30 September 2007

Fall Has Fell

Several things have happened in the last few days that have driven home the fact that summer is well and truly over and that autumn is here. First, Halloween decorations are beginning to crop up on doorsteps across Eugene. Those of you that know me are probably expecting a rant about decorating too early, but in fact seeing all a bunch of paper ghosts and plastic pumpkins has galvanized me into thinking about what my costume for the annual Halloween party should be. I've been jotting down ideas as they came to me over the course of the year, but they're generally uninspired (my favorites so far are an evil version of Jimmy Stewart or one of two old Saturday Night Live characters - The Continental and Dieter from Sprockets). Of course, October doesn't just mean dressing up like an idiot and - in my case - listening to soundtracks from old horror movies: it also means that the baseball playoffs are here. Like all Mariners fans, I'm disappointed that the season ended in mediocrity rather than in celebration as seemed likely a month or two ago. Still, that's almost made up for by the fantastic last week of the regular season, particularly in the National League. Regardless of the result of tomorrow's San Diego/Colorado tiebreaker, a full half of the teams in the playoffs will be small-market, low-payroll teams built from the ground up. That is to say, for once the playoffs will showcase baseball the way it's meant to be played. Needless to say, I'm very excited.
Of course, nothing really announces the coming of autumn like a change in the weather. In much of the world, this is the time of year when people head to the countryside to see botanical fireworks. However, this is the Northwest, so instead of a change in foliage, late September is marked by the onset of the rainy(er) season. Like anyone born and raised here, there's little I love more than the look on newcomers' faces when you tell them it will be gray and rainy pretty much every day between now and March (serves them right for moving here; we told then not to, after all). Even if that is a bit of an exaggeration, after a summer split between Southern California and the Eastern Oregon desert, falling asleep to the rhythm of raindrops on the roof and waking up to see the hills around town shrouded in mist feels very much like being reunited with an old friend. While many people I know fall into a grim depression at the first sight of gray skies, I find it marvelously exhilarating. It's good to be home, and it's great to be welcoming in another Northwest fall.

23 September 2007

What I Did on my Summer Vacation

Today is the first day of Fall, which means my summer as a nomad is over. As near as I can figure, I've driven somewhere in the vicinity of 3000 miles. I've stayed in Seattle, Lopez Island, Dunsmuir, Oakland, Santa Barbara, Monterey, San Francisco, Sacramento, and Dayville (some more than once), with day trips to Marin County, Pinnacles National Monument, Santa Barbara wine country, Los Angeles, John Day, and the Central Cascades on the side. I've seen blue whales off the Channel Islands, condors over the Big Sur, rattlesnakes on desert highways, and scorpions right outside my office. I've wandered through museums in L.A., strolled the hills of San Francisco, attended a wedding in the East Bay, and dodged lightning outside of Prineville. Along the way I crossed paths with family members, old friends, new friends, and paleontologists of every description. It's been exhilarating at times and exhausting at others, and while I'm extremely happy to be back in Eugene, it's been one of the best summers I've ever spent; it's certainly been the busiest. Now back to school and - for the moment - calm.

18 September 2007

"Art is the dream of a life of knowledge"

I saw that quote on the wall of the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington today. It seemed especially apropos, as I've been thinking a lot about art lately, largely because after my time in Dayville I found myself wanting to go to an art museum as soon as returning to city life. That should come as a bit of a surprise to any of you that know me because, despite an education that's been heavy on art history, I've never really been what you might call a connoisseur. So, why is it that when on his own for a month and a half in the middle of nowhere, a left-brained paleontologist finds himself missing art museums before any of the other luxuries of urban life? That's the question I've been mulling over lately, and I think I've come up with an answer. That said, I'm not about to go about telling people why they should appreciate art, so I'm going to keep that answer to myself. I'll give you all a hint, though: it has something to do with the quote I saw on the museum wall. Also, existentially enough, it has something to do with me leaving it for you all to figure out rather than just saying it. Hope that's cryptic enough!

16 September 2007

Summer Photos

After a stirring sendoff from the John Day Country (a desert thunderstorm at sunset - one of nature's greatest visual treats, so long as you're not caught caught out in it), I'm back in Seattle for a few days enjoying the luxuries of civilization. One of those luxuries, of course, is high-speed Internet, which has finally given me a chance to upload both from Oregon and from California. Check them out in the slideshows below, and enjoy!

