Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Restoring the Desert--Part 4

Hi everyone,

Sorry I've been lazy and not keeping up on my desert restoration journey. I've been busy traveling, camping, weeding, planting new trees and shrubs, arranging and supervising home improvements such as installing a barrier fence (below),

Newly planted blue point junipers, ponderosa pines and barrier fence on the east side of our property
a new shower, and gates. I've also been enjoying our wildflowers and accompanying wildlife,

Galleta grass, sunflowers, snakeweed, newly planted aspen

Rabbits under the front yard bird feeder

and discovering that I have allergies! Yes, the new sagebrush-pinyon juniper habitat we moved into last year brought out a juniper allergy and ant-bite allergy I never knew I had. Or maybe that's old age speaking. Anyway, now I'm taking desensitization shots. Fortunately, the needles are short and the shots barely hurt!

administering an allergy shot

As of right now, the weeds on our property are not so bad.  Filaree rosettes are coming up, but they are not as thick as before.

And puncture vine is almost nonexistent, although we continue to find mature seeds stuck to our shoes. 

The annual grasses have not sprouted yet and much of last year's grasses and seeds have been either raked up or pulled out. In a few weeks, we will plant another batch of seeds, which will hopefully survive. I ordered some of them and collected others during walks around the neighborhood and in the nearby mountains. We'll be keeping our fingers crossed that everything survives the mice and birds that eat newly sown seeds, the rabbits that chew down the grasses, the deer that relish most of our deciduous shrubs and trees, and the gophers that have so-far killed a wide assortment of plants on our property.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Restoring the Desert Part 3--Triage

Arrgh! As our spring rains dry up and, the most pervasive weeds (filaree, foxtail, tumble mustard, bur marigold and cheatgrass) begin drying up and brand new weeds (the evil puncture vine aka goat heads, black mustard, tumbleweed and pigweed) begin moving in. What to do? Deal with the widespread weeds that are drying up first, that's what. It's crisis mode now and my husband and I are shifting into high gear.

My hubby, Scott

Me holding a huge filaree

Together, we have succeeded in clearing out huge patches of what used to be a solid mat of weeds with a tiny amount of native plants thrown in. It's not perfect, but a person can only do so much.

Drying foxtail

Drying cheatgrass & filaree

Weeded area on east side of house
 As our weeding progressed, I've been taught a few important lessons:

Number 1--preventing future weeds is all about eliminating their seeds.
In my mind, annual weeds exist for only one reason--to reproduce. And they are very good at that. They germinate when moisture is sufficient, make the most of that moisture, and produce as much progeny as they are able. That means if the spring turn dry, they don't waste time on growth. They will remain small and put all their energy into making seeds as quickly as possible. In our case, we have had abundant moisture this spring. The foxtail, cheatgrass and filaree have had the luxury of growing tall and wide and producing a huge amount of seed, which means ample weeds next year unless they are all gathered up and thrown away.

Number 2--don't weed-wack mature weeds. We made the mistake of weed-wacking that awful foxtail, which spewed out seeds everywhere.

Weed-wacked foxtail

In our case, not only did the original foxtails grow back, but brand new plants grew from some of the weed-wacked seeds. Arrgh!! Since many annual weed seeds mature after being cut off, we learned the hard way that the key to preventing this disaster is to always collect the seeds and throw them away. Even raking them up after weed-wacking or picking them off the plant is better than leaving them on the ground.

Number 3--Leave some "nice" weeds behind. But don't forget to control their seeds. Last year, we decided that we liked the weedy native verbena and desert tobacco plants. The rabbits ate the verbena and it provided good ground cover while the hawk moths and hummingbirds visited the desert tobacco flowers frequently. But what was the occasional plant last year has turned into a nightmare this year.

Seedlings: Desert tobacco, center left. Verbena, center & top left. Pigweed, right.
We like those plants ... but not this much!

These desert tobacco seedlings need serious thinning.
 Number 4--don't seed in the wind. It was very windy the day we seeded our native wildflower and grass mixtures and seed got everywhere. It looks good in the area around our house this year . . .

Desert bluebells & California poppies, as well as desert tobacco seedlings that still need to be weeded.

but next year we may have a repeat of the desert tobacco nightmare. We'll just have to make sure to collect the seeds and distribute them where we want them rather than have them distribute themselves. Oh well, we have lots of places to put them.

This sounds like a lot of work, right? And it is. But the payoff is satisfying. The native perennial grasses are healthier than ever, we're providing open spaces for sagebrush to come in, and without the weeds, we are helping the native wildflowers grow without competition from weeds.

