Saturday, March 31, 2012

news spin

I read more news at this moment in my life than ever before, and perhaps more than I ever will again. And without fail, every day as I swim through a pool of newspapers and blogs and news sites, I am blown away by what I read. Unbiased journalist? How is that possible? The more you read, the easier it is to be opinionated. Outraged, even. I may strive to make my writing fair and balanced, but that's only part of the story. Regardless of a reporter's objectivity, news outlets demonstrate their bias, conscious or not, simply by what they choose to print and report on and what they ignore or overlook.

A lack of bias is ever more pertinent now that most journalists have personal or professional blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. I try to be very clear that mine are personal, but when you're a public figure, even at a local community paper, the line between personal and professional is easily blurred. Larger (and more tech-savvy) news organizations than mine give reporters strict guidelines on how they should conduct their online presence, not only so they don't broadcast photos of themselves swilling beer and flipping off the camera, but also to discourage them from publicly voicing any sort of bias or opinion that could compromise their objectivity as a reporter.

I understand that journalists chronicle history, and that objectivity is essential to this goal. But with the explosion of blogging and social media and the gradual influx of new forms of journalism, asking reporters to maintain a completely neutral online presence is, I think, unrealistic. So -- because I'm about to leave the newspaper and head back to the outdoor industry, here are the stories that blew me out of the water this week. Maybe I'll try to make this a weekly blog posting.

1. Two commonly used pesticides have been linked to the death of bees. While it's not news that both wild and managed bees are dying in untold numbers, and it certainly shouldn't be news that the pesticides used to kill "bad" insects are also killing the ones necessary to pollinate and propagate our food crops, the study published in Science does two things.
First, it gives credible scientific backing to something that had previously only been common sense. While common sense is good enough for some organic farmers, it doesn't stand up well in court and isn't enough for policy change. To move away from the use of harmful pesticides and save our natural pollinators, we need proof that many pesticides are doing more harm than good.

Second, it shows how wrong claims of "environmentally friendly" can be, and how easily a bit of clever marketing can dupe the general public into believing such claims. The relatively new pesticides studied by the bee researchers were heralded by their developers as being more environmentally friendly than previous pesticides. When you look at it that way, I guess death by Agent Orange was friendlier than death by machine gun.

2. Dartmouth hazing scandal goes national with Janet Reitman's Rolling Stone article. This may be only interesting to me since I live here, witness the Dartmouth culture firsthand, and have been following it and reporting on it since Day 1 -- or even before than, since my in-depth piece on sexual assault at the college was published last spring. Either way, the Rolling Stone piece is a compelling read and worthwhile expose on the entitlement and desensitization to suffering that feeds directly into Wall Street culture.

3. Along the same lines: the House GOP budget. Working as a journalist has forced me to pay attention to and understand issues that I previously skimmed over, like (strangely) our national budget and the politics behind it. All I can say is, really? I must live in a fairly insular bubble, because I cannot fathom WHO would buy into a proposal to cut health and human services while maintaining tax cuts for the super-rich. I'm thankful this budget is DOA when it hits the Senate, but nonetheless discouraged that we waste so much energy arguing about non-issues like tax cuts for the wealthy, health care for women and presidential religion that we ignore the issues that really matter -- like, say, food and water security.

Which brings me to number four:

4. The EPA proposes a monumental first step in curbing greenhouse gas emissions. While this spells trouble for dirty coal plants, it also encourages the use of natural gas, which encourages fracking. Oy vey.

5. This was not a news item from the most recent week, but it's perhaps the most interesting thing I've read all month, so I thought I'd end on a high note and share this fascinating story of giant, presumed- extinct insects clinging to life on an oceanic megolith higher than the Empire State Building. Go forth into the week, and know that the world is full of wonder.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

spring symphony

Allow me to state the obvious: this weather is downright strange. Not only are we soaring beyond heat records set over a century ago, we're surpassing them by some ten degrees, day after record-breaking day. Tomorrow a cold front is supposed to move in, but tonight, the sun has long set and the thermometer still reads 68 degrees and I am sitting on the stone wall outside my house with a headlamp on, amazed.

