Reading at Arapahoe Community College

Andrea will be reading with fellow faculty members tomorrow, February 27, 2019, at 3 p.m. at the ACC library.

Andrea will be reading, with fellow ACC colleagues, at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, September 15, 2015 in the Arapahoe Community College Library. The focus will be women writing about nature.

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Two Rivers

“No talking in the boat! Eyes on the head in front of you.” Behind my coach’s voice, I could hear the noise of cars barreling down the Schuylkill expressway.
Both my hands clutched the oar as we passed the first bridge, and I wished we were allowed to wear gloves. We weren’t. It was snowing – not hard, just flurries, but the coaches thought it wasn’t too early in the year to get out on the river. We were headed down past two more bridges to do our usual five-mile-long row. Then, afterwards, there would be a two-mile run down to the statues of angels. One girl who didn’t feel like running would complain of menstrual cramps, and the male coaches would uncomfortably say she didn’t have to run. Packs of boys from the local prep schools would hoot and holler as we ran by.

I grew up rowing shells on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. My high school team rowed out of the boathouse where the Olympic team practiced. The river was dirty, polluted, and had a long history of being so. Although Philadelphia was the first city to feel responsible for providing its citizens with clean drinking water and bought a large section of land that was the Schuylkill watershed and later became the first large urban park of its kind, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries people continued to use the river as an open sewer and to dispose of other offensive waste. Despite an 1828 law that fined a person for dumping “putrid, noxious, or offensive matter” into the river, throughout the 19th century, it was done anyway. During much of the 20th century, coal was mined near the Schuylkill headwaters. Culm, a byproduct of the mining efforts, accumulated in such large amounts that it raised the level of the riverbed and made navigation on the river difficult. Repeatedly from 1866 through 1946, studies recommended abandoning the river as a water source, seeking cleaner water upstream. It wasn’t until 1945 that the Schuylkill River Project was born in an attempt to clean up the river and restore it to its former glory.

When I began rowing my freshman year, I was considered a “novice,” meaning I had never been in a boat before. My friends all played lacrosse in the spring, but ball sports had never been my thing. I excelled at whole body sports: swimming and skiing, and I thought it would be fun to be down on the river. My parents had pointed out the boathouses to me when we were driving back to the suburbs from Philadelphia. The houses sat stately, old and filled with tradition. Every night, the boathouses were silhouetted with white lights.

Although the Schuylkill was originally home to Lenape Indians, peaceful fishing and trapping people, it was a Dutchman who was the first white man up the waters and who gave it its name. When William Penn was granted the area by Charles II, Penn apparently took a canoe trip up the Schuylkill into the backcountry. During this period, the seventeenth century, shad was abundant, and the Indians were busy trapping the beaver to near extinction.
There were several attempts to make the Schuylkill a navigable route, and there were also attempts at building locks at the falls several times, usually without permanent success. The waterway was used to float chestnut, hemlock, and oak down to the Philadelphia market, but the lower river was not so calm or predictable. What did emerge were two developments: the wealth of coal just below the surface farther up the watershed in Schuylkill County and the view that the banks of the Schuylkill were a wonderful place for the rich to build mansions. The mansions remain, high above the river, many now converted to historic buildings or museums, but they give a taste of a Philadelphia – and a lifestyle — long gone.
Anthracite coal was discovered near the headwaters of the Schuylkill, in what is known as Schuylkill County. In the 1750s, the area belonged to farmers, but by the end of the century, mining had begun along the Schuylkill. In The Schuylkill, J. Bennett Nolan says, “There are still valleys in lower Schuylkill County where coal has not been found and where the wheat fields roll back to the mountain wall with no breaker to disturb the serenity of the landscape” (12). Nevertheless, coal and its byproducts did find their way into the water source, corrupting it.

Robert B. Johnson, in his book A History of Rowing, claims rowing began in the ancient world but that the idea of rowing in crews came from navies. Johnson traces the popularity of rowing in England to its similarities with the age of chivalry, when athletic prowess and courage could win a man knighthood. Rowing combined precision and timing – thinking skills – with the raw physicality of taking a boat down the river. In 1867, the Schuylkill Navy, an organization of rowers still in existence, announced that Philadelphia was going to become the supreme boating city in America.
Thomas Eakins, a Philadelphia painter and rower, captured the golden age of rowing, the 1870’s, before the sport became bogged down in scandals and betting, in a series of paintings called “The Rowing Pictures.” He painted the winners of his day – John Biglin and Max Schmitt — working alone or with other rowers on the Schuylkill. Once, he even painted himself in a scull in the background. At the time Eakins began painting the rowers, he had just come back from studying art in Europe. He was interested in depicting the human body, but nudes were not really acceptable in Victorian Philadelphia. He used the rowing pictures as an outlet, a way to capture posture and muscles, grace and precision.

