I stood in early evening among pinyon pine and juniper. It was beat-up landscape near Little Park where trails went off in every direction among the trees. I heard a woodpecker and changed my focus, narrowing the sound to a pinyon pine. There was a juniper titmouse on a pinyon branch. It pecked hard, and I assumed it had a seed, although I couldn’t see what it struck or held in its beak. It flew off a couple of times, but returned to the same branch to resume pecking. This bird has sophistication: pert crest, feathers the middle gray I search for in sweaters, and best of all a thin black line running along the margin of each folded wing. I can’t believe the Sibley Field Guide describes it as “[v]ery plain, drab . . .”
Last summer I was asked to write an article for a special issue of a botanical journal to be devoted to developmental genetics and homology. I was asked to prepare the article in only two months, which I declined, but I did agree to write it by the beginning of November. I’ve been busy since then, writing two grant proposals for the National Science Foundation, moving out of my house and to my sabbatical location, preparing a talk on my research, and doing fieldwork for new research.
I woke early today and sat down at the computer with a cup of tea. I began work on the article about developmental genetics and homology. The article is based on a talk I gave at a botanical meeting in 2004. I like to begin manuscripts of new articles. I tell students that I begin writing the articles when I conceive the research project. I write the introduction to the article as a way to see the ideas of the project; I then put the introduction aside, sometimes for many years, while I conduct the research.
Converting a talk into a manuscript for publication is very different from beginning a manuscript from a pile of data, files of literature, and a blank screen. When you begin with a talk, you’ve already digested the material and considered the points and how you want to make them. Converting a talk into an article manuscript can sometimes be rapid, especially if I’ve made all of the illustrations for the talk that will be needed for the article. Those rapid conversions are usually talks that become manuscripts soon after the talk. The conversion I face now, over a year after the talk and my last immersion in the literature, makes me uneasy, especially at my sabbatical locale, where I have access to neither my extensive files of literature nor a research library.
I began this article by making a copy of my talk notes, putting in hard returns to arrange key statements as separate lines, and cutting explanations of the illustrations I had used in the talk. In scientific talks, the images shown convey as much as do the words, but this talk was not based on data original to my lab, it used primarily data from the literature. It’s unlikely that I will use the illustrations I used in the talk; my explanations in the article will likely consist of narrative—background, examples, and inferences—rather than visual illustrations.
Talks are structured differently from articles and are far simpler. After considering how to rearrange the material from the talk to make the article, I decided it was time to clean the bathroom. I cleaned, showered, threw some clothes in the washer, and then went out for the New York Times.
On my way back with the Times, I began to see the beginning the article: a simple sentence, a thesis sentence, and perhaps a compelling notion: Comparative biology requires homology. I wrote a few more sentences and then began thumbing through a file of literature. I pulled out a few articles and read one. I incorporated ideas from this paper and cited it in my first paragraph and in a paragraph that could come later. I worried more about how to structure the article, then set it aside, and went out for Indian food, which I’ve been craving, for dinner. There was rain on the mesas and sharp lightning strikes; thunder began popping at close hand when I entered the restaurant and a downpour began. I could see after dinner that I need a fresh outline to move the article away from the inhibiting structure of the talk. That’s where I’ll begin in the morning. After the outline, a few paragraphs will flow easily, although they may not last. I will continue to wrestle with the ideas and literature.
On the slopes above Bang's Canyon yesterday, WK, a botanist at Mesa State College, showed me delightful parts of the fall flora. We walked over the slope through the pinyon pines and junipers, past the thousands of rosettes of next year’s beardtongues and miner’s candles, and across ravines with single-leaf ash, passing the common flora of the canyon country. We walked up to outcrops of slickrock. These slickrock “balds” amid the pinyon and juniper had a low slope, and in their creases were long, narrow bands of shallow soil. These soil bands are separated by several strides, and each could be two feet or so in width and 20 or 30 feet in length. Their soil was eighths of inches deep in places and somewhat more at their thickest. They were like shallow, reef islands in a sandstone sea. Rounded domes of black moss and patches of Selaginella, the resurrection plant, populated these islands. It was the Selaginella that WK sought—they were producing strobili and the spores that are used for dispersal; WK needed these for a class.
