The rain

Well, it finally rained yesterday. And how. For about an hour, right in the middle of our celebration of Herbert Hoover’s birthday, the sky just opened up and dropped water and wind and fire on us. Lightning struck a tree about 100 feet from where I was holed up in Herbert Hoover’s birthplace with another ranger and a couple of event exhibitors.

While we needed the rain, I suppose we could have waited another day.

Tracts

Liang’s book does not say what happened at the end of either story. What of that family of eight? What of the animals and birds crowded in around them? Did they float thus through all eternity? Did they ride the waves in their enormous boat, beneath the rain-sodden sky, forever and a day, skin and fur and feathers, until they became one with the water, the wood, and the wind?

And why salt?

Hong fails the examinations. He keeps the book.

Jonathan Spence, God’s Chinese Son

Every once in a while at work I find a Christian tract left behind in one of the buildings. I wonder if these litterbugs really think a small piece of paper is going to change anyone’s mind. Then I remember Hong Xiuquan, a disappointed Chinese scholar who, after finding such a pamphlet (about Noah’s Ark and Lot’s wife, as related in the quote above), started a quasi-Christian uprising and nearly overthrew the Qing dynasty.

A warm fuzzy

Once a year I drive to an elementary school in the Quad Cities for a National Park Fair put on by third-graders. Each child researches a different national park and makes a display about it. They set up their displays in the gym and kids from other classes visit. When a display has a visitor, the display’s creator reads a short report of interesting facts about that park. They also hand out “souvenirs” like stickers or bookmarks decorated with the park’s name and a picture.

Third graders admire displays about national parks in a school gym.
Third graders admire each other's national park displays in the school gym.

While I’m there, I give a short talk about being a park ranger and then the kids ask me questions. Among the questions I always get is, “How much money do you make?”

The visit is usually the highlight of my work year and, lest I forget amid the routine and the bureaucracy, a good reminder of why I have that job.

Independent for president

A lady who visited the park today mentioned that it seemed like a good place to stop. She wore business dress and was alone—a sign of an incidental visitor, someone who is in town for other purposes. “Are you traveling?” I asked her.

“I am an independent running for president,” she said as she left.

That’s not something I expected her to hear, for a couple of reasons. One is that presidential candidates avoid anything related to Herbert Hoover as if its radioactive (though the occasional fringe candidate comes during the Iowa caucuses). The other that she didn’t even say who she was, which would be helpful when unknown and seeking votes. To her credit, election campaigning is not allowed in national parks and perhaps she was following that rule strictly. If so, this may a good example of how integrity doesn’t help to win elections.

Things I know from flies

I’ve finally given up on winter. Spring is here. It’s warm this week, with highs in the upper 70s at least through the weekend. I know the warmth is here to stay because I saw three pairs of flies copulating on the windows at work. I figure insect copulation in March is a sure sign of warm-weather optimism.

Interesting note on fly mating: they don’t move. The just sit on the window “in congress” and don’t move. They were on the outside of the window so I could walk up an watch without disturbing them. What a pervert.

But not a day under 61

I’ve come to expect at least a little bit of false modesty from people. A lady came in to buy a senior pass. “You have to be 62 years old,” I told her.  “I’ll have to see your drivers license. The pass is ten dollars.” That’s all automatic; we say it to everybody because we need the identification to sell the pass. Most of the folks laugh about it, some because they are way older than 62.

“I know I don’t look like I’m 62 but I am,” she said. “From all the years of hiking.”

Which was funny because she looked about 62 to me. Maybe 61.

Cicadas and carpenter ants

I work in a small park and we don’t often see big animals, but we see insects when we’re observant. This summer has been good for grasshoppers and damselflies, and the season of daddy long-legs and monarch butterflies is just getting underway. Today, though, it was all about the cicadas and the carpenter ants.

I encountered a bunch of Girl Scouts who were fascinated by something on the ground. Turns out it was a cicada emerging from a hole in the lawn. They had an earnest debate about whether it was just hatching (“they lay their eggs in the ground”) or if it had somehow been grounded by an injury (“it’s too big to be a newborn”). Ever the useful naturalist, I weighed in on the side of “just hatching” since I know cicadas live underground for a while before emerging as adults.

Later our blacksmith pointed out a little pile of sawdust accumulating in the corner of our blacksmith shop, and where they were coming from. Every half a minute or so, a black ant appeared on one of the ceiling beams and dumped a little fragment of excavated wood over the edge. There was something very anthropomorphic and workmanlike about these ants that made me laugh. Of course we’ll have to poison them; eating historic buildings is a no-no.

The big mess in the Gulf

If you want to feel like you know nothing, be an information officer on the oil spill response.

