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Thursday, April 24 2014 @ 07:17 PM CDT

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The Karma of Cheatgrass

Not Here but There: A Wilderness Journal

Cheatgrass is an innocuous looking grass up to 18 inches foot high that is omnipresent in the Great Basin, in particular, and in the Southwest in general. At higher elevations, it is a wispy occasional presence, while in the wide valleys between the mountain ranges it predominates, either filling in between the sagebrush, or forming wide homogenous meadows, often commanding all available space as far as the eye can see.

Yesterday, I drove the 118 miles from Battle Mountain south to Austin (both in Nevada), which prides itself on being the most isolated town in the lower forty-eight, with 100 miles, more or less, separating it from the closest towns at each of the cardinal points of the compass. Most of the time, I saw an endless carpet of golden cheatgrass, sweeping up to, and over, the mountains to either side. From the inside of a car, it looked attractive. But in fact, cheatgrass sucks the moisture from the soil, wiping out all other species, and forming vast, sterile monocultural deserts where little native wildlife can thrive. These vast savannahs of dried grass also become a fire hazard that ignites like a match upon any random lighting strike. Today, I drove through a modest thunderstorm that touched off five fires within sight that spewed huge clouds of opalescent smoke into the sky.

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The Endless Garden

Not Here but There: A Wilderness Journal

One of the great appeals to me of the Southwest is the ability to see, appreciate and think about each individual element of the natural surroundings as I encounter it. Water and nutrients are scarce, so plants are typically at a distance from each other (some even have natural poisons to prevent other plants from establishing themselves within the reach of their roots). Hence, it is very easy to see each tree (or flower, or shrub) as it stands proud of other distractions. And without a thick covering of vegetation, rocks and other aspects of the terrain can also command attention.

I once designed and built quite a large stained glass window of a Japanese garden when making stained glass was what I was doing for a living. Before going to work on the design, I spent the better part of a week in the library learning about the aesthetics of Japanese gardens. I’ve forgotten most of it now, but recall that there were a limited number of stone shapes, miniature stone pagodas, plants, and sand and stone patterns, each of which had its own symbolism. Thus, for one wise in the ways of Japanese gardens, deeper meanings could be appreciated when meditating in such a place beyond the mere visual appeal of the garden, which in itself is considerable. Happily, anyone can appreciate the exquisite beauty of each element of a Japanese garden, as well as the serenity and appeal of the whole, even if they are ignorant of the symbolic meanings that lie behind the design.

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At the Dimming of the Day

Not Here but There: A Wilderness Journal

Had I the power to snap my fingers and transport myself to a favorite place at will, I am not able to think of a destination more desirable than almost anywhere isolated in the Southwest at sunset.

Each night of this trip I have picked up a book as twilight began to gather after a day of hiking, thinking that I would relax and read for an hour. And each time, I have invariably put the book down in my lap, and simply watched and listened as the colors of the setting sun took control of the sky and metamorphosed through infinite changes, the birds flew and called, the breeze faded, the insects hummed and buzzed, the light faded, the planets and then the stars emerged, and finally the moon asserted its cool, white dominance over sky and earth alike. It is a performance that cannot be equaled by anything else in the world, until the same time the next day.

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Red States, Blue States and Nature

Not Here but There: A Wilderness JournalI decided to take my last post a step farther, and to look more deeply into the historical and current definitions of the word "Wilderness". You can find an essay I've just written on that topic in the "Consider This..." section of this site, where it finds a more natural home. It's a bit redundant with the August 20 post, but also, I hope, adds some new thoughts worth reading.
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Whose Wilderness is This?

Not Here but There: A Wilderness Journal

Public land is just that - public. Who should be able to decide how it is maintained? One man's wilderness policy may be another man's folly.

John McPhee (one of my favorite authors) once wrote a book called The Control of Nature. His theme was man’s hubris in attempting to contain the power of nature, and his propensity for forgetting how limited his ability to do so really is. One of three examples that McPhee describes highlights the heroic nature of the quest, as the inhabitants of a small town on an Icelandic island try and save their homes and harbor by turning fire hoses against the lava flow that is about to overwhelm them. In another, he demonstrates the foolhardiness of those that build houses in California canyons that periodically are the site of flashfloods that hurl bus-sized boulders through anything that stands in their path.