At the beginning of the spring rowing season my senior year, I was getting ready to race a double, a two-seated, four oared shell, with another girl, Carrie, a thickly built woman with a mess of curly brown hair. The race, the first of the season, was called Stotesbury. We rowed casually down to the race line. Two Canadian girls in unisuits looked intimidating on the starting line next to us. The prom had been the night before, and though I had gotten more sleep than most of my friends, I still hadn’t gone to bed at 9 p.m. as my coach had directed me to. We were in position at ¾ of the way up the slide when the gun went off, and then Carrie’s oar was in the water, but it was stuck and it wouldn’t come out, a rowing occurrence called catching a crab. The whole boat lurched to one side. By the time we got going again, we were so far behind we weren’t ever going to catch up. I remember I could hear my team mates shouting “Come on. Pick up the rate,” but at that point, it was too late. We lost miserably, by boat lengths.

We were on our spring break training trip in Florida when I got news that I’d gotten in to the first college to which I’d applied, a small liberal arts school without much of a rowing team. In Florida, we mostly rowed singles and doubles, and dolphins followed us, trailing behind the stern. I remember thinking I had to make a decision. I was now the captain of the women’s team, and I had been recruited to row at some of the schools to which I applied. What would my life consist of, I wondered. Did I want the next four years of my life to be all about crew? In high school, crew had been an escape from everything else. Would it continue to be that if I rowed at a school with a competitive rowing program? I doubted it.

Later that spring, my doubles partner and I were doing well. After the ill-fated row at Stotesbury, we were doing better, at least winning three of our last races. We were rowing at Nationals in Camden, New Jersey. At the starting line, we decided to take off our shirts and just row in our black sports bras.
Our start was nothing like the one where Carrie caught a crab. Instead, we were propelled, almost on top of the water. Right away, we were ahead, and we were gaining – boat lengths of open water, it seemed. My arms, my heart, my lungs were pumping as fast as possible, my muscles contracting and expanding nearly on their own, and I was thinking about nothing except how fast I could move my arms away from my body. Speed was all I wanted. And then there was the finish line, and we were the first ones over it. We had won. We were national champions, except no one knew who we were because we had taken our shirts off.

At the high school senior roast where teachers and staff embarrass students, the librarian had me. She held up a slinky, black lace camisole and read a few lines from an Anne Sexton poem:
“I am rowing, I am rowing
though the oarlocks stick and are rusty
and the sea blinks and rolls
like a worried eyebal,
but I am rowing, I am rowing.” By then, most everyone had heard about my race in the black sports bra, and though I hadn’t yet decided to become a writer, the librarian knew me because of how much I liked to read and hang out in the library. She had gotten it exactly right. What I loved about rowing was its beauty, its intricacy, its poetry.

Senior year was almost over, and I was trying to decide how much of a part of my life I wanted to make crew. The place I really wanted to go – Dartmouth – wasn’t interested in me, but University of Pennsylvania, the dock over from ours on boathouse row, had recruited me and accepted me to attend school there in the fall. I knew what my life would be like – afternoons in the weight room and on the rowing machine. Practices twice a day on Saturdays. Their rowing program was old and had tons of money. Begun in 1835, it was the beginning of organized sport at University of Pennsylvania. Before that, the male students would use a local gymnasium for boxing or shoot pool at a nearby parlor. It was an Ivy, the best – I should have been be happy, and yet, I wanted something else. I wasn’t totally sure what that something else was, but I felt it when I saw a power bar commercial in the Sierra magazine I was reading in the library during one of the painful days before the deadline when I was trying to decide what to do with my life. My friends said things like, “You got into Penn and you’re thinking of not going? That’s crazy,” but I wasn’t sure I wanted more of what I already knew. I wanted something different, but I couldn’t – or didn’t know how to — describe it. I wasn’t sure four more years rowing in that dirty river was it.
I had talked to my parents about applying to colleges in the West, and my mother had said, “no.” She wanted me to be able to drive home for breaks. I chose the first college that had accepted me, a small liberal arts school in upstate New York with an under-funded club rowing program. After rowing out of the Olympic boathouse, it didn’t measure up to even my high school program. I wasn’t totally sure why I’d made the choice I had. I just meant to go somewhere where my dad hadn’t gone to law school and rowing wouldn’t be my life. Perhaps I knew that I wasn’t competitive enough to keep it up for four years; I’d been bow in the double, not stroke. I simply had to follow the stroke rate Carrie set. My coaches had even told me they didn’t think I was competitive enough to row stroke. And I had an idea what rowing at Penn would look like – miles on the rowing machines in the winter to the point of puking or seat racing, a high-pressure situation where the coach substitutes two different women with the same crew to see who could make the boat go faster. After all, what I liked about rowing was sitting in the boat, inches away from the water, the precision of the stroke, how it took brains and muscle, watching the curl of water around the blade, taking part in something beautiful.

Even though the mansions on the banks of the Schuylkill were no longer private residences, the lifestyle of the upper-class wasn’t totally gone from Philadelphia. In the affluent suburbs where I grew up, a charity ball was thrown every year where debutantes wore white dresses, danced with young men, and then were presented to society. My mom enrolled me to be a deb. I went to the first gathering – a reception in the back yard of a huge, stone mansion. When my friend’s mother picked me up, she said, “You’re not wearing heels?” I was wearing a fitted, yellow, silk dress, appropriate gold jewelry, and stockings, yet she had noticed my shoes: flat. Maybe that was the moment I decided it wasn’t for me. I remember feeling uncomfortable as I made my way among other private-school-educated women, all of them wearing their pearls and heels. This wasn’t to be the only gathering. It was just the first. Later, there would be trips to the eye hospital and other fundraisers so we could begin to take our mothers’ place in Philadelphia society.
I came home and told my mom, “I don’t think that’s for me.” I heard from my friends who had stayed in about buying the right white dress and gloves, or learning the intricate dance to be done on stage that night. Still, my dad had already sent his check in, so we were given several tickets. I brought my first college boyfriend, wore a red, strapless dress, and drank so much that I was throwing up in the toilet the next morning when my mother hollered up the stairs that we had to leave to drive to my grandparents’ for Christmas Eve. Not for me.