Indian ricegrass & Squirrel tail

Baby sagebrush
Showy Golden Eye

Scarlet Beeblossom

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Restoring the Desert-Part 2

After taking a break over the winter to remodel and paint the house and finalize my manuscript, Remember Me (now renamed Absolute Recall), spring temperatures and rain have brought the weeds back with a vengeance. Our nicely cleared and seeded patches of land became completely dominated by the Big Three: filaree, foxtail, and tumble mustard, with lots of annual grasses and what I am calling bur marigold thrown in.

Filaree rosettes
Filaree, the green rosette shown here, is originally from Europe but is now found at latitudes below 70 degrees north and south. In southern Utah, filaree and annual grasses dominate areas that have been overgrazed, burned or otherwise disturbed, crowding out native perennial grasses and shrubs.

If you look closely, you can see a maturing bur marigold reaching above the center filaree. What begins as a cute little yellow flowered plant turns into a wickedly sharp bur that must contain formic acid because if it pokes you, it leaves a sharp, lasting sting.

A filaree dominated weed patch.
To my chagrin, we watched two other notorious weeds spread throughout our previously weeded and seeded areas: foxtail and tumble mustard. Foxtail, especially, is difficult to remove. It forms deep fibrous roots and large mats that have to be dug out. Not only are foxtails a pain to dig up, they can also be hazardous to dogs: http://www.whole-dog-journal.com/issues/6_8/features/Beware-Foxtail-Seeds_5563-1.html
When digging the foxtail out, I am inadvertently also uprooting some of our carefully seeded grasses and wildflowers along with it! I think we should have waited another year before seeding. :(

Now weeded, filaree, foxtail and cheatgrass grew thickly between the native galleta grass and sagebrush.
Foxtail and tumble mustard

What looks like a nice green lawn is actually thick green foxtail waiting for dry weather to be dug out. What a lot of work!

But all is not lost. Native squirrel tail and galleta grasses are coming back and sagebrush seedlings can be found in the open areas (particularly in areas we don't want them, such as the rock around our house). I have tried transplanting some of the sagebrush seedlings into the desert but, alas, most of them died. However, the ones that remain are growing fast and some of the wildflowers that have managed to survive my intense weeding are flowering!!

Gilia tricolor

California bluebell

baby sagebrush

one-year-old sagebrush

Monday, November 16, 2015

Restoring the Desert-Part 1

We have a big weed problem in southwestern Utah. When we moved to a house on 1/2 acres in the Mojave Desert, I was surprised to see all the annual grasses and filaree crowding out and competing with the native plants. 
Since I am a botanist by trade, I knew I had to hula hoe them out to decrease the fire hazard that annual grasses and weeds bring when they dry out in the summer and restore the desert back to its natural condition. 
Dense Cheatgrass
Mature filaree plant

After six years of hoeing and digging out those pesky weeds, I was pleased to see the native flowers and perennial grasses come back. We ended up with the most colorful and diverse lot in our neighborhood!

In May of this year, we moved up in elevation to the sagebrush, juniper and pinyon pine high desert. Again, I am trying to restore the disturbed desert back to its natural condition. This time, the weeds are a lot worse because the previous owner nuked an entire area around the house and shed in the back with Roundup, leaving behind dense sod mats filled with annual grass seeds. He also killed some of the native perennial grasses and sagebrush by driving over it, and dumped construction waste throughout the back desert area. So, immediately after moving in, my husband and I got to work.

Weed wacking cheatgrass
Digging out black mustard

Cleaning out concrete chunks and other debris
After months and months of work, we were finally ready to seed some of the weeded areas with native grasses and wildflowers. 

We ordered enough to cover 6,000 square feet and that wasn't nearly enough. But we're considering this an experiment. It it words, we'll order more for more for next year.

6 lbs of native grass and wildflower seed

We scattered the seed

Stomped on it
And raked it in

Then the next day it rained and snowed! Perfect weather conditions for the cold-moist conditions that most native plants need to germinate in the spring.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Synopsis of "Remember Me"

Hello faithful readers,

I'm feverishly working on fixing up my approximately 90,000 word manuscript, Remember Me, and am now on Chapter 32 out of 36. Almost done!!

Here is the synopsis of the story. I'm hoping to get it published with the help of an agent I knew  when I lived in Chantilly, VA. I hope you find it interesting.

Remember Me

San Francisco University neuroscientist ROBIN LUND is puzzled by her lab chimpanzee Chelsea’s behavior. The experimental memory and learning drug Mem-G, which is designed to restore short-term memory recall in dementia sufferers, appears to be enabling Chelsea to experience ancestral memories encoded in her DNA. 

To more fully understand this drug, Robin illegally begins taking it herself. What she learns is both stunning and dangerous: her mother is not who she thought she was and a man her mother once knew wants Robin dead. Her mother knew this man as ANDRE TREMBLAY but now he goes by the name of DR. MARC BORDEAUX. Dr. Bordeaux is now Senior Vice President of Zerbico Pharmaceutical Company, the corporation that formulated the drug Mem-G. 