I used to work on the Gulf Coast. I was there during Katrina and I have a connection to the place. I really wanted to help, so as my agency prepared a response I volunteered to go as a public information officer (PIO). In the three weeks I was there, I was outraged by the effects of the catastrophe and disappointed by feelings of my own futility. It was only during my last week that I was assigned to the actual shoreline, at the national park where I used to work.

Orange blobs and a silvery sheen of oil on the water's surface.
Oily water off Florida

I spent my first week about as far from the oil and shoreline as anyone on the response: at the Unified Command in Robert, Louisiana. Robert was the field headquarters for the whole response effort. Run from a Shell training facility rented by BP, it oversaw the various area commands where most of the response operations were run out of. My first impressions were “what a complete clusterfuck” and “wow, a lot of people are working very hard to solve this problem.” I spent much my first afternoon getting my laptop working in the External Affairs trailer. The External Affairs division comprised public relations professionals from various federal agencies. They reminded me of characters on “The West Wing” in that they took themselves a little too seriously.

My supposed function was fielding media inquiries about national parks. However, when I got to Robert, oil was in the South Louisiana marshes and BP was attempting the “top kill”, so national parks were off everybody’s radar. So my only routine task was to each morning write up a statistical summary that worked its way up to the White House. It was an easy enough job that I could finish before 7:30 a.m., but the imprecise business of gathering statistics caused some complications. For example, I pointed out a drop in the reckoned total personnel working on the response from one day to the next and this sent a young Department of Homeland Security (DHS) guy into a panic. The administration had been saying that 20,000 people are working on the response. This number turned out to be in error and was more like 15,000. Reporting smaller figures is apparently worse than being precise, so the DHS guy had to come up with some justification for continuing to use the 20,000 figure. He found one, and Obama used the 20,000 figure in a press conference that afternoon. This contributed to feeling that I was not doing anything particularly important.

Seashells and other ocean debris covered in oil on the beach.
Oily wrack

There were a handful of national parks people in a sea of Coast Guard and BP at Robert. I think we were there just to remind those folks that the National Parks exist (eight on the Gulf Coast and South Florida) and were at risk of oil contamination. I made a few efforts to raise the NPS profile on the response website, with mixed results. After a week of this, I suggested that my knowledge of the Gulf Coast would be better used elsewhere. So I was sent to the Mobile, Alabama command responsible for Mississippi, Alabama, and the Florida panhandle.

My first week in Mobile was a busier version of what I was doing in Robert: contributing little to what I thought was important from an unsatisfying position in a headquarters building. Mostly I compiled reports of interest only to invisible officials in Washington, D.C. Except for a brief stop in Ocean Springs on my way to Mobile I hadn’t yet set foot on the shoreline. Nominally, I was assigned to the Joint Information Center (JIC), though my reporting responsibilities to my agency pulled me away from this Q & A work. That put me into a somewhat isolated and dreary position. But I was happy to oblige and I did the job well, so when I was asked to extend for a week, I agreed with the condition that I be sent into the field.

People, mainly journalists, called the JIC to ask questions, usually not the answer-at-your-fingertips kind. The information officers at the JIC had to go find the answers. The intensity at the JIC went in and out with the tide, or as oil washed up on the beaches in Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. It took a few days just to get my bearings. Being a massive and complex incident it was very hard to grasp it all. It was busiest the weekend oil started washing up on the beaches around Pensacola. Even though oil had washed ashore in Mississippi and Alabama earlier in the week, oil on Florida beaches attracted much more attention. It was as if oil isn’t really on the beach until it’s on a Florida beach.

Orange boom floats along a stretch of island beach.
Containment boom

The reports we had access to rarely had the exact answers to the reporters’ questions, so we had to find someone in another section for the answer. For example, I might ask someone at the Florida operations branch if they know what kind of oil, where, and how far off of Pensacola is it? Or, where are the skimmers and how many are working where? How many feet of containment boom are deployed around Pensacola Bay? They might in turn refer me to the SCAT (shoreline clean-up assessment technique) coordinators or to the situation group in the planning section. I would later discover that the maps and figures didn’t always jive with the reality in the field, but I couldn’t know that from the suburban office building where we were working.

Two boats drag a sorbent boom to soak up oil on the water's surface.
Two boats drag a sorbent boom to soak up oil on the water’s surface.

After beach-goers and reporters harassed some clean-up crews on Santa Rosa Island, our growing national park cohort at the JIC started sending more PIOs to Gulf Islands National Seashore. Our strategy was to assist the clean-up crews and the resource advisors (READs)—biologists who kept the responders from doing further harm to the park as they cleaned up—deal with the media and visitors so they could do their jobs.