A red and a black duffel bag sat on the polished, marble floor in front of me. Through the loudspeaker, trains were announced. My mother hugged me. Then my dad did. I felt a combination of excited and abandoned. Even though I had chosen this, not to go to New York or DC like all my friends had, I felt scared, lonely. I was heading halfway across the country. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Thirtieth Street Station, the Philadelphia train station where we said goodbye, was emblematic of everything I was leaving: white pillars outside, a high, vaulted ceiling inside, friezes of various historical events, gilt detailing and the Angel of Resurrection bronze statue commemorating WWII veterans in the center. Where I was going, nothing was as old. Cities in the West were the age of the suburb I’d grown up in.
Over the next decade, I moved from Colorado to Idaho to enter a writing program. I pursued backpacking and skiing until I saw a sign at the farmer’s market advertising learn-to-row and Master’s crew. I asked the representative – a fit guy in his fifties – what I could expect. Were there ten-mile runs and calisthenics? I remembered how thin and strong I was senior year of high school. I didn’t think I was in shape for that.
“No,” he said. “It’s pretty mellow. We just like to get out there and row.”

I was at the next practice, but it was nothing like rowing on the Schuylkill. The mountains rose up on either side of the Snake River, and we would sometimes see a beaver or blue heron on the banks. The drive down to the river was on a two-lane rural road instead of a four-lane, crowded expressway. On the drive – where we hardly ever saw other cars but occasionally had to follow a combine or ATV — we could often spot deer, elk, or quail crossing the road or looking curiously on from a nearby hill.
The rowers were different too. Some had learned to row in college, but others had learned from community programs. There were architects and professors but also house painters and truck drivers.

Still, sitting in the boat was the same: the feeling of being just inches away from the water, practically in the river. It had never been the races that filled me with joy. What made me happy was just rowing along, being outside, watching the ducks and the puddles in the water we made with our oars. There was also the feeling of accomplishment, the power of eight rowers working together when the boat was balanced and moving so fast on top of the water that it felt like flying, but usually there were only small moments that felt that way.

For one week while our coach was on vacation the rowers brought their own small boats to row. After practice, one of the rowers brought out a cooler full of beer. Three of us sipped beers as we waited for the rest of the rowers to return to the dock. Each of us said something about how lucky we were to be rowing on the beautiful Snake. One of the guys mentioned that he didn’t miss rowing on urban rivers back East, where he had seen cash registers and hypodermic needles either float by or dropped along the banks. Still, what we saw when we marveled at the view wasn’t natural. The Snake was sometimes called “Snake Lake,” a reference to the fact that the wildness of the river was long gone. In 1945, Congress authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to build the first of four dams along the Snake to provide electricity and water for irrigation, and to make Lewiston, Idaho an inland seaport.
Through the process of damming the river, they not only flooded ancient archeological sites, but they also made it nearly impossible for chinook and sockeye salmon and steelhead to make it back to their spawning grounds. In 1988, Snake River coho salmon became extinct. In 1991, Snake River sockeye were listed as an endangered species. In 1994, Snake River chinook salmon were listed as endangered. Barges ferry fish through the locks around the dams in a dim effort to keep the species reproducing. I wondered if the rowers – most of us East Coast transplants – romanticized the West, wanted to see it as virgin and pristine when perhaps this river had been changed and manipulated just as much or more than those eastern rivers? Given enough time, would it become as polluted as the Schuylkill?

One afternoon, in a single, a shell made for one person, I rowed to the other side of the river to get some shade from the hundred degree heat, and I thought about what the Snake might be like if it wasn’t tamed and controlled by these huge dams. It might be the wild whitewater with rapids named Granite and Wild Sheep that runs through Hells Canyon. We probably wouldn’t be able to row it in shells, but the salmon would swim freely, and we would probably know more about the sophisticated ancient people who settled along the Snake 9,000 years ago, the people who carved small, bone sewing needles and traded with another tribe for the jawbone of an arctic fox. The Army Corps of Engineers had attempted to save the Marmes rock shelter, where these ancient people lived, by building a levee, but the force of the water was too great, and now the rock shelter sits under forty feet of water.