It is March 22. Four years ago during my first winter in Vermont, we got hammered with one snow storm after another in March, and my journal reveals that on this date I was snowshoeing around a frozen lake in waist-deep snow. Now, I'm sitting in sandals and a tee-shirt as the world around me crawls with new life. There's a scuffling at my feet and I catch it in the beam of my headlamp: a junebug-sized beetle. In March.

Over by the compost pile, I crouch low to the ground. There is something – many somethings – moving beneath the leaf litter. I stay very still and watch the earth come alive with movement: shifting, roiling from below as if the sea of brown leaves has become a pool of burbling lava. I pounce on a spot where there's motion but come up perplexed and empty handed, without evidence of the commotion that's stirring the leaves all around.

Finally, I figure it out: nightcrawlers, poking their blunt, blind heads from the dark earth beneath the leaves. In the garden there are hundreds of them, their mucous skin catching the beam of my headlamp as they emerge from the deep tunnels where they've spent the winter. Overhead, a bat skips across the sky like a rock across a calm pond.

And then, as the night fades from purple to black and the stars begin to emerge, a chorus of spring peepers begin to call, and, beyond, the low chattering of wood frogs like a flock of birds. The noise is a tonic, and I cannot sit still.

In the darkness, I begin to walk across this patchwork landscape. I cross the field toward the pond, where the ground is squishy. Cold water seeps through my crocs. I roll up my pant legs and continue.

At the edge of the woods where the frogs are loudest, I stop. Earlier, in the twilight, I had been feeling sorry for myself, gripped again by the loneliness that even the warmth of spring hasn't driven away. Now I am alive with the wonder and curiosity of this beautiful night, this spring air draping itself over my skin, all its creatures singing and rustling and emerging from the cold. And to think I could have so easily missed it all.

Walking on, I suddenly sink into mud up to my shins. I carefully pull my feet out of the muck and take my shoes off. The cold New England mud oozes between my toes, small rocks scraping against my winter-soft feet as they sink even deeper. And then, unexpectedly, I realize I am standing up to my knees in a pile of mud, laughing out loud under the stars as the orchestra of creatures around me fills the bare tree branches with the song of being alive.

Three signs of spring: trout lilies, frog eggs and fiddleheads (photos taken last May):

Saturday, March 24, 2012

"Sometimes the songs that we hear are just songs of our own"

I love poetry all by itself, but there's nothing like setting a poem to music to give it that elusive quality that sticks to your soul. Here are some of the most beautiful poem-songs I know, but I'm sure there are so many more out there, and I would love if you shared some of yours with me.

  • Railroad Earth, by Railroad Earth (Their masterpiece, it always bring tears to my eyes.)
  • Angel from Montgomery (I'm actually partial to the Old Crow Medicine Show version, but the original John Prine does it for me too. Definitely not Bonnie Raitt's take.)
  • The Wild Hunt, by The Tallest Man on Earth (The singer's voice is grating at first, but it grows on you.)
  • Helpless, by Neil Young (I like the Unplugged version – just Neil and a piano.)
  • Furr, by Blitzen Trapper (Less musically beautiful than the others, perhaps, but I'm in love with the lyrical image of a boy turning into a wolf.)
  • Shine on You Crazy Diamond, by Pink Floyd (Oh, those opening chords. They remind me of sitting on a forgotten beach under a sky full of glittering diamonds.)
  • Brokedown Palace or Terrapin Station (Grateful Dead, and I must specify the version from Dead Set for the former. Both examples of Robert Hunter's lyrical genius.)
  • I Quit My Job, by Old Man Leudecke (For the longest time, I had this song on my playlists and didn't know who it was. Then a friend with an iPhone showed me how to magically find information related to any song just by having the phone “listen” to a clip of it. Technology amazes me.)

That's all I can think of for now. Those are the songs that make my heart sing. 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

fracking 101

From the Valley News (slightly altered -- the editors removed "no fracking way" for being crass. I opted to keep it in. Also, this is a "daily" written in a few hours, so it's basically reporting on what was said on this particular evening, and isn't a well-researched, in-depth article. Not that I'm making apologies.)
Norwich -- For an issue that hasn't quite hit Vermont yet, fracking is nonetheless garnering a lot of attention in the Upper Valley. More than 150 people showed up at the Montshire Museum last night to learn more about the controversial practice of using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to extract natural gas from underground shale, and the general consensus was: no fracking way. Not in this state.