13 September 2007

The Blue Bucket

Tomorrow is my last day working out here at John Day, after which I will be heading back to the greener, rainier side of the Cascades. It's been a whirlwind six weeks here, and very worthwhile. I accomplished what I came for, nailing down a PhD topic, on top of which I also got to get acquainted with the excellent fossil collection of the park, to spend several (reasonably productive) days in the field, to see all sorts of desert wildlife (scorpions and rattlesnakes and coyotes, oh my!), and in general to soak up the lifestyle of John Day Country. I do, however, have one regret: I never did find the Blue Bucket Mine. In all fairness, this may be because a) it never existed as a mine per se, and b) I only just learned about it yesterday. At any rate, the Blue Bucket is a legend in these parts and has driven many a local to distraction. In 1842, an emigrant party passed through the region in hopes of finding a southern alternative to the Oregon Trail. Unfortunately, they were led by an inept guide who they followed right into one of the most desolate deserts anywhere in North America. Eventually they decided to rejoin the main trail, and as they made their way north they passed through the John Day Country. Somewhere near here a group of children found several colorful rocks in a stream, which were passed off as copper at the time. Though the children claimed there were at least enough of them to fill a blue bucket they had with them, all but one rock was left behind. After finally reaching the Willamette Valley and later learning of the discovery of gold in California in 1849, the settlers went back and looked at the colorful rock once more, which turned out to be a good deal more valuable than just a lump of copper. Ever since, people have been trying to find the stream from which the nugget was taken, to no success. Given that I'll be leaving soon, it doesn't look as though I will be, either. I'm not giving up just yet, though, because I think my discovering the Blue Bucket might still be in the cards: while in California, I got two fortune cookies, the first telling me that I would "discover unexpected treasure" and the second that "the start of riches" was shining on me. As far as I'm concerned, that's money in the bank...

11 September 2007

The Big Picture

I like the big picture. After all, being able to piece together scattered bits of information to discern some sort of higher-order pattern (whether that pattern is actually there or not) is what makes us human. I especially like looking at the big picture in science. In paleontology, one could make a distinguished career of describing new species of dinosaur or of debating exactly how many species comprise a certain genus of plant. While I don't want to imply that such research is unimportant (far from it, in fact), it's not for me. To my mind, the most interesting issues to address are ones that are almost impossible to resolve. The classic "big picture" questions in paleontology are those relating to the nature and rate of evolutionary change and to mass extinctions, though several other topics have received a good deal of attention as well (the effects of climate change have been an area of increasing interest lately, for obvious reasons). Because of both the staggering complexity of the systems being studied and the extremely fragmentary nature of the fossil record, many of these questions will never be fully answered. A certain degree of speculation will always be inherent in such research, and as such many paleontologists avoid it like the plague (and understandably so). However, even if the conclusions drawn from such studies must be taken with a grain of salt, their implications are potentially very important (again, the utility of climate change research should be readily apparent). On top of that, at least to my mind, studying great, overarching problems is just more fun than focusing on the minutiae.
This is all a long, rambling preamble to me saying that, to that end, I've decided to radically increase the scope of my PhD project. If there's anyone out there that reads this regularly, you may recall that I'd decided to focus on the effects of the Columbia River Basalts on Oregon mammal communities. However, there were several other events going on at the same time that were just too significant to ignore. In the Middle Miocene, from about 20-13 million years ago, there was a significant shift in climate (to almost exactly the conditions predicted by most models of modern day global warming, interestingly enough), a major migration of mammals from Asia to North America, large-scale volcanism in the form of the Columbia River Basalts, regional volcanism in Oregon and Washington, and a major shift from forest to grassland habitats. Because I like setting myself impossible goals, I want to tease apart the effects these factors had on mammal ecology. Rather than trying to do so across the globe (I like impossible goals, but not that impossible), my plan is to focus on the far west of North America, effectively Washington, Oregon, California, Mexico. I'm still piecing together the methods I'll use (and I wouldn't want to bore you all any more than I already have even if I had a clearer plan); suffice it to say it'll require trips to museums in Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Mexico City (as well as - time and funding allowing - further afield to compare sites in the Great Plains, Europe, Africa, and South America). I may very well have bitten off a great deal more than I can chew, especially as projects tend to balloon in complexity the further they progress. Still, I'm thrilled with the prospect, and I know that, as hectic as it may get, I'll be having a blast each step of the way.

08 September 2007

The Time Machine

I've done my share of complaining about my time spent here in Dayville, and it's true that I've had to come to terms with being something of an urban snob who doesn't deal well with rural life. Still, for all my whining, this region is really not as remote as all that, nor is it a cultural wasteland. In fact, I spent this afternoon perusing one of the more unique and fascinating museums I've ever seen: the Kam Wah Chung store in John Day, which one served the region's Chinese community as a general store/apothecary/doctor's office/letter-writing service/post office/temple/restaurant/social club/bunkhouse/opium den. It's run by the state park service now, and to step through its door (made of reinforced metal to protect the patrons and inhabitants from the bullets - stray or otherwise - of drunken cowboys) is to take a trip to a different era. The time machine effect is a happy accident of fate: the family that ran the store deeded the building to the town, which literally did not bother to look inside. Because of this, the original contents of the store were preserved intact for the better part of three decades. These contents run the gamut from the personal possessions and furniture of the owners to boxes of products from China (as well as from closer to home, such as "extra standard" canned steelhead from Portland) to medicinal herbs and animal parts. My favorite item was the dried body of a flying gecko; not sure it's something I'd want to take as medicine, but it looked really cool. The walls are covered in sheets of Chinese characters, both ads and devotional texts. Years of smoke from candles, the kitchen, and opium pipes have left their mark as well, coloring all the permanent fixtures in the building black. All of this really does make it feel like you've stepped into an exotic corner of the Wild West. Perhaps because I plan to make a career of studying things that have been dead for millions of years, I have a predilection for any experience that makes you feel as though you've travelled to the past. All too often, though, such experiences are over-marketed and artificial. It's always refreshing to come across a more authentic "time machine" such as Kam Wah Chung. If nothing else, it proves that I underestimated the cultural bounty of the John Day Country...