the Slovenian Red List. It dwells in the underground streams of the limestone caves of the Dinaric karst that extends through Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, and Herzegovina. The natives gave the olm the nickname the “human fish”, because it’s skin color resembles that of Caucasian people.

The olm lives a life of darkness, thus it has undeveloped eyes. For the majority of humans, eyes shape our actions, reactions and beliefs. But living a life in complete darkness, it’s a waste of valuable energy to have eyes you never use, so the olm has evolved a heightened sense of smell and hearing instead. The larvae have fully developed eyes, but soon after the larval stage, development seizes and the eyes begin to degenerate. Another adaptation to life in dark caves possessed by the olm is skin that is completely deficient of pigmentation. The thin translucent skin that covers their underside gives a glimpse of their internal organs.

The olm sleeps, eats, and mates underwater. An adult olm preserves qualities from its life as a larva, such as external gills, which facilitates its entirely aquatic lifestyle. The gills stick out of the back of the olm’s head like little red branches. Oxygen-rich blood surging underneath its skin causes this red coloration. When an organism retains attributes from younger stages of its life it’s called neoteny. Olms also have very elementary lungs, but the gills are the main players in respiration.

The olm’s walk is reminiscent of a belly dancer. They sway their hips as if giving homage to their ancestors, the fish-like organisms of generations past. Their short, horizontally-flatten tail follows their hips in that ancient S-motion. Their limbs are petite for their body and they have a reduced number of digits on each leg: three instead of four on the front legs, and two instead of five on the back legs.

Compared to other amphibians, the olm’s sense of smell is exquisite. The lining of the nasal cavity is thicker than that of most amphibians. They have an apt ability to discern incredibly low levels of organic compounds in the water, which helps in sensing both the condition and number of prey in the waters nearby. Not much is confirmed about the hearing of the olm, but it is thought that they are well adapted to hearing under water because the tissue of the inner ear is distinct compared to the semi-aquatic amphibians. Recent research suggests that the olm can also sense electrical fields, potentially the Earth’s magnetic field. Many organisms use the Earth’s magnetic field to orient themselves. It’s different world underground in caves, no light leads to a wide array of inventive adaptations that enable an organism to “see” its surroundings.

Along with it’s human-like skin, the olm’s life history is also reminiscent of humans: they reach sexual maturity at around fourteen years old and individuals raised in captivity have lived for up to seventy years. In the wild, individuals as old as fifty-eight years have been found.

Although, through unofficial observations, olms were once thought to give birth to live young at lower temperatures and lay eggs at higher temperatures, it is now believed that olms are strictly egg-laying amphibians, which researchers refer to as oviparous. The female will lay up to seventy eggs which can take up to four and a half months to develop into larvae.

The olm is a predator of small crabs and snails of the underground streams in which it dwells. Like many birds and reptiles, it swallows its food whole. It can consume large quantities of food in one sitting and store the energy as fats in its body. If the olm eats enough, and if it decreases it activity level and metabolism, it can live up to a decade without eating at all.

The olm is very sensitive to changes in the environment because of its adaptation to the historically stable conditions in these caves. Small quantities of contaminants can easily seep through the olm’s permeable skin, which may lead to its death. Most contaminants enter the cave’s water system through the leaching of rainwater. Chemicals such as pesticides and fertilizers that are used in farming are among some of the most detrimental to the olm.

Nearly a quarter of all known amphibians are classified as threatened in Europe. It was in 1962 that Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, which discussed the damaging effects of pesticides on the environment and wildlife. Pesticides are still inflicting wildlife to this day, and amphibians, with their highly permeable skin, are especially at risk. If we are to preserve the quilt of life, the beauty that lies in its variety of colors, in its subtle details that make it all the more extraordinary, we must preserve the olm. When loose threads are left unacknowledged the quilt just isn’t as beautiful as it used to be.

