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:
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

Chapter 1 of my working manuscript "Remember Me"

Chapter 1


Tuesday July 15, 2014

It’s Phase Two, Day Thirty of the Mem-G dementia drug study and although Chelsea’s communication and cognitive skills have advanced considerably, I still don’t understand how she comes up with her stories or what is behind her depression. Looking at her from the outside is not working. Therefore, the only way for me to know what is going on inside Chelsea’s head is to take this experimental drug for myself.

I know I’m doing something stupid and reckless. Only Chelsea is authorized to use Mem-G, not me. If C.J. finds out, he’ll be shocked at my unethical behavior and furious with me for potentially ruining the study. If the University finds out, I’ll probably be fired. But something about Chelsea’s stories and behavior triggers a need in me to take this step.

After everyone has left the lab for the day, I take out the unopened thirty cc Mem-G container from the refrigerator and open it on the lab bench. I remove a sterile syringe and a rubber tourniquet from a lab drawer, and push up my lab coat sleeve. Single-handedly knotting the tourniquet just above my left elbow, I draw up one cc of Mem-G, locate a taut vein, and inject the Mem-G into my arm.

A jolt instantly hits my body, leaving me tingling. All at once, I feel the puncture wound’s sting, the rubber band tight on my arm, the lab bench chilling my palms, the hard lab stool pressing against my bottom, and the thin metal bars pinpointing the arches of my feet. It’s almost overwhelming.

Withdrawing the needle with numb fingers, I drop it to the bench. Dizzy and faint, I clumsily untie the tourniquet, throw it into my lab drawer, and slam the drawer shut. Clutching the edge of the bench to steady myself, I take a look around.

Inside, I see dust specks swimming in the light shafts, forming soft ephemeral designs. Outside the smudged window, I see shiny metallic flying insects streaking multi-colored lines through the air. I watch the lines thicken and turn into abstract, glowing holograms. Although I know I’m having visual hallucinations from neural circuits firing in my brain, this knowledge doesn’t detract from the beauty.

Looking down, the mica-flecks ingrained in the black lab counter transform into a star-studded sky. When the stars configure into constellations, I struggle to define them. Gradually, the buzzing refrigerators, mumbling incubators, humming florescent lights, and the clunking ice machine overpower my visual hallucinations. The syncopated beats drive pulsating rhythms into my brain, and I tap my foot, feeling light, free, and relaxed.

These enjoyable feelings eventually reach their arc and then make a quick descent into unpleasantness. The urgent tick of the wall clock makes me tense and the lingering smells of Bunsen burner exhaust, bleach, sulfur, and rubbing alcohol make me queasy. The room is enclosing around me and I need to get out.

Shaky and out of myself, I slip the used syringe into the Sharps container and set the Mem-G bottle on a refrigerator shelf, behind the other drugs and chemicals that need to be kept cold. Peeling off my lab coat, I hang it on a hook and don my jacket. Then I click off the lights and lock up the lab for the night.

On wobbly legs, I make it to the bus stop just seconds before my bus arrives. Stumbling up the steps, I gratefully plunk down on the first empty seat I see and slide over to the window. Then—big mistake—I see my anxious face reflecting back at me in the glass. Switching my attention to the swirling fog and tightly-packed, pastel-colored Victorian buildings passing by, I take a few deep breaths and feel more relaxed. I tell myself that since I have no responsibility right now other than not missing my stop, I might as well enjoy the pandemonium crashing inside my head.

What seems like eons later, I see my street ahead and reach up to pull the bell string. The bus comes to a jerky stop and, clutching at the seat rails, I stagger to the front of the bus and step off. Praise be; I’m on firm ground again.

Carefully stepping over the treacherous, uneven sidewalks and avoiding the occasional tree, I make my way to the cast iron front gate securing the four flats in my building. After unlocking the gate, I close it behind me, collect my mail, and go up the thirteen steps leading to my flat, Apartment B. Before going in, though, I must brace myself.

What used to be a bright, airy Victorian flat had turned into a dreary, stuffy, uncomfortable place after my mother moved in. Mom had been clinically diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia a few years ago and had managed well enough on her own—until recently. I then moved her in with me, along with Helen, her live-in aide.

I take a last breath of humid, cool freshness before stepping into hot, dry air mixed with stale cooking smells. The change is so intense that I break out in a sweat. Seeing Helen thumping down the wooden hallway from the kitchen, I turn away to put my shoes and coat in their respective places in the hall closet to buy myself some time.