Though fracking has become a hot-button issue in Pennsylvania and New York, both of which lie above North America's largest natural gas deposit – the Marcellus shale – Vermont has been largely ignored by natural gas companies. A few exploratory wells were drilled in the 1980s, but currently, Vermont's relatively small natural gas supply is pumped in from Canadian wells. 

So far, anyway. State geologist Laurence Becker said in a telephone interview yesterday that the geology in northwest Vermont is very similar to that just across the border in Quebec, where large deposits of natural gas were found and wells were drilled in 2007 before the province put a temporary ban on fracking last spring to better study the issue.

“We do have the shale,” Becker said. “It's also east of Lake Champlain, close to the interstate. There's more than 4,500 feet thickness of shale.”

Still, it's unclear if Vermont's shale holds the kind of natural gas deposits that would attract commercial interests. No one has yet applied for a fracking permit through the Agency of Natural Resources, and it seems that some of Vermont's legislators would like to keep it that way – at least until environmental regulations catch up with fracking technology. The Vermont House of Representatives passed a three-year moratorium on fracking earlier this year, and the issue is now before the Senate.

New York also has enacted a temporary ban on fracking, but 27 other states, including Pennsylvania, allow it to occur, and the federal government exercises virtually no oversight in the process. The Bush administration exempted fracking from compliance with the Clean Water Act and other environmental regulations, because the drilling occurs deep below groundwater aquafers, according to presenters from Vermont Law School last night.

Proponents of fracking, like Vermont lobbyist Joe Choquette of the American Petroleum Institute, who was also interviewed by telephone, say that natural gas is a cleaner-burning fuel than oil or coal, that's it's domestically abundant and therefore cheaper than other petroleum products, and that fracking technology is becoming ever cleaner.

But Vermont Law School environmental law professor Pat Parenteau, who addressed a largely like-minded crowd at the Montshire Museum last night, said that the amount of methane emitted by fracking negates any savings in carbon dioxide emissions from burning natural gas.

Not only that, Parenteau said, but the other health and environmental impacts are equally distressing. There is evidence that fracking contaminates drinking water with methane and other chemicals, and the process itself is so water intensive that it undermines critical water supply issues, especially in the West.

The Environmental Protection Agency (which is at the tail end of a two-year fracking study) estimates that 70 to 140 billion gallons of water are used annually to fracture 35,000 wells in the U.S. To put that into perspective: that's equivalent to the annual water consumption of 40 to 80 cities, each with a population of 50,000.

To release natural gas, such vast quantities of water are mixed with sand and chemicals and piped up to 8,000 feet below the Earth's surface. Then extraordinary pressure is exerted to literally crack the geologic formations in which the gas is bound. All of the water that flows back out of the ground is ultimately contaminated, and states do not require companies to report on the levels of such water or where it is stored, Parenteau said.

In addition to water use and contamination, he added, fracking can result in earthquakes, explosions and the degradation of undeveloped land. And projections show that levels of fracking are due to increase exponentially from 2010 on.

“This is the gold rush of the 21st century,” Parenteau said. “It's not a bridge to a new energy future, it's a bridge to nowhere.”

Though hydraulic fracturing has been around for at least 60 years, the reason for the recent boom is that new technology allows for horizontal, not just vertical, drilling, opening up new deposits to exploration, Choquette explained.

Cordelia Merritt, of Hartland, was among the 150 or so people who showed up for the discussion at the Montshire Museum – which had volunteers scrambling to set up extra chairs as a line of people streamed through the doors.

“I'm concerned about this because I have four grandchildren,” Merritt said. “I just think this is almost the most important environmental issue there is.”

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


The world is full of magic things,
                                                                            patiently waiting
                                                                          for our senses to grow sharper.
                                                                         ~W.B. Yeats

I've spent years roaming this country, slowly, like a heavy rumbling engine, but my transience hasn't diminished the degree to which I value a sense of place. Rather, I think I've come to appreciate it more, because my time in any one place has been fleeting. Knowing you'll be leaving a place makes your time there more meaningful, perhaps, more poignant. More vivid.

