Thursday, December 19, 2013

Heinous Wildlife Killing by a Professional Conservationist

...who was once a friend of mine. We served on the board of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition together. I was chairman during the Yellowstone fires of 1988, and Marv was among those of us who tried hard to get the public to understand that the fires were not a disaster. Later I was proud to see the Coalition hire Marv as our representative in Idaho. And now this:
He has brought shame not only to GYC but to all of conservation. Any jerk who wants to say, "See? I told you they were all phonies," now has his banner example.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Techno-fun, Except Not

You can curse Bill Gates, you can blame yourself for your dependency, you can bang your head against the wall--but when your computer just stops, just won't go, no form of self-expression, no matter how powerful you may think it, will accomplish anything.  You are in Job's position.  You can't look up anybody's phone number.  You can't email anybody for advice.  If, as I was, you're on your way that morning to Yellowstone National Park to have lunch with two old friends and colleagues from the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, thereafter to a meeting with the head of the Yellowstone wolf project--a meeting essential to the book you're just finishing--and thereafter to dinner in Livingston with other dear friends, you cannot Google "computer repair livingston montana" and find out instantly where to drop off the accursed laptop on your way to the park.  All you have is a four-year-old Yellow Pages that shows Bozeman well supplied with computer repair people and Livingston with none.  You don't have time to do anything but jump in the car with your dead computer and hope for the best.

Well, there's a Radio Shack on the way, so I stop off there, and guess what, there's a computer-fixer guy on-premises, and sure, he'll have a go at it, and they're open till six, and I'll be back from the park before that.  Beautiful.

Except not.  Come five-thirty, he's stymied, stuck, nowhere.  I have to go home to Outer Greater Metropolitan Melville that night to feed Cat Isabel and then next morning drive--the opposite direction--to Billings for another important interview for the last little crucial dramatic bits of the ending of The Killing of Wolf Number Ten, with one of my favorite characters ever, the swashbuckling undercover investigator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Tim Eicher, who singlehandedly nailed the killer of Wolf Number Ten.  Luckily my friend Lexi is going to be driving to Big Timber the next morning, and so she can bring me my repaired computer, and all I'll have to do to get it is the ordinary bagatelle of the fifty-six-mile round trip to town.

Except not.  The Radio Shack guy still hasn't been able to fix the damned thing.  However, that same night I do a little talk to a book club whose members are all singing the praises of a computer repair guy in Livingston named Bob Sigal, and so I ask Lexi to bring the computer not to Big Timber but just across town in Livingston to Sigal.  By the end of the day, he reports that after wiping the hard drive clean and reinstalling all the major software--the equivalent of a brain transplant, were it a human being--my computer is humming with life.  The hundred-mile round trip to Livingston, with P. G. Wodehouse playing on the trusty iPod, is, under these circumstances, sheer joy.

Except.  It is now time to start packing.  I'm leaving Montana early this year.  I pack and send my books.  Isabel takes me on her Special Walk every day, usually about eight in the evening,

and I am wrapped in the sweet melancholy of leaving this place I love so much.

Trying to keep shipping costs down, I fill the good old BMW M3 ("Techno-Violet" in color) to Beverly Hillbillies condition, and on Tuesday, July 23, with Isabel in her carrying case unhappily but stoically wedged between two great cardboard boxes, off we go, with ghastly Twin Falls, Idaho, in our sights for the evening.

Except.  We don't make it that far.  While idling outside a Stinkers convenience store in Blackfoot, Idaho, in midafternoon, the BMW's engine starts shooting steam from under the hood in hideous billows.  The temperature gauge sweeps rapidly to the top and the emergency red light starts flashing.  A pool of coolant spreads beneath the car, and it is immediately undeniable that this car is skee-rewed.  Once more I am cast in the role of Job, v.2013.

One bit of apparent good fortune is that we are only thirty miles from Idaho Falls, which actually has a BMW dealer.  A call to AAA brings--slowly--a flatbed truck.  Every place of lodging in that city is booked, so the truck driver kindly delivers Isabel and me to a Best Western in Blackfoot, and the car to BMW of Idaho Falls, which by the time he arrives is closed for the day.

Morning brings a phone call from the service department informing me that the coolant overflow reservoir is cracked and a new one must be ordered, to arrive overnight.  They kindly send a driver to bring Isabel and me to a much nicer Best Western (which now has a room) overlooking the actual falls of Idaho Falls.  I dine in one of  the worst restaurants I have ever known, unsurprised.  Isabel's patience with motel life is growing thin.

By ten-thirty the next day, the new part has arrived, and Micah the mechanic goes to work.  By two o'clock he declares the car returned to health.  A driver picks up Isabel and me, I pile our stuff back into the car, and off we go.  We make it about three hundred yards when hot air comes blasting out of the air conditioner vents and the temperature gauge begins rising fast.  A quick U-turn and a desperate dash bring me back to the dealer before damage sets in.  The car is not fixed.  Not even close, Micah.  Well, I did test-drive it.  Well, it's not fixed, Micah, is it?  Like--I want to say, but refrain--quod erat demonstrandum, Micah?

