Monday, August 4, 2014

Octopus's Garden

One of my students just emailed me the best video ever, of me teaching.  I should watch my language when I teach!  Sheesh, woman.  It's a good thing they're in college.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Gratitude for artists

This morning,  gratitude.

My small piece of the world has been turbulent.  Not in the way that Syria or Gaza or Lebanon is turbulent, I am not so conceited.  A smaller piece than that, small enough to fit inside my own skull. 

In here, it's been turbulent awhile. The balancing act of mother and scientist and teacher and wife and friend and daughter and self has been poor.  Roles have been dropped, and retrieved again, dusty and somewhat covered in cat fur, from the floor.  I shake them off and try to crawl back into them, and find they don't quite fit.  There's a tag that's too scratchy, and it's nagging at me, all day long.  I have bad mother nightmares: my husband lets go of Kid 2 in a deep lake and I can't get to him in time - all I can do is watch him sink out of sight in green water as I dive after, never diving fast enough.  I wake up terrified.

I have work nightmares, that dredge up all the long last friends and frenemies from childhood and populate my office with them, and they watch as I fail there, too. I wake up sick, knowing I'll never live up to who I should have been.

It's all bullshit, I know that.  Or mostly.  We're never - none of us - the most  brilliant, shining, perfect versions of ourselves that we can be.  And I have proofs enough, one would think, that neither my kids nor my colleagues find me a failure.

One of my students wrote me a note last week, with a photo attached.  English is not his first language.  He wrote:

"Dear Rebecca,
Here are some of the nice pictures of you and lovely Kid 1 on the tide-pooling trip. Hope you like it. Besides, I really enjoy your class. It is the most funny and attractive class that I have ever take! It spark my interst in oceans and I'm looking forward to the rest of the classes. :)

Best wishes."
And he sent me this, in which I'm surrounded by my students and holding an octopus, gently lifted for a moment from its seaweedy home:

That should cheer anyone, should it not? And yet, inside my skull, there's not been much but swirling angst.

This morning, two emails.  Both from artists, very different artists. 
My dear friend Ruthie, a painter and hand-carver of astonishingly intricate, delicate, beautiful paper art, who is living in Israel with her three kids, the same ages, roughly, as mine.  I'm feeling like a failure for not sending mine to more challenging summer camps. She's breathing deeply and sending hers to camp while rockets are blasted out of the air.  She puts my worries in perspective, and she takes my breathe away with her compassion and integrity and strength and love, while living in a place that badly needs those things.  We've been corresponding about Gaza, near daily, for weeks, and all I can think is that I must have done something right to have a friend like Ruth.  She reminds me, gently, how deeply I am not alone.

My advisor in all things important, Clive.  A painter and gardener and illustrator and a hundred things more in Wales, objectively one of the most preeminent artists in Great Britain, invariably one of the kindest and wisest men I have ever known. He said to me, this morning: "A painting should be like life: lots of peculiarities that are unexplained and will most likely remain that way."  I needed that reminder: that life, too, must contain mysteries.  That I can be at peace without explanations, without understanding or knowing everything I want to understand and know.  That wondering is ok, too.

I'm a scientist, and my life would be so very poor without artists.  I am so grateful, today, for these two amazing people.  On a morning when I needed them, they were both there, without my asking, and in the ten minutes before breakfast, I learned so much.

Thank you, my friends.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

A thumb or a lake? Clear choices.

Last Sunday I landed in Yosemite - Tuolomne Meadows, specifically, which is high country Yosemite, for those who haven't visited.  Camping in the forest on the banks of a snowmelt river, at 9,000 ft elevation.  Stunning.  Also, Home, as I have spent more of my vacations in Tuolomne than in any other spot on earth.  I brought one family of my own, consisting of the Physicist, Kid 1 (age 9), Kid 2 (age 4), assorted other family members, and one of my oldest friends, who is a wildlife professor, so we will call her WP, with her son, Kid 3 (also age 4).

On Monday we relaxed by a waterfall.
On Tuesday we climbed a granite dome (Puppy Dome) and relaxed by a different waterfall.
On Wednesday we wandered through high alpine meadows, and relaxed by a river.
On Thursday we climbed another granite dome (Pothole Dome) and relaxed by the river again.
On Friday we planned to Hike.

Since Hiking involved two 4 year olds, we chose an easy destination.  Lake Elizabeth: a crystal clear high alpine lake in a sunny meadow, under the watch of Unicorn Peak. There's a ridiculously postcard perfect babbling brook, ridiculously full of brook trout. Only 900 feet of elevation gain, only 3 miles in and another 3 out.  Downhill all the way out.  Perfect.

