A harbinger of spring

Percy, our resident wandering peacock, is pretty certain it’s springtime…one day early, after monsoonal rains related to El Nino last week, 80 degrees yesterday, and a coming bit of rain.  It’s always interesting to notice changes in activity & behaviors in nature during the change of seasons.

Why I care about the New Horizons mission to Pluto


The heart of Pluto got even more interesting in the recent flyby of New Horizons.

About 15 years ago, NASA chose the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University to build & manage a multifunction machine, using state of the art technology (in 2006), that they could shoot at icy Pluto (formerly known as a planet) about 3 billion miles away. That small spacecraft, against massive odds—the cold of space, solar radiation, impossible-to-know tiny particles that could have ripped it apart, unknown moons recently discovered orbiting Pluto, and the down-grading of Pluto to an “ice dwarf” (wah wah)—prevailed.  But why is that important?

The cumulative New Horizons mission cost of only about $700 million, over a decade, is itself remarkable—the U.S. government spends about $700 BILLION a year on each of the following: defense, medical coverage, and social security. (Also for comparison, annual sales at Walmart are about $400 million.)

The 1-month worldwide box office take for Jurassic World is twice the cost of this 10-year mission to reach Pluto and continue to explore the outer reaches of the solar system in which we live. To be clear, people around the world paid $1.4 billion ($600 million in the U.S.) to see a (fun) pretend 2-hour story about a fake, cloned, genetically modified (GMO) dinosaur.

I’m not anti-movie, I’m just pro spending of (relatively) modest sums for pure science.

The craft, about the size of a grand piano, was shot from earth and (more or less) left to barrel through space at 30,000 mph, so fast that a collision with a particle as small as a grain of rice could have debilitated it. After traversing 3 billion miles of the “final frontier” in 9 years, it made contact with the outer reaches of our solar system Tuesday, flying within about 7,000 miles of Pluto. (To be, um, clear, Star Trek’s “Warp 1” is the speed of light, 186,240 mps or 670,464,000 mph.)  The mission was a resounding success.

During that time, and especially yesterday, it has collected so much data that it will take nearly 16 months to transmit it all back to earth. Even just that effort is astounding, taking 4.5 hours for data to make the one-way trip. [NASA VIDEO: New Horizons phone home!]

Why? Why does it matter?

To quote President John F. Kennedy’s address at Rice University, Houston, Texas, concerning the nation’s efforts in space exploration (btw, I was 1 month when he gave this speech, to be clear):

There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

When even a cursory scan of the news can make one feel that humanity is perhaps caught in a perpetual contortion of confounding, inexplicable, & bewildering behaviors, values, and outcomes—malleable or at least shifting moral & ethics—our astounding achievements of the magnitude of visiting a far-away piece of the beginning of the universe demand a respite and repose.

We are not the sum of the reactive, primitive brain happenings that dominate social media trends.

We are the species that build machines to know more. To understand how we fit into this complex question of creation and existence.

I appreciate that many people who will point to poignant achievements in the arts and humanities to make a similar point—some of whom I adore. It is fantastic to embrace these, as all, authentic achievements that move people.

For me, it’s pure science.


More about the New Horizons Mission Team.  It’s the first first with a female MOM, and women make up 25% of the team.

Lavender fills a gap

LavenderBees2It’s quite exciting to walk past a plant made to sound alive by the urgent buzzing of many bees. Such is the state of the lavender at River Myst Haven.

The hearty, fragrant blooms of the lavender at River Myst Haven help fill a gap in the abundance of blooms during early/mid summer. Also, though mostly subjective (highly argued with little research), some say lavender helps control varroa mites (a scourge in hives).

“Borage, marjoram, and certain types of lavender are among the flowers most attractive to bees, a study that tested what many gardeners already knew has found.”

Honey from the hives of bees who have gathered heavily or predominately from these flowers typically has a lovely floral quality often (but not always) with the distinct scent of the flowers.


KC Armstrong -1It is really fascinating how news about the environment gets reported. For example, Oxford University just competed a “working paper,” Stranded Carbon Assets and Negative Emissions Technologies, that explored ways to deals with carbon gasses in the atmosphere. A very engaging (if dry) analysis of several/many possible approaches to offsetting or decreasing greenhouse gases in the environment.  Essentially they pointed out that something needs to be done to buy some time and mitigate some of the worst possible outcomes to try and stave off very horrendous outcomes for the planet…and us.  They propose that trees are the most cost effective approach and suggest we start planting massive numbers of trees.  This because a news report about the joy & importance of trees, and their potential role in saving us from ourselves.  I read the report as something a bit more ominous–a warning of impending catastrophe and an urging that we are quite threatened by the massive build-up of carbon in the atmosphere.  Yes, trees are remarkable, and it’s satisfying to confirm that something so beautiful and simple makes a huge difference in the human experience on the globe…but haven’t we known that for awhile? And isn’t the suggestion to “buy some time” to solve the problem of greenhouse gases a bit less urgent that it should be?  Anyway–it IS an interesting study to review…online, to save trees…oh, and Arbor Day is Friday, April 24, 2015.

Nature Matters


Until we understand what the land is, we are at odds with everything we touch. And to come to that understanding it is necessary, even now, to leave the regions of our conquest—the cleared fields, the towns and cities, the highways—and re-enter the woods. For only there can a man encounter the silence and the darkness of his own absence. Only in this silence and darkness can he recover the sense of the world’s longevity, of its ability to thrive without him, of his inferiority to it and his dependence on it. Perhaps then, having heard that silence and seen that darkness, he will grow humble before the place and begin to take it in—to learn from it what it is. As its sounds come into his hearing, and its lights and colors come into his vision, and its odors come into his nostrils, then he may come into its presence as he never has before, and he will arrive in his place and will want to remain. His life will grow out of the ground like the other lives of the place, and take its place among them. He will be with them—neither ignorant of them, nor indifferent to them, nor against them—and so at last he will grow to be native-born. That is, he must reenter the silence and the darkness, and be born again.

(pg. 27, A Native Hill)―Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays

 It is can be challenging to talk about ecological issues without stumbling into a political schema that might determine the flow, if not conclusion, of the conversation. I certainly don’t want to imply that the politics of saving the environment aren’t important; however, the topic certainly deserves to me more than a determinate of political orientation.

I believe it is possible to have a determined commitment to the land and environment, and a vision is of sustainable, responsible stewardship and experience of the land, flora and fauna, that isn’t a political statement but a philosophy of life.

I’m happy to share that I just became a certified California Naturalist through a program operated by our University of California (UC) Agriculture and Natural Resources department. It was a 6-week blend of reading, independent research, classroom time and a culminating project; it’s actually modeled on California’s Master Gardner program, but in nature.

Most every state in the United States has a Master Naturalist Program, often developed in conjunction with Universities and County Extension offices.

A naturalist might be described, at a basic level, as one who observes, studies, and interprets the natural world. Even more elemental, I believe, is a profound and engaging love of the natural world and its effect on us humans—the “force” so essential in the “Star Wars” mythology. A “a metaphysical, spiritual, binding, omnipotent and ubiquitous power,” as articulated on Wookiepedia.  (Yoda, a naturalist he was.)

John Muir, an early California naturalist, once said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

So, there you go. I am happily hitched to everything else in the universe and committed to finding a way to engage my connection as a naturalist. I hope that I will find a way to observe, study, and interpret the natural world in a way that brings some benefit to my community and those connected to it.

[Photo at Austin Creek State Recreation Area.  ©2014. Kim Carroll Photography.]