“Robin, close the door, will ya?” Helen says in her rich alto voice. “You’re letting the cold air in.”

“Oops, sorry,” I say, closing the door softly. Pasting on a smile, I turn around and see sturdy Helen standing before me, wiping her hands on a food-smudged apron.

“How’d it go today?” I ask, bracing myself once again.

Helen’s frown deepens the already well-defined wrinkles framing her firm mouth. “Not so well, I’m afraid. Remember how disoriented your mother got on our walk the other day? Well, now she refuses to go outside altogether, even to the back porch.” She shakes her head. “She won’t leave her room at all, except to visit the bathroom.”

Helen sighs and tucks a loose strand of unnaturally red hair back into her French twist. “All day long she’s been saying the same old thing: ‘I want to go home. Why don’t you let me go home?’” She throws up her hands. “I’ve given up trying to explain it to her; she just doesn’t remember.”

“Poor Mom,” I say, shaking my head. “I don’t think she’ll ever accept the fact that this is her home now.”

It strikes me then that my mother’s desire to go home is almost exactly the same as Chelsea’s and, as with Chelsea, I can do nothing to fulfill her desires. Then I remember Mom’s nasty disposition and feel ashamed.

“Sorry about Mom calling you Carrot-top yesterday,” I say, ducking my head.

“Don’t you worry, Robin. I’ve heard worse.” She touches my upper arm just inches above the injection site. “But I was thinking. Instead of trying to explain her situation over and over again, we should come up with a loving lie.”

I peer into Helen’s earnest hazel eyes. “What’s that?”

“It’s a little white lie that calms a person down and cheers them up. For example, every time your mother asks to go home, we can tell her that she has to wait a few more days for some reason or another and after that she’ll go home. A little white lie like that will give her something to look forward to and, although she won’t remember why, her overall mood will improve.”

I smile. “Great idea, Helen. Let’s try it.”

She nods. “I’ll start tomorrow.” Her gaze rests on me. “You look tired tonight. Would you like to relax with some hot tea?”

I smack my lips. “Yeah, that sounds good. I’ll have it in Mom’s room, okay? You’re always welcome to join us, you know,” I hint. Having Helen in the room with me usually helps take the pressure off.

“Thanks. I just might do that,” she says. After taking a few steps down the hallway, she stops and says over her shoulder, “By the way, we already ate. I left the tuna noodle casserole warming in the oven and the peas on the stove.”

“Sounds wonderful,” I say, thinking the opposite. I don’t mind tuna noodle casserole, but I’ve never cared for peas.

I trail Helen partway down the hallway and turn at the first room on the right, which used to be the living room. I’m using it as my bedroom now because I gave my former bedroom to Mom. It’s not an ideal situation since I have to sleep on a lumpy futon, but at least I can close it off with French doors.

Mom’s bedroom is directly across the hall from the mine, the bathroom is the next door down on Mom’s side and, squeezed between the kitchen and the bathroom, is Helen’s room, formerly my craft room. Helen’s room is so tiny that only a twin bed, dresser and chair will fit into it. In fact, all the rooms in my flat are small. With three people living here, it feels very crowded.

Dumping the mail, my purse, and my lunch bag on the folded-out futon, I take a quick glance at Mom’s closed door. I really don’t want to visit her today, but I must at least make the pretense that I am more than a dutiful daughter.

I cross the hallway, turn the knob, and open the door. Surrounded by pillows, Mom is propped upright on my old double bed with a large tray holding little piles of colored beads resting on her lap. She is sitting stone-still, staring off in the distance, a shell of her former self.

“Hi, Mom,” I say as cheerfully as I can muster. “Are you organizing your beads today?”

My sixty-one-year-old mother turns to me with a slack expression. Her large chocolate brown eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses, prominent cheekbones, pointed nose, and small mouth resemble an older but less animated version of me. Her waist-length salt-and-pepper braid hangs over one shoulder, reminding me of interwoven gray and black embroidery floss.

“Your hair’s cute,” I say, beginning our conversation on neutral ground.

As Mom’s gaze slowly zeroes in on my face, I begin mentally checking off her Lewy Body Dementia symptoms. Vacant expression, check. Long periods of time staring into space are one of the defining features of this disease.

Mom smiles at me tenderly. “Mandy, my little pumpkin, I’m so glad you’re here.”

The same recurring delusion, check. As usual, Mom mistakes me for my dead sister, although I don’t know how she could. Mandy had the blonde hair and steel blue eyes of our father and looked nothing like me.