Unfortunately (depending on your point of view), nature isn’t always that powerful, and submits with a whimper. All too often, it can be tamed with a tool as simple as a cow.

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North of Gerlach, Nevada

Not Here but There: A Wilderness Journal

If you want to really get away, you should consider Nevada. Esmeralda County is one of Nevada’s smaller and more populous counties (leaving the Reno and Las Vegas areas out of this equation). In 1996, its 1,344 inhabitants had 2,284,800 acres all to themselves. Nye County looks to be the size of Maine, and has far fewer (you can’t accurately include the headcount for the secret Air Force test facility in Area 51 that officially does not exist). In all, Nevada has more than 70 million acres, 60 million of which are federal, state or local public land. 50 million of those acres are owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management (the BLM).

"Public Land," though, doesn’t mean the same thing everywhere. In Nevada, it means that you’ve got 50 million acres to choose from when you’re looking for a place to wander during the day and unroll your sleeping bag at night. The landscape may be a bit repetitive, it’s true, but on the other hand no one puts up signs that say they’ll shoot you if you enter their "public" land, as they do a couple states over in New Mexico. Some of them mean it.

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Beyond Burning Man

Not Here but There: A Wilderness Journal

If you look at the Northwestern corner of Nevada, you’ll see that it’s bounded on the south by Interstate 80. Depending on the map you’re looking at, you may or may not see any roads at all in this quadrant. If you do, what the map is showing you are all gravel roads, with the exception of state route 447, which in turn converts to gravel at Gerlach.

Normally, Gerlach has a couple of hundred inhabitants in and around town (maybe). There’s a gas station, a small motel, a bar (of course with slots, this being Nevada, and that’s about it. But that’s enough to make Gerlach the hub of this neck of the woods (except, of course, there are no woods -- too dry), with only a handful of isolated ranches scattered across the whole corner of the state like buckshot. Stop at Bruno’s Texaco before you leave Gerlach, and take a look at the small photo tucked away on the back wall. You’ll see Bill, the man in charge, and a very impressive mountain sheep he’s just taken. If you look carefully down the mountain behind Bill in the picture, you’ll see the Gerlach. Probably Bruno’s Texaco as well, if you look hard enough. You have to be pretty isolated to shoot a mountain sheep in your back yard.

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Roots of Aimless Travel

Not Here but There: A Wilderness Journal

This trip had its genesis some four years ago, when I was flying back from San Jose on a nearly empty flight to Boston. Looking down, I saw the usual mountains, canyons and rugged terrain of the southwest: there were no jeep trails. In most parts of the West, jeep trails are everywhere, snaking across deserts, scaling mountains, and leaving their scars behind for decades even if the area is declared off limits to vehicular travel.

When I landed, I pulled out a map and saw that it was Nevada I had been traveling over: the state that's easy to forget, because there is so little there (quick -- name five things in Nevada. Odds are you couldn't -- unless you’re from Nevada). It is one of the largest and emptiest states in the country, with areas as large as some eastern states without a single town, and more than 100 miles between gas stations more often not.

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Blogging Self-Indulgence (Mea Culpa)

Not Here but There: A Wilderness JournalBlogging by its nature is a self-indulgent enterprise, which represents both its primary virtue as well as its greatest weakness. By this I mean that the blogging ethos revolves around sharing one’s uncompromised perspective with whoever finds it worth her while to read it — take it or leave it (that’s the virtue).
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Patent Pools and Practicality: Would You Give A Penny for the Guy?

WirelessA long-running drama has taken a new and relatively unusual turn that is worth noting. That drama is the long (and ultimately unsuccessful) struggle that was waged within EPC Global to maintain a royalty-free environment for RFID standards. And that new turn is the announcement today that a patent pool is being formed by some 20 companies to establish royalty rates and manage royalty payments on implementations of EPC Global RFID standards.