Dry and Warm: No Easy Matter for Plucked Chickens

Assured in advance by the region’s soggy-foggy reputation that I would face constant drizzling rain there, I bought the first modern rain-proof garment I’ve ever owned before my May trip to the Olympic Peninsula of Washington.

But following the thread of waterproof garments as I comparison shopped for that red Goretex parka I finally purchased, I considered what a fine thing it is that nature has succeeded in keeping land vertebrates both warm and dry.

The challenge is to keep the body inside from losing heat and from retaining water vapor given off by the animal’s metabolism. For mammals and birds, wet means heavy. Heavy means slow, and slow means you’re somebody’s lunch. Wet near the skin also means evaporative cooling, and too much of that can also be the end of a creature that experiences the shutting-down of hypothermia due to heat loss.

Nature wins first prize here with a wonderful invention called skin, a porous, heat-retaining, moisture-releasing surface, oiled by tiny glands and covered, more or less, with water-shedding hairs or feathers that also trap warm air next to the body.

Next to skin, so to speak, Goretex (patented in 1976) comes a distant second, but it has solved the problem I learned about the hard way long ago. In my ignorance, I wore a rubber-coated Army-Navy raincoat on my first backpacking trip to the Smokies. It repelled 100% of the rain and retained the same percent of the moisture created by my uphill exertion. Somewhere not far from the Clingman’s Dome parking lot, the cheap raincoat quickly became a pedestrian sauna.

Breathable and waterproof Goretex solved that issue with its design that lets the body’s moisture as molecules of vapor escape but prevents much larger drops of moisture from coming in. We should not take this modern “miracle” fabric for granted.

Bare human bodies in their native state are as well equipped to retain heat as a plucked chicken. We are laughably lacking in wool, feathers or fur. Conveniently our meat–buffalo or bearcat, cow, sheep or wooly mammoth–has come wrapped in warm, water-shedding coverings we lacked.

Then came mankind’s period of exploration. When our ancient ancestors reached the coasts, they built boats to get to the other side. On the boats, the early mariners in wet-heavy bearskin coats were worthless climbing the riggings in a winter storm and possessed all the buoyancy of a cinder block when washed overboard. On to Plan B.

At sea, a serious waterproofing issue beyond the soggy sailors was the sails. The linen sailcloth became heavy when wet, which played havoc with both speed and balance. Slathering sails with fish oil helped, but a thousand cats met your ship at the dock. Eventually, cotton replaced linen, and wax replaced oils.

But the waxed cotton became stiff as a piece of plywood when cold. So much for the billowed sails. And the sails turned yellow as a pirate’s smile over time. Sailors cut those discarded scraps of cloth, first into capes, then into slickers as a better alternative to bear skins. The yellow of your hooded first-grade raincoat carried the color of those ancient sails into modern times.

And in our day, the perflurochemistry (PFC) industry has ushered in all sorts of rain, grease, stain and dirt-shedding, no-stick chemicals. The basis for this class of compounds is fluorocarbons–carbon chains that hold fluorine at bonds where hydrocarbons like propane hold hydrogen. Goretex, Scotchguard and Teflon are PFCs.

The teflon-like compounds are not natural in nature. They are stable and long-lived, and PFCs are now found on every continent in almost all humans and animals. High levels of PFCs have been linked to impulsivity and attention issues in children. The full health effects are still unknown.

And closer to home, beware the toxic fumes from an overheated teflon pan (or a Goretex raincoat on fire?) The vapors produce “polymer fume fever” in humans, and an over-hot teflon frying pan can kill your PFC-sensitive pet bird instantly.

The price for my Goretex jacket was right dear. But more than that, the miracle fabric’s final cradle-to-grave COST (from production to disposal) will make me think twice about any future rainwear purchases. Next time, I may go with wooly mammoth.

And I should mention, the week I gave my new red raincoat a road trip to the Pacific Northwest, it came back dry. It never rained a single drop.