Or as perfect as a hike can get with 3 kids, of assorted levels of competency and whinge.  While the trail is perfectly suited for those competent, unaccompanied adults who like to get in a good quick 6 miles before breakfast, we planned to do it up right for the preschool set, and take all day.  There were snacks for each mile marker.  There was a huge picnic lunch packed.  There were small wetsuits and goggles and towels and changes of shoes. 

The weather was perfect. The park was uncrowded, the trail uncluttered.  We climbed a mile and 400 feet.  We ate yogurt.  We crossed creeks.  We egged people forward.  We carried nobody.  We searched for Nogs (a highly mischievous version of goblins; they live in hollow trees).  We roared like bears.  We took breaks.  We collected pebbles.  We found walking sticks. We climbed a second mile, and 300 more feet.  We earned chocolate.

This is the thing about chocolate in the high country: sometimes it melts.  And then solidifies again.  And this is the thing about Kids: they are big on Fairness.  As in "his chocolate is bigger than my chocolate, and That Is Not Fair."  This is the thing about me: I am a sucker.

So at Mile 2, with 3 kids perched above my head on a granite boulder, looking on as I unwrapped the Toblerone, it was a bummer that said Toblerone was no longer in perfect, breakable, even sized chunks.  I sighed, and got out the knife.  It's a good knife for camping, a very sharp hunting knife, 4 inch blade, comes in a leather sheath so it doesn't stab anyone through the backpack.

I chopped off a small piece.  No good.  Gave it to the physicist.  Chopped off two good pieces fairly easily.  Needed just one more piece the same size, and my trolls would be happy.  Difficult task, that: the next bit was very chunky and large. I set the knife against the chocolate, on a cutting board made of a good sized chunk of granite by the trail.  I chopped off my thumb.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Playing catch up. Families of finches.

I wrote this weeks ago, April 28th, in fact, and never got around to posting it.  Since I can't update on stories until I've told them in the first place, and I just spent an hour giving myself a stiff neck attempting to photograph updates, I ought to post it, yes?

Little story.  A house finch tried to build a nest on a beam above my mom's front door.  But we think it was a first year mom, 'cause the nest kept falling down.  So my mom, in a spirit of helpfulness, made a bowl from a plastic plant pot and stuck it up there with double sided tape.  Whereupon the finch built a nest in the bowl.  But the tape didn't stick.  So my mom kept making the Physicist climb a ladder to shove the nest back centered on the beam so it wouldn't fall off.  Bad arrangement. 

Saturday I saw the mom feeding three very loud babies, and the darn nest was shoving off the edge again.  At which point one can't really mess with the nest - glue, nails, screwdrivers, etc, could all scare off the mom and starve the babies*.   But clearly I couldn't let a nest filled with hatchlings plummet off a beam.  So I rigged up a squeeze clamp, by gluing boards to the clamp paddles which are long enough that when, with the clamp clamped to the bottom of the nest beam, the paddles stick up high enough to block the nest from falling, but not so high they block the parents from getting in and out.  Properly armed with the modified squeeze clamp, the Physicist climbed the ladder - one last time- to squeeze it around the beam.   Though installation took only seconds, both parents took off in protest.

I spent the next hour watching to make sure the parents didn't abandon the nest.  If the nest was abandoned, there's a fabulous wildlife center near me that often raises baby birds.  I didn't want to go that route, but.... they appeared to be very incompetent parents.

 The clamp around the beam:

 The dad sitting in the oak tree singing, and not doing anything useful like, say, feeding his babies.

The mom sitting on the roof ridge, and not doing anything useful, like, say, feeding her babies:

 The mom (this made me crazy) SITTING ON THE CLAMP, and still not feeding her babies.  She did this multiple times, just flew in, sat on the clamp, flew away. What is UP, mom?  Are you new?

Finally, the dad stepped up.

 Thank you, you aggravating birds.  You are commanded to safely fledge those darn babies.

 *Note: the long held idea that touching baby birds/nests puts human scent on them which will scare off mama birds is a myth.  If you find a lost baby bird, the absolute best thing you can do is find its nest and pop it back in.  However, if you mess too much with a nest, spend too much time making loud noises around it, there's a good possibility of abandonment, depending on the tolerance of the bird to humans, and how annoying/repeated the activity is.  To be a good bird steward, try not to mess with active nests.  Yes, I should have had this talk with my trying-to-be-helpful mom, several weeks ago.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Growing in the garden: finches and food

If you're the cat Lucy, you would, of course, put finches and food in the same category.  With enthusiasm. This is why, Lucy, you are being confined to your house right now.  If you learned to hunt rats, Lucy, and not baby birds, you could roam at will.