Yet it's also true that to see a place for what it is, you usually have to spend some time there: wake up to different seasons, fall in love, drink the water, feel the soil. You must peel back the layers, get beyond the first impressions that jump out and grab hold of your senses. During the year I spent on Ebon island, half a mile wide by five miles long, I was amazed by how much more I saw with each passing week. After six months, I thought I knew every rock, insect and plant, and yet almost every day I noticed something that I'd previously overlooked. How well did the people who spent their entire lives there know the island? And if such a limited environment can produce such limitless inquiry, how can anyone, ever, truly know a city or a whole range of mountains?

At the Wildbranch Writing Workshop last year, Craig Childs told me that his job as a writer is to land in a place and physically experience it in as raw a way as possible, to tell the secrets of where he's been; to invoke that place in such a way that the reader is transported there.

Thinking back on my experience in the Marshall Islands, I wondered how that was possible. If you're only in a place for a short while, how can you discover its secrets? How can you see it clearly enough to put its essence on paper? I wrote in my journal: “I think I must train my senses to go deeper – at first, as a conscious effort when I need them to, and then all the time, until it becomes a habit, a new way of seeing the world.”

Later, a few days into the workshop, I wrote the following:

“I've now eaten at least six meals at a picnic table outside the dining area, and I just noticed the giant cobb oven twenty feet away. There must be a limit to the amount our senses can absorb at once, because it's not as if I was being unobservant. I noticed the nodding white bell flowers, the quality of the evening light, the silver bracelets on the wrist of the woman sitting across from me, the dinnertime chatter, rise and fall of voices, the way the feathery tops of ferns growing on the hillside formed tiers like terraced rice. I saw the blue sky through gaps in the branches of the spruce, the dark boughs swaying in the wind. I was engaged in good conversation. There is only so much our senses can absorb, and apparently, a cobb oven didn't make the cut. Still, I think I can train myself to notice more, and I think that once I do, I'll derive an even greater pleasure from this life. I once thought that the dissection and deconstruction of literature would detract from its beauty, rendering me unable to lose myself in it. But in fact, the opposite is true: I appreciate it and love good writing even more when it's well done. Perhaps so it is with a life of sensory fullness.”

Such powers of observation – and curiosity – can be dangerous. Autism has been described as a kind of sensory overload, and Craig, sitting at a table made of a giant slab of hammered wood, said that he could write pages and pages about something as simple as a table. Perhaps all good writers can, but that doesn't make it good writing. “Take me with a grain of salt,” Craig said. “I have to get rid of 90 percent of what I write. Writing is a process of omission.”

In jazz, they say, the most important notes are those that aren't played. In writing, perhaps some of the most important things we say are those we omit.

From my Wildbranch journal, again: “Just went for a walk in the woods barefoot as part of an assignment from Craig to focus on the sensory experience. For me, that was the cold, wet, bare earth sensing chills up my shin bones, which then inexplicably jumped to my forearms. The chill compelled me toward a sunny patch, where a moss-covered stump stood like a pedestal. If our senses tell our feet where to go, why have mine gone in the direction they have?”

In three weeks, I will be back in Alaska. 

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Photo of the day:

And quote of the day (I realize that pairing the two makes this post look unfortunately like a Hallmark card, but this was written to me in an email today and it was too good not to share):

"Maybe it's the places we've chosen to live that have allowed us to be the people we've wanted to be."

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A photo site I threw together with some of my favorites.  Check it out.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

I get lost reading old things, sifting through the shoeboxes of the past. Other peoples', my own – it doesn't matter. I find emails from five years ago and marvel at all they contain, all the hopes and ideas and forgotten memories. People belittle the email for not being as romantic as the old handwritten letter, but it has its merits. Email preserves reams of information, recording the minutia of life in a way letters did not. My old inbox contains information about bills and loans and stuff bought and sold, apartments sought and rented, relationships come and gone, friendships that remain (in varying degrees of closeness), jobs applied for and successes and failures. There's a lot in there, suspended in the great void of the World Wide Web. It is a web indeed, one that catches the history of our lives and preserves it indefinitely, encrypted for posterity. I wonder if research historians in hundreds of years will mine the web for scraps of emails and receipts that tell the story of what it was like to live in 2012. I wonder if one of them will unearth the contents of my Gmail inbox, marveling at it like an archeologist picking away at a block of sand.