I was a little underwhelmed, but still disgusted, by the oil I saw on Santa Rosa Island during my first day in the field: mostly little blobs the size of a dime scattered along the wrack line, and much had been cleaned up. It was unlike the solid slicks that the media showed inundating the Louisiana marshes. I saw worse later.

A television reporter on a boat pauses while filming.
These reporters from a Czech news agency covered the oil spill in the Gulf.

Media interest waned somewhat after the first oily weekend in Florida but we continued to assist the READs and offer “media availabilities”. I accompanied a media entourage on a vessel that took them off the Alabama coast to “look for oil”. The reporters preferred to talk to the Coast Guard, but none of their PIOs were available for this boat, so they had to settle for a park ranger. One of the local TV reporters on my boat interviewed me while she did her makeup. When they could get along side the other media boat, they interviewed the Coast Guard PIO on it while filming nasty orange blobs and silvery sheens on the water.

This was my first look at oily offshore waters. It appeared very difficult to clean. Skimmer boats tried soaking it up by dragging sorbent booms between them. Another skimmer used the pompom-like absorbent parts from a snare boom attached to a long pole to (literally) mop up mats of oil. They wore full protective suits. They must have been broiling.

Workers in yellow suits mop up oil in the water with absorbent materials.
These workers were literally mopping up oil from the water.

The next day I was called out to Petit Bois Island in Mississippi. The READs had requested a PIO to deal some media hovering around the island on a boat. Of course by the time I got out there the reporters had departed. I stayed on the island in case they returned, and learned a lot about what those report figures meant in living color at a national park.

Petit Bois Island is a desert. It is hot and exposed. There is no shade except what you erect and no drinkable water except what you bring. The sand is white and reflects heat right back up at you. The clean-up crews erected little shade shelters every quarter-mile or so.

As well as being a desert, Petis Bois was a mess. There were large puddles of brown oil, some maybe 10 feet by 5 feet and an inch thick in patches along the oil-soaked wrack line. The work crews, because they were dealing with heavy concentrations, wore plastic suits to their waists, boots, gloves, and—for some reason—hard hats. With the humidity the heat index was way past 100 degrees—and they worked through the middle of the day. I was hot just watching them. They took long and frequent breaks.

Workers in protective gear scoop mats of oil off a white sand beach.
You can see some of the equipment involved in cleaning up Petit Bois Island.
Workers load bags of oil onto a work boat.
Loading up bags of oil

Also a mess was the impact on the island. Petit Bois is federal wilderness area which, in the words of Wilderness Act of 1964, is to be a place “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.” But in order to clean up oil along six or more miles of an offshore Gulf beach you need dozens of workers, utility terrain vehicles (UTVs), shade, water, fuel, food, toilets, boats, landing areas—all while attempting to not disturb sensitive bird and turtle nesting areas or fragile dunes systems and seagrass beds. The crews and the biologists were diligent and innovative as they tried to strike a balance among safety, clean-up, and protection of the natural resources, but neither the catastrophic oil pollution nor this massive clean-up operation honored the spirit of the wilderness.

Even though I didn’t catch up with any reporters that day on Petit Bois Island, I was on television and on radio and quoted in the newspaper. My usual question and answer functions as a park ranger were at once highly simplified and greatly magnified. Most of my previous experience with news reporters has been pretty straightforward, and if I screw up it doesn’t get into the national news.

As a PIO for a national incident I had to stick to a few key messages and wasn’t afforded much candor. On the media boat tour I was confined to the vessel with eight reporters for six hours. Everything I said could have been fair game to them so I spoke as little and as carefully as possible, which seems an impediment to transparency. I’m not entirely comfortable with that; there is an art to it which takes preparation and practice. Public relations folks (like the “West Wing” types in Robert) labor under the presumption that they can (and should) manipulate the media into reporting the news their way with pre-packaged messages. I concluded that though skillful people can pull that off, the media have to want to hear what you have to say first.

Oil pollution stretched along the entire shoreline of a barrier island beach.
Oil polluted miles of shoreline on Petit Bois Island.

Tuesday we were at Rosamond Johnson Beach on Perdido Key, Florida. This was a little case study in how hard it was getting accurate information and everybody on the same page. We arrived just in time for heavy oil to wash up on the beach. Crews had been cleaning it all weekend. The lifeguards asked the swimmers to leave the water. They don’t have authority to close the beach or the water, and it wasn’t clear who does. Closing beaches and waters is a touchy subject and, also impractical, according to someone I spoke with at the Florida Department of Health. The READs and the lifeguards wanted the waters closed or at least a strongly worded official health advisory issued from park management, which wasn’t forthcoming. There was also, according to the lifeguards, a state or county health advisory for county waters that ended at the park boundary. I discovered that everything is a rumor until verified, but as PIO I had to be prepared to answer questions about the lifeguards’ decision and the park’s inconsistency with the county’s health advisory, and whether the oil on the beach is dangerous or not. We never did untangle it all but the media let us off the hook by not showing up. The beach-goers, for their part, had mixed reactions. Most stayed out of the water, but not all. One lady said they only came down to the beach once or twice a year, and that they would risk it for the sake of saving their vacation.

To sum up my admittedly limited experiences and observations: there is nothing easy about fixing the big, complicated mess down on the Gulf Coast. I spoke to a lot of people living and working there who just shook their heads in anger, sadness, and disappointment. I found myself shaking my head a lot too.

Annual fire training

Safety refresher training is an annual ritual for wildland firefighters. I attended the class in the Conservation Education Center, a nice facility park at F.W. Kent Park between Tiffin and Oxford. As usual, I took a short walk in the snow during our lunch break. There were some animal tracks but mostly people tracks.

People tracks lead to a hole in an ice covered pond.
Ice fishing hole
A bird house on a post overlooks a snow-covered frozen pond.
Wood duck box

The class itself usually involves watching safety videos and discussions of last year’s accidents. This year we had a new fire shelter video. I was getting sick of the last one. The fire shelters are our portable refuges of last resort. Anyway, the video demonstrated how the new models hold up to direct flame contact better than the older ones by pitching them (uninhabited, of course) among a small brush fire. At the end of the class, we practiced deploying the shelters. Practice involves shaking out the shelters and covering yourself with it while laying on the ground like a giant baked potato wrapped in foil.

Meadow vole

Walking along one of the roads at work, I nearly stepped on a small rodent: a meadow vole.

I’ve seen meadow voles before in pellet form, that is, after owls were done digesting them. This one ignored me as it foraged inches from my feet. Insulted that I did not inspire fear in this insignificant beast, I stamped my feet couple of times but it did not scurry away. When I mentioned this to our biologist, she said that voles spend most of their time burrowed under something, and so aren’t as skittish as mice or other similarly small critters when out in the open.

Earthworms

It rained all day today. I was sad to see the rain wash some of the colorful foliage off of the trees. It had an amusing side effect, though. Hundreds of earthworms were beached on the sidewalk. They were everywhere.

Earlier this week, the warm weather brought swarms of ladybugs. Now the earthworms. It’s a like a parody of the Old Testament. I wonder what’s next? A plague of copulating crane flies?

Cognitive dissonance at work

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at this news release from the Secretary of the Interior. It heralds the entrance of the Interior Department into the “YouTube, Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter Age.” However, the Department of the Interior, as of this afternoon at least, is still blocking employees from accessing YouTube, Facebook, and other social networking sites from government computers (Twitter has been temporarily unblocked this month so we can communicate during the airing of “The National Parks” on PBS). The National Park Service’s Facebook site, mentioned in the article, is likely maintained by employees from their homes on their own time.

EEO

I drove up to Marquette with some coworkers for mandatory equal employment opportunity (EEO) training. A lady from our regional office explained a about our rights and how to lodge a complaint.

In the course of discussing how to be sensitive to others’ perception, she brought up the infamous New York Post cartoon of cops shooting a chimpanzee. She also dredged up the matter of self-censorship, such as being nice to Indians by never saying “chief”.

Discrimination ought to be confronted and fought against, but the emphasis on political correctness and celebrating group identity as a solution is Baby Boomer baggage which we need to discard. Are we entering the much-heralded new era of race relations or not? If you already don’t associate blacks with lower primates, then why should you train yourself to do so just to avoid potential offense?

Fun with third graders

It’s school tour season at the park. I had some third graders today. One boy asked me if I had ever seen Herbert Hoover. Sometimes I forget that their grasp of the distant past is not very firm, so I answered “No, he died forty-five years ago.” He said, “You don’t remember him?” Then I understood and said, “Oh no. I’m not that old.”

I will concede that third grade now seems very, very far off in the past.

At the end of the tour I told them how men and women sat separately in Quaker meetings. This is hard to explain, even to adults, but the Quakers believed men and women were equal (at a time when women could not vote and so forth), and adopted a separate-but-equal approach in the meetinghouse to provide women with the same opportunities to participate as the men. I also told them the Quakers worshipped in silence, but would stand up and speak if they felt “deep down inside like they had something important to say.” One girl raised her hand and, after I called on her, stood up and announced, “This sitting separately is crazy!”

That’s how I knew she was paying attention.