What WK had been telling me about and showed me in these thin soil islands were small annual plants that had just begun to flower following the recent late summer rains. There were various grasses, Munroa squarrosa, which was all angles, and Muhlenbergia depauperata, each like a cache of swords. The best of the grasses, clearly WK’s favorite, was the delicate Muhlenbergia minutissima; it was just inches tall. WK said it looked best in misty light, but each plant of M. minitissima was like a delicate spray of mist and the dense patches of plants misted the light to yellow and the tiny, tear-shaped flowers seemed the tiniest water drops. There were succulents here from the purslane family. The red Portulaca halimoides were past flowering. What remained of their fruits were pale cups, little glints of white in the red ring of the spreading shoots. From the same family were Phemeranthus parviflorus(or Talinum parviflorum), the fameflower, that were also past flowering and held a single, dehisced fruit cup at the tip of each straw-colored branch. What’s best about fameflowers are not the flowers but the thick leaves, like fat arms, that are two inches long and round in cross section.
My favorite plant of the day was Nama dichotomum. These had flowers too tiny to see until I had my nose an inch from the inflorescence tips and my glasses tipped off my nose. The petals were just lavender tips at the ends of the sepals. The plants were just three inches tall. Their stems had the thinness, umber color, and chitinous brittleness of insect legs. I’m familiar with various namas in the Mohave Desert that spread out along the desert surface with upswept branches tipped by blue and yellow petals—but Nama dichotomum was very different. When I began to check on the plant I noticed first that the epithet dichotomum had the authors Ruiz and Pavon, who had discovered and named many plants in South America. Was Nama dichotomum in South America? Yes, I found it was first discovered in Peru and is known from the desert near Arequipa. I like to recall that barren desert of southern Peru and wish I had found Nama dichotomum when I was there. The population of the slickrock islands above Bang's Canyon is near its northernmost distribution.
The sharp margin of Black Mesa is Black Canyon, perpetually dark because of its narrowness, where the Gunnison River flows west. The shadowed canyon is ragged, but you can see flat expanses of rock along the river. There are no beaches even in the late summer; this canyon meets the river on the perpendicular.
The river looked sluggish from high above—I drove along the northern rim of Black Canyon. There was only a single view where I could see well-lit water, and there reflections on the water curved against the flow from wind coming up river.
Aspen have turned. In my many years of traveling in the Rocky Mountains, I have in the past only been here in the spring and summer; I have looked forward to the views I had today: there were patches of yellow on the distant slopes and the draws that fanned out above me from the rimrock of Black Mesa were brilliant yellow. Aspen not yet turned remain bright green and these often edged the yellow patches like a decorative ribbon. Ridge humps were rufous expanses of scrub oak. These color fields were fitted on a ground of gray sagebrush. In the distance to the south of my viewpoint, askew rectangles and teardrop draws of yellow were isolated on the broad gray and oaken rufous back of the San Juan Mountains, which arched north from Cimarron Ridge to the Cimarron River on a side and down to the Gunnison River.
A well-oiled old, leather boot. Leather oiled repeatedly over years. That’s how the air smelled. I was walking into No Thoroughfare Canyon on the northern margin of the Uncompahgre Plateau. The air had all the compiled heat of the afternoon and humidity. The old boot smell came from the head high sagebrush, their aromatics mixed with the moist air and diffused in its stillness.
There was a quick, harsh storm in the early evening yesterday. Today there were pools in the canyon and beds of moist sand. It was the mud that most interested me. Mud of the creek bed replicated in miniature the complexity of the larger landscape. It formed a weathered plateau. Rills ran parallel on the plateau; its surface was pleated. Drainage from the plateau left alluvial fans of grit around the mouths of canyons.
There were livers of mud, as if the mix of water and lightning of the storm had vivified the creek bed, creating life-sustaining organs. Such surreal thoughts expand unchecked in the face of mud formed in the morbid dips of Dalí clocks.
Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul lives in the same warm shadows and sadness as Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Kundera’s book was inhabited by the Czech notion of litost, a torment at the sudden recognition of one’s misery that turns into longing. That longing in Kundera was a blue light that cast an orange shadow where the Soviets (the East) held the Czechs from the liberties of the West, and, sensually and metaphorically, lit and shadowed the same way, sexual entanglements of his characters created that same longing for liberty. The response in Kundera was decadence.
