Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Blackbird’s Song … A Gift To Us All

In which Jon Renner remembers his youth and purpose unlocked by the song of the red-winged blackbird…

Guest Post: Jon Renner

This weekend as we walked the path along the Deschutes, enjoying the sunshine and fragrant breath of Spring, I heard the distinctive call of a red-winged blackbird … and was swept back … back many years to my home in Minnesota and another scene, now shimmering at the edge of the present … conjured by old memory paths, ingrained there by hundreds of similar experiences I’d had as a boy.  We stopped and listened.  A chorus of reply calls filled the air, and we were spellbound.  The dogs barked and ran ahead … but the feeling remained … part here, part there.

I grew up in a place where Spring meant mud, waterworks projects,mosquitoes, and long, and then longer afternoons outside.  My younger sister and I lived outside after school … partly engaged in the chores that were part of life on our small subsistence farm, and partly just being kids.  Running, splashing, climbing, looking under rocks, building forts, exploring the wonders of the lake behind our house … and hunting.  We kept at it every day until it was too dark to see properly, and then went into the house for homework, and eventually, dinner.  And after dinner was done and everything was cleaned up, we went off to either more homework, our books, or other pursuits … pursuits that were frequently accompanied by the famous radio dramas of the day:  The Green Hornet, Johnny Dollar, Gene Autry … and many more.

This was the pattern of our lives for years and years … and as Spring became Summer and the days grew longer, our routine shifted a bit because of the need to get the garden prepared or planted, the different kinds of work our animals required, or the ability to enjoy greater opportunities to do fun things outdoors.  Still, we lived this life in pretty much the same way for most of my youth.  Eventually, however, we got a television and things began to change.  Now, when school was out the programming began.  The first shows of the day started at 4pm, and we couldn’t miss a minute.  Suddenly things that had lived once only in our imaginations now came to life on the small black and white television set that held its ground in a corner of our cramped living room.  And just as suddenly, our routines … our lives … changed.

We were the first family in the area to own a television, and frequently our home was filled with afternoon visitors … experiencing this amazing technology for the first time, asking lots of questions about the temperamental machine and the programming available … and making us all reluctant “experts.”  At the start of this change, there were only a couple of hours a day when the local station was operational … and so that’s all the TV there was.  Imagine a world where your TV could only receive one station, provided only 3 hours of programming … and one of those hours contained The Farm Report and News 4 At 5!

I don’t remember how long it took to expand this new service to 2, then 3, then 4 channels …and for the programming to grow to fill the entire evening … but it wasn’t long.  Soon there were actual choices that one could make … and our family owned “TV tables” so we could watch TV while we ate dinner.  Before long, there was something on the TV from dawn until 10pm … then Saturday … and soon even Sunday programming became available!

By this time however, I was a teenager with a car, a job, and a girlfriend.  My interest in the change that this technology was bringing wasn’t very strong … and I was a little too old to get hooked on the early American Bandstand kind of shows that captured many teens.  By the time the Beatles hit the televised stage for Ed Sullivan, Viet Nam was consuming our young men and I was in the military as well … “keeping our country safe.”  I didn’t get to spend time in the rebellious but still cloistered college campuses that were filled with many of my age mates, and really only began attending to the social changes that were swirling across our country when our cities began burning in the late 60’s.

When I left the military in 1970 and began the work necessary to earn my teaching credential, I was determined to change things, determined to “make things better.”   My idealism was soon splashed with very cold water as I was both surprised and shocked by things I discovered at the urban university I attended … and by the society in which I was now living and working.  My classmates were generally at least eight years younger than I … and, though perhaps having a greater native intelligence, understood much less about nearly everything that mattered.  At least that was my feeling at the time.  They didn’t know how to manage a farm, a flock, or put up canned goods for the winter.  Some could perhaps fire a weapon, but because they didn’t know anything about the wider world, the direction in which to point it seemed beyond them.  Many of the courses offered here had little to do with the skills clearly needed by our society, but still, these classes filled easily.  It took me a while to figure out why. Many of my peers saw their time in college primarily as welcome relief from parental control, and cared little for their studies.  I knew several who graduated with no more “useful” knowledge than they had when they entered university.

My classmates were kids who had avoided the draft or other public service and had grown up with wealth beyond the understanding of most of the world’s population.  They also had been educated by a new kind of media … one that provided information about the world in a form that was overwhelming in its volume and yet supplied only limited context and depth.  “Reality” became a “frankenscripted” construct prepared by invisible media forces beyond the reach of the ballot box or the war … and many of the best and brightest began to believe a very synthetic version of the world … one in which the concentration of power seemed to be a good and natural goal … and one in which the greatest rewards went to those who accomplished this goal most expeditiously, regardless of the consequences of their actions.

Now all of this is a long way from the Deschutes River and the song of a blackbird.  And a long way too, from the hope that Spring always offers.  But it’s a reminder also.  The state of the river we watched, the kind of plants growing along the path, the trees that shaded it, the family of geese we came across and the fish that were swimming beneath them … all these things have been profoundly affected by our species, by the goals we establish and pursue.  How will we make good choices, both public and private, if this understanding … the sure and certain knowledge that we are responsible for our environment … is missing?  What happens if we fail to ground our children in a first-hand way with and in the natural world?  What will happen if we replace children’s curiosity, and the interest in science that grows from it, with belief?  When I think of the youngsters living in Brooklyn or Mumbai … the millions of these children who’ve never heard a blackbird’s song and who can’t imagine the starfield that I can see nearly every night … well it’s clear that I should do something besides “enjoy my retirement.”

And so, Spring brings renewal … even to the old … and a renewed determination to contribute.


Ice Rocks!

Ice Rocks!

The theme…and a poem forthcoming…

Anza-Borrego Desert Bighorn Sheep

In which my mom describes a close encounter with a rarely seen, perhaps endangered, animal of the California desert…

Guest Post:  Marilyn Ebner

This March, Denny and I spent a month at one of our favorite, warm places in the states, Borrego Springs, California. It’s a small retro town that was popular with the movie stars of the 50’s and 60’s and has the architecture to prove it! It sits smack in the middle of a 600,000 acre state park, Anza Borrego State Park, which is actually the largest state park in the nation! Most years the wild desert flowers are absolutely gorgeous and people come in the spring specifically to see the flowers. This year was a drought year so the majority of flowers didn’t bloom.
There are no Macy’s or Nordstroms in Borrego Springs, you’ll have to go to the nearby big towns, Palm Springs or Palm Desert if you have to shop. What Borrego Springs has in abundance is natural desert beauty and hiking trails in and around the town.
One of our favorite hikes is the 3 mile round trip Palm Desert hike just outside the town. A few years ago, I think it was 2004, there was a major rain storm and subsequent flash flood. Many of the 300 plus palm trees at the end of the Palm Canyon trail, plus a wall of mud  came down the hillside, filling the ravines and parts of De Anza golf course. It was a mess! Presently, there are few palm trees left and when you hike  into the palm grove, you’ll see the evidence of those palm trees downed along the trail and stream.
Each year, we hike Palm Desert and this year was no different. This year, we took our friends, Judy and John. They own a home at De Anza and have come to Borrego Springs for years. However, John hadn’t hiked into Palm Desert for years and Judy never had! So it was a real treat when while on our hike we were lucky enough to come around a bend and have a herd of Bighorn Sheep coming up the path and along the small rocky ridges on either side! There were 10 total and they walked along seemingly oblivious to the numerous hikers around them. I was so excited! I grabbed my camera and started taking