Grayal on St. Vincent Island, Florida

Guest poster Grayal Farr on an alien that does no harm (also an occasion for a good Kipling quote. But then again, what isn’t?)

“St. Vincent Island NWR is one of the bigger remaining chunks of near-pristine Florida. Visitors are allowed over every day, but no motorized transportation is allowed except for refuge staff and volunteers. The island is almost ten miles long, and except after a lot of rain, the roads and beaches are deep soft sand, so bikes aren’t that good an option either. Public access, except for the nights before a couple of primitive weapons hunts, is dawn to dusk.

For decades it was the private hunting preserve of rich Yankees. They imported exotics, Zebras (Why, I don’t know. Who ever hunted zebras?), Blackbuck, and Sambar Deer. The zebras and Blackbuck were hopeless, and came into the hunting camp on the eastern end of the island for feed from the very beginning. The Sambar, on the other hand, seem to have discovered that rare thing, an unoccupied ecological niche. They just sort of looked around, glanced meaningfully at each other – and disappeared into the marshes. They continue to flourish. When FWS took over the place they immediately got rid of the freeloading zebras and Blackbuck. The Sambar were another matter. A decision was made to let them be, partly (though never explicitly acknowledged) because of local sentiment. Anyway, they’re still there, giving me an opportunity to experience some of Kipling’s genius for description…

As the dawn was breaking the Sambhur belled –
Once, twice, and again!
And a doe leaped up and a doe leaped up
From the pond in the wood where the wild deer sup.
This, I, scouting alone beheld,
Once, twice, and again!

It does get you. They crash off like Elk in heavy cover. Nothing like it in Florida.”

Oh and– they have red wolves, too. That poem is, for non- Kiplingites (shame!) narrated by a wolf.

NAGPRA alert!

From Grayal Farr, naturalist, archaeologist, and retired Special Forces Major, comes a warning, in the form of a letter to his senator. If you heed it, remember to fax– emails are often discounted, and Grayal says that mail takes three weeks to actaully get to your senator.

“I am writing to urge that you vote to delete Amendment 108 from Senate Bill 536, sponsored by Senator McCain.

As a retired veteran I greatly respect Senator McCain and support his principled stands on many issues. However I am also a graduate student in Archaeology. I’m aware of the stifling effect the amendment would have on our ability to investigate how the western hemisphere was first explored and settled.

The constitution provides for the Senate to advise and consent in matters pertaining to “the Indian tribes.” Amendment 108 would push back definition of Native Americans far past any ability of science or even oral history to trace tribal affiliation and allow Indians to claim as tribal ancestors the remains of people who may actually have arrived from Europe. In fact, the amendment represents an attempt by modern tribes to preclude discovery of further evidence that there were such people.

Treatment of our tribal populations by the United States, whether governmental abrogation of solemn treaties or anthropological violation of tribal burials and traditions, is a historical blot on our conduct as a nation. Congress in recent decades has moved in many ways to correct those historical wrongs. The Native American American Graves Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was and is an appropriate measure to redress some of the harm done by anthropologists in the name of museums and academic institutions. I fully support NAGPRA as written.

However, federal court decisions have affirmed and reaffirmed that NAGPRA does not apply to human remains so old that no tribal affiliation can be ascertained. The proposed amendment would codify concepts such as the belief of many native groups that “we have always been here.” We should no more codify such concepts as United States law than we should pass a law affirming that the earth is flat because some well-meaning citizens sincerely believe it.

Respectfully,

MAJ (U. S. Army Special Forces, retired) Grayal E. Farr

Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford

Sir Terence Clark, a fellow tazi-saluki fanatic, just sent me a link to an exhibition of photographs by the late explorer Wilfred Thesiger. He wanted me to see this photo of a peregrine in the Emirates before World War II. The whole gallery is worth exploring, offering glimpses into not just one byt many lost worlds — for instance, that of the Marsh Arabs , destroyed by Saddam in an act of ecological and cultural genocide.

But even better, the entrance to Thesiger’s exhibit led through the virtual portals of one of my favorite museums on earth, the Pitt Rivers at Oxford in England.

General Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers (1827-1900) was an English soldier from an old family who became interested in what we now now as archaeology and anthropology just as they were becoming (relatively) scientific disciplines. He was also interested in the evolution of tools. To quote John Greenway: “Living in the first excitement of evolution, Pitt-Rivers noted that the inorganic rifle was evolving as inexorably as Darwin’s finches or Mendel’s garden peas. With this astonishing discovery he turned his interest to weapons of primitive cultures and saw the same invisible process at work.”