This tale appeared in the Floyd Press and Roanoke Star-Sentinel in the fall of 2011.

Every Drought Ends with a Good Rain

Goose Creek October 2008
Image by fred1st via Flickr

This selection is from Slow Road Home, written in August 2002, a lament during one of the worst droughts in living memory for the old-timers who live in our part of Floyd County. Hundreds of wells went dry that year. We’ve never since seen the creek dry up completely. But it’s getting mighty low, and we’re concerned, but hopeful.

The cool breeze is welcomed today, a respite from the unrelenting heat of summer. But the wind and sun are also the enemy because they carry away what little moisture remains in the pasture grasses, forest and creeks. More than that, even the underground waters that are the source of streams like Nameless Creek are silently ceasing to flow. More water has evaporated from tree and soil to the thin clouds overhead than has fallen from sky to earth during the past three months.

No current moves the surface of the creek, though minnows still stir the shrinking pools in a claustrophobic frenzy. They struggle to find edible specks in what little water remains in the shallow depressions here and there along the drying creek bed. We are in the midst of a sad and awful drought. There is a tendency to take the malice of this dry, parched weather personally, but we should keep the cycles of nature in perspective.

Our valley is a tiny crease carved by water in the more recent stages of Appalachian mountain erosion. The core of the Blue Ridge formed nearly a billion years ago when land masses collided, lifting up a massive bulge of fire-hardened rock. It is difficult to conceive now that these green and gentle mountains began as a rocky dome, higher and more craggy and hostile than today’s Rockies.

Millennia passed like seconds on nature’s clock, and water in unbelievable floods has worn away the old rock, one granite grain at a time. Time and water have done their work and smoothed away the roughness of these old mountains. Fragments of those ragged summits of stone now lie in pasture rock-conglomerate, beach sand and delta soil. All that remains of that former high magnificence are these soft and rounded, green, moist and water-worn remnants we call our Appalachian mountains.

One has only to dig down a few inches over by the barn to know that river cobbles by the tens of thousands have been left there in the sandy soil, washed long ago down Nameless Creek, whose waters meet Goose Creek not a hundred feet from where I sit.

These two creeks tumbling down from those ancient mountaintops have cut against the resistant rock of the east ridge of our valley, then the west, then back again–each time widening the valley floor by imperceptible inches in hundreds of years–an unthinkably long time to our mortal perspective, a flash of time in a million years of eternal wind and sun, frost and floods.

Floods are cataclysmic, sudden, drastic and evident in their consequences. Drought like this is chronic and insidious. It drains life invisibly, quietly, leaving no record in the sands of geology’s time.

But it is an abundance of water that has carved the hollow of the creek bed and made the valley wide–not water’s absence. It is an abundance of water that has nurtured the broad-leaved forest that covers these mountain hillsides and allowed them to persist in this leafy biome. Drought has not formed this landscape, and it seems reasonable to have hope that it will not subdue it now.

We will miss the rains for a few more weeks, for maybe one more season, or two. But we must learn to see the cycles of wet and dry as the land sees it, and be patient. If history is any lesson, water will tell the story.

Note: This appeared in last week’s Floyd Press, while things were still dangerously dry. I just checked the rain gauge in the garden: 3.75 inches. And it’s still falling, still soaking in more than running off–the sustained, mostly gentle rain we’ve been needing. And contrary to my fears yesterday when the creek was going up so fast, we WILL be able to get across the creek on the board (which we rescued before it was swept downstream) to tend the &$#!! chickens. 

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Do Non-Human Beings Have Rights?

In the matter of the mistreatment of animals, there is almost universal condemnation. Such behavior is beyond the limits of what our species ought to do to a living thing. We consider it “inhumane” to torture, abandon or exploit our dogs or other domestic animals, even if those creatures are considered “private property” as Michael Vick’s dogs would have been.