The gaze of the West on Istanbul of the East and Istanbul’s wistful view of the West have also left longing. The response in Pamuk’s Istanbul is the sense of beauty. Pamuk declares it in the epigraph from Ahmet Rasim: “The beauty of landscape resides in its melancholy.” Pamuk writes, “The city into which I was born was poorer, shabbier, and more isolated than it had ever been before in its two-thousand year history. For me it has always been a city of ruins and of end-of-empire melancholy.” Where the best art of Kundera has come from disjunction—his exile—Pamuk’s comes from staying; he writes: “My imagination, however, requires that I stay in the same city, on the same street, in the same house, gazing at the same view.”
He writes about his favorite Istanbul writers, who found accommodation in melancholy: “When they recalled the splendor of old Istanbul, when their eyes lit on a dead beauty lying by the wayside, when they wrote about the ruins that surrounded them, they gave the past a poetic grandeur. As it happened, this eclectic vision, which I’ll call ‘the melancholy of ruins,’ made them seem nationalistic in a way that suited the oppressive state, while also saving them from the full force of the authoritarian decrees that befell their contemporaries with an equal interest in history.”
Pamuk’s longing is shaped by the European gaze on Istanbul. He writes of the engravings of Istanbul made by the German artist Antoine-Ignace Melling: “I found Melling’s engravings consoling. But even as I allow myself to be transported, I am aware that part of what makes Melling’s paintings so beautiful is the sad knowledge that what they depict no longer exists. Perhaps I look at these paintings precisely because they make me sad. . .As I leaf through his book, the very thought that this lost heaven has bequeathed to me even a few of the landscapes and houses I’ve known in my own lifetime produces a kind of rapture. Here, at the point where melancholy mixes with joy, is where I notice the little continuities discernable only to those very familiar with the Bosphorus.” He has taken more than a nostalgic sense of his place from the Europeans, Pamuk created himself in response to both their strong artistic visions and their foreign gazes. He begins by questioning his motives: “Why this fixation with the thoughts of western travelers, what they did on visits to the city, what they wrote to their mothers? It’s partly that many times I’ve identified with a number of them (Nerval, Flaubert, de Amicis) and—just as I once had to identify myself with Utrillo in order to paint Istanbul—it was by falling under their influence and contesting with them by turns that I forged my own identity.”
His identity is like bronze, forged from many sources—European artistry, Istanbul’s writers, the city’s streets and ruins, the Bosphorus, his family’s apartments. He recalls the photographs on the piano in his grandmother’s apartment: “I came to see what a powerful influence these framed scenes exerted over us as we went about our daily lives. . . it seemed plain to me that my grandmother had framed and frozen these memories so we could weave them into the present. . . it seemed that she—like me—was pulled in two directions, wanting to get on with life but also longing to capture the moment of perfection, savoring the ordinary but still honoring the ideal.”
Pamuk’s gaze is scenic; Istanbul is a photograph album. The family snapshots are intimate. Other photographs, scavenged from various sources, antiquaries and collections, the work of photographer Ara Güler, amplify Pamuk’s descriptions of Istanbul, which savor its ordinary scenes and recreate an ideal in his beautiful prose.
[All quotations from Pamuk, Orhan. 2005. Istanbul: Memories and the City. Knopf, New York.]
Mentzelia—the blazing star genus—has not received much attention in Colorado. New species continue to be described from the state, and I’m not convinced that we understand yet the diversity of the genus in Colorado. I went over weekend to see what I could find of that Mentzelia diversity in southwestern Colorado. My route was largely a figure-8 with its nexus at Naturita. It was a trip to and through the canyons of the Dolores River.