From my inbox, I see that I've applied to be an organic garden intern, a dog musher, a 'backcountry intern,' a teacher, a copywriter and editor, a trail builder, a newspaper reporter, a wilderness guide, a hut caretaker, an education director, a communications director, a project manager and a research assistant in at least eight countries and 12 states.

When are they going to find out?, I wonder. When will they discover that I will do anything, go anywhere, just to get a taste of this life, to feed this spark in my belly, to feel alive and free, to have stories to tell? That there isn't anything that doesn't appeal to me: I would be a truckstop diner waitress in Indiana, a war correspondent in Afghanistan, a SCUBA dive instructor in Indonesia. I am not “focused.” My imagination runs everywhere, ignoring borders and gates and that annoying concept of the “real world” that seems to get in the way of dreams and then is revealed to be the dream itself. I forget the rejections. I keep going. I am convinced, against all rationale, that there is something out there for me that's real, real good. 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Montpelier — The Vermont State Police announced on Monday that they’re updating their search and rescue policy to better align with national practices, but the family of a 19-year-old hiker who died last month claim that such measures aren’t good enough, and are taking their case before state legislators.

In a hearing yesterday in front of the House Government Operations Committee, which is charged with matters of public safety, Starksboro resident Kathleen Duclos said she believes the Vermont State Police should be stripped of their responsibility to conduct search and rescue in the backcountry.

 “Given that 45 out of 50 states do not assign primary search and rescue responsibilities to their state police, I believe it will become clear that there is a better way, and I hope that Vermont will follow their lead,” Duclos said in a written statement prepared for lawmakers in Montpelier yesterday.

Duclos is the aunt of 19-year-old Levi Duclos, an experienced hiker who spent six months trekking in Nepal before going out for a day hike in the Green Mountain National Forest on Jan. 9. When Duclos didn’t return to his New Haven home by 8:00 that evening, his family called 911.

What happened next has fueled intense debate and speculation among outdoor enthusiasts, state legislators and others. Because State Police have refused to release details or comment on the case, stating that it’s still under investigation, much of the information has come from the family of Levi Duclos, who was found dead three miles from the trailhead the morning after he was reported missing. 

According to Duclos’ family, police did not initiate a search until daybreak, leaving Duclos stranded overnight in temperatures that dipped into the teens. If the police had immediately called in local fire departments familiar with the terrain or specially trained search and rescue groups, critics claim, Duclos’ life could have been saved. It’s unclear why Duclos was unable to complete the hike on his own. 

“Urgency would indicate you should do something at night,” said Robert Koester, a 30-year search and rescue veteran who has built an international career out of researching search and rescue practices. Based in Virginia, Koester was familiar with the Duclos case, which he said has been making ripples in the outdoor community. 

In other states, including New Hampshire, non-profit rescue groups like the 30-member Upper Valley Wilderness Response Team are automatically notified whenever a hiker or skier is reported missing. In Vermont, though, such notifications are at the discretion of the state police, and there is currently no protocol in place to get the word out to those who stand by ready and willing to help. Local officials are sometimes notified when there’s a 911 call, but many wilderness areas don’t fall under the jurisdiction of local fire or police squads. 

“State police were given the mission of search and rescue in 1946,” said state Sen. Vince Illuzzi, R-Essex/Orleans, who is drafting legislation to help revise Vermont’s search and rescue policy. “Since that time the landscape in Vermont has changed, and we have a number of municipal and non-profit organizations equipped and trained to do search and rescue, and I think they have been essentially excluded from the process.”

A two-page protocol provided by the State Police mentions training and preparedness for its own 20-member Search and Rescue Team, but does not include any language for involving local fire departments or search and rescue teams. The new interim policy, to be released soon, will likely change that by implementing a “coordinated and unified response to search and rescue operations in Vermont,” according to a press release.