A century ago, treatment of animals in our personal experience was as wide as our thinking extended with regard to the rights of non-human creatures. We had no conception then of the larger, global plant-and-animal “webs” we now learn about in grade-school biology–relationships that depict food-networks, nutrient cycling, ecosystems and biomes.

It has been only a half century since the field of ecology began to measure and record the flow of matter and energy within living communities. That exploration has made evident the complex and interacting checks and balances that regulate the rise and fall in living populations and impact the habitats that support them.

Even the smallest creatures–earthworm or honey bee–play an essential role in human agriculture and the greater economy. This is by far a much more complex and inter-dependent world than we have understood until recently.

With improvements in technology, we have gained an ever clearer appreciation that humanity’s health depends on the well-being and resilience of creatures far beyond the familiar realm of pets or domestic beasts. This knowledge–only available in the last blink of history–expands the scope of what we ought not do with regard to both living things and the ecosystems of water, earth and sky that sustain them.

In a world soon moving past 7 billion of our species alone, we can’t trudge ahead like so many isolated islands of personal entitlement, acting as if only our rights merit attention. We can’t become fixated on the me-here-now as our world faces overwhelming pressures and moves dangerously near to tipping points.

These impending crises urgently demand from all of us a them-there-then vision–wider in scope, less self-absorbed, more forward-looking and more powered by cooperation than the world-view of our ancestors who lived out their lives in an uncrowded and largely intact world of seemingly limitless land and resources.

The history books are filled with accounts of civilizations which, lacking our hindsight and our predictive sciences, did not treat water or soil or natural capital in a sustainable way. Had they known what we know, they might have felt a responsibility to protect critical living populations and habitats before it was too late, so that their empires, their offspring and their cultures might have endured.

We face decline and collapse as possibilities within our grandchildren’s lifetime. Humankind has never had such an overwhelming weight of evidence that calls for us to act on the fact that the health of all living things and life-systems is crucial to our long-term well-being. The biosphere is afflicted with a multi-front perfect-storm crisis, largely because we’ve been indifferent to more than a century of animal abuse, if you will.

We’ve neglected the care and feeding of creatures that are under our care. We’ve been indifferent to inhospitable conditions, that by our wars on nature and each other, we’ve created for the plants and animals of rain forests, deserts, oceans and prairies. We watch species simply wither and disappear from earth in the most extensive, ongoing extinction ever caused by the actions of a single organism: us. We’ve not shown prudent stewardship over the field with which we’ve been entrusted.

We must come to regard the wider reach of nature as worthy of the same protections we have granted the animals we know and love and, in our short past, included in our too-narrow sphere of ethical treatment. Then, we will no longer look the other way.

We will condemn and not reward those responsible when mountaintops or rain forests, oceans, soils, tundra or prairie are mistreated. We will abhor injuries to our fragile and voiceless world. We will express our disgust over those abuses in the same way we do when another’s pets or working animals suffer because they have been treated with cruelty or indifference. We will become a truly humane society, and stand in harm’s way, for the sake of beasts and biomes; and we will do so for the sake of our own future.

If You Can’t Stand the Heat

This is the time of year when the early morning hours of browsing, answering emails, researching and blogging are supplanted (nice, seasonally-appropriate verb-pun) by yard and garden work before the sun crests the east ridge and the temps begin to become uncomfortable for hoeing, loading mulch, hauling brush and such.

I don’t suffer heat very well,  so it’s good that, even without AC in the house, we stay pretty cool here, in a relative short of way, in our sheltered cold-sink valley on the western flank of the Blue Ridge mountains.

In my home town of Birmingham, OTOH, it has been too warm even before sunrise for months, and yet I used to have hard-labor summer jobs out in the HHH (heat-haze-humidity) and not think much about it.

I need to move along, so will redirect your attention to a piece from a couple of summers ago about my (and mankind’s) past and future relationship with conditioned air.