I took Unaweep Canyon to the Dolores River. The highway to Unaweep Canyon begins in a battered landscape of mobile homes, dried weeds, greasewood, and rabbitbush. The greasewood, rabbitbush, and dried weeds were near constants of the trip; the worn mobile homes frequent. I found the first population of Mentzelia just short of the Dolores River on a roadcut on the incline down to Gateway. The flower petals were tightly furled but standing erect above the spoke-like sepals. The flowers of this group of perennial mentzelias (the bartonia mentzelias) open in the late afternoons and then close again before morning. On the back of the petals, I could see with my hand lens, was patch of tiny hairs—a diagnostic sign that this was M. marginata (Colorado blazing star). Colorado blazing star, which was described first based on collections from near De Beque in the Book Cliffs, is common on the sparsely vegetated badlands and hills of the mesa and canyon country of western Colorado and eastern Utah. I expected to find it; I hoped to find more of the unusual diversity of mentzelias in the area.
Gateway sits at a widespot in a canyon of the Dolores River. There’s a old gas station/café and a few houses tucked back among cottonwoods. I was surprised when I went around the bend in the highway to see an adobe monstrosity. ‘Gateway Canyons’ it said on the sign. There was a market/gas station with very expensive gas and the Paradox Grille, which was probably more outrageously expensive than the gas (and made me want to go back to the café at the becoming-run-down gas station around the corner). The expanding construction seemed to include a hotel—and landscape had been denuded, leveled, and walled by adobe for more construction. Many tourists must be expected. I went in the market for a cup of tea, where I found Yunnan among the choices. This was a sign of broader-than-normal rural market thinking about tea. I handed the tea bag and my thermos cup to the man behind the counter. “Tea, please,” I said. He began to shovel ice into my cup. “No,” I said, “hot tea.” “When people say tea they mean this ice tea,” he said. “Just put hot water in the cup,” I said. He had trouble with the hot water spigot and took my cup over to the sink. “I’ll finish filling it with hot water here,” he said and pointed to the faucet tap. My “NO!” was quick—“the other hot water is fine,” I said. Then he ripped the tea bag.
I went southeast into my first of the Dolores River canyons. It was a beautiful, deep sandstone canyon that was dark iron red in color with ebony varnish on the high flat facets. Several miles out of Gateway I stopped when I saw another population of Mentzelia. This was again M. marginata but here the plants grew only on a mound of white gravel at the roadside.
The highway followed the San Miquel River beyond its confluence with the Dolores. The confluence area continues to be labeled Uravan on maps. Uravan is a concatenation of the first three letters of uranium and vanadium, which were mined and processed here through much of the 20th century. The town exists now only in memories and lawsuits over radiation poisoning. Relicts of the era remain on the hills, where gray, radioactive mine tailings fan-out on the red talus slopes. Raffinates—the wastes of uranium processing—abound. In bottomland along the San Miquel River, the former uranium processing plant is an EPA Superfund site. Large evaporation ponds, lined by black plastic and smeared by yellow sludge, are being reworked—capped—by bulldozers that raise what must be rich dust. The ponds are surrounded by high fence and radiation warning signs. Radioactive waste has leached from here and the numerous local mines into the ground water and the San Miquel River.
At Naturita the town’s sign said “Stop and enjoy a little nature.” I turned south a few miles beyond the town, passed over Dry Creek Basin, with high hopes for Gypsum Valley. A good gypsum crust on soil can prevent many plants from becoming established, but mentzelias accommodate these crusts and flourish where competition from other plants is limited. Localized outcrops of gypsum can be good places to find unusual mentzelias, and the name Gypsum Valley on the map drew my fantasies of new species. When I crested the northern rim of Gypsum Valley, I saw mentzelias in flower and pulled over for a look. There were white patches—gypsum crust—on the brown soil but the Mentzelia was not on these—it was restricted to outcroppings of coal or black shale. I cored the substrate, which was powder soft and black and gray, but there were layers of white in it, which I assumed were gypsum. This was the sort of Mentzelia I was hoping to find this weekend—although not a fantasy new species—they were short plants with round-tipped leaves. Collections of these are often labeled as M. pterosperma or M. multiflora in herbaria in Colorado, but I have not been convinced they fit either name. It was late afternoon and the flowers were open. They were perfect examples of the source of the blazing star name. The petals and broad, petal-like sterile stamens radiated outward—bright yellow against the blackish substrate—like the points of a star.