I had no doubt that of the two rivers I knew, neither was truly wild. Humans had tamed them nearly to the point of destruction, but it didn’t stop me from feeling that they were worthy of appreciation. The Schuylkill has been restored to its pristine origins and is now a place locals fish and picnic along its banks. I imagined the same fate for the Snake. Philadelphia was the first city to realize that a city had a duty to provide fresh drinking water to its citizens. On the other side of the country, the government had seen its role in providing cheap electricity. Each river had done a service.
The Snake had been here long before the dams and will be there long after it. People heavily involved in the dam debate say the Pacific Northwesterners want it all – cheap electricity and healthy salmon runs. Keith C. Petersen, the author of River of Life, Channel of Death: fish and dams on the lower Snake, asks what the public would pay to save the salmon. He says the public claims they don’t want the salmon to go extinct, but the cost of saving the salmon is abstract because they are not farmers along the lower Snake looking to irrigate or transport their wheat. He introduces a scenario that could affect everyone. If the dams were taken out and the cost of energy spiked, businesses and homes would be affected, jobs would be lost, and school programs would be cut. Homeless and without jobs, would Northwesterners still be so anxious to save the salmon? Petersen suggests that, at least in our lifetime, the lower Snake will be a river of compromise, where no one special interest group gets its needs met but where the public continues to want – and get – salmon and cheap hydroelectric power. The magazine I write for (owned by a power company) ran an article where a polling company from Portland, Oregon reports 70 percent of Northwesterners would be concerned (35 percent very concerned) if electricity prices went up five percent to ensure healthy salmon runs.

Looking back at Thomas Eakins’ rowing pictures, I am reminded that training to be a competitive rower always was a rigorous undertaking. In Johnson’s A History of Rowing, published in 1871, he describes training for a crew, based on how the Harvard crew trained, which included a diet of mostly boiled meat (even for breakfast), runs, rows, and bouts of sweating under 6-8 blankets and/or 2 featherbeds after drinking a pint of liquor. After, rowers were encouraged to rub down with a towel until their skin was red and raw. Although training for being a competitive rower had changed by the time I came to rowing, it remained a sport that encourages an athlete to get down to the basics: sweating and running and rowing until one is sore and aching, until nothing else matters. That senior year of high school, I lived for those five mile runs and two hour practices. When my body ached, everything else faded.

Even though I knew that both the rivers had been meddled with, I can’t change my experience on them, knowing the Snake feels more authentic and pure to me regardless of the fact that it might actually be farther from its natural state than the Schuylkill. I think about that girl I was who rowed the Schuylkill and the other girl that moved West for snow-capped mountains, gushing rivers, and the dearth of debutantes, what she thought was a blank slate. I wonder what words of wisdom I could impart to either of them. If I could go back in time, would I? Of course, I know that neither of them would have listened to what I have to say.

Two Rivers originally appeared in Weber: The Contemporary West in 2014

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Gladeswoman

“If a baby rattler gets inside your house, just sweep it out with a broom,” Alan, the head of Pine Island Interpretation tells me. I am neighbors with the deadly coral snake, who likes to sunbathe under blue skies. If I’m bitten, no trip to the hospital will help. I’ll be a goner. For this month, I’ll also be sharing my backyard with several species of lizard and butterfly, and more mosquitoes than anyone would want. When I talked to Alan, over the phone, and told him June was the first month I had available to come to Everglades National Park to do some research as a writer/artist-in-residence, he said, “Are you sure you want to come in June?”
“Why? Is it that bad?” I replied.
Later, after I’d already arrived, right after he’d told me about the rattlers and the coral snake, he said, “You’re brave to come in June,” handing me a bag of naturalist books and a hooded bug jacket, complete with face mask.
I’ve come here to spend time in a land where my family lived for a year – Miami, Florida, and the National Park that spreads out to the west of it. I decided I needed to visit places I mention in the amorphous two hundred page manuscript that has piled high on my desk over the last year. I decided before I could write more, I needed to know what it was like to walk on the hard limestone crust covered with grass that Floridians call a lawn. I needed to understand a deep love for air conditioning. I decided I need to revisit nearby Fairchild Gardens, Parrot Jungle, eat tart key lime pie, and fall in love with a heartbreakingly beautiful ecosystem that might be damaged beyond repair.

The third day, I am half expecting to find a baby rattler or perhaps a coral snake, but instead, I hear a quick tapping on the wall of the bathroom. I look up. Eight legs. A leaf-green spider as big as my hand. I go into the living room and come back armed with a stiff folder and a large piece of Tupperware, which don’t seem like likely tools, but they’re the best I can find. Although I am fast, this spider is faster. Here, there, and all over the bathroom in a few seconds flat. I put down the envelope and Tupperware, resigned to try again later. I take a shower, aware that the spider might be thirsty. I towel off. The spider has not moved. Later on that night, after another stiff envelope and Tupperware incident, I resolve that I will probably never catch the spider. It’s too large to smush, even if I could catch it. It seems more mammalian than arachnid. If I smush it, there will be blood and tissue, guts, like a mouse. Not at all like a spider.