*photo from www.euroherp.com/species/proteus_anguinus
*information from http://books.google.com/books?id=E3jeDU7KuhEC&pg=PA1788&lpg=PA1788&dq=book+amphibians+of+europe+olm&source=bl&ots=AdhKa62dgP&sig=h8I7DHgYqXdDjWE9gb59CwUEFDA&hl=en&ei=_CNISu-TAcS0twfJpI26Ag&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1
*information also from http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/the-dragon-chronicles/the-olm-and-other-troglobites/4533/

24 June 2009


When I was two years old I walked to the edge of the cliff near our house on the Pacific coast and sat for hours staring at the ocean. My mother found me there in the late morning sitting on my knees with my dainty baby fingers resting on my lap. She didn’t panic as she searched the house, as she crouched on her knees to look under the bed, or when she pulled the refrigerator out from the wall. I had crawled out of bed in the morning, before she woke, out the screen door, and down to the edge of the rocks. My thin-skinned baby knees were bruised and dirty when she found me. My hands had made hand marks with orange dirt on my thighs.

My mother delivered me atop a hill so that I could see the vastness of the world when I was born, so she wasn’t surprised when she found me sitting at the edge of the cliff that overcast April morning, looking out at the infinite Pacific Ocean. The clouds were rolling in from the north and rain could be seen in the distance, an ominous mass tumbling over the rocky shore. She often told me that she knew she should have looked there first, but it might have just been one of those ‘after the fact’ kinds of things.

I was a house cat of a child when I was young. Through out the day, I would come in search of food and attention, and after acquiring these things, I would return again to the mythical land of the outdoors. I knew she liked when I would silently come in the side door, grasp the meaty part of her arm from behind and lean on the tips of my toes to kiss her cheek. I had freedom only because I followed her rules. I let her know I was still alive through out the day, and thus I had the freedom to play without her parental eyes limiting my imagination.

I often played down by the rocks, near the shore. The waves would smash into the cliffs and a symphony would compose itself in my head. The crashing waves were my metronome. The rocks were my orchestra. I would direct them with my eyes closed, my hands waving violently. Sometimes when I opened my eyes, anxiety flooded my spine. I could forget my place in the world or who I was when my eyes were closed. Reality was often too intense for my fragile child mind. There was all this beauty around me, real beauty, but I choose to live in my head. It wasn’t a defense mechanism. I wasn’t running from anything. It was side affect of an overwhelming imagination.

I started school when I was seven years old instead of five. My mother seemed to think there was no rush. I attended a small K-12 school about two miles away from our house. I rode my bike five days a week, for eleven years, up the dusty dirt road to the town that lied directly east of our house. The town was modest: oak trees lined its streets and pale earthy colors covered its buildings. The school building itself was new. It had replaced the old school house that was originally built in the 1920s, and, according to the town’s people, was too dated to house its future generation. So the new school was built, but our books remained old. Rumors were spread that they had accidentally spent too much on the school gymnasium to afford new books.

The first day of school my mother came with me to show me the way and to make sure I was placed in a class that didn’t plague me with boredom. I can remember sitting on a blue metal bench, watching her wave her hands with the same drastic swings as I did when I conducted the geological orchestras in my younger years. I couldn’t hear what she was saying because of the cloud of children that stood between us. My mother motioned to me. I got up and walked like a quail to her on the other side of the school patio, small steps, head forward. My tiny seven-year-old body cradled her arm as I peered up at my schoolteacher’s venomous eyebrows.

“Anna, what’s seven times seven?” my mother asked.


“How do you spell elephant?”


She smiled at me and I could tell I had done something right.

“Mrs. Rabinowitz, I understand your hesitancy with placing my daughter in second grade because she’s starting school late, but I can guarantee that she will do fine. She’s actually ahead. She’s been doing math and reading lessons since she was four,” said my mother with only her eyes smiling.

“Mrs. Hendrail— ” started Mrs. Rabinowitz.

“It’s Ms. Hendrail,” snapped my mother.

“Oh…I apologize. Ms. Hendrail, I understand your concern but we simply can’t put Anna in second grade without testing her, and the testing sessions have already passed, she will have to wait until January for the next sessions.”

I was placed in first grade amongst the six-year-olds. When one’s years are so limited to begin with, age is an insignificant factor in choosing playmates. For the first time in my life I played with other children. Sharing came naturally, as did taking turns. It made sense to share, and even as a seven year old, I felt the desire to give to those that I found interesting.

