Tuesday, September 27, 2011

300 lbs. of Cinnamon

I started writing this dispatch at my good friend Anita’s house. I live in a “low-lying area” (between a creek and a river) that was evacuated so Hurricane Irene could take over the space in a more expansive manner. Anita is a librarian and manager of her branch. Her house–just across town–hasn’t lost electrical power in almost a decade’s worth of big storms. She is the Emergency Contact of My Dreams.
Anita’s wisenheimer (but mainly smart and fabulous) son sent her this email after reading my August 8 post about Rae’s field work with Ursus americanus:

I didn't tell you about my plans for this weekend? I'm planning to go swimming with Great White Sharks in the Great Barrier Reef while wearing a wet-suit made out of raw, freshly cut t-bone steaks. I was thinking about poking a wasp nest with my finger and sleeping on a mattress full of bedbugs first, though...

What do you think?


Capture 1
“I was thrilled!”
On Rae’s dad’s birthday, the person whose turn it was to check the traps called Carl, then Carl called Rae to tell her they had a bear. The trap was in a remote area at the top of a mountain all the way up a little winding dirt road. Forest service and fish and wildlife personnel access only.
“It was awesome.”
Cinnamon (not her real name) had taken the bait: cookies with M&Ms from the grocery store. Most black bears are black or a very dark brown. But like people and other colorful animals (flamingoes!), black bears vary in color. Cinnamon is a cinnamon-colored black bear. Her cubs are black. Cinnamon’s real name is the secret agent-sounding Green 99. All bears in the study are named with a color–for the region they occupy–and a number. Except for the first 20 bears at the study’s outset in 2001. Carl and Jon named those bears after their favorite players from the Denver Broncos. (Shoutout to Trevor, Brian, Ed, Rod, and the crew. Raise a paw if you’re with me!)
Cinnamon’s three cute little cubs watched the action from a nearby tree. Unsurprisingly, Cinnamon was through, and was making a lot of noise in the trap. I ask Rae how bears sound. (In children’s stories they speak like humans.) She says they growl and kind of bark.
To recap, we have mama bear in a trap, growling and barking, with her cubs up a tree. “Bears are never very good when you separate them from their babies, “ she tells me. I think, Who is? But I don’t know if I say this to Rae.
This is how it goes once the bear is in the trap:
1)   Stick the tranquilizer gun through the bars at the entrance to the trap, and shoot into the bear’s shoulder area from a close position.
2)   The bear falls over. (The tranq dart knocks the bear out for about two hours.)
3)   Open the door.
4)   Everybody pulls the bear out of the trap. (What must this be like?)
5)   Put/carry the bear to somewhere shady and flat.
6)   Take her/his stats.
7)   If it’s a sow and she has cubs nearby, tranquilize them, if possible, to measure, weigh, and tag them.*
This is a photo of Rae taking Cinnamon’s temp with a rectal thermometer. Cinnamon was at 99.5 degrees; a little low, but healthy. Carl handed Rae the thermometer, “OK, it’s your first time on a bear.” The rectal part was Carl’s version of a surprise.
Rae had her tranquilizer gun moment two days later with Green 68. [Note: Green 68 was lured by pie. Luke, a wildlife biology student intern with the Nevada Department of Wildlife, is tasked with shopping for sweets for the traps. He seems to bring enthusiasm to this part of his job.] Green 68 filled up the entire trap. Rae, a novice, couldn’t miss. The tranq dart is propelled by carbon dioxide, and makes a sound like air moving very fast (ssssshooop). “You know like in the movies the assassins have those guns that place a red dot on the target? It’s just like that,” Rae says. Maybe one day she will have her own nature show where she can choose her wardrobe. (A dream come true, fingers crossed.)
*About the tagging:
1) Carl’s and Jon’s and Rae’s study is out of collars. The collars cost about $5,000 each, and right now they’re in search of money. So, instead…
2) The bears get tattooed. In a monitoring procedure called “mark recapture,” the captured bears are tattooed on the inside of their lip and a tag is affixed to one of their ears. The ear tags “are like insurance,” Rae says. Just pick up a pair of binoculars, read the tag from far away, and record the bear’s location. In the event the tag comes off, the bear still has the tat. This way the bears don’t have to be tranquilized so often for the team to keep track of them.
3) I'm feeling bad about the tattooing. Rae says environmental biologists can’t catch a wild animal and not keep track of it. “The bear is unconscious; you lift up its lip and write,” she says firmly. (I am reminded of when we visited a little farm when she was in kindergarten, and she bottle fed the cutest fuzzy black lamb. I asked the farmer how long she kept the lambs. “Oh, not very long. They become lamb chops,” she laughed. “I love lamb chops,” small Rae exclaimed, holding the bottle to the little lamb’s lips without wavering.)
4) The team keeps track of the number of times their bears are captured. If they capture a lot of bears, and many are first timers, they know there’s a large population.
5) Reminder: the point is to find out where the bears are and what kinds of habitats they’re using in order to, eventually, prevent destructive human-wildlife interaction. (Please see August 8 post.)
Capture 2
Here’s Rae’s recounting of Green 68’s capture:
Green 68 had two cubs that gave us a run for our money. She was in the trap and the cubs were around the trap waiting for her. You have to be really quiet. They’re so little and fast they just zoom by you. There’s such dense vegetation, we couldn’t catch them. We all hid and waited. We tranquilized mom and took her out of the trap to a shady spot on the ground. The cubs came back to their mom in about 30 minutes’ time. Then they started nursing while she was unconscious. They’re about 6 months old. It was easy to shoot them. Carl did it.
Here's Rae and one of Green 68's offspring while it was spaced out. Completely sweet. 
Both mama bears had already been tattooed before their August recapture.
Final shoutout of this post goes to Oba, Rae’s boyfriend in NYC who had their new apartment all ready when she got back, and found the rectal thermometer factoid TMI. This was his maiden voyage as a wildlife ecologist's urban life partner. If he was freaking out, he did it away from his Blackberry.
BTW, the Ray May Fire in NV (mentioned in my last post) was contained in 3-4 days. Hurricane Irene did an excellent job on the Great Dismal Swamp fire, which must be the primary reason she rolled through this part of VA.
Text your mother photos of you with wild animals, remembering to indicate that they’re unconscious and you are not. 