AC: Not All It’s Cranked Up To Be

The sound of one hand typing

Anatomy scheme of a Fiddler crab (Genus: Uca) ...
Image via Wikipedia

We are back from St. Louis with the usual list of traveling mercies and horrors, and trying to catch up with the backside of our task lists. so I will take the easy way out, and post an essay I wrote back when I was bilaterally symmetrical in mid-March, for a Floyd press and Star Sentinel column that saw the light of day on April 21. Now, I’m scrambling to meet the deadline for the next column due no later than Monday and I had best get busy. Travel pictures and tales coming soon…

I’ve been around the writer’s block a time or two. Pretty much every morning for nine years now, I’ve plopped down at the keyboard and waited more or less patiently for ideas to become thoughts to become words, and for my hands, the executors in this process, to typeset the related sentences and paragraphs on the digital page in front of me. Something usually emerges, at least a base-on-balls, for the blog or for this column or some other destination.

I tell you this because, as I sit here in the middle of March, I am without traction. I am a deer caught in the headlights of approaching deadlines. What I see bearing down on me in two weeks I am sure will provide ample personal experience about which to write. The twin problems with this impending adventure are: one, that it is wholly a ME experience; and, while I’m not shy (as you know) about telling personal stories, I am reluctant to wallow in my own tribulations on a public wailing wall.

Secondly, and most significantly, I won’t be able to write about this episode in my life at all–at least not in the usual, morning-habitual, automatic pilot sort of pattern to which my head-hands-and-eyes have grown so accustomed.

The hand part of the equation is the issue. One of mine is going to take a vacation. We don’t know how long it will be away.

Let me be quick to tell you that this is, at least from the surgeon’s point of view, a routine outpatient procedure. The “basal joint” of the thumb is a common site for wear-and-tear arthritis. Mine is worn and torn sufficiently to need repair in such a way that (they don’t quite promise me) I will not whine and whimper quite so much after it heals up. I imagine a time when I will be able to do buttons and play the guitar again. (I’m sure, though, with a written excuse from my doctor, that I will never be able again to do the dishes ever again.)

It’s the course over months of healing and recovery that is the great unknown. To someone for whom (relatively painless) typing has become a kind of voice, I’ll be speechless for weeks–maybe months. And it is finally sinking in how convenient and efficient it has been to be functionally bilaterally symmetrical in all other realms of daily life for lo these many years.

As the future fiddler-crab of Goose Creek, I am appreciating that any day this April won’t find business-as-usual here. I will be limited. I will be dependent. I will be the sound of one hand typing.

It has taken me years of whining to bring me to chose this major detour, blundering by a sort of orthopedic forced march off the calendar of predictability into the potholed territory of rehabilitation. Think about it. When does one decide it is convenient to take on the world single-handed for a few months: during the long season of wood-cutting and stove-tending or during the six months of grass mowing, weed-whacking and gardening?

So here in middle-March, knowing what lies ahead, I’ll use the chain saw for the last time until Fall, getting in enough dry split wood while I still can to last until June. I’ll put the screens in, be sure the mowers are ready for her to operate, and do what I can to get this year’s garden ready, even though this season, the hoeing, raking and such will be beyond my reach, so to speak.

I can at least meet writing deadlines early–the ones I can plan for–like this column for April 21. Since January, I’ve been training my speech-to-text software to clumsily dictate what I want to say during the handicapped weeks. I find this immensely frustrating. It’s like trying to leave an essay on somebody’s answering machine. I’m doing good to make a complete sentence when a recorder of any sort is listening. The words that sprint so effortlessly through my fingers stumble all over themselves as they exit my mouth, like greyhounds in hip-waders.

So I will be briefly pitiful and worthless around here, a short-term servant of handicaptivity. But I’m betting that, like physical therapy patients I have worked with after this surgery, I will wish I’d done this thing years ago. Meanwhile, I’ll find creative uni-dextrous ways to get up and do what needs to be done. And in May and June, find my column right here–after the sound of the beep.

Handnote: The cast comes off  on May 9!

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