I return to the Best Western and take another room.  At three-forty-five the service person calls and says the car needs a new thermostat, water pump, and some sort of housing, and the deadline for ordering those was three-thirty.  He has placed the order anyway, and "thinks" the order will "probably" come tomorrow.

Now, "tomorrow" is Friday.  If the parts don't arrive, I will be staying on in Idaho Falls for Friday night, Saturday night, and Sunday night, and since the installation of these particular parts is time-consuming, I may well have to stay Monday night as well--meaning that I will leave Idaho Falls exactly one week after I left Montana.  Idaho Falls, by the way, is usually considered about a four-hour drive from my starting point.

I call Elizabeth in San Francisco--where it is an hour earlier--and ask her to rush to BMW of San Francisco and buy the parts and then race to the central Fed Ex shipping facility and see if they can't still be overnighted to Idaho Falls.  She does it all brilliantly.  And at ten-thirty that Friday morning, both shipments arrive.

Except.  The order placed by the Idaho Falls dealer contains a thermostat and a housing, but no water pump.  Elizabeth's order contains a water pump and four housings, but no thermostat.

Put them together, however, and you have enough parts to make the car go.

Except.  It turns out that San Francisco has sent the wrong water pump.  Then a miracle.  Somewhere, somehow, Micah the mechanic finds an after-market water pump.  My desire to torture him with Latin evaporates.  And at 3:00 p.m. on Friday, July 26, 2013 (anno domini, Micah), Isabel and I are on our way to a filthy motel in Winnemucca, Nevada, and the car just simply...runs.  The next day, it continues to run, and come Saturday night, we are home.

Monday, July 22, 2013


And melancholy so intense it shades to grief.  The day is right: hot and still, the air alive only with big fierce mosquitoes.  The Sweet Grass is down, doubtless robbed of far more water than the irrigators are entitled to; nevertheless this year the creek has formed a few long runs deep enough for good fish.  They've had little botherment from me.  Yesterday I forced myself to go fishing and caught one brown about three inches long, then quit.  This morning I couldn't be forced, it was already too darn hot at nine.

The nights have been my kind of air.  Last night was the first time I've been sure that the great horned owls are back.  After the fire of 2007--or more probably after the logging that followed the fire--the pair that nested very near the Langston House had disappeared.  We loved those loud deep hoots and the louder chirrups of the youngsters, who were always getting separated around the meadow and across the creek and calling to each other, "Where are you?"  "Here!"  "But where are you now?"  "I'm over here now!"  Last night the moon was one crack short of full, tonight it will be in its maximum glory, and not a cloud is expected.

Just off the driveway is a dead calf.  I had smelled it for a while but hadn't gone looking because it was in the swamp.  By last night enough other critters had trampled the tall grass down enough to make a looking-path, and yucko.  It looked as if the head was gone altogether, though it seems more likely to me that it's just folded under--nobody eats the head first.  Much of the shoulder and neck, however, were thoroughly eaten away.  I had heard coyotes singing a few nights before, far out on the prairie, but somehow this didn't look like coyote work, nor bear: The hind leg was untouched.  Hard as it is to believe, I'm thinking that all this gobbling has been done by the maggots.  I have not seen or heard a single raven, which seems very odd.  A few years back there was a whole dead cow from far from the same spot, and the half-dead cottonwoods nearby (and we've still got plenty of those) were festooned every day with a whole funeral chorus of those great birds.  We have, of course, golden eagles here, and occasionally turkey vultures, and bald eagles--and why haven't I seen any of them in the sky above this feast of veal tartare?

Melancholy has been well aided by Truffaut's "The Last Metro," one of the most perfect movies ever made, with Deneuve and Depardieu at their most sublime.  The ending comes at you like a speeding but silent train, and I burst into helpless tears.   Can anybody tell me that they have ever seen a woman more beautiful than Catherine Deneuve?  Or a more powerful actor than Depardieu?  Too bad he's gone nuts over taxes.  That seems to happen to more than a few geniuses, doesn't it?

Elizabeth has come and all too quickly gone.  At least, when she was here, we were able to get at Porcupine Butte two different ways.  The first was up its flank to a bench we'd never known the existence of, a flat shelf covered with limber pines, nearly all dead, and one thriving Douglas-fir.  I wondered if maybe the living limber pines might be immune to both the mountain pine beetle and the blister rust, and if it and its kinsmen might therefore found a new population.  I wondered if the same thing might be going on among their more important close cousins, the whitebark pines, which have historically been the single highest-calorie source of food for Yellowstone grizzlies.  I've gotten in touch with a researcher who's looking into the Yellowstone whitebark situation, but haven't read her papers yet.  She did say she didn't think it was quite as much a crisis as people have made it out to be.  Good thing if so, since the spawning runs of cutthroat have been slashed by ninety percent by the lake trout introduced by some fool to Yellowstone Lake, and the supply of elk calves is down too (thanks in part to wolf predation--oops).  Well, I digress.  The point was this new place on the butte.  We decided to sidehill south along the face of the butte, but instead hit a gorge--which we'd also never seen.  It was unquestionably impassable, for people.  Across it we saw two blonde coyotes scrambling up the wall, followed by fuzzy, stumbling cubs.  I saw only two, there may have been more.  One of them turned and looked at me for a long moment, one of the cutest, biggest-eyed, biggest-eared little puppy dogs I've ever had the pleasure to see.  I don't think it had ever seen a person before.

(I'm just realizing I've already written about this.  I don't care.  Or, if you prefer: I'm sorry.)

Then a few days later--July 7, 2013--we did our regular route to the summit, up the long, rising grassy slope from the west--and oh, such flowers this year!  I believe we recorded something like forty-five species in bloom.  The weather was perfect, and to be granted such beauty and tranquility, we must always be deeply conscious of our good fortune.  At these times it's good to think about the proportions of what's what in one's life.

Meanwhile, nearly every day, another source of gratitude: cat Isabel.  We now have a regular walking route (in addition to others), which is officially known as the Special Walk because at the turn-around point is an old, old, gnarled, but not very tall willow tree--her Special Tree-- in whose branches she can climb and twist and peek out at me and be a little mischievous--though she always comes down when I ask her to.  Here is a picture of Isabel taking me for the Special Walk.

I wondered if Isabel were going to make some sort of parting gesture here, and she has done so.  She came racing in this morning with a tiny dark bird in her mouth, dropped it at her plate, and when it skittered across the kitchen between my legs she shot through the same wicket and bit it hard.  I told her to take it outside, and quite to my surprise she did so directly--trotted right out the front door.  I followed.  She dumped it in the lawn, and when I went to look, it looked to me like some tiny little wren.  Maybe it was a Western wood-pewee, of which there are a lot here, but the tiny body (two inches max) and relatively long, pointy, turned-up tail said wren.  (The bird book is packed and gone.)  Isabel gave the body a bop and to both her and my astonishment it took off flying--landed on the BMW's windshield wiper.  Isabel flew right behind it, chomped it, brought it back into the yard, and dumped it again.  No further flying.

Tomorrow she gets locked in her box and I in mine, and off we go, to pastures new.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Why Hike

The first time Elizabeth and I went hiking with our dear pals Charles and Lindsey Shere in Sonoma County--she the first and longtime pastry chef at Chez Panisse, he the restaurant's eminence grise and one of the world's true polymaths--Elizabeth and I stopped to look at a wildflower, both whose English and scientific (that is, Latin) names Elizabeth happened to know.  And Charles said, "Uh oh, Lindsey--pedants."

Yeah, well.  Yesterday, a splendid bright blue morning, we strode across the Sweet Grass prairie and on up the lower shelves of Porcupine Butte, ultimately to a little plateau covered with the skeletons of dead limber pines.  Two scourges have been at work on the white pine species of the West, a nasty foreign disease called white pine blister rust and a home-grown bug made unnaturally mighty by the rising temperatures of our winters, the mountain pine beetle.  At high elevations a close cousin of these limber pines, the whitebark pine, has long been the most important single source of food for Yellowstone grizzly bears, and those forests are nearly all nearly dead.  The grizzlies' backup protein has been cutthroat trout when they spawn in shallow tributaries of Yellowstone Lake--and now those fish have been reduced something like ninety percent by an invasion of monstrous lake trout, which some asshole actually dumped into the lake on purpose.  The next menu item for the bears is elk calves, and now the elk population is down.  And guess what the grizzlies' stewards in the federal government now propose to do?  Remove federal protection for the species.  But I digress.

On this shelf of Porcupine Butte there were still several healthy limber pines, and I wondered if perhaps there will survive a strain that is immune to both the plagues of the limber and the whitebark pines.  I know that the precedents aren't good: The American chestnut and elm come to mind, both of which still have a few healthy individuals, so they haven't gone extinct as species but they sure as hell haven't recovered either.  Jesus, I'm still digressing.

Where I'm trying to get to is the amazing beauty we passed through on our way across the prairie and up the steepening slopes of the butte.  There were some flowers in stupendous abundance that I've never seen in such splendor, and I'm thinking that their richness may be a function of last year's poverty--that they are the children of drought and perhaps also of the overgrazing it brought on.  There is a gorgeous pink Phacelia--linearis, called threadleaf phacelia--that there were great blankets of amid the whitened, twisted trunks of the dead pine trees, a phenomenon I'd never seen.

This was a place we'd never been before, either, and we thought we would move east from it across the steep but walkable face of the butte, but instead we found ourselves at the edge of a cliff, overlooking a gorge which also we had never seen.  Across it suddenly there were two, then three, then four critters in motion, climbing the opposite cliff face--the first two all grace and speed, the third and fourth smaller, galumphing, tripping, and stopping at uncertain perches to look back at us in mystification.  These were two coyote pups, as soft-looking as baby's toys, big ears, big eyes, as cute a pair of little big-footed puppies as I've ever been blessed with the sight of.  I think they probably had never seen people before.  Their nervous parents, unheard, unseen after those first moments, somehow drew them promptly away into cover.

And so, okay, pedants to the core, we saw and named all these, in flower and in glory (Elizabeth, actually, is the one who has done nearly all the digging in books and online for the precise species--she's the ultra-pedant):

Achillea millefolium, yarrow
Lupinus [argenteus?], [silver?] lupine
Gaillardia aristata, blanketflower
Potentilla diversifolia, cinquefoil
Lithospermum ruderale, western gromwell
Oxytropis splendens, showy crazyweed
Oxytropis lagopus, rabbitfoot crazyweed
Eriogonum flavum, yellow buckwheat
Allium textile, textile onion
Phacelia linearis, threadleaf phacelia
Sphaeralcea coccinea, scarlet globemallow
Astragalus drummondii, crazyweed or Drummond's milkvetch
Linum perenne, wild flax
Gaura coccinea, scarlet gaura
Grindelia squarrosa, curlycup gumweed
Helianthella uniflora, little sunflower
Toxicoscordion venenosus, death-camas
Rosa sp., wild prairie rose
Antennaria parvifolia, Nuttall's pussytoes
Antennaria neglecta, field pussytoes
Potentilla hippiana, silver cinquefoil
Agoseris glauca, false dandelion
Penstemon eriantherus, fuzzytongue penstemon
Senecio canus, woolly groundsel
Galium boreale, northern bedstraw
Orobanche fasciculata, clustered broomrape (sounds like a very bad crime, doesn't it?)
Geranium viscosissimum, sticky geranium
Lithospermum incisum, narrow-leaved gromwell
Arenaria hookeri, Hooker's sandwort (sounds like a bad STD, doesn't it?)
Crypthantha virguta, miner's candle
Townsendia parryi, Parry's townsendia
Erigeron compositus, cutleaf daisy
Gilia congesta, ballhead gilia
Hymenoxys acaulis, stemless sunflower
Eriogonum umbellatum, sulphur buckwheat
Lomatium cous, Cous biscuitroot
Comandra, umbellata, bastard toadflax
Stenoloba sp.?, draba?
Draba aurea? golden draba?
Collomia linearis, long-leaved collomia
Phacelia hastata, silverleaf phacelia
Campanula rotundifolia, harebell
Sedum lanceolatum, lanceleaf stonecrop
Ribes inerme, white-stemmed gooseberry
Delphinium bicolor, little larkspur
Phlox multiflora, Rocky Mountain phlox
Vicia americana, purple vetch

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Quiet Little Restaurant Rant, Picking Specifically on New York

 I'm picking on New York because as is so often the case it is leading a trend.  In this particular case, unfortunately, it's a very bad one.  Worse, it's already widespread.  Worse yet, it is being abetted by certain writers who carry a certain authority, and who ought to know better, but whose wanting to sound young and cool has muzzled their critical faculties.

For the moment I wish to leave aside the metastasis of "sensation" as the governing experience of the food in too many highly competitive New York restaurants.  It's a complicated business, but--since restaurants are businesses--it is admittedly almost irresistible in the face of all the morons taking pictures of their food and reviewing it while they eat it for Yelp or whatever...morons who really don't know anything about food and whose combined knowledge disproves the last vestiges of the notion of the wisdom of crowds.

But as I say, let's please pass over that for the moment to another and worse sort of ignorance, that of professional critics caught up in coolth.  I'm reluctant to pick on the New York Times, because I love and revere the New York Times but also because it can bite back.  Nevertheless some of what has been appearing there has stirred me past the point of prudence.  I'm going to take just a little-bitty example, namely, the recent review of another "theatrical" or "theme" restaurant--these are getting big lately--the kind that works very hard at seeming "authentic" in a ghoulish possible-only-in-New-York fusion of snobbery and Disney World, this one a "French" restaurant called Lafayette.  (How many of you remember the old Lafayette?  It was a French restaurant that didn't require quotation marks around its ethnicity.)

And from that review only an eensy-tinesy detail, from down in what they call the "service information."  One of the items listed there is "sound level," and a good idea that is, too.  But in this review the sound level is described as "authentically loud."