As Robin embarks on a journey of self-discovery, Dr. Bordeaux will do everything he can to prevent her from uncovering his criminal past. NICK EVANS, an ex-cop, helps Robin stay one step ahead of Dr. Bordeaux while she explores Mem-G nightly and travels to her hometown, Denver, to find out what happened to her mother. Dr. Bordeaux’s relentless pursuit continues, leading to a final chase that ends up at a police station. There, both she and Nick turn over evidence linking Dr. Bordeaux to the crime that put Robin’s mother in prison, where she died shortly after Robin was born.

Monday, December 29, 2014

2016 Update of my working manuscript "Remember Me"

October 19, 2016

I have an agent who showed this around to the big publishers and got some very nice feedback--but no bites. Since both my agent and me feel like this is a worthy story for publishing, I am now rewriting it once again. For example, I'm changing present tense to past tense, which I think most people prefer. I'm also trying the make the main character "nicer" and extend the presence of the chimpanzee to the end of the book. I have until early January to get this done; then my agent will send it around again.

This is a lot of work, but since I tend to be a perfectionist, I feel like I am learning a lot and vastly improving the story. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Meat We Eat

            Most of us don’t have to think about where our food comes from.  We wake up in the morning and open the refrigerator, evaluate what is available and easy to fix, what we are hungry for, and go from there.  We may feel like eating a light breakfast of granola, yogurt and coffee, or something hearty, like bacon, eggs and toast.  Maybe we will go out for breakfast or skip it altogether.  But eventually we will have to eat something and that something most likely contains meat.
Meat and eggs are now more available and affordable than ever, and we, as a society, are eating more of it.   According to the following graphic, http://chartsbin.com/view/1155 , the average protein consumption in the U.S. is currently 114 grams/person/day.  This consumption level is approximately twice of what our bodies need.  For example, an average adult male requires 56 grams of protein a day and an average adult female requires only needs 46 grams of protein per day. 
Our high protein consumption is closely related to development of factory farming, which uses economic principles on large numbers of confined animals to produce the highest output at the lowest cost for the consumer.  Vaccines, antibiotics, vitamins, minerals and other nutrient supplements, biotechnology, machinery and mass production techniques combine to reduce farm animals to mere commodities without regard to the animals’ quality of life. 
While factory farming produces meat at a low cost, there are hidden costs to the environment, to the consumers, and to the animals themselves.  Animal waste creates disposal problems (they do not use sewage treatment plants) and strong smells, cattle produce large quantities of methane that contribute to global warming, E. coli outbreaks lead to sickness and food waste, close confinement contributes to the spread of diseases, antibiotic use provides a pathway to the development of super-bugs and added growth hormones may lead to early puberty and obesity.  Additionally, factory farm employees do not always receive adequate training on how to handle animals, are not always monitored closely, and are often forced to endure long hours and poor working conditions. 
Over the past 50 years, we have created a factory farming system that causes so many problems on so many levels that it would take a book to explain it all.  But I thought I’d focus on the one aspect of factory farming that bothers me the most: the inhumane way the animals are treated just to get cheap meat.
Most of us don’t realize how grim the conditions are in factory farms.  Confined feeding operations deny a farm animal’s most fundamental needs—room to turn around, graze, stretch, peck at the ground, and roll in the mud—cause pain and suffering, and shorten the animal’s life, as well.
In February 2012, Utah passed an “Ag Gag” law.  This law makes it illegal to take photographs and undercover videos documenting animal cruelty on factory farms.  Utah is not unique.  Other states such as Iowa, South Carolina, Missouri, and Arkansas have also passed similar laws.  See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ag-gag#Utah for more information. 
These laws were passed (or in other states, attempted but failed) because documentation of animal cruelty in factory farms has “negative consequences” to that particular business. That is, getting the word out about inhumane treatment causes that business to lose money.  No one likes what they see in these films and photographs—and it takes guts to watch them.  I know because I watched a few and have been haunted by them ever since.

Factory farms can get away with animal abuse (unless they are exposed) because this country does not have a federal standard that promotes farm animal welfare.  According to the USDA, “Farm Animals are regulated under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) only when used in biomedical research, testing, teaching and exhibition. Farm animals used for food and fiber or for food and fiber research are not regulated under the AWA.”  https://awic.nal.usda.gov/farm-animals .
To separate fact from exposé and understand the life span of factory farm animals, I researched online, read books, and watched documentaries.  I learned that we have come a long way from the family farms of 50 years ago.  And it is not pretty.  Nor is it sustainable.  I will summarize below.
            Beef cattle:  Cows are gentle creatures that begin their lives on the range or in a pasture.  The calf stays with its mother until it is weaned at the age of 6-10 months and reaches 450-700 pounds.  At that weight, the calf is either sold at an auction market, kept at the ranch for breeding purposes, or sent directly to a feedlot for “finishing.”  