Scott Carpenter, team leader of the Upper Valley Wilderness Response Team and a certified Wilderness Emergency Medical Technician, said his team receives far more search and rescue calls in New Hampshire than in Vermont, but whether that’s due to a higher rate of incidents in the White Mountains or whether the Vermont State Police simply don’t involve outside groups is unclear. 

Each state has its own way of handling the search and rescue, Koester explained: while best practices have been established, there are no national standards. A few states authorize the State Police for search and rescue, while many others, especially on the East Coast, cede authority to state emergency management agencies, which can deploy local wilderness response groups across the region at the push of a button.

In New Hampshire, the state Fish and Game Department has authority over search and rescue organizations — another common model. 

“Obviously there is some intuitive sense to (that,)” Koester said. “They obviously spend a lot of time out in the woods.”

But though the Duclos case has raised questions about whether State Police should be the first to respond to wilderness emergencies in Vermont, there’s nothing inherently wrong with giving responsibility to police officers, Koester said.  What’s key is that there’s a system in place to get boots on the ground as quickly as possible. 

“Any model can work,” Koester said. “It’s just the way that it’s implemented. What really matters is how well trained people are, how experienced people are and the process and procedures in place to make sure no one falls through the cracks.”

In the Twin States, a number of non-profit search and rescue organizations exist to aid state officials. The Upper Valley Wilderness Response team responds to roughly 25 calls per year, and is ready to go at the drop of a hat, any time, night or day. They were not notified when Levi Duclos was reported missing. 

Nor were any other organizations, including the Mountain and Cold Weather Rescue team, made up of Army ROTC members at Norwich University. In a letter to the legislature, Geoffrey Farrell, the officer in charge of the ROTC team, wrote, “We’ve been around since 1960, and although we have a young, strong, very well trained and sizable contingent of searchers and rescuers, in recent years we have received very few calls for assistance.”

The new policy being adopted by the State Police would require that such groups be notified in future emergencies. But whether the police will continue to be in charge of such operations is yet to be determined: Sen. Illuzzi legislation would cede authority to a different agency, such as the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and a backcountry search and rescue committee is being formed to hear testimony like that given by the family of Levi Duclos yesterday. 

 According to Kathleen Duclos, she and three other family members drove to the Emily Proctor Trail in Ripton after calling 911 on Jan. 9.  Two hours later, she said, a police officer arrived but did nothing and eventually left without explanation. At midnight, four hours after the initial call, Duclos said a supervisor, Sgt. Stephen McNamara, arrived on the scene. 

“He had been delayed because he had tried to drive from Ripton, unaware that the road is gated in the winter,” Duclos said. 

While the three other family members, untrained in wilderness response, vainly searched the dark, cold woods, Duclos filled out a missing persons report with the officer at the trailhead.

“Even at that point, when a search was authorized, it wasn’t going to happen until the morning, despite the fact … that there were plenty (of) folks nearby in Ripton and Lincoln who were ready, able and willing to be there, and could have been there hours earlier,” Duclos said. At the time, she and her family were unaware such resources existed.

Hartford Fire Chief Steven Locke, who is trained in specialized rescue, rejects criticism that the State Police aren’t qualified to manage search and rescue. He said that the case of Levi Duclos is unfortunate, but police had no indication that the hiker was trapped or injured. “It was construed as a missing person,” Locke said. 

Rep. Donna Sweaney D-Windsor, who heads the House Government Operations Committee, believes that while state police should still be involved, they shouldn’t necessarily hold sole authority. She said she has made updating state legislation a priority, and hopes to get new policies passed before the end of the current session. 

The timing may be good. Recent snowfalls have spurred more backcountry skiers and hikers into the mountains, some of whom may not be prepared for the conditions they face. 

Todd Johnstone-Wright, an instructor with SOLO Wilderness Medicine and director of wilderness programs at St. Michael’s College said that as technical equipment becomes more accessible and inexpensive, more and more people are venturing into the backcountry without proper training, and the number of rescues has been on the rise.

As Levi Duclos’ uncle, Ray Ault of Proctor said in an interview yesterday, “At the very least, we need to better use our existing resources. Things are happening that need to happen.”

 A Coast Guard helicopter in Sitka, Alaska
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