One day during lunch a girl with blond ringlet curls and a pudgy face was crying. My wonderment of her sadness drove me to sit next her; her tears a vast ocean waiting to be explored.

“Why are you crying?” I asked. Speaking slowly, I attempted to sooth her with my voice.
“My mother forgot to pack me a lunch today, and she forgot to give me money. She said she would when we were leaving in the morning but then she forgot. And now I’m hungry and I don’t have anything to eat and water is so boring,” she complained with her voice reaching the higher octaves and her lower lip protruded. She must have been mimicking a little girl she saw on television.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I know that it doesn’t feel good to be hungry, but you know it isn’t going to last forever and your mother might make a really good dinner because she forgot. But here you can have half my sandwich, then we’ll both be sort of hungry, instead of you being really hungry and me being full.”

The girl’s face lost its tightness, as if my words had exorcised a demon from her frail child body. I felt a bubble of contentment expanding inside my chest when she took that peanut butter and jelly sandwich. When her face relaxed, a flood of joy drenched my mind, and I felt a connection between another human being. Even at seven, there was an air of meaning I sensed in human connection. A happiness and relief transferred from her to me. It was beautiful.

18 June 2009

Some Fiction in the Works


(I'm not really sure where this is going. It's a first draft.)

I grew up in the rolling hills of northwestern California, near the border of Oregon. I often played by myself as a child, partaking in only-child activities, like reading books, and envisioning grand adventures. I remember reading The Chronicles of Narnia when I was eight years old and believing I lived there. The swelling hills and massive redwood tree forests were the stage for the whimsical inventions of my childhood. As far as I knew, I lived in the land of enchanted animals, those that hid the secret of grasping the beauty and rawness of existence in their black orbs of eyes and primal movements.

The imagination of only-children is often more exquisite than that of children with siblings. I had to weed though the masses of people to find my friends. I wasn’t born with them waiting outside the hospital room door, their baby carrot fingers fretfully grabbing hold of their mouths. There was no one waiting for me except my mother, no one wondering if they’ll like me, or how my emergence from the womb will alter their everyday lives. There wasn’t even a door to wait outside. I was born atop a hill overlooking the ocean. My mother was alone, as I often was alone as a child.

I still wonder today how she gave birth to me without the help of doctors, or family or friends. There was no one to scream to push, no one to hold her hand, no one to cut the umbilical cord when her body began to tremble from exhaustion. She said she chose for it to be that way. She said she wanted to be satiated with the pain and struggle of giving birth, that birth wasn’t an experience that should be dulled, or eased. But my mother was no masochist. She lived for feeling things deeply, for reaching her arms down the dark well of existence into the obscurity of life, and pulling out with her bare hands, the meaning of it all, that beauty, that rawness.

After giving birth to me, she walked down a narrow dirt road with the umbilical cord still attached to home nestled between two coves, right above the Pacific Ocean. Upon arriving home, she promptly cut the cord that attached mother to daughter, cleaned me, fed me, and fell asleep with me in her arms. She tells me her valiant story of my beginning often, as a reminder of how extraordinary I am. “There is strength in our genes,” she would whisper in my ear as a baby, “and flowing through our Hendrail veins.”

My name is Anna Hendrail. I live in Paris and I’m eighty-seven years old. I’m average height, or at least I was, and I couldn’t tell you if I am beautiful or not because I don’t know how to gauge things like that. Even if I did say, you would probably think I of me as modest or pretentious, so there is really no point anyway.

I haven’t many friends, but it’s possible my definition of “friend” is different than yours. I have one friend. Many others have come and gone over the eighty-seven years of my existence, but she has firmly cemented herself into my life and I have let her remain. I’m sure she would say the same about me.

I would say I’ve lived an ordinary life but only because I wish everyone could have lived a life like mine. In my eighty-seven years and counting, exquisite pain has made me human, loneliness has made me an individual, overwhelming beauty has flooded my brain with moments of bliss, and passion has tied a rope around my body and mind and pulled me firmly to it. There’s one thing you should know though, I’ve never been in love.

