27 August 2007


I got a hefty dose of Americana this weekend at the Grant County Fair in John Day. The fair itself was not much to write home about: a few food stands, a motley assortment of displays, a barn full of livestock, a few (expensive) rides, and an inexplicable but kind of cool reptile zoo. The real highlight was in the evening, when the fair gave way to the rodeo. As a born-and-raised urbanite, I was all set to appreciate the rodeo as a spectacle and to enjoy a few condescending laughs. To be sure, there were aspects of it that reinforced all the stereotypes: the announcer with the affected Texas accent, the borderline jingoistic patriotism (never mind that the man singing the anthem didn't know all the words...), and the clown making jokes about killing off endangered fish to protect farmers. On the whole, though, I really, genuinely enjoyed myself. Above all, I was amazed by the skill shown by all the competitors. It's no easy task to rope and hogtie a calf in under ten seconds or to stay on the back of a bronco or a bull that really does not want you to be there. Frankly, I could never hope to do any of the things that the men - and women - in the rodeo were doing, which of course made watching them that much more entertaining and impressive. Almost as fun was taking in the atmosphere out in the grandstand, which was packed full of honest-to-god ranchers and cowboys; regardless of what you think of Western cattle culture, it's nothing if not colorful. 'Til next time, move 'em on, head 'em up, head 'em up, move 'em on...

19 August 2007

What am I doing here?

Last week I rambled on for a while about the countryside in which I've found myself living for the latter half of the summer. I never really did explain what exactly it is I'm doing here, though. As I think I mentioned once way back when, the John Day Country has more than just desert scenery. What it's best known for is its fossils, which represent one of the world's best records of life on land over the last 30 or so million years. Not only is the fossil record outstanding, it has a remarkable climate record and several accurate dates attached to it, making it an ideal place to study paleoecology and evolution. That's why I'm out here wiling away my days in a town with a population much smaller than that of my high school: to figure out what aspect of this exceptional record I want to focus on for my PhD dissertation project. To that end, I've been puttering around the collections and library of the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, as well as making occasional forays into the field with some of the researchers here in order to figure out what has been done and what remains that I might want to spend the next few years of my life studying. At the moment, the answer to that question seems - somewhat surprisingly - to be volcanoes. No, I haven't gone soft in the head and given up paleontology for volcanology. Far from it. In fact, the question in which I'm interested is very much a biological one. A long-standing debate in paleontology has centered on whether or not flood basalt eruptions (a type of eruption similar to that you might see in Hawaii, but orders of magnitude larger) are at least partially responsible for mass extinction events. It so happens that just such an event took place 16 million years ago right in the backyard of the John Day Fossil Beds. Any of you that have been to eastern Oregon or Washington have seen the remnants of this event, whether you realized it or not. A series of eruptions flowed from what is now the Columbia Plateau all the way to the Pacific Ocean, leaving behind the layers of dark, columnar rock known today as the Columbia River Basalts. The CRBs, as they're affectionately known, are at least partially responsible for, among other things, the lack of topography around Moses Lake, the stunning waterfalls of the Columbia River Gorge, and the top-rate wines of the Willamette Valley. They also might reasonably be expected to have a major effect on any animals living in the path of the lava. Just how major that effect was will, if all goes to plan, be the focus of my PhD. It'll be a complex project, requiring field work on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation and possibly in the middle of nowhere in Southeast Oregon, as well as lots of time nosing through collections both here and in several museums down in California. It will necessitate lots of library time to factor in the effects of a major migration from Asia that occurred at the same time, as well as to compare patterns in diversity here to those in other regions where flood basalts have erupted. It'll be lots of work, of course, but I can't wait to get started.

10 August 2007

John's Days in John Day

Those of you who read this regularly (There must be some of you? Right?) but don't know Oregon all that well may have gotten the impression that the entire state is a rain-drenched, evergreen landscape of craggy coasts and soaring volcanoes. That would be a fairly good description of the rainy side of the state, but once you head east of the Cascades, it's a different world entirely. The rain turns to sun, the green turns to brown, and the volcanoes are replaced by the weathered peaks of much more ancient mountains. It is in fact because of the older age of the rocks in Eastern Oregon that I am spending the second half of my summer here. The John Day region in the center of the state harbors one of the best records of Cenozoic (the so-called "Age of Mammals" for those of you who aren't paleontologists) in the world, and I am out here working with the National Park Service to figure out exactly what aspect of the region's paleoecology I want to study for my PhD project. More on the specifics of my job in a later post, but for now I want to do my best to describe the countryside in which I've landed.
If one were to choose one word to describe the John Day Country, it would probably be 'frontier.' That's in fact the official phrase that the government applies to the region due to its population density of less than 2 people per square mile. The area does certainly retain a "Wild West" feel: the economy is dominated by cattle and sheep ranching, the main social events are county fairs and rodeos, and towns are very small, few, and far between (the town in which I'm staying is the 9th smallest in Oregon, a state not known for its massive cities). Unsurprisingly, the region is predominately conservative, but it's typified by the breed of conservatism that has long been prevalent in the rural West: essentially libertarian and generally happy to let you and your beliefs alone so long as you don't impinge on them and theirs (while the consequences of such impingements can be dire, I much prefer this to the holier-than-thou, "Big Brother" religious conservatives in other parts of the country). While it's hardly an untouched wilderness (ranching and, at higher elevations, logging have taken their toll), nature is still a much more visible presence than civilization. Wildlife is certainly present, though as is so often the case in deserts it is not usually readily obvious (I have yet to see anything larger or more spectacular than a deer, but while doing some recon work today I came across some fresh tracks of what I'm fairly certain was a cougar, though coyotes or bobcats are possibilities as well). More impressive is the landscape, which is absolutely littered with sheer cliffs, jagged badlands, looming spires of rock, river valleys, and seemingly endless mountains (watching the sin set over the Ochocos is nothing short of stunning). It's a complete 180 from the Southern California half of my summer, of course, but there are much worse places to be stuck for six weeks. Hopefully this has convinced you all to come visit me between now and mid-September; the region's economy and I would both be happy to see you...

04 August 2007

Waking up from California Dreaming

It's sad but true: all good things must come to an end, and my California foray is no exception. The last week or two since my last post have been nothing if not eventful. There was the end of the course and the farewell to Santa Barbara. There was the drive with Graeme and Phil up the Big Sur and through Monterey (We saw a condor!!!). There were a few days with new friends in San Francisco and a few more with old friends in Sacramento. Now I'm back in the Bay Area for this trip's final hurrah: my best friend's wedding. It's been a wild month or so, and perhaps I will try and sum it all up later on once I'm safely ensconced back in the Pacific Northwest (though don't expect anything too soon: my next tour of duty is Eastern Oregon, where I will not have any Internet access for at least the first few days). Whatever I get out of it in the long run, it's certainly been one of the busiest and most fun summers I've ever had. As always, you can check out my pictures on my Picasa site. Enjoy, and stay tuned for my dispatches from the middle of nowhere!