Outside, the humidity fills my mouth like a wet rag. Outside, I sweat as a matter of course. The lightweight, long-sleeved shirt and pants I wear like a uniform don’t shield me from the bugs after the fabric, soaked with sweat, sticks to my skin, despite my whole-body spray of deep woods OFF.
On my trips into the park, I venture out of my house with the attitude of an explorer. In my backpack, I bring field guides, water, and binoculars. Down the causeway, I ride my bike, looking for herons, marsh rabbits, alligators, fish, snakes, anything else that reminds me where I am.
My neighbor, a poet and park volunteer, tells me she likes to visit Anhinga Trail regularly, daily if possible, to see what’s changed. I’ve taken to her routine and notice there’s always something different – a splashing marsh rabbit, a collection of birds I haven’t seen before, butterfly orchids, newly in bloom. This day, I notice just off the trail, a mess of reeds has been shaped into a mound. On top, a large alligator egg lies exposed. I peer into the reeds, hoping to catch a glimpse of the mother, but the nest appears to have been abandoned. Perhaps against my better judgment, I peer more closely into the cattails that line the path. No gator. No mother.

The next day, when I ride my bike over to the Pine Island interpretation office to check mail and report the abandoned nest, the rangers are already on it. “A teen pregnancy situation,” Alan says. “She didn’t pick a good spot to build her nest, and the raccoons got to it. Still, there are some eggs that might be ok.”
One of the other rangers chimes in that I should have seen the bellowing mother chasing Alan down the trail. “She chased you?” I ask.
He nods. “She was not happy.” Since I met Alan, he’s had one arm in a cast that he keeps outstretched at a 90 degree angle to his body. Motorcycle accident. Alan running with his cast-encased arm outstretched only adds humor to the scene I imagine.
In Alan’s office, I sit in a chair next to the door, and ask him to explain the water to me. “I know there’s not enough,” I say, but that’s all I know.
He points to a scientific-looking map on the wall and starts talking about levees and canals and a delicate balance. Delicate is a word often used to describe the Everglades ecosystem. Everything operates in relation to its environment – the food chain, the water table, the mercury level in the fish. Still, when the Valujet plane crashed into the Shark River Slough in 1998, one of the rescue workers, hot, sunburned, eaten by bugs, and cut up from the sawgrass is quoted as saying, “there is nothing delicate about the Everglades.”
After the impromptu lecture, I don’t feel like I know any more about water. The people here – the rangers, the naturalists, and anyone who cares – talks in a desperate way about water. The way people who live in the desert talk about water. But here, it looks like there is plenty. The issue seems to be about balance. When there’s not enough freshwater, saltwater intrusion threatens the freshwater aquifers. If water is released from the elaborate system of dykes, levees, and canals at the wrong time, alligator nests can flood. The water that flows south to the Everglades from Lake Okeechobee – as it always has — can become rich with nitrates from farm runoff, making way for cat tails and the wrong kind of algae. And of course, there are the fish full of mercury. Ten years ago, one of the few remaining Florida panthers was found dead, poisoned by mercury. He’d eaten a raccoon that had eaten too many fish, the mercury concentrating in the top of the food chain. But from what I can tell, that’s not related to the water problem. It’s like the issue of invasive species – important, but just one of many looming reasons the Everglades is in trouble. Later in my month, when I give a reading to a boat full of chemistry PhD students, they’ll tell me I’ve oversimplified, that I don’t – that maybe I can’t – understand the Everglade’s water issues.

When, a day later, I return to the Anhinga Trail, orange netting prevents tourists from approaching the nest. A sign reads “Wildlife nesting habitat. Do not disturb.” The nest looks the same. I wonder if any of the baby gators will hatch. The water level is rising, and no gators are out sunbathing. It’s the beginning of the wet season. I’ve been told that as the water level rises, the wildlife disappear, dispersing into the slough. I scan the surface of the lake and double check with binoculars to see if a stick disturbing the surface of the water might be a gator. The green heron babies grow larger, and they are less cautious, walking out on the branch of the pond apple, perhaps thinking about their first flight.

While I work, while I read, and increasingly, while I sleep, the spider is in residence. Sometimes in the bathroom. Sometimes, to my surprise, in other parts of the house. When one of the rangers also in charge of building and grounds comes by to check on me, I show her the spider, then high on a wall in the bathroom. “Is it dangerous?” I ask.
She nods her head no. “A daddy long leg,” she says.
“A daddy long leg!” I say. It looks nothing like the daddy long legs I knew growing up in Pennsylvania. This spider could eat ten of those daddy long legs for a snack.
She nods.
“Maybe a subtropical one?” I suggest, but she doesn’t seem interested, and instead wants to know if I have enough pans in the kitchen and if my bike lock is sufficient. To her, perhaps spiders – even large ones – are just something to live with in South Florida.

One day, I borrow a park truck to drive down to Flamingo, another end of the park. While moseying through the visitor center, reading the plaques and the history, I meet a group of tourists: two men and a pre-adolescent boy. They are all wearing long sleeved shirts, hats, and pants. “Have you seen a ranger around here?” they ask me. It’s the slow season, and the rangers, I’ve noticed, occasionally attend to things other than the vacant information desk. “I saw one earlier,” I say. “I’m sure she’ll be back.”
“We’re getting ready to head out camping,” the man with the long, white beard says. He has a map in his hands that marks different canoe trails through the surrounding islands and canals.
“I wanted to do that,” I say, “but everyone told me it was the wrong season. Too many mosquitoes.” I remember the sign at the entrance to the park, like the fire signs out west, post the mosquito hazard on a daily basis: from annoying to crazy.
“We know it’s going to be bad, like a weed cutter in your ear. The rangers told us not to go, but we’re from Minnesota,” the man with the white beard says. Then the three of them show me the rubber bands they’ve used to secure their wrist and ankle cuffs. The boy looks less than enthusiastic.