Doughnuts by the fire

Long post.
Last night I received this text from Rae: "Uh oh. Big wildfire and my bear habitat is burning..." My thoughts, in this order, were: 1) Her asthma, triggered by airborne irritants, is just as bad as it was when she was little. She has to take all of her meds. Now.; 2) How far away is the fire and how fast is it approaching?; 3) The gas card I sent has not yet arrived via Priority Mail, so odds are there's not enough gas in the tank to get her as far away as she might need to get; and, finally, 4) Poor bears!
I haven't heard from Rae today, which I believe is a good thing, except she said she'd text when she got the gas card. The Ray May Fire (!) is, at the time of this posting, 70% contained. We've got a gigantic fire raging here in the Great Dismal Swamp, which straddles North Carolina and Virginia. I'm north of the border. We'd had a couple of clear days, but as I write this, the wind is shifting, and I can smell the smoke again, and apparently the smoke is evil. Here are some of Rae's (emailed) comments on the GDS fire:
ahh!! i didn't realize the dismal swamp was PEAT SWAMP!!! Peat is a type of soil that has more carbon than any other kind of soil, plant, anything. When peat swamps burn accidentally or are burned on purpose (to clear for agriculture), more soil carbon is released into the atmosphere than is really imaginable. It's so so so so SO bad and is actually the leading cause of climate change globally. :(
She’s disappointed that no Nevada bears took the bait last week. Look how big the trap is! Carl and Jon and Rae loaded the traps with honey-soaked doughnuts. The bag of doughnuts (or, alternatively, raw meat) hangs from the roof way back in the trap. The bear ambles into the trap and pulls on the bag of food. That triggers the gate at the entrance, which then slides shut. The plan is to trap the black bears long enough to place GPS collars on as many as possible so the ecologists can track their movement. (The bears’ longitude and latitude are downloaded hourly from the collars.) While the bears are tranquilized, the scientists take a DNA sample, too. I would appreciate it if a bear or two would oblige these good people so Rae will learn how to do this stuff. Safely.
The team left some traps in the immediate Lake Tahoe area, which is thick with tourists and summer residents right now. People call the scientists to alert them that a bear has been trapped. I keep trying to envision, say, the Lake Tahoe Welcome Center parking lot with a bear trap in it. (Is that what she’s talking about?) Rae and Carl go out every morning to check the traps set in remote areas in the Eastern Sierra. The parts that aren’t burning.
There are less than 300 black bears in Nevada, all in the Lake Tahoe Basin area, and close to 30,000 living throughout the California wilderness (and, in some cases, dangerously close to people). The Tahoe area has a couple thousand black bears. They roam back and forth, looking for good habitats. The jaguars of Texas and Mexico are supposed to do the same thing, but there’s that highly inconvenient La Migra fence in their way. Jon left Rae and Carl in Nevada last week to work the jaguar problem: how to allow jaguars to move around the border region in their natural pattern without interfering with immigration. Jaguars are one of the few migrating species along the border. If they aren’t able to move around, there’s a good chance they’ll go extinct. 
Shall we lighten up?
In the run-up to the post-trap bear research adventure (fingers crossed for post-trap bear research adventure), there’s always good old US culture world:
1. Rae said Carl and Jon’s road trip to an outfitter–a big store for serious outdoors people–in Reno was like “traveling to Bloomingdale’s” for her. She’s glad she didn’t bring anything cute to wear; “People haven’t heard of fashion.” She’s even been wearing a sweatshirt, which is significant adaptation for a woman who was wearing Louboutins this time last year. I’m hoping for a photo of Rae in the cap Jon and Carl gave her. The cap says, “I Am Bear Aware.” (The fellas rejected her NYC law firm-branded hat. “Can’t have that,” they said.)
2. When Rae was tracking lions in Tanzania with the African Wildlife Foundation and the African People and Wildlife Fund two summers ago she had water buffalo for dinner one night and pasta (left by an Italian researcher) the next. Last week at Carl’s she had meat loaf (she thinks maybe for the first time) made with elk and served with hot sauce. Elk gravy being hard to come by?
3. She tells me she went to water aerobics at the Carson City community pool. We agree that water aerobics is a great workout, and we go together when we can. Rae asks me why the demographic is always people “your age and female.” I posit that young folk peek in at the classes, decide it’s for old women (= scary feeble), and pass, so they never know.
4. “There are zero black people. It’s just me. That gets annoying.” Everybody in Minden knows her whereabouts. “Was that you I saw jogging yesterday…?” But there were lots of black people at the outfitter in Reno. “Even women.”
5. It’s beautiful there. There’s snow on the mountain peaks. She’s happy to be in the wilderness, breathing what was, before the fire, gorgeously clean air. She says the men “are really masculine.” Manly men. Gaston from Beauty and the Beast.
6. On Saturday night Rae really wanted to go out. She tuned in to the one radio station that sometimes plays pop. “I wanted to put on heels, get a drink, and dance.”
Call your mother when you're in the wilderness. Plenty to discuss! [Note: Just got the text. The gas card arrived!]
Originally posted August 18, 2011

