22 October 2007

Deep in the Heart of Texas

Last week was Society of Vertebrate Paleontology's annual meeting, the highlight of the academic year for those of us that study mammals, reptiles, fish, and the like. I presented my first-ever academic poster ('Tetrapod extinction across the Jurassic-Cretaceous boundary,' a summation of the work I did for my MSc), got to spend some quality time with friends from Bristol, Chicago, and Seattle, was introduced to several people that will likely be playing significant roles in my PhD project, and of course got to spend time in Texas' paradox of a capitol city, Austin. It's not the first time I've ever been to Austin, and it remains one of my favorite cities to visit in the country. It's famous for being a liberal bastion in the heart of American conservatism, and thus the prevailing view of visitors from elsewhere is that it doesn't represent the "real" Texas. After this trip, I'm not so sure that's true. There are several things I admire about Texas that become apparent immediately on setting foot in Austin. First and foremost, the people are polite and genuinely friendly, even if it's abundantly clear that you stand diametrically opposed to them culturally and politically. Texas has long been a cultural melange of Indian, Spanish, French, Mexican, German, and American cultures, which has helped weave an historical tapestry that is much richer than most non-Texans realize. What's more, Texans generally seem to be not just proud of their history, but knowledgeable about it as well, traits that are lacking in most other regions of the US (sadly, I include the Northwest in that category). Of course, on the more practical level, the mix of cultures that comprise Texas mean that the food there is fantastic; Mexican, barbecue, and steak are the holy trinity of Texan cuisine, and deservedly so, but I will also mention that the best Indian food I have ever had was in Austin. Finally, the thing I most admire about Texas is its independent spirit. It used to annoy me that the capitol in Austin was six feet taller than the one in DC, that the Texas flag is flown more prominently than the Stars and Stripes, and that the people there consider themselves members of the Republic of Texas first and the United States second. However, on further reflection, I don't think there's anything wrong with that. The US is, after all, organized as a federal system, with each state operating as a separate entity, and there's no crime in being proud of where you're from if it's for the right reasons and not at the expense of other regions. In fact, I often found myself feeling jealous of the Texans for having such a clear regional identity; why can't we Northwesterners have that same sense of pride? That's a rant for another day, but that was a direction in which I frequently found my thoughts wandering.
Of course, some things are rotten in the state of Texas, as is made abundantly clear by a trip to the capitol building. The capitol itself is a magnificent work of architecture, but a walk around the grounds leads one to some disturbing reminders of what Texas can be at its worst. The first is a monument to confederate soldiers that occupies pride of place next to the main gate on Congress Avenue, the second is a granite tablet displaying the Ten Commandments near the supreme court. Memorializing confederate soldiers is a thorny issue: certainly anyone who believes in any cause strongly enough to die for it deserves at least to be remembered, but the cause these soldiers died for was to retain an outmoded aristocratic society that had no place in the emerging modern world. It can be difficult to separate the men from the cause, and for a state government to officially celebrate the confederacy seems hypocritical. My feelings about the biblical monument are much less ambivalent. While politicians are, like any citizen of the US, free to believe whatever they would like, one of the central tenets of the Constitution is that religion should never under any circumstances play a role in government. My goal is not to single out these two monuments, but to use them to point out that Texas has become the seat of the fanatical, irrational, and xenophobic movement that has hijacked conservatism in America. This is especially tragic because Texas has a long history of down-to-earth, pragmatic, and even witty politicians on both sides of the aisle (before you scoff at the notion of Texan democrats, let me just invoke the names of Lyndon Johnson, Ann Richards, and Molly Ivins). In fact, one of the founding fathers of Texas, Sam Houston, was a progressive well ahead of his time, advocating both Indian rights and allegiance to the North during the Civil War. Now, of course, Texas' most prominent politician is also the world's: George W. Bush, an exemplar of nearly every negative quality a politician can possess. So fast has Texas' swing to the extreme right fringe of politics occurred that even the current president's father and namesake has distanced himself from his son's policies. It's certainly a bleak outlook, but this trip left me feeling oddly hopeful. Many of us are often tempted to pass off all Texans as rednecks and zealots, but Austin remains a steadfastly liberal and cosmopolitan city, Texans remain genuinely decent people, and the Lone Star State has a lot more going for it than most of us from outside its borders are willing to give it credit for.

Also, you can see my few photos from the trip here.

10 October 2007

Snakes in the Grass

For obvious reasons, you don't see a lot of reptiles on the west side of the Cascades, particularly once summer is over; grey skies and constant rain hardly are hardly ideal for an animal that can't regulate its own body temperature. Yet, as I learned this weekend, reptiles can do pretty well for themselves even during a Northwest autumn. I have had ridiculous luck this summer as far as seeing wildlife, having figuratively stumbled across blue whales, condors, and ocean sunfish (among other animals) while in California; this weekend while hiking up Spencer's Butte, the rocky monolith that looms over Eugene, I literally stumbled across not one, but two species of snake. The first was a gopher snake, a species I've never seen before, and the second was a garter snake which, while far from rare, is one of the most brightly-colored reptiles you'll ever encounter in a temperate climate. If you ever get a chance to just sit back and watch a snake go about its business, I certainly recommend it. No animal gets from place to place quite like a snake, and it never ceases to amaze me how versatile a legless animal can be. I've seen snakes climb trees, wend their way through dense leaf litter, and swim down streams, all with the same fluid motion and apparent ease. I'm sure we've all heard people wax poetic about galloping horses or soaring eagles, but for my money, nothing quite matches the fluid sinuosity of a snake's slither.