I read more field guides. I read Man in the Everglades, about the history of trappers, hunters, and outlaws who subsisted off the land before it became a national park. I read about how the plume trade almost demolished the wading bird population. When I come across a mosquito tip sheet, I realize I already know them: open and shut doors quickly, move briskly except when there’s a wind. Stay in open, bright areas, off grass, away from shade, where mosquitoes often hide. Wear a hat, socks, long sleeves, sunscreen, bug spray.
Week two or three, the spider moves into my bedroom. At first, I am anxious, and then, perhaps after too much reading and time alone, I am reassured by its friendly animal presence and consider accepting it as my roommate. (Do I have a choice?) For the first time, when I finish reading and before I turn off the light, I look up to green bulb surrounded by eight tiny sticks in the far corner of my room and say, “goodnight.”

I find a canoe partner. Allyson the ranger and I haul a canoe out of an open air porch where the flies, mosquitoes and ants are so thick both Allyson and I put up the hoods and face covers on our bug jackets. We lift the canoe, carrying it to a sloping bank, where we set it on the water.
We paddle out to the first mudflat, and Allyson points out the birds. “Willet, black stilt, white heron, blue heron, white egret, tricolor heron, reddish egret.” I look through my binoculars at the birds, all different colors, doing various activities, some looking, some probing at the mud with their beaks, some flapping their wings. We watch, paddle a little farther, and amuse ourselves with the redfish and mullet jumping in front of us. It’s hot, and I’m sweating through my light-colored long pants and long-sleeved shirt, even though I’ve adapted to the weather some: at least now, I expect to sweat. And I don’t have the delusion that there’s any way to avoid it.
We steer left around the bend to “snakebite”, an area of the Florida Bay where Allyson says there is usually good bird watching.
Allyson looks farther away through her binoculars. “Are those?” she says. “I think those are flamingoes.” Wild flamingoes are a rare find down at the Flamingo ranger station. No one knows why, but they don’t nest in the bay any more. We paddle until we are fairly close to the flamingoes. “Twenty three,” she says. I don’t even try to count. I just trust her.
Then the flamingoes turn around and begin walking towards us. We are in awe. They stop twenty feet from us, making their strange ha ha noises and extending their long necks as they look around. They look almost like aliens I think, tall and thin and intelligent-seeming. And in this other-worldly place, that makes sense. I take a picture, but it is the last one. The camera noisily begins to rewind the film, and I hide the camera under a fleece in my bag to try to muffle the sound. The birds don’t seem to notice. They are beautiful, elegant, gangly. They look nothing like the flamingoes I saw just a few weeks ago at Parrot Jungle. A plane goes by, and then Allyson and I realize that we can even hear the highway from here.
We watch the birds for a while longer. Then Allyson takes a picture, and her camera also noisily starts rewinding the film. We laugh a little, but the birds are unfazed. We gaze out to the horizon where the water and the land are the same color.
“Well, I hate to say it, but we probably ought to get going,” Allyson says.
“Aww,” I say, but just then, almost like they heard us, the flamingoes turn around and begin to walk away from us, towards the other end of the mud flat.
“It’s like they heard us,” Allyson says.
Paddling back, we can see the tide advancing towards us. A horseshoe crab scuttles across the bay floor. Then we pass by a blue crab just floating around in the water. “Can they swim?” I ask. “I thought they were always on the bottom.”
A month in the park has left me with more questions than answers. Sure, I have a better sense of the setting for my book, but there are so many plants and animals to learn about down here that even a ranger doesn’t know all the answers. Two nurse sharks swim back and forth in front of us. When we paddle close, they make a splash as they scram out of the way. The reddish egret is still poised on the farthest mudflat, the same one we saw her on when we paddled by. Most of the other birds have left, following the tide and the food as it comes in. As we reach the bend where snakebite cove ends, we catch a glimpse of the eyes and snout of a gator before it disappears under water. Allyson tells me a story about the key in front of us, named goat key. There was a man who kept goats on it. It was difficult for him to come back and forth to shore to get fresh water for them, so he decided to wean the goats onto salt water. Of course, the goats died. I am realizing many of the stories about original settlers are similar to stories of the Old West. There are bandits and outlaws, nontraditional thinkers, poor people, Indians, bootleggers, and criminals, all looking for a better life and a way to live off the land. Peter Mathiessen wrote a novel based on the rumored killer Edgar J. Watson, an outlaw and pioneer who lived for years in the nearby Ten Thousand Islands.
Perhaps not that much has changed. Perhaps the Everglades, now subject to a contrived flow of water from the North, courtesy of engineers, are still the wild area Glen Simmons describes in his book. Gladesmen is an account of people—almost wholly men–who lived in and off of the Florida frontier before the formation of the National Park. These were men who knew their way by heart through a mangrove forest, hunted wading birds and gators because there were plenty, and were often isolated from other humans for weeks and months at a time. A local still living near the glades, Simmons has written on the title page of my book, next to his signature, “Truer than the Bible.”