Bye, lions! (No tigers.) Hey, bears!

Today my daughter Rae teamed up with two of the premier wildlife ecology guys in the United States in Minden, NV, population under 3,000. This is a long way from her home in Harlem, but not as far as her 2009 field work, tracking lions in Tanzania. Tanzania has plenty of black people. Minden has less than one tenth of one percent.
More black bears than black people, you say?
Rae is in Nevada to become familiar with the ecosystem of the black bears that form the core of her research. I am her designated blogger. I will do my best to keep you apprised, but when it comes to piercingly cogent questions about her work, please pose them in the comments section and I’ll ask her to respond so I’m not making stuff up.
Rae’s mission, overall, is to create a model that wildlife ecologists can use to assess the human-wildlife conflict landscape. Scenario: there’s wildlife in your kitchen/village/dwelling. Neither you nor the wildlife is happy about the situation or the climate change that probably caused it. Looking ahead, you want this not to happen for future populations (of wildlife and people). You want someone to figure out how to keep people and wildlife out of each others’ dwelling places (except for supervised human sports and recreation). Rae Wynn-Grant, our intrepid doctoral student, is out there working on just that.
Carl Lackey, with the Nevada Division of Wildlife, and Jon Beckmann of the Wildlife Conservation Society are sharing their considerable long term data sets with Rae, who will analyze them and collect additional data, as needed. The three are onsite in the Lake Tahoe Basin this month. The team will attend meetings about Nevada’s new law that permits the hunting of black bears. “There are lots of people suing and protesting,” Rae says. The biologists have the (unbiased) data that says that there are enough bears to permit hunting without endangering the species.
Check out a couple of recent black bear conflict and behavior articles here and here. I’ll post some of Rae’s 2009 lion tracking emails for backstory flava later on this week. Call your mother or a designated surrogate when nobody else in town looks remotely like you; it's a good time to be in touch. Here we go!
Originally posted August 8, 2011.


This is not the failed potato plot from last fall (see entry below). This is the plot that Yahya and Sophia tilled and cultivated before they moved in December. Juliette, my gardening partner, and I inherited it, and it's in a much sunnier location in the backyard. This season the balance of sun and rain has been ideal so far. My water bill isn't nuts, I'm rising earlier in the morning, and we have mushroom mulch and a wheelbarrow. Too much mulch, it seems, because there's an abundance of leaves and few tomatoes, peppers and assorted stuff we planted that's supposed to appear when the garden goddesses grin. 
I found the Garden Rant blog, maybe from someone on facebook. These could be good people. Everybody likes to post pics of their gardens to show how hard we're all working and how beautiful and challenging dirt/soil can be. I am in that number. Our backyard garden needs worms. Where do they come from? This fall, Juliette and I will plan better and not just a) buy whatever's cheap; and b) plant stuff fairly haphazardly so we can't tell the difference between cauliflower, collards, and cabbage, especially when the cauliflower doesn't show up, just sprouts beautiful, strong bluegreen leaves.
Call your mother with recipes for random leafy greens so she doesn't have to figure that out, too. Thanks. 
Originally posted on June 18, 2011.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

No mastery whatsoever.