He left his extensive collections as the nucleus for the Pitt Rivers Museum.It is the repository of artifacts from every culture imaginable sent in from the entire British Empire and everywhere else Britain’s soldiers and diplomats might reach. If you can think of it, they have it, from fish spears to musical instruments to pigeon flutes. As they say in an online “brochure”: “The Pitt Rivers still retains its Victorian atmosphere. The cluttered cases, the original small handwritten labels and the absence of intrusive text-panels all contribute to the special experience it offers.

We visited the Pitt Rivers on a rainy day in 1994, when we were in Oxford visiting artist-zoologist Jonathan Kingdon (no links, but I’m working on it.) We could have spent six months and never been bored. The collections are in wood-and-glass, cabinets, some vertical, some horizontal, grouped by function rather than geography, around a central atrium. We were looking down from the third floor when I said to Libby: “I wonder if they have Chinese pigeon flutes ?”

A professorial, white-bearded gent examining a nearby case cleared his throat. “Sir…if you’d look down one floor below to your left, you’ll see a tall vertical case…yes, that one. I believe you’ll find a satisfactory collection there.”

We did.

Invasive”fire steppe” in Arizona?

Re the recent discussions on change, invasives et al, the Alpha Environmentalist sends this link from the Arizona Daily Star on how non- native, fire resistant species have created a dangerous environment for such natives as the green- barked paloverde and the iconic saguaro cactus. Neither can survive burning, while the non- native steppe plants can. And a lot of birds, reptiles, bats and more depend on the plants of this unique “xeric forest”.

Not mentioned in the article are the thousands of trophy houses going up in this unsuitable ecosystem, and how a “permanent burn” steppe might affect their real estate values. Ill winds… may be blowing.

China- Russia

Click here for much good discussion on the new alliances betweeen China and Russia. One of the saddest things, mentioned somewhere in the comments, is that Russia will probably suffer for it. China– my Kazakh friends call her “The Dragon”– is a dangerous “ally”, and swamps the countries on its edges, especially Asian Siberia, with cheap goods and immigrants, legal and illegal. Putin would doubtless do better making durable connections to the US, but his authoritarian style and the distrust of many elements in his government and military of all things western– a distrust that predates the Russian revolution– may preclude this. It may also cost him eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East, and all their riches, in a generation.

Waypoints

Matt Mullenix, who talked me into having a website, designed it, and got me going, has a new blog, Waypoints . His last became one of the most original and literate falconry books around– I’ll tell you about it as soon as it is out. The new one is more free- form and he is asking for feedback. Matt is an original mind. What can you say about a (still young, Matt!) writer whose favorites are Hemingway, Wendell Berry, C S Lewis, and (gulp!) me?

Decadent–or just unclear on the concept?

I have no doubt that eating at El Bulli in Spain could be a fantastic experience, but I’m not sure about the cookbook . A $350 cookbook that is too beautiful to bring into the kitchen? And, to quote Jessica’s Biscuit: “The first book catalogues his work though full-color photos, and you can only find the recipes on the CD”.

THAT’S practical. Never had to deal with sauce on the EMac before…

I don’t take all Amazon reviews too seriously, especially those that can’t spell,but this one raised my eyebrows too: “The recipies are not meant to be for the home cook, but anyone interested in new techniques, this book explains it all. Most of the food isn’t very appealing for the Western pallate [sic]”. And this is a five- star review!

I wonder what John Thorne thinks of all this. Maybe I’ll ask….

Kennewick: free at last!

A team of scientists are finally going to be allowed to study the 9000- plus year old remains of “Kennewick Man”, despite the coalition of tribes that objected under what any rational person must think is (at least) an overly- broad interpretation of NAGPRA.

Too bad the government colluded with the tribes to rebury and cement over the rest of the find. It will make it very hard to do a true “taphonomic” study…

If remains as old as this are surrendered to the tribes I believe I am going to get together with a few friends of Italian Alpine descent and lay claim to the Ice Man. We have a better claim to genetic ancestry any day than the four tribes who claim the Kennewick bones do….

And here is the scariest part to me:
“Legislation remains under consideration in Congress that would allow federally recognized tribes to claim ancient remains even if they cannot prove a link to a current tribe”.

Uhhh… why?

Poison Mammals

A venomous mammal has been found in fossil beds from 60 million years ago in Alberta. The interesting part is that it had fangs like a snake, or rather a Gila monster: “The fossilized remains of two curved canines, found in the Canadian province of Alberta, shows a groove from which the creature, Bisonalveus browni, probably shot venom into its prey”.

Now I don’t know about “shot”– Gila monsters drip and chew. But specialized venom teeth in a mammal are still news.

It may be that venom was much more common then, though. In addition to the solenodon mentioned in the article, and the platypus’s heel spurs, many shrews have enough venom to give a nasty toxic bite (experience speaking: Blarina brevicauda in Massachusetts, if I remember right). All these are very old families.

Thanks to David at Cronaca, which everyone should read.