As Mom clumsily reaches out above the tray on her lap to hug me, it begins to slip sideways, threatening to spill the beads onto her bed. I quickly take the tray from her, set it on the dresser, and dutifully give her the quick hug she wants.

Stiff, jerky movements, check. Lewy Body Dementia sufferers often move rigidly, resembling someone with Parkinson’s disease.

She pats the bed. “Mandy, come sit by me.”

Playing the Mandy Charade, I obey and take her hand, trying to remain detached. But I can’t stop the hurt and self-doubt from bubbling up inside me. To my dismay, long-withheld tears flood my eyes and begin streaking down my face. I release Mom’s hand to wipe away my tears and she doesn’t even notice. Instead, she babbles to “Mandy” while I unhappily relive Mandy’s demise.

It happened during spring break thirteen years ago, when I was a senior in high school. Mandy had just found a job in San Carlos, California and Mom and I flew out from Denver to visit her. On our first day, we stayed in San Carlos; on the second day, we explored San Francisco; and on the third day, we went to the ocean. Everything went smoothly until the third day.

We had packed up a lunch and found the perfect spot in which to eat it:  a narrow beach on the western edge of San Francisco. It was a bit breezy, but otherwise a typical cool, misty spring day on the Pacific Ocean.

After lunch, Mom held the blanket down against the wind while Mandy and I walked the beach, heading toward some bluffs to the south. Swinging clasped hands, we walked barefoot on the sand, stepping over kelp and broken shells. I recall the water cold on my feet, the moist breeze brushing my skin, the salt spray on my lips, and the sea gulls crying overhead.

As we happily skipped around the slapping waves, we didn’t give a second thought to one of them creeping up the sand farther than usual. Instead, we trotted ahead of it, holding hands and laughing.

But the wave kept coming.

By the time we realized this was not a normal wave, it had crawled up to our knees. Sloshing through the water, we began running toward the bluff. The sand, crumbling underfoot, caused us to slip and break our grasp. Then the water rose still higher.

Dog-paddling to stay afloat, I remember how I cried out Mandy’s name, only to have the breeze throw my voice back at me. I remember how I scanned the ocean surface, seeing what I thought might be Mandy’s head bobbing far, far, away. But I couldn’t reach her; all I could do was helplessly stay afloat as the strong ocean current embraced me in its fold.

Seconds later, I found myself wedged between two rocks, gasping for air and covered with seaweed and sand. Weak and shaky and shocked, I crawled out from between the rocks and ran back to our picnic spot as fast as I could.

Seeing Mom standing on a sand dune amongst an assortment of terrified people, I ran up to her and hugged her tightly. Sobbing on her chest, I cried, “I can’t find Mandy. I think the ocean took her away.”

Mom pushed me away from her and then clutched my wet, sand-covered shirt in her fist. Pulling me close, she yelled, “No! That’s not true! I refuse to believe it!” Releasing my shirt, she slapped me, hard.

My cheek stinging, I slunk away from her, into the group. Someone had already called 911 so all I could do was wait. They found Mandy’s battered body three days later.

At Mandy’s funeral, I remember Mom saying to someone I didn’t know, “It’s not fair. Mandy was such a special, wonderful daughter. Why couldn’t Robin have died instead of Mandy?”

Over the roaring in my ears, I heard people shushing Mom. A few of them came over to me and smothered me with excuses. But they were too late. Mom’s words, like spears, had been driven deep into my heart.

I had always known Mom didn’t like me, but I didn’t know why. Now she had a reason I could understand: Mandy died while I survived. But, in her grief, Mom had forgotten one important thing. I had loved and lost Mandy, too.

After Mandy died, I threw myself into the physics club, the chess club, and the pep club, and I studied at the library or at a friend’s house instead of at home. I went to school early in the morning, stayed late, and attended sports events on the weekends. During the last few months of my senior year, I saw little of my mother and, in spite of everything, I earned straight A’s once again. Directly after graduation I left Denver for an out-of-state college and never looked back. That is, until a few months ago.

Gazing at my mother right now, I feel the same spiraling downward feelings I felt just after Mandy’s death. I’m on the verge of tears again when Helen saves me by stepping into the room, carrying a tray holding a teapot, three cups, three spoons, and a sugar jar. After setting the tray on the foot of Mom’s bed, Helen glances at me.

I read in her eyes a sympathetic understanding of the toll this daily Mandy Charade takes on me. I nod back with lips pressed tightly closed, still reeling from reliving Mandy’s death.

Rising from the bed, I wave Helen over to sit on my antique slipper chair. I then distribute the cups all around, pour the tea, pass the sugar jar, and make light talk, all the while pretending to be Mandy.