Ooch.  This, I infer, means that the writer thinks that "real" French bistros (i.e., in France) are loud.  Well, they're not.  French people don't bellow.  Sometimes Parisian bistros get loud--when there are a lot of American tourists there.  Otherwise, the word for a French bistro full of people talking would be "lively."  Nobody hollering, no danger of hearing damage.

An aside: I've finally gotten something figured out, in at least a physiognomic way: Americans have started opening their mouths really wide, especially the women, especially when they laugh.  When you open your mouth really wide, you make a lot of noise, ipso facto.  (You also often show a mouthful of half-chewed food.)  Then look at a bunch of French people at table.  They really don't know how to open their mouths wide (exception for opera singers).  Anyway: French bistros in France are full of conversation, because, absolutely, French people, especially Parisians, love to talk, usually all at once, and at a lively level.  But it's like one of those limiters we used to use in the recording studio when I was in the record business (when LPs could take only so much)--the volume hits a certain level and that's it.  They don't bellow, they don't holler, they don't scream, they don't do that shrieking laugh that women in San Francisco and New York have so horribly made their own.  (And what's so not funny about it is that when you find out what they're laughing about, it's invariably not funny at all.  They'll admit it themselves.)  Thus the young and/or never-been-to-France or never-noticed-if-they-did reader of the Times review has his or her open-mouthed bellowing certified as "authentically" French-bistro-loud.

Okay, I know, I know, next thing is an aluminum cane with four rubber tips.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Good Thoughts about a Pussycat

(With apology to the incomparable George Booth for the borrowing of his phrase.)  I am trying to dampen my blazing fury at the just-published proposal of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Barack Obama, proprietor) to remove all federal protection from all gray wolves in the United States except the perpetually persecuted Mexican subspecies.  I will be returning to this subject before long, when I calm down.

In the meantime, in quest of solace, I am thinking good thoughts about Isabel, which she makes easy.  Here is Isabel the intellectual, thinking good thoughts about I'm not sure what:

And here is Isabel the esthete, contemplating wildflowers just gathered from the prairie:

If there were a wolf pack roaming the prairie and the cottonwoods here, might they put the bite on Isabel?  I suppose it's possible, but most unlikely.  This place is crawling with both white-tailed and mule deer, including newborn fawns--much more appealing to the lupine palate.  Nevertheless it should be admitted that even while the wolves' attitude toward Isabel might be indifference, hers toward them would, I'm quite sure, be distinct antipathy--from way, way up in the top of a tree.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Onrushing Spring

The first whitetail fawn just bobbled across the meadow, close behind mom.  Not a newborn--their first weeks are spent curled up in hiding, rising only to nurse and to test those trembling, fragile legs.  I've nearly stepped on one several times in old disused irrigation ditches around here, but they will bolt away at the last second.  It's always a surprise to see how dark and how red they are, and they're never less cute than ever.

The prairie flora is already changing fast.  The white field chickweed, Cerastium arvense, has disapppeared with unusual quickness, and the mustard-yellow biscuitroot, Lomatium cous, which I've previously misidentified as L. dissectum and which was blanketing the dryest meadows last week, is rapidly turning brown.  It's a plant I damn well ought to know, since its root is a favorite food of grizzly bears in Yellowstone.   The sand-lily, Leucocrinum montanum, was like a field of stars the day of my arrival (June 1st), but low as it is, it's fast overshadowed.  Low larkspur, Delphinium bicolor, isn't low at all this year--I'm seeing great bouquets of them a foot and a half tall.  Maybe I've got that species wrong too.  Anyway it's a great year for it, though indoors it falls apart fast.  The little sunflower, Helianthella uniflora, seems a bit more widely spaced than usual, but it may be just getting going.  Last year--the year of brutal drought--the hauntingly elegant death-camas, Zigadenus venenosus, appeared hardly at all, whereas in the very wet year before that there  were swaths to the horizon; it is just now rising in profusion, though I think it will not rival 2011.  Hairy penstemon, P.eriantherus, a big, bold, pink, almost rudely bulbous thing that grows most happily in the most miserably dry clay and gravel, is a sentimental hero of mine, and it seems to be booming early.  Style onions, Allium style, are more abundant and taller than I've ever seen them--tender leaves coming soon to a baked potato.  Oddly, I haven't seen a single shooting-star, despite all the rain we've had.