I turned up the gravel road into Gypsum Valley, where a sign said “Heavy truck traffic.” In the Northwest this would be a sign of logging, but here I wasn’t sure. Then something lifted into the sky ahead of me—it could have been a large raptor in the near distance, but its arc and timing were mechanical and not bird. I’ve seen various aeronautical oddities while botanizing, especially in the Mohave Desert where strange jets slip out of canyons and zip just overhead through the valleys. As I put the distance of this thing into perspective and it neared me I saw it was a helicopter. Then I saw the yellow electric cord running up the side of the road. Then, at regular intervals, the thick black cables that crossed the road and connected to clusters of white boxes. I reached an old corral where a cluster of trucks had the look of a command center—one truck was a big white box with small windows and out of its top extended for 20 feet in the air an antenna. The truck doors were emblazoned Veritas.
“No sector of the oil and gas service industry benefits greater from the advance of technology than companies operating in the geophysical services sector.
On the cutting edge of that technology is VERITAS DGC Inc., offering the oil and gas industry a comprehensive suite of integrated geophysical services designed to manage exploration risk and enhance drilling and production success worldwide. These services include seismic survey planning and design, seismic data acquisition in all environments, data processing, data visualization, data interpretation, reservoir characterization, data archiving and extensive non-exclusive seismic data library surveys worldwide.”
The seismic survey seems to have sent vehicles off in all directions through the valley. Their tracks have created a spider web of matted lanes through the rice grass. While the BLM has tried to control the off-road travel of ATVs, gas and oil exploration must get free rein. The valley looked well plundered. Mine tailings spotted its southern rim. Without looking too closely, Gypsum Valley was still beautiful as it warmed in the early evening sun. The northern rim was sinuously sculpted red sandstone with pillars and torso and head hoodoos, especially at the western end. Above the Dolores River, where it entered the valley at the western end, were stepped benches that were surprisingly green—a healthy sagey green—for the lateness of the season. The end of the valley was low slung and framed the full range of the La Sal mountains. While I’d like to say I found a fascinating new Mentzelia in the valley, there was instead only more Colorado Blazing Star.
I camped on the lower bend of the Dolores River’s S curve in Gypsum Valley among the sagebrush, skunkbush, willow and tamarisk, where princess plume and four-o’clock bloomed still at the base of cliffs. I had rice and beans and ham and cheese on a sun-dried tomato bagel and read the New York Times. The helicopter buzzed my dinner—it was just 20 feet overhead and rippled the hardy rabbitbush.
The next morning I continued to wind along the Dolores, where I found another Mentzelia population just before Slickrock, a town that consisted of an empty building and an empty corral. The road wound through oak and then pinyon and juniper up to the Big Sagebrush Plain, which has mostly been plowed. The broad plain, with its thin patches of trees and sagebrush and big rectangles of agriculture, extended to Abajo Mountains in Utah. The towns I passed had signs for beans for sale, between towns signs for hay. I lost the Dolores River where the highway climbed to the mesa top but returned to it at the town of Dolores; from there I followed the river north. I’ve seen collections of Mentzelia made along this stretch of road, where the Dolores falls south from the La Plata Mountains, but I couldn’t find the populations. I crossed the mountains, passed-by Telluride, went back along the San Miquel River, climbed the mesa to Norwood, and drove back to Naturita. I headed to the Paradox Valley, where the evening presented the open flowers of another Mentzelia. Its petals lacked trichomes on their backs so was not M. marginata, and its leaves were thin and hardly lobed. This was a nice find—something a little different in the diversity of mentzelias in western Colorado.
The Dolores River crosses Paradox Valley. I drove up the river into a canyon to camp for the night. Moonlight lit the canyon walls well before I saw moon. I watched the light slowly expand across the canyon, until a chill wind came down the Dolores and sent me to my sleeping bag.
On Sunday, I took the River Road along the Dolores out of Paradox Valley. The river was lined by natural gas wells until it entered the canyon. The canyon held mines, especially at the eastern end where the road diverged from the Dolores to follow Atkinson Creek to Uravan. From Uravan, I drove back to Gateway. Various motorcyclists were gathered at ‘Gateway Canyons.’ One had a black leather jacket emblazoned on the back with “Brotherhood of Christian Motorcyclists.” He had a big smile and waved goodbye to everyone when he pulled out—his radio blared “Stairway to Heaven.”