I have been in the habit of riding my bike in the late afternoon or evening, after the heat has died down. Even then there are a lot of bugs, but I can handle them, especially when I know my destination: Anhinga Trail. Each day, there are discoveries: the newly empty nest, absent of baby green herons. Finally, they’ve flown. The silky pink blooms of the pond lilies. After a prescribed burn: a single black alligator amid singed sawgrass. A marsh rabbit diving into the water. A lone hawk perched on a snag. The orange and purple rays of sun setting in the background. I know when I stop to show my soon-to-expire artist pass at the gate, the man behind the glass will make waving motions from his air conditioned cubicle to signal I have bugs on my face. I’m not surprised. I shrug. I am used to them.
Gladeswoman originally appeared in The Wanderlust Review.

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Following Two Iconic Authors….

Released in April, David Gessner’s All the Wild that Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West ($27, W. W. Norton) is a biography of two of the West’s most iconic authors.

 

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Ahead of the Flaming Front

Thumbs Up and Still Breathing

Jerry D. Mathes’ second nonfiction book, Ahead of the Flaming Front, depicts the day –to-day life of a wildland firefighter. With a poet’s sense of language, Mathes shows himself as a rookie gaining knowledge and experience as he rises through the ranks.
Mathes mainly works for Krassel Heli-Rappellers, a fire crew that works out of the Payette National Forest in Idaho. As part of the Heli-Rappellers, he not only flies to remote fires and rappels out of a helicopter, but he also performs a variety of jobs, including being a part of hand crews, working as a sawyer, and being sent out to fill in other crews throughout the West and even down to the Mexican border. Although the landscape and environment change, the danger and physical routine of working on a fire does not.
Mathes introduces us to a range of characters throughout the chapters, perhaps too many to keep track of, but what emerges are two things: the importance of camaraderie in fire fighting and portraits of the women and men who pursue this hazardous, sometimes tedious job.
The tragedies of past firefighters are woven throughout the book as both a tale of caution and a rationale for the paperwork and many rules and regulations, but Mathes rages against the bureaucracy that he believes sometimes prevents firefighters from acting efficiently. The book was already in publication before the Yarnell disaster of last summer, but once Mathes becomes an instructor, the most important thing he instills in his rookies is the right to refuse an assignment where risks are not mitigated.
Occasionally the language verges on sentimental, and the proofreading errors distract from what is otherwise a fascinating read. One conversation gets at the heart of the book: Mathes and a fellow fire fighter, Flegal, are fishing while waiting by a river to be picked up. As the helicopter approaches, Flegal says, “It’s still good times, bro.”
Mathes responds “I gave him a thumbs up. ‘As long as we’re still breathing.’”

Originally appeared in High Country News

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Work Cited/Reading to Maturity

Brandon R. Schrand’s second book, Works Cited: an Alphabetical Odyssey of Mayhem and Misbehavior, depicts the author’s life through an obsessive love of literature. He parallels each personal essay with a book that influenced that particular time in his life, and the entries vary as to whether it is a passing reference to a book or a detailed homage. The first entry in Works Cited, Ed Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, describes Schrand’s being arrested in Arizona while he was out driving through red rock canyons and smoking weed with his fraternity brothers, also missing a class discussion of Desert Solitaire though he has a copy of it with him in the car. It is a beginning that shows us four constants the memoir revolves around: stunning Western landscape, trouble with authority, a boy trying to become a man, and the books (not classes) he fell in love with along the way.
Schrand comes to connect with the West and with his own family’s story of settling the region through Stegner’s Big Rock Candy Mountain, Proulx’s Close Range, and Kittredge’s Hole in the Sky. He leaves a working-class life, and it takes him seven years to graduate from Southern Utah University; his conservative, wealthy classmates laugh at his long hair and his ignorance of grammar. Graduate school rejects him the first time around, but he takes refuge in reading even as he gets married and starts a family. It is reading that ultimately helps him find his way to maturity and makes him the writer and professor he becomes: ”On some afternoons when charcoal thunderheads crowded the horizon, throwing the brushy hills into shadow, and when yellow-headed blackbirds pecked in the gravel parking lot, I would read.”
The flow of Works Cited is occasionally disorienting as it is organized alphabetically by the name of the author of the book in discussion and not chronologically. Nevertheless, the structure is a creative and unprecedented way for Schrand to cover the emotional territory of his early adulthood and show the relationship between his own life and literature. Works Cited is a riveting story about the possibility of books to transform a horny, drunken, aimless teenager into a self-aware and loving father, husband, and writer.

Originally appeared in High Country News

Reading to Maturity

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Securing Our Computer Infrastructure

In an age in which cyber attacks are a very real threat, security of our vital information systems is essential.  The Center for Secure and Dependable Systems at the University of Idaho works with companies and government agencies to analyze and design software that keeps crucial infrastructure safe from outside harm. Six faculty members and approximately 20 graduate and undergraduate students evaluate code, write proofs, and create mathematical models to develop software tools that improve security related to power grids, transportation systems, the health care industry, and the financial sector.