Out on the prairie, a few diffident pioneers are showing up close to the ground, under the rain-charged grasses: phlox, pearly everlasting, yellow violets, a low spreading cinquefoil; but the usual bull-goose chest-thumping champ of the farther range, silky crazyweed, Oxytropis sericea, seems a bit on the sparse side.  It is making up for that modesty, however, with a wondrous range of pinks way beyond its customary cream, some of them almost purple.  Its little sister, the small but well-named (in both English and Latin) showy crazyweed, Oxytropis splendens, appears only here and there, lovely in her pink frills like some shy girl at a Jane Austen ball.  My favorite of all, the boringly named narrow-leaved gromwell, Lithospermum incisum, is excruciatingly hard to find but heart-achingly beautiful when at last you do.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A Yummy Dinner from Materials at Hand, though Some of Them Could Have Been Local

Yesterday my peripatetic dear friend Lexi Rome called from northwestern Montana, where she and our mutual pal Burr Heneman (a great conservation hero, but that's another story) had been birding at the Nature Conservancy's Pine Butte Preserve, on the east front of the Rockies near Glacier National Park, under the guidance of the one and only David Allen Sibley--himself, not the book--the Bull Goose Birdman of them all; and Lexi wanted to know if she and Burr could drop by for dinner here at the Langston House.

Normally I'm not thrilled by last-minute self-invitations, but Lexi has permanent carte blanche with me on just about everything, and I was intrigued by the idea of tossing together something good from whatever I had in the fridge.  I knew I didn't have any dessert--my cherries had just gone moldy--so they were going to pop in at Ft. Benton and see what they could come up with, which turned out to be excellent cherries and pretty darn good brownies.

I had stocked up pretty liberally when I passed through Bozeman last week, and one of the things I had was a rather opaquely frost-covered package labeled "duck breasts."  I thought it was going to be two big ones, which would be fine for the three of us, and I had managed to keep four pluots alive since I left San Francisco, from the great Frog Hollow orchards; and I had this idea of serving grilled duck with grilled pluots and toasted walnuts and yogurt.  I'd never heard of the combination before, but it sounded good, and then when I googled around a little I discovered that it's actually not an uncommon combination in the Middle East.  Thawed, the duck breasts turned out to be four small ones, from Mary's Farm in Sonoma County, and that got me to thinking, How come the Bozeman Co-op has to sell California ducks?  That is, why aren't some of these ranchers around here who are always moaning about how they're going broke in the cattle business also raising a few ducks--and so on?  Chickens, turkeys, guinea hens, squab pigeons, pheasants, you know--come on!  It's really not all that hard.  The kids can do most of it.

So I marinated the duck breasts in olive oil and a lot of black pepper, and I toasted the walnuts and cut the pluots in half.  Then I prepped some spiced rice: I fried a little fine-chopped onion in butter, then added whole spices--cardamom pods, cloves, coriander seeds, peppercorns (just three or four of each of all of those), a tiny cinnamon stick, and a tee-tiny pinch of turmeric--then basmati rice, and fried that all up together till the rice turned opaque.  That was all a couple of hours in advance.  When the guests arrived and we all agreed we were half an hour from hungry, into a 300 oven went the rice (with water).  Came out gorgeous.  Except I forgot to add the goddam frozen peas at the end, which would have made it even better.

Besides the duck, the onions could have been local, maybe the walnuts (not sure about those), certainly the yogurt and the butter.  We do get local cherries, but later.  The brownies might in fact have been local, I don't know.

Andway, back to the cooking.  You can time all this within an inch of your life, or you can hold the rice warm easily and then do the rest.  I chose the latter course.  I grilled the duck to medium rare, rested it a while, sliced it across, served it with the hot fruit and briefly warmed nuts and cold yogurt nestled up against it; and the rice had actually improved from the wait--fluffier, I think--and I gotta tell you that was one yummy dinner.  Lexi and Burr had brought a pale rose de Provence that was just the thing.  The late afternoon was still warm ,with no skeeters, so we ate outside under the sunset and you could not have beat that dinner with a stick.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Night Sky

One of the best things about being here is walking in starlight.  It is best on nights like tonight when there is no moon at all, but in June the real, dense dark is brief.  I have been pleased to discover that gives the precise times of the successive deepenings of darkness:

Ordinary sunset tonight will be at 9:08 p.m, sunrise tomorrow morning at 5:30.  But of course at those times, especially under a sky this clear, it's bright enough to read a small-type King James Bible.

The more meaningful darknesses begin with Civil Twilight, "The time period when the sun is no more than 6 degrees below the horizon at either sunrise or sunset. The horizon should be clearly defined and the brightest stars should be visible under good atmospheric conditions (i.e. no moonlight, or other lights). One still should be able to carry on ordinary outdoor activities."  Civil twilight tonight will set in at 9:46 and return at 4:52.

Next comes Nautical Twilight, "The time period when the sun is between 6 and 12 degrees below the horizon at either sunrise or sunset. The horizon is not defined and the outline of objects might be visible without artificial light. Ordinary outdoor activities are not possible at this time without extra illumination."  So we will lose the horizon and the outline of objects tonight at 10:36, and have them back, should we wish to witness the redefinition of visible shape, at 4:01 a.m.

The advent of real black darkness is known as Astronomical Twilight, and at this time of year you have to stay up late to receive its velvet embrace--a comfort which comes to most of us with a little chill of ancient fear.  Tonight's deep night will last only from 11:45 p.m. to 2:53 a.m., barely more than three hours.

The moon plays her part beautifully tonight, by not appearing at all.  In the stage of "waxing crescent," only the moon's black face is turned to us, and in any case today's moonrise was at 5:43 in the morning, and the moon will set at 9:09--one minute after the sun.

It seems like a time for any kind of seriousness--for fear, for gladness, for love, for gratitude, for ghosts and grief, for wishes and hope.  For me, most often, such specificities fade, as I walk in the starlit dark, into a stillness, an interior stillness, which in turn, sometimes, effloresces in an opening of the physical senses.  Sometimes then it seems time to stop walking, to sit down and just to listen, smell, feel, breathe.  The darkness is not dark, the stillness is not still, the quiet is not silent.  After a while I get cold, and it's time to walk again, home.

Well, that's the  dreamer's vision, before he set foot outside.  Here's the event.  First of all, what the Weather Underground tells us is going to be loss of horizon, black dark, objects invisible at 11:45--ha!--is nothing of the kind.  Here in Greater Metropolitan Melville even at midnight the sunset is streaking the western sky with orange and purple.  To the east, a sickly brownish sodium-vapor dome, given sufficient humidity, hangs over Billings; the humidity may well be composed of gases from the oil refineries there.  But there is a lot of natural vapor in the air as well, sufficient that the stars do not shine at the horizon as they do on a perfect night.  Oh, and a neighbor has put up a light on a pole of such candlepower that even at a third of a mile away it's like staring into the headlamp of a truck on bright.  What for, what for, out here in nowhere?  Do they think it will keep coyotes away from their sheep?  (It won't.)  Then there are the planes, half a dozen of which are visible at any given moment, and the satellites, which I now see as somehow naturalized, so politely silent as they are, skimming behind invisible clouds like spirits.  I know, I know a lot of them are junk, I know that when I'm looking at some of them so benignantly they're actually looking at me not benignantly at all.  I willfully employ them as reminders to force a form of belief on myself, in the same way that I pray aloud in church, repeating words I don't believe in order at least to occupy the shape of belief.  In our damaged world, in our imperfect starlight, we must walk in a certain degree of illusion, must we not?  This may be the closest to perfect starlight I will ever see, and I had better love it while I have it, and the closest to velvet dark.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Nesting in Montana; the Field Naturalist and the Great Swarm of Bees

After two summers of climatic cruelty--2011 flood, 2012 drought--and a winter threatening a dry forever, an ordinary Montana spring has set in: rain machine-gunning the metal roof all night, wind lashing the house like Paul Bunyan's ox-whip, low gray days when the mercury struggles toward fifty degrees and gives up, nights like last night from which the Crazies awake blinding white with fresh snow down to timberline and past it, under blue-defining blue.

Cat Isabel, not yet two years old--wherever that puts her in terms of maturity (youth, I can say that much)--after two and a half days enduring without complaint confinement in her kennel in the thrumming M3 and two nights in motel rooms (Elko, then Bozeman) reeking of chemical solvents and artificial fabrics, is as happy as that sky is blue.  We play Race to the Face, in which I place my chin on the corner post of the pole fence while she trots as fast as she can from the farther corner to touch her cold nose to mine.  She charges up cottonwoods to about ten feet of altitude, just for the feel of it in her claws and for the challenge of balancing on fragile little branches and finding her way down.  (Before long she'll go farther up and have to be serious about descending.)  She sproings across the lawn and into the higher grass beyond in pursuit of phantom prey.  She sits regally erect on the porch and surveys her demesne.  When I return from the creek, she bounds toward me with her front legs spread wide with each bound in what looks like a gesture of embrace--much like the gesture she used to make when she was a kitten that said, Pick me up--and when she arrives at my feet, in fact, she curls and curvets in her more mature way of suggesting the same.  Then we walk in the driveway together and she grovels in the gravel--Graveling, I call it--rubbing herself till she's thoroughly dusty, grainy, her white feet tan, in what's actually a kind of bath.

On the prairie the long-billed curlews and marbled godwits are nesting, and dive-bomb the intruder with shrieks of annoyance.  The curlews' alarm call is a relatively melodious frederique, frederique, and their warning flights are long graceful circles that often end with the funny-looking creature (what a schnoz!) in profile not far away giving one the eyeball--the whole routine lovely and comical (not to the bird, presumably).  The godwits take everything more seriously.  Sometimes they will fly straight at you, which can be rather unsettling until you know that they always do veer away.  Their call is harsh and unmistakably upset.  Neither of them ever gives a clue to the location of their nests, and I've never seen one.

I walked out as far as a flooding irrigation ditch and was still city-prissy enough that I didn't want to get my feet wet, so I was about to turn around when I heard a monumental buzzing, inconceivably loud.  It must have been a hundred thousand bees, I thought, maybe a million, maybe ten million, some sort of epochal swarm.  At first I said to myself, Well, turning around is a good idea anyhow, do I want to get caught up in the thing and stung to death?  And then I thought, Oh, hell, something like this has got to be once in a lifetime, I bet they don't pay attention to you at all, I've got to see it.  So I waded on across, and suddenly the immense sound was all behind me.  How could that be?  It made no sense.  Well, duh.  It turns out that the hundred thousand or ten million were in fact about two hundred, and they were all zooming around a patch of half-drowned crummy little mustard plants, the kind that grow in the beat-uppest, stomped-onnest dirt road beds, except that these were half under water so that only their flowers were showing, and these little bees, sweat bees was what we used to call them when I was growing up in Memphis, were going totally apeshit over them and making the most amazing amount of noise while doing so.  I waded right through them and they paid absolutely no attention to me.

Monday, June 3, 2013

A wondrous Yellowstone mystery [alas, now removed]

Apparently it's okay to just lift somebody's stuff from the web.  This one can't possibly be copyrighted--the person who posted it didn't even give his last name.  So thank you, Max.  WRONG-O: SEE BELOW.

Showdown: Fox Defends the Den Against a Badger

Dear Readers, please note: The photographs and text I posted were in fact copyrighted by Max Waugh, and it was wrong of me to use them without his permission.  I guess I'm still naive about copy protection on the internet--something I need to know about for my own sake as well.  I hadn't even been able to find Max's full name on his original post (maybe I didn't look well enough), but I'm now removing his pictures, and I here publicly apology, most sincerely, to Max Waugh.

Of course I didn't win.

Big, handsome, ever-smiling, famous Marcus Samuelsson won the James Beard award for best food book of the year.  He's on television all the time, he's got a couple of booming, very good restaurants in New York and all the food people in New York know who he is.  He has an amazing life story--born in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, bootstraps-to-glory in Manhattan.  Nice guy too.  Naturally I hate him.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013


CALLOO CALLAY: THE MAN WHO CHANGED THE WAY WE EAT has been nominated for a James Beard award...and has picked it likeliest to win.  Come May 3, we shall see.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


“A big juicy dish bubbling with scandals and rivalries, thickened with oft-told secrets, chock full of random bits as if a boxful of mementos had been upended into the stew. Dig in.”
— The Washington Post

“There are few people more revered in the food world than Craig Claiborne....Thomas McNamee has done his homework here, offering up a full portrait of Claiborne, whose life was not all crème fraîche.”
— USA Today

“Craig Claiborne was the greatest influence of my professional life. . . . Claiborne’s impact on the culinary revolution of the last forty years cannot be ignored or overstated.”
—Jacques Pépin

“McNamee’s book is extraordinary. This is a fascinating book, true progenitor that [Claiborne] was in what appears to be a genuine American food revolution. It’s impossible to think of his as a happy life but he certainly got his work done, which matters a great deal. I would recommend this book to anyone even vaguely interested in food.”
—Jim Harrison

Thursday, March 7, 2013


So.  Here's this energy expert, Charles "Chip" Groat, lead author of a prestigious study that gives hydraulic fracturing--better known as fracking--a clean bill of health.  No evidence of groundwater contamination.  Safe.  Clean.

Prof. Groat has impeccable credentials.  He has served on more than a dozen earth science boards.  He was executive director of the American Geological Institute.  He was chief of the U.S. Geological Survey--as clean an agency as the federal government has, in my view--under both presidents Clinton and Bush.  At the time of the study he was interim dean of the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin as well as Director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at U.T.  The study was reported as conclusive in one of the scientific world's most authoritative journals, Nature.

Oh, but.  Turns out there's one little detail ol' Chip didn't mention.  It seems that he sits on the board of a little old company called Plains Exploration & Production Company of Houston, which describes itself as "primarily engaged in the activities of acquiring, developing, exploring and producing oil and gas."  He owns 40,000 shares in the company, and in 2011 they paid Charles "Chip" Groat some $400,000.

Caught red-handed by a nonprofit watchdog group, the Public Accountability Initiative, ol' Chip declared that disclosing his relationship with that company "would not have served any meaningful purpose relevant to this study."

He hadn't told the University of Texas, either, and they commissioned an outside investigation of the matter, which culminated, in November 2012, in Prof. Groat's resignation.  He's still on the PXP board, and the study, though riddled with flaws, has never been withdrawn.

Saturday, January 12, 2013


This is Daphne Groeneveld, who, according to, is the ninth-highest-ranked model in the world .

This is Daphne's"public" blog on tumblr, her public presence on the internet:  A glance at two or three pages of this should suffice.

Much more interesting, and worth a longer tour, is her "private" tumblr blog, which of course is not private at all:

What a life!