I admit to being relieved and inspired by a TED video that my good friend Drozda sent me this week. TED is an expensive soapbox for accomplished people's ideas. (I snuck into the TED conference about 10 years ago when it took place in Monterey, California. Yes, Herbie Hancock was in the audience, and yes, the air crackled with A-game energy.) The presenter, Dr. Brene Brown, studies vulnerability. 

The photo is of the potato section of my small vegetable garden. My friend Juliette had kept the spuds behind one of her French doors in a brown bag for weeks. I felt so clever as I followed the directions and cut them up so that each section had 3 - 4 eyes, then planted them in my crooked rows just before the rain so they'd get the real thing, not water from the hose. Of course, it rained forever. It rained really hard forever, and the gusts were 45 mph, and of course potatoes don't like too much water, so living beneath it holds little promise for them.

During this same stretch of my life, I am also doing a lot of other stuff that I don't know how to do. Like creating flowcharts. (I am a graduate student.) My children and many of their friends whom I've known since they were afraid of artichokes have raced to the top and picnicked there, and I am here in the thick middle and I am vulnerable. Call your children when you're vulnerable. Call your mother when she can't help but be confused. Maybe crack a couple jokes.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Birthday Mama

On Children
Lyrics by Khalil Gibran, Music by Ysaye M. Barnwell

Your children are not your children
They are the sons and daughters of life's longing for itself
They come through you but they are not from you and though they are with you
They belong not to you
You can give them your love but not your thoughts
They have their own thoughts
You can house their bodies but not their souls
For their souls dwell in a place of tomorrow
Which you cannot visit not even in your dreams
You can strive to be like them
But you cannot make them just like you
Strive to be like them
But you cannot make them just like you

Music by Ysaye M. Barnwell, © 1980 Barnwell's Notes Publishing; recorded by Sweet Honey In The Rock® on "Selections." <www.Ymbarnwell.com> <www.sweethoney.com> Used by permission of the composer.

It seems obvious that you call your mother on her birthday. If your mother is no longer on the planet, or if she is conventionally unreachable (coma, working or vacationing in seriously remote location, whereabouts unknown, you're "dead to her") there's likely still a glancing pause, at the very least, where you puzzle at the calendar date, wondering how she used to/would have/is experiencing the day. 

I'm not at all sure that my son, Asa, knows my birthday. Asa is 23, a first year law student. I know Asa loves me every day. I didn't want him to have to realize with a start two or three (or ten) days after my birthday this year that he'd missed it, and feel some pang of guilt or personal disappointment. So I texted him on Sunday and we talked that night (he'd been reading for 7 hours, with 7 ahead of him). Good conversation. Before we hung up, he wished me a happy birthday. (Asa cooks, usually from scratch. Please post recipes suitable for an academically inundated student. I'll make sure he gets them. Thank you.)

My mother is giving herself a big 80th birthday brunch this year at a country club.  Pierre is creating the cake. I cannot say enough about Pierre's cakes. Totally worth throwing a party just to get some of that Pierre, avec fondant. (You do see this. I am not throwing this party. My mother is infinitely superior at event planning, and we all know it.) My mother called me first thing (I was born at 6:15am and she likes to reinforce the memory), then fell silent the rest of the day. With my mother, no news is bad news. No news is not what we want. She called late the next day to say she'd been "a basket case" the whole day because she found some unwelcome something in her left breast. (She gets a mammo on Tuesday. Please send light. Thank you.)

My daughter, Rae, called me (maybe twice) on my birthday. She is a first year Ph.D. student. Rae loves me every day. If she ever misses my birthday, it will be due to her being in some remarkable circumstance (tracking lions, for example), and she probably will have arranged to get a card to me, regardless. (Rae rides her pink Schwinn on Manhattan streets. Tell your vehicle driving New York friends to share the road. Thank you.)

Happy birthday. Make faces in the mirror. Take a load off (everybody, Fannie, your fabulous self).

[*Listen to Sweet Honey in the Rock sing "On Children" here. Then sing it with them, with me. --T]

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Moving into the mama void

Edith Coleman, photo by Toni Wynn, Thanksgiving 2007

This is Muzzie, my grandmother. Motherhood isn't her most favorite thing. Did I ever sit on her lap? I played croquet in her backyard. I never quite believed how thoroughly blue her guest room was. Powder blue everything. Powder blue air. Muz was my first piano teacher, and the first person to ask, "When are you going to get your Ph.D.?" I think I grew into womanhood guided by the light in her bright eyes, and propelled by her take-no-prisoners energy. More Muz in another post. Right now I'm stuck in a memory of the perfection of her tall, tantalizing, lemon meringue pies.