After drinking my tea, I make the excuse that I’m hungry. Piling the empty cups onto the tray, I take it to the kitchen and fix myself a plate of leftovers. Predictably, the peas taste just as bad as ever.

Dinner over, mail sorted, and dishes done, I retire to my room to explore Mem-G’s still-vivid effects. After getting ready for bed, I sit in the yoga lotus position and strive to achieve my usual empty slate of peace, relaxation and joy. Instead, agitated thoughts crowd into my mind and demand my attention.

Focusing on those negative thoughts, I attempt to trace them to where they came from:  the glowing, buzzing clumps of tangled circuits that make up memory pathways. I locate a clump and my mind’s eye sees circuits made from neural cell chains hooked together by the chemical and electrical energy of rapidly firing synapses. As the synapses fire, I see each spurt jet up a circuit, following its specific pathway. The neural cells are communicating with each other, forming or solidifying a specific memory.

I recall the saying “Neurons that fire together, wire together” and can see the truth in it. The frequently revisited memory pathways glow complicated and bright while forgotten memory pathways shine dimly, slowly fading into obscurity.

Then, like the embrace of the ocean so long ago, an uncontrollable force pulls me forward, toward the closest brightest clump and I plummet into a pulsing thicket. Landing in a circuit, I’m pulled from synapse to synapse, traveling in fits and starts. At each pause I drop into a particular life event that hits me like an emotional cannonball. I relive that event in every sense of the word:  smelling, tasting, hearing, seeing, and feeling the emotions tied to that event.

Coming out of that memory, I’m able to fit into another piece into the puzzle of my life as I know it right now. As these memories accumulate, I begin to understand my reactions to events through a changed perspective and receive a deeper meaning in their wake. Finally, I reach the center of the tangle and an unexpected core flickers wildly with an anger I didn’t know I had. I dive down into the deep rawness of it all and wallow around a bit. It hurts so good.

But my body’s need for rest ultimately overrules this journey. Retreating rapidly, I’m sucked up through a chain, a circuit, a clump, to consciousness, and find myself sitting on my braided rug in the lotus position, with my wrists limply resting on my knees.

I crawl into bed and burrow under the covers, but it takes me a long time to fall asleep.

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, , 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 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.” .
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.
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!  ( )
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:

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Public Lands Day on the Lava Tubes Trail

Although I have visited Snow Canyon State Park in Ivins, Utah many times, I’ve never been in the Lava Tube Caves.  Finally on September 28th I got the chance to explore them while volunteering for Public Lands Day.

The Park Manager, Kristen Comella, allowed our group of twelve people or so to choose between fixing/picking up trash on the Lava Tube trail or cleaning the lava tube caves.  Eight of us, including me, chose the lava tubes.

Of the three lava tube caves, two of them have steep drops that looked very scary.  We began with the wider, shallower and most used lava tube.  

 After strapping on our headlamps and donning leather gloves, we carefully stepped down on well-worn rocks that looked slippery.  Reaching the bottom, we searched the ground and crevices for trash.  We should have brought grabbers, as a few plastic bottles and straws had fallen between rocks and out of our reach.  Next time!

The first lava tube was relatively clean, although we did partially fill our bags with plastic straws and tiny glow-stick connectors.  

At the end of the tube, Kristen located some graffiti drawn with chalk.  She tried cleaning it, but needed a brush or cloth to more thoroughly rub it out.  Another tool to bring in next time.

Buoyed by our quick success, we tackled the next two tubes, which have sudden descents and are connected by a narrow passage.  Our two tallest and most fit men descended the lava tube with the steepest drop-off while the rest of us helped each other down the adjacent tube.  As we crept deeper into the lava tube, I heard an occasional grunt as someone bumped a head on the low ceiling, an elbow as the passage narrowed or a knee while picking up trash.  The bumped knee groan was me.

Once again the primary trash consisted of straws, glow sticks and glow stick connectors.  We also found bits of plastic from energy bars or trail mix bags, cardboard tubes (from glow sticks?), plastic straws, kindling and wood brought in to make fires, and an occasional piece of broken glass.  The two men from the deeper tube suddenly emerged from the narrow connecting passage, carrying a jackpot of trash that completely filled their garbage bag.  

We all ascended from the lava tube together, proud of how well we had cleaned the tubes.  I assumed that the tubes are cleaned this thoroughly once a year but Kristen said it was more like once every few months!  I wish people would practice the “Leave No Trace” principle when visiting these tubes.