17 June 2009


Shortest it's ever been in my life.

16 June 2009

Week Eleven

Driving Back from Arcata.

12 June 2009

A Change in Values.

The scientific details concerning the current ecological crisis are nothing new to the people of the 21st century. For us, there is no more room for denial; we know we have “fouled [our] nest” and we are beginning to feel the retributions of it. However, these details were fresh in the minds of the people of the nineteen-sixties and seventies. Lynn White, Jr.’s article “The historical roots of our ecological crisis” must have come as a shock in 1967. His article gathered a great deal of attention due to its fiery subject matter and its publication in Science, which is considered one of the most prominent scientific journals currently in press, and it was no less notorious in 1967.

The topic of religion’s role in the environment is always one of extreme controversy. It is often so contended a subject that many scientists and politicians chose to circumvent the topic to avoid the scorn of society, hiding their opinions, arguments, and possible solutions to our growing ecological issues. Lynn White, Jr., a professor of medieval history at the University of California, Los Angeles at the time of the article’s publication, was not intimidated in the least respect by the eggshells that lie under one’s feet while religion is in discussion.

White’s area of expertise within history was the role of technological advancements in the Middle Ages. According to White, the origin of our current ecological crisis is rooted in Western technological and scientific advancements of the Middle Ages. Religion, specifically Christianity, motivated many scientists of the era in their exploration of the natural world. Most scientists of the time also considered themselves theologians. In fact, Sir Isaac Newton considered himself more a theologian that a scientist, according to White. Unlike today, scientific inquiry in the Middle Ages was not simply an investigation to gain a better understanding of the natural world, but an examination of the essence of God, through knowledge of the natural world. Thus, in many respects, scientific inquiry of the Middle Ages was a means to an end.

Genesis can be interpreted in two different ways. Either human beings are stewards of Earth, or they are exploiters of Earth. Either we are a part of nature or nature is a monarchy with human beings at the top. There are various excerpts from the Bible that lean in one direction or the other, but it is not difficult to decipher the more environmental friendly perspective. White argues that the bottom line is since the Middle Ages the exploiter perspective has been held and the combination of this perspective and the growing advances of technology and science have lead us to the environmental predicament we face today.

“All forms of life modify their contexts,” White states so eloquently. Every organism’s presence affects the overall functionality of an ecosystem. The existence of mass congregations of coral polyps, forming coral reefs, provides a home for thousands of other organisms, thus “modify[ing] their contexts”. Humans clear cutting forests, polluting water supplies, and burning fossil fuels also change the composition of specific ecosystems, as well as the essence of the entire Earth as a whole. White compares the manner in which a coral polyp changes the environment to the way humans have changed the environment. Humans must learn from the coral polyp: although one’s existence must effect the environment, many other animals and plants live without harming the environment they live in.

White offers a solution to our current ecological crisis: we must change our view of nature as a monarchy. He goes so far as to suggest that we need a new religion or we need to reevaluate our old one. White argues that more science and more technology are not going to cure the planet of its mounting ailments. If we follow White’s advice, and view nature as a democracy rather than a monarchy, then conservation and sustainability can enter the equation. Conservation advocates biodiversity and the right of all species to exist on earth. Sustainability strives to use the Earth's resources at a degree at which they can be renewed. But even in conservation we are biased towards species that are attractive to humans, such as charismatic species or species that we find useful. Amphibians and reptiles are so underrepresented because of this bias that nearly one-fifth of all known reptiles and one-quarter of all known amphibians in Europe are threatened, according to IUCN Red List (International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources). Bird and mammal conservation efforts are far from sparse in comparison.

White argues that when Christianity overtook paganism, the belief that every tree, river, hill, and so forth, has its own spirit, we became less aware of the large scheme of things. While previously we were required to ask permission of the spirit of a tree whether we could use its wood to make our home, and give thanks after we did, the more prevalent, less environmental interpretation of Christianity encouraged the idea that all of the nature is at our disposal.

Humans, like all other organisms, are in a constant struggle of adapting to the changing environment; we are concerned with propagating the earth with our own kind, with passing on our genes. Before Christianity overtook paganism, there were far fewer people inhabiting the earth. When our population grew, it is possible that from a need for more food, there developed a need for more efficient farming methods and use of the land, which, thus, might have influenced us to see ourselves as dominators of nature. Did we change what we believe because we unconsciously felt we needed to believe it to stay alive?

Religion, it has been argued, is a form of adaptation. Humans, like all other organisms, are captives of natural selection. When numbers of an organism increase, competition increases and the tactics of survival become fiercer. Thus, dominating the land as we did and viewing nature as a monarchy might have been a result of increased competition. However, a system that uses resources at the alarming rate we are using them today can only be a short term solution to our growing population. We are now beginning to realize that our destructive methods have proven not so adaptive in the long term. If we are to survive, we must, again, alter our beliefs.

At the end of the article, White recommends St. Francis of Assisi as the patron saint for ecologists due to of his unified view of nature, and his belief that all organisms form a family. If we followed St. Francis’ philosophy, we would be returning to a set of values that has respect for the earth, rather than the desire to transcend and dominate it. In 2009, it is apparent that St. Francis has truly lost the battle. In some ways, science has formed our new set of values. Sustainable methods of life have become our savior, big bang theory is our creation, natural selection feeds our morals, and Darwin, Einstein, Mendel, Freud, Wilson, Leopold, Watson, Crick and Franklin are our saints.

What is strange about our destruction of the earth is humans generally prefer to be in nature over urban environments, “Studies conducted in the relatively new field of environmental psychology during the past thirty years point consistently to the following conclusion: people prefer to be in natural environments” . Why then, do we destroy the environment? Greed? Ignorance? Both? The depths of human psychology are undoubtedly the most mysterious and obscure area of knowledge. Maybe if we attempt to better understand the inner workings of our own minds, we will understand the needs of our planet, of our home.

08 June 2009

Week Ten.

One-inch Hail.

03 June 2009

Life in the Forest.

In Trinity County there is not a single traffic light. There are about four people per square mile and according to the 2000 US census, Trinity County was home to a mere 13,022 people. On the other hand, Trinity County is home to a plethora of trees: the Douglas firs with their rugged bark and vertical low-lying branches, the madrones with their smooth orange trunk that peaks out from under their flaky bark, the sugar pines with their intimidating widths and mosaic lavender-colored bark, and the tanoaks with their ubiquitous pollen.

Trinity County lies just east of Humboldt County, which houses the major towns of the area, Arcata and Eureka, and Humboldt State University, which has one of the best wildlife management and conservation programs in the country. The eastern most town of Humboldt County is Willow Creek, a small logging community where cans of “cream of spotted owl soup” can be found lurking in the windows of the town’s few, but friendly businesses.

The trees of the region are of the utmost importance. Since the 1980’s, spotted owl advocates, researchers, and the logging industry have been butting heads. The old-growth forests mean habitat for a charismatic, threatened species for the former and money for the latter.

Spotted owls nest in the cavities of broken-top old-growth trees, often Douglas firs. In April, a female, who often remains with her mate for many breeding seasons, will lay one to three eggs. Rarely does a pair fledge more than two young, and even more seldom do the juveniles survive into adulthood to produce young of their own. Thus is life in the wild, a constant struggle of staying alive and passing on one’s genes, but nestled in the Klamath Mountains of northwestern California, a watchful distance from its feathered friends, is Klamath Biological Research Station.

KBRS, as it’s often called to avoid a mouthful, resides just five miles east of Willow Creek, about a mile past the Humboldt/Trinity County border, in Salyer. When driving down the curvy mountain roads of highway 299 between Eureka and Redding, a little green sign marks one’s entrance into each town, and informs of the town’s population and elevation. Salyer is such a small town that if it were not for the sign and the general store/post office that faces the town’s only intersection, one would continue on highway 299 without even realizing they had passed through a town. A few years ago Salyer also had one restaurant, a shack-like building that served Mexican breakfast and lunch from 6:30 to 2:30 everyday. It was called Whole Enchilada, but they didn’t stay open for very long. The building still houses the Redbud Theatre, where plays are put on twice a year.