The garden is bursting.  I realize that nobody is actually remotely interested in anyone else's tomato crop, but the lovely thing is, I can share my tomatoes here, and you don't have to listen to me bore you with it over coffee.  I am sparing you the longwinded tomato discussion so you can drink your coffee in peace, by filling up this post with tomatoes instead.

And finches.

And eggplant, summer squash, snap peas, corn, tomatillos, grapes, and tiny baby carrots.

Friday, May 2, 2014


Robert Paine, 1969:
a keystone species is one whose impacts on its community or ecosystem are large and greater than would be expected from its relative abundance or total biomass

Recently I was reading an article in the BBC, about graves being exhumed deep under London, for a tunnel project.  Black Death graves.  The oldest set are very nicely laid out, each skeleton neatly in it's own space, nicely arranged.  Poor people, but not too battered.  The less-old come from the second round of plague some few decades later, when some 60% of England's population was being wiped out.  The article describes these plague victims as having multiple wounds and broken bones, "indicative of the breakdown of civilized society."

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Continuing in the geological vein (bah dum!)

We woke up this morning after a Rainy Saturday, and determined that due to sunshine, it was going to be an Adventure Sunday.  Ensues heated debate re destination options.  Kid 2 wanted "frogs and newts and turtles."  Ok, easy. There's a little place we know that's hiking distance from  Borges Ranch that contains about as many frogs and turtles as one could wish.  This time of year, newts are likely, too.  Throw in the probable snakes (we've met many snakes at Borges, from baby rattlesnakes  to huge gopher snakes), coyotes, and the pigs/cows/goats/chickens/sheep with which the place is riddled, and great hiking in several directions, we'd have a slam dunk biology day.

Cute wittle baby wattlesnakey

The Physicist apparently had other ideas.  I loaded my kids in the car expecting frogs and newts and turtles, and somehow we ended up on the opposite side of the same mountain.  The Physicist, you see, has been attempting to inculcate my children with the physical sciences just about as long as I've been training them up as biologists.  He's sneaky, and sometimes he wins.

Do you know how many frogs we found today?  Zero.  Ditto newts.  Ditto turtles, snakes, coyote, cows, pigs, sheep, and assorted other actually interesting things.

Do you know how many rocks we found?  A lot.  A lot of rocks.  Rocks, my friends, are brilliant things, if you need something to stand on.  They are also good for the growing of moss, and occasionally sporting a nice bonzai tree.  If the Physicist thinks that bringing my kids to a place where there is nothing to do but stand on rocks, and watch the moss and bonzai grow, is going to interest them in the physical sciences, he is just going to have to try a little bit harder.

I give you Rock City, Mt. Diablo State Park.  Also known as kid-boredom-torture land.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


Group camping.  Pro or con?  I'm usually more of a less-is-more kinda girl when it comes to large groups and camping, quite honestly.  But some good people were organizing a trip, and it was to a place I've been wanting to see for quite awhile now, and, well, why not?

We traded in our backpacking, two man, broken-poled old tents for the kind of monstrosity I would have scorned to sleep in, let alone own, before I had kids and a very finicky sleeper of a husband, and set out with some ridiculous number of other families to Pinnacles National Park.  I honestly had no idea what to expect.

Camp site:  If you like windswept plains with minimal trees, no privacy, sandwiched between a road and a parking lot, this place is for you.  On the plus side, flush toilets and sandy soils which made tent-staking a breeze.

Multi-family large group camping:  Well, there are the parents who put their kids to bed at 8 pm, and the parents who just begin to usher Very Loud kids to bed at 10 pm.  Between 8 pm and 11 pm, if you're one of the former, there's a lot of soothing of disgruntled, should be sleeping kids.  And then there are the kids who wake up at 5 am to sing showtunes, whose parents are apparently perfectly cool with that.  Which again, lots of soothing of disgruntled, should be sleeping kids.  On the plus side, we all got a 5 course gourmet dinner and a 5 course gourmet breakfast, and no one had to prepare more than one course, total, for the weekend.  And somebody's stove was always going for hot water, so tea is infinitely easier than when you have to fire up your own camp stove every time.

National Park: On the tiny side, comparatively.  Perfect for a weekend, whereas with most NPs, you could live on their borders for months and barely to begin to explore.  I know, because I've done that.  Excellent for: seeing brilliantly colored rock peaks, exploring caves (if you arrive later than 10 am, be prepared to explore them in a giant, non-stop queue that would rival Disneyland), animal and wildflower viewing (Condors live here. Sadly we didn't see them.  Saw a coyote, and various other fun fauna and flora).  Less good for: getting away from the madding crowds.

 They like rockclimbing, apparently.