Most beef cattle spend 4-6 months at the feedlot, where they are crammed into pens and forced to stand in their excrement all day while eating a special feed that is designed to fatten them up quickly. This feed, made up primarily of grains with a small amount of vitamins, minerals, and antibiotics thrown in, is too acidic for the cattle’s digestive system and gives them diarrhea and excess gas.  After reaching a market weight of 1,200 to 1,400 pounds and 18-22 months of age, the cattle are slaughtered.  A cow’s natural life span is 15-20 years.
Dairy cows:  To produce milk, cows must be lactating.  And to lactate, the cow must first give birth.  After giving birth, the dairy cow gradually produces more milk until she reaches a peak milk production level at about 60 days.  Milk production gradually declines and a cow must give birth again to re-start lactation.

Dairy cows are first bred at 13 months of age and the gestation period is 9 months. The newborn calf is fed colostrums for the first 3 days and then taken from its mother. Young calves are fed milk or a milk-replacer for a week or so and then calf starter, a grain, is added to their diet. The calves are fully weaned from milk at 4-8 weeks old.  Male calves are raised as veal (an inhumane practice) or as beef cattle while female calves are usually fed silage, hay and grain until they are old enough to be bred as dairy cows.
In 1993 rbST, a synthetic growth hormone developed by Monsanto, was approved by the FDA to be given to dairy cows to prolong a higher level of milk production.  Among other problems, cows given rbST have an increased risk of mastitis (mammary gland infection), a higher level of antibiotic use, and an increased risk of lameness, not to mention the questionable hormonal effects on humans who drink this milk. 
At factory dairy farms, cows given rbST are milked really hard, at least 3 times a day. They undergo a lot of stress in the cycle of insemination, gestation, birth, separation from their calves, and lactation, and receive only 2 months rest before the cycle begins again. Dairy cows are often worn out by 2-4 years of age and are then slaughtered.  Cows not given rbST have a lower milk production but also have longer and healthier lives.
Pigs:  Pigs, which are intelligent, curious animals, are born and bred in confined conditions.  Piglets are born to sows housed inside sheds in 2 foot wide gestation crates during their 4 month pregnancy (without room to turn around).  These crates have slatted floors that allow wastes to fall beneath them, creating a high level of respiratory diseases from inhaling ammonia and dust.  Sows also get sores from rubbing against the crates.
After giving birth, sows are moved into narrow farrowing crates where they nurse the piglets (separated from them by the bars of the crate) for about a month.  After the piglets are weaned, the sows are impregnated again and returned to gestation crates.  Sows end up giving birth to an average of 20 piglets a year and live to be 3-5 years old.
Pigs are naturally clean animals and will defecate in the same place in the corner of a pen.  Like beef cattle, piglets raised for slaughter in factory farms are forced to stand in their own excrement all day. Unlike beef cattle, they are housed inside sheds and thereby breathe dusty, stuffy, excrement-ridden air.  Under these conditions, the pigs get so stressed under that they will chew each other’s tails off.  To prevent this, piglets have their tails cut off. 

Piglets have a high mortality rate (about 15%).  The survivors are moved into crowded indoor pens and fed who knows what* (see below) until they reach 250 pounds at approximately 6 months of age.  Then they are slaughtered.  Approximately 70% of slaughtered pigs have pneumonia.  http://www.organicconsumers.org/foodsafety/shortlist031604.cfm
The natural lifespan of a domestic pig is 10-15 years.
Chickens, turkeys and fish:  You get the idea.  It’s the same story over and over again. 
I know it’s uncomfortable to face where that hamburger, milkshake or egg came from.  I’m uncomfortable writing about it.  But after I learned the facts, I decided that I, as a consumer, have the power to improve a farm animal’s life by changing what I eat. I now eat more soy, wild caught fish, organic fruits and vegetables, and less meat.  When I eat out, I skip the beef and pork and focus on the vegetables.  (It was difficult to give up bacon, but that’s how it goes).  I buy grass-fed beef (no feedlot), organic free range chickens and eggs, organic ham raised on family farms, and organic rbST-free dairy products.  In fact, recent studies have pointed out that organic milk has a better omega 3 and 6 fat balance than conventional milk!  (http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2013/12/09/249794467/fresh-research-finds-organic-milk-packs-in-omega-3s )
It’s sometimes more expensive to search out grass-fed and organic products, but not always.  It does take some effort, though, and careful label reading.  But it’s worth it.  Organic food has much more flavor and I feel better knowing that the animal I am eating had a better life.
**If you have the stomach for it, read and/or watch this recent exposé about Iron Maiden pork and its porcine virus prevention measures: