Betsy

Twenty years ago Saturday, Betsy Huntington died. She accompanied me from Boston to New Mexico, where we made a home,and where I still live. She was the first person I knew to use the word “querencia”, and she is the single biggest influence on who I am today.

I am not sure how much I can add to the many words I have written about her. The book Querencia– here, — is her memorial, as is the kind of life I live.

The summer after her death, Tom McIntyre wrote a memorial essay in Gray’s Sporting Journal. I can’t improve on it.

“As much as she wanted to – and as fiercely as she tried – Betsy couldn’t be here this summer.

“You know Betsy Huntington. If you’ve ever read Steve Bodio, you know her. For nearly a decade she and Steve were friends, partners, accomplices, secret sharers. On the Plains of St. Augustin they kept a blue adobe house that was home to them, as well as itinerant friends, hawks, bird dogs, gazehounds, pigeons, insect collections, books, shotguns, rifles, fishing tackle, riding tack, typewriters, a bulletin board posted with crazed memos, a telephone for making and receiving of midnight calls, the echoes of sporting-writing-living conversations that were never conducted at a level below a howl, wreaths of dried chilis, a Cape buffalo skull…in short, the bare necessities of life. Whenever you read Steve, those words are a direct result of Betsy’s life with him, and his with her.

“If you want “facts” about Betsy, she came from a family of soldiers, divines and farmers. Born in China to an Episcopal bishop, she and her family were forced to flee the country ahead of the invading Japanese. She was schooled in the Northeast, traveled through Europe like the women who both intimidated and allured Hemingway, lost no small amount of money without ever feeling the least bitterness or rancor, became a journalist, then a breeder of rare margay cats, then met Steve and lived, as a matter of fact, happily after.

“Those are the facts. But you already know Betsy.

“In the late fall of last year, when there was snow to push elk out of the high country, and after her hard fight, Betsy Huntington died, in sleep. She was buried in the East with a thick coyote pelt to keep her warm, and Steve carried a lock of her hair back to the New Mexico she loved. And now because of all she meant to so many people, it is time to say goodbye to her here and to tell her how much she will be missed this summer, and after. She enjoyed summer, as she enjoyed all the seasons, and no doubt she would have liked this one, too, very much.”

Annie Davidson, frequent commentor here and old friend, introduced us. She adds:

“I liked being with Betsy. She had been on great adventures but
somehow managed to make everyday, boring, mundane stuff feel like
adventures too. She saw potential, expanse, and details everywhere.
And she liked me.

“When I wanted a maroon cableknit sweater, we’d walk in the store, and
there it was. On sale. Ditto, when I said I needed a wingback chair
to make my life complete–she’d seen an ad, and we went and got it,
and it was perfect.

“In my mind she is tall, taller than me, but in inches she was much
smaller. We couldn’t trade clothes. I wanted so much to look like
she did in her French whore dress, but just looked silly.

“Before they were illegal, Betsy had (nearly unheard of) breeding pairs
of margays. I met her when one mother refused to allow her baby to
nurse, so it needed to be bottle raised. She impressed me by how
keenly she intimately knew and understood each animal. I realized
that ‘I need to know everything’ approach reflected very much who
Betsy was. She lived in her interests, and she was interested in
everything.

“I never actually met her bobcat, who allegedly socked anybody new just
once in the face. But I don’t like to get socked. And Betsy didn’t
insist, and she still liked me.

“I liked her approach to life, of ‘Let’s try it’ ‘Want to go?’ ‘Might
be interesting’, and I still try to emulate that.

“Maybe I was an interest. Becoming friends stretched me. And
comforted at times I needed it. I still miss her.”

Sleep, Bets. We remember you well.

Packrat Middens

Earlier this week, the New York Times had an article on the use of packrat middens as sources of proxy data for climatic reconstruction. These middens have been an important source of data in the western US for decades, but I can’t remember seeing another piece on this in the popular press. From the article:

“Packrats, which look like brown squirrels with Dumbo ears, are skilled home builders, and their massive nests, known as middens, can last 10,000 to 20,000 years (though they are not usually inhabited the entire time).

For that reason, the middens serve as time capsules of desert ecology. By analyzing preserved ancient plants and scat from a variety of middens dating back 12,000 years, Dr. Cole recently proved that a miniature ice age known as the Younger Dryas, long thought to have been confined to the North Atlantic, was also felt in the American Southwest.

The analysis demonstrated that after the Younger Dryas, average temperatures in the area climbed about 14 degrees Fahrenheit in just a few hundred years — a precipitous rise that is lending insight into the effects of today’s warming trends on desert ecosystems.

“After the warming period, you notice that fewer tree and shrub species appear in the middens,” Dr. Cole said. “That’s exactly what’s happening in the Southwest now.”

The middens are full of pollen and other plant data and the preserved organics are easily radiocarbon dated. The structures of the middens are cemented together with dried rat urine and picking them apart to gather data is a smelly and unpleasant job – but apparently not bad enough to make the list of the 10 dirtiest jobs in science.

One of the earliest effective practitioners of this form of analysis is Paul Martin author of Twilight of the Mammoths, a book we much admire. Martin was dissertation committee chairman for Steve’s brother-in-law, David Adam, and a colleague of a graduate school friend of mine, Steve Emslie.

A review of the ethnographic literature shows that packrack middens sometimes served other purposes for Native Americans.

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, Or…?

I know a number of accomplished naturalists and science-types browse this blog—at least two of them write this blog! So I am putting to you all a Challenge of Identification From The Natural World (…or not). Actually, one of my daughters is putting you up to it: She found this interesting item in a pile of gravel and asked me what it is.


I have no idea. Could it be a fossil? The inner portion of a mollusc’s or snail’s shell? Is it an artifact? A part of some commonplace, modern day contraption, or maybe an ancient tool?

I can tell you that on close inspection, it seems too symmetrical and contrived to be natural. It looks machined, but for what purpose? There is a very fine threading, suggesting an embedded screw, in the middle segment. But the “screw” seems to be made of the same material as the rest of it. On the whole, it looks and feels like natural river rock, tumbled smooth.

The Prize: In hopes of spurring you on to great feats of scholarship on this matter, I propose to award the producer of the most plausible theory of origin for this item One Year’s Free Subscription to this blog!*

*Must be present to win. Not valid in all States. Prize to be received via hyper-text transfer protocol only; the receipt of no material goods is implied by the rules of this “contest.”

More Neanderthal News

As I mentioned in a post last week, news accounts have been hinting that more reports on Neanderthal DNA research were due out shortly. Nicholas Wade of the New York Times breaks one of these today, with a progress report on the Neanderthal genome mapping project that I posted on in July.

From the article:

“One million units of Neanderthal DNA have already been analyzed, and a draft version of the entire genome, 3.2 billion units in length, should be ready in two years, said Dr. Svante Paabo, the leader of the research project at the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.”

snip

“Dr. Paabo has shared some of his precious sample of Neanderthal DNA with Edward M. Rubin of the Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, Calif., whose team has identified 62,250 units of Neanderthal DNA by a different method. The two teams report their results in the journals Nature and Science respectively, saying they have independently demonstrated that recovery of the Neanderthal genome is now possible.”

snip

“From the data already obtained, Dr. Paabo and his colleagues estimate that the ancestral Neanderthal population was very small, perhaps less than 10,000 individuals. Since the ancestral population of modern humans was much the same size, it seems that all populations of early humans were tiny, expanding only after the ice age ended.”

snip

“Dr. Bruce Lahn, a geneticist at the University of Chicago, published a report earlier this month suggesting that one of the two principal versions of the human gene for microcephalin, which helps determine brain size, came from an archaic population, presumably the Neanderthals.
His analysis suggested that the two versions of the gene had existed separately for a million years. This, Dr. Lahn argued, most probably happened because one version had belonged to Neanderthals during this time.

So far neither team has analyzed enough Neanderthal DNA to test Dr. Lahn’s suggestion. Dr. Paabo said at a news conference that he had obtained “snippets of genes involved in skin and hair color” but that the information was not yet sufficient to draw any conclusions about the Neanderthals’ physical appearance.”

Very, very exciting stuff. As I’ve mentioned before, the go-to place for informed commentary on this is John Hawks Anthropology Weblog, which already has a post up on this and promises more (including an FAQ post) in the coming days. Hawks reports he’s had so much traffic today he had to switch to his back-up server.

Hawks quotes an informed commentor in Nature, talking about these new results:

“These papers are perhaps the most significant contributions published in this field since the discovery of Neanderthals 150 years ago.”

Exciting times!

Asteroid and Comet Strikes

The NY Times has a great piece on an ongoing project that is reviewing the world’s shorelines for “chevron” deposits. The article decsribes some found in Madagascar like this:

“On close inspection, the chevron deposits contain deep ocean microfossils that are fused with a medley of metals typically formed by cosmic impacts. And all of them point in the same direction — toward the middle of the Indian Ocean where a newly discovered crater, 18 miles in diameter, lies 12,500 feet below the surface.

The explanation is obvious to some scientists. A large asteroid or comet, the kind that could kill a quarter of the world’s population, smashed into the Indian Ocean 4,800 years ago, producing a tsunami at least 600 feet high, about 13 times as big as the one that inundated Indonesia nearly two years ago. The wave carried the huge deposits of sediment to land. “

The graphic I borrowed maps known major craters and chevron deposits world-wide. It sort of shrank when I pasted it. Take a good look at the original. We’ve been hit a lot in the past.

The Matter of Borat

As I am a known Kazakh- o- phile, everyone wants to know what I think of the Borat phenomenon (and I have also been asked if they do indeed drink horse urine: NO).

I am no fan of gross- out movies and am obviously a big fan of free speech so I thought I would ignore the whole thing. But t won’t ignore me. So a few thoughts.

I think a dignified protest by the Kazakhs (including a good- humored one by Nazarbayev’s daughter) is just about the right reaction.

Not only is Kazakhstan NOT anti- Semitic– according to a Jewish Kazakh acquaintance, Almaty has traditionally been a place of refuge for Jews. I have seen an Orthodox Jewish teacher with side- curls there, followed by a line of students in yarmulkes.

Steve Sailer thinks that the character is more about Eastern Europeans than Central Asians. Certainly this article about how he conned a village of Romanian Gypsies lends truth to that theory.

At Slate, Christopher Hitchens has some sharp observations.

Says Chas, who sent me the Romanian clip: “Funny, Kazakhs seem to the only ones not complaining loudly. I heard that the “Borat” movie was banned in Russia though. Anyone suing Cohen will have to get in line, though, behind the American frat boys and the Turkish comic who claimed that *he* was the inspiration for the Borat character.”

I think I’ll imagine the obnoxious boor being booted off Komsomol Peak (don’t know if it has a new name) by my friend, the Kazakh mountain guide and karateka Margulan. BOOM!

Latrine Practices and Health Risks

I really enjoyed this article from the LA Times that discusses research from the archaeological site of Qumran in Israel, thought by many to be the home of the religious community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. Apparently contemporary writings describe elaborate cleansing rituals involved with using their latrines and these have been confirmed through the archaeological excavations. What the archaeologists have found is that the concentration of waste in pits and the large amounts of contaminated water used to “cleanse” people actually had the effect of encouraging the spread of parasites and degrading the health of the people there.

Very interesting reading.

This reminded me of a discussion I had with a colleague some days ago, when I pointed out that most studies of the skeletal remains of prehistoric hunter-gatherers show that they were taller, more robust, healthier and longer-lived than the Neolithic agriculturalists that succeeded them. This is probably attributable to a better diet – a wider variety of wild foods – and to the fact that hunter-gatherers moved around a lot so that their waste and trash didn’t have a chance to build up around them. Agriculturalists tend to stay in one place and their (and their animals’) waste piles up around them causing the health risks discussed in the article above.

I illustrated the situation with the photo above. This is a picture of one of the Hopi Villages (in Arizona) Walpi, taken by A.C. Vroman in 1897. The masses of dark stuff along the cliff ledges below the walls are largely – what’s a good term? – nightsoil. The Hopi just flung it over the edge of the mesa as they had for a thousand years. Those of us who live with flush toilets tend to forget what an issue that was for our ancestors.

Update

Reader Rasmus Boegh has identified the source of the eagle photo in this post of May 24.

“The animal on the photo is, without any doubts, a Red Fox. Furthermore, it is actually part of a series that was shot in Finland by Pekka Komi. This photo could give the mistaken impression that the Golden Eagle is attacking the Red Fox to prey on it, but that was not the case. Actually, they were fighting for a carcass that had been laid out to attract various raptors. For some time the outcome of the fight was unclear, but in the end the Golden Eagle won and the fox ran away. Pekka Komi who took them has posted 5 photos from this series on Tarsiger (if I remember right, there are more that weren’t posted)”

Contra “Peak Oil”

MSN also carries a Reuters release of a study from Cambridge Energy Research Associates attacking the simplistic application of the peak oil concept. From the release:

“Cambridge Energy Research Associates said in a report that the world has some 3.74 trillion barrels of oil left — enough to last 122 years at current consumption rates and triple the amount estimated by “peak oil” theorists.”

snip

“‘Oil is too critical to the global economy to allow fear to replace careful analysis about the very real challenges with delivering liquid fuels to meet the needs of growing economies,’ said Peter Jackson, director of oil industry activity for Cambridge, a Massachusetts-based consultant to the oil, natural gas and electric power industries.

The said the peak in global daily oil production will not come before 2030 and will be followed not by a steep decline, but rather by an “undulating plateau” of ups and downs in output before a gradual dropoff, according to the report.

Jackson said the main flaw in “peak oil” theory is that it fails to account for exploration, technology, rising estimates of the size of existing fields and geopolitical shifts.”

I believe Cambridge is the think-tank that Daniel Yergin is associated with and he has a great deal of credibility.

RTWT