Also spelunking.

The rocks were phenomenal.

More serious climbers thought so too.

And as usually happens, we happened across wildlife that needed a bit of a hand.  Does this only happen to me?  I'm sure it doesn't.  It started when I got a call from my husband, who was well ahead of me in the line on the trail.  He yelled "Rebecca!  Snake!"  And while, to most people, this would be a cue to stop walking and/or walk backwards, apparently for me it's a cue to leap down the trail with all the vim and vigor of a gazelle on Red Bull, because no way am I not going to see the snake.

She was pretty.

Problem was, she was cold.  And trying to climb a near vertical rock (not shown), and being stared at and photographed by all the Disney crowd.  Which caused her to lose her grip on the vertical rock, and freefall three feet to the rock on which you see her, above, which was wedged in a crevice below which there was a 50 foot drop - with various bits and bobs of boulders wedged here and there on the way down.  So continuing to fall would have been a bad option for her, and she was clearly too cold to do much other than stubbornly continue to climb, in full view of,  and less than 3 feet from, hundreds of people trooping down this trail.  And... well.  People aren't kind to snakes.  See Eve and Adam and the whole crushing beneath feet thing.  So I photographed her and I left her, and then ... I turned around and went back.  She was being guarded and filmed by a lovely Swiss couple, but the lovely Swiss couple wouldn't stay there all day.  Lovely Swiss Female found me a nice long stick, to replace the completely inadequate one I'd found, and Lovely Swiss Male held my camera for me, and we were able to lift her gently off the rocks without

1) dropping her into that 50' crevice, or
2) getting bit (non poisonous, but plenty big sharp teeth nevertheless).  
So I moved her to the other side of the path with a nice gently sloping ravine and lots of brush to hide in and sun to warm up in, and everyone was happy.  Win/win.

Lovely Swiss guys' camera was 4 times the size of mine, so you'd think he'd manage to film me in focus, wouldn't you?  Sometimes I think it's not the size of the camera, it's what you do with it.

But that could just be me.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Aint nothin' cuter than a cooler full o' turtles.

It's one of those turtle-y months.

Ten days ago, I was wandering around with some friends, and happened upon this little guy:
I mean, he's ridiculous, right?  Insanely cute. That's my buddy J holding him.  J has normal, largish, man sized hands.  The turtle's head is about the size of J's fingernail.

It's a western pond turtle, by the way.  California Species of Special Concern - might soonish become listed as a California Threatened Species, which is one below Endangered.  They're being crowded out by people releasing pet turtles (usually red-eared sliders), and eaten by invasive bull frogs.  Bull frogs eat anything, even baby turtles.  

Today, I was wandering around with some friends (we're biologists.  It's a good time to wander outside right now), and .... well.

First I found a drying up puddle in a drainage.  It was about 2 inches deep and 5 feet across.

And then I found a small invasive bull frog - they get MUCH bigger than this.

And then I found evidence of invasive crayfish - possibly the second most vicious invasive freshwater predator in California.

And then I found this:
And his sister:
That is not a J sized fingernail.  That is a Rebecca-sized fingernail.  My hands stopped growing when I was 10 years old.  My hands are tiny girl hands.  It's hard to find rings small enough for me.  That turtle's head is half the size of my fingernail.  It is unbelievably, redonkulously, the cutest turtle I have ever met in my entire life.  Bar none, ever.

They camouflage really well.  Here, I'll show you:

Did you know that hatchling turtles have belly buttons?  They DO.
And then I found their brother:
At which point I called up the land owner and said "Hey, I just found three hatchling western pond turtles in a drying up puddle on your land, and there's bullfrogs and crayfish in their puddle.  What do you want me to do?"

And they said "So they're bullfrog food? And the pond will be dry by tomorrow? I'll call you back."
And they called back and said "I have been informed that I can not give you direction here. But I know what I would do if I were there.  We can all hope that they will find a way to the bigger pond over the levee. Perhaps they like to hitchhike."

And I said "perhaps they do. I hope they find a way. By the way, now there are five. "

It's possible - in theory - that they might have done some hitchiking.  To a nice clear slow moving creek with good hiding places.  Not sure how they would have done that, though.  Nature is supposed to take its course without interference from biologists.  Maybe western pond turtles in drying up puddles down steep banks they can't possibly climb up, sharing a tiny pool with two voracious invasive species, just weren't meant to survive.

Five turtles in a cooler, with a pencil.  Yes, that is a standard sized mechanical pencil.  (We put them in here to photograph them, because they are impossible squirmy and oddly fast.  A handful of quarter-sized turtles is surprisingly difficult to hold on to.)

Empty cooler

On the other hand, maybe they were.