The Center, established in 1999 within the Microelectronics Research and Communications Institute and newly independent as of this year, has worked with Idaho National Lab to determine ways to share energy research data securely. As a result of that partnership, Center founding member James Alves-Foss and colleagues developed a security framework that was not only adopted by Idaho National Lab, but also by the U.S. Department of Energy.

 

Alves-Foss expresses the need to protect against malicious attacks that could, for example, bring down an airplane or shut down a power grid: “One of the things we’re really interested in is systems that protect the critical infrastructure.”  He indicates that with a move toward increased automation, the importance of keeping systems secure is vital in limiting attacks and preventing damage.

 

In the next five years, Alves-Foss would like the Center to grow twice its size and become more inter-disciplinary, including the departments of mathematics, statistics, engineering, and business.  In addition, he’s interested in developing tools that would enable software engineers to quickly identify if code is secure.  He’s also eager to make the hardware in microprocessors more secure, thereby automatically protecting computer systems from infiltration.  As the Center grows, Alves-Foss envisions becoming a comprehensive resource for system security for the university and continuing to be a significant contributor to state and national security.

 
cybersecurity

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Centers Take on Research at U-I

This year, University of Idaho established guidelines in order to oversee creation, operation, and review of centers on campus. 2 centers, 1 established this year, and 1 20 years ago, were both awarded entity status and continue to show the importance of interdisciplinary centers to university research.

 

Rangeland covers half of Idaho, half of the West, and half of the world.  Facing the challenges of caring for Idaho rangelands means partnering with people where they live and work, as nearly all Idahoans live on or near rangeland.

 

The problems rangelands have are interconnected, so the notion of having an interdisciplinary center at University of Idaho to solve the issues makes sense.  Karen Launchbaugh, the director of the new Center for Rangelands, says, “People who are living and working in rangelands don’t just have one problem.  They have invasive species and water and endangered species and economic challenges and on and on.”

 

Professionals specializing in rangeland did collaborate before the center was formed, but the partnerships weren’t formally recognized.  Launchbaugh says, “We’ve always had relationships but not a team approach.”  This center, the first of its kind, reflects the mission of a land grant university through its approach to outreach, research, and teaching, connecting with land owners, conservation organizations, and government agencies.  Launchbaugh says, “We should be the one place to go for good science, good information about rangelands.”

 

A solitary scientist working long hours isolated in a lab is an outdated model of science.  Today, there is too much information and too much of a need for different ways of analyzing that data for a scientist to work alone.  IBEST, the Institute for Bioinformatics and Evolutionary Studies, combines the science of evolutionary processes with the computer science and mathematics needed to store and analyze that very data.

Larry Forney, the director of IBEST, says of his faculty and grad students, “they have a common interest in population genetics, ecology, basic evolutionary processes, and that common interest is what glues them together even though go off and study various systems ranging from insects to plants to bats, while others study human biology.”  Faculty and grad students from the different disciplines work together on projects, grants, and papers, studying animal populations, infectious diseases, or even the evolution of viruses.  A current project involves studies on possible association between dietary selenium and the behavior of fish, including how selenium deficiencies might affect human mental health.  Other research includes emergence and spread of antibiotic resistance, the biogeography of chipmunks, and looking at how certain viruses infect and spread within a host.  Forney says, “The students we have in the laboratories of IBEST investigators are really working at the boundaries.”

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U-Idaho scientist spearheads research on world’s changing climates

Climate change is happening fast, and nowhere is it more prevalent than in the Arctic.  In order to understand what is happening there, scientists use data to create Global Climate Models, or GCMs, which they use to accurately predict future climate conditions.

 

Von Walden heads a team from University of Idaho, University of Colorado, University of Wisconsin, and University of Oklahoma that measures the atmosphere using lidar, radar, and other instruments that report on atmospheric properties like water vapor and temperature.  Walden, who has done research in Antarctica and Canada, is currently studying the atmosphere over Greenland.  GCMs are dependent on the information put into them.  He says, “GCMs are our primary tool for looking into the future.”  The team will be there 3 more years to gather information, but after that, Walden wants to send an instrument out onto Arctic sea ice.

 

Walden says sea ice is melting faster than anyone projected it would.  Satellites are the main source of information about atmosphere over the Arctic Ocean, but satellites aren’t able to penetrate the tops of clouds or measure the cloud base; as a result, they can’t gather information that might improve the accuracy of GCMs.  It is a project that could yield more information about how and why the Arctic is changing so rapidly.

 

Closer to home, climate change affects Idahoans more directly in the water that flows through the state.  Walden, who is also involved with the climate research program for EPSCoR, the National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, is part of a team that studies the Snake and Salmon River basins.  He says, “The main thing we are studying is water resources in a changing climate.”

 

The program hopes to add to the body of knowledge about how climate change alters water resources and how this may affect agriculture and economics in the state.  The program has hired 10 new professors specializing in various aspects of climate at 3 Idaho universities, effectively doubling the state’s research capacity in climate studies.  The scientists aim to study precipitation, snowmelt, and erosion, preparing for how the state’s water resources might shift as climate change continues in the coming decades.  Walden says, “Water resources are really important to Idahoans and to our livelihood, not only for our economic growth and our high standard of living, but also for the overall ecological health of the state going forward.”
Von Walden

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