KBRS, owned and operated by Dr. Alan B. Franklin, is the home of the longest running spotted owl population and demography study in the country. It all began in 1985, with Alan Franklin and Pat Ward tromping through the brush and poison oak and over the rugged mountains of the Lower Trinity Ranger District in the Six Rivers National Forest. Now, twenty-five years later, the group includes two year-round biologists, six research assistants during the breeding season, a graduate student and his assistant who are studying the affects of barred owls on the spotted owl population, and yes, Alan still visits at least three times a year.

During one of the lax Monday afternoon meetings, Alan, on his first visit of the season, goes around the room asking the research assistants how old they are. The majority of them weren’t even born when the project started, and those remaining were still in the single digits.
The station can house up to twelve people and includes a main house, a bunkhouse, three trailers, and a laboratory. There are two bathrooms, one the size of a small closet. The atmosphere is pleasant; everyone gets along and shares the items that become scarce when one lives in a minute town, like new music and fine foods.

Every few weeks the group gets together to exchange perspectives on a current dilemma in conservation. Opinions float freely in the air like the pollen from tanoak trees, and playing the devil’s advocate is praised. But conversation is not limited to science. The evening, hour long drives up the unpaved mountain roads to the spotted owl territories facilitate philosophical conversation ranging from religion to politics, music to literature. NPR is almost always on the radio.

The laboratory at KBRS plays a small but significant role in the research at the station. It’s used for processing owl blood samples, drying owl pellets, and identifying mosquitoes. Attached to the lab is the ‘mouse-house’ where up to fifty mice are kept for use during spotted owl surveys.
One may still wonder: what does the spotted owl crew do in the forest, except tromping around on steep hills and brushing by fields of poison oak? It’s all about leg bands and mice. At around six p.m., three teams of a crew leader and a research assistant will head into the mountains to established spotted owl territories. The hike can range from 100 feet to 2200 feet change in elevation, from unsteady rocks to soft leaf litter, from nearly flat to nearly vertical.

In the beginning of the season the priorities are to find which owl pairs are nesting that year and to identify each owl by a leg, band, and tab color combination. The crew puts a mouse down on the forest floor and waits for the owl to swoop down and take it. What the owls do with the mice helps determine whether or not the pair is nesting that year, but watching the owl’s behavior overall is essential. If the owl, frequently the male, brings the mouse to a broken top tree, it’s likely the pair is nesting. If the owl stashes the mouse in a nearby tree, they’re probably not nesting that year. It’s often not as cut and dry as it seems, primarily because the owls do not know the crew’s protocol for confirming a nesting pair. The owls are living creatures, incapable of the uniform behavior researchers would hope for.

Keeping a spotted owl in sight at all times is incredibly difficult. Owls have evolved feathers that allow for nearly silent flight, and they are normally active at night, making them nocturnal. The setting sun hinders the crew’s vision, and the highly evolved owl feathers make hearing the owls fly away nearly impossible. But with well-trained eyes, spotlights, and persistence the team has collected the needed data every year for twenty-five years.

Toward the middle and end of the season, the team is mostly concerned with monitoring the nests, recording which nests have succeeded and failed, and ultimately catching the juveniles to band them like their parents. The spotted owl adults exude a noble character. They perch on branches high above human reach with pride radiating from their black eyes. The juveniles, on the other hand, who first emerge from the nest as a ball of white fluffy feathers, have an innocent disposition and a limited understanding of the rules of flight. They make a humbling addition to the experience of being a researcher at the station.

The season begins in the rainy month of April with sporadic sightings of adults, some as old as twenty-two. It ends in the midst of the hot and dry California summer, with young spotted owls eager to take on the world, or maybe just the Lower Trinity Ranger District of the Six Rivers National Forest, but life out here is far from simple.

01 June 2009

Week Nine

I experimented with some double exposure this weekend. We had a fire both Friday and Saturday night. I thought it was the opportune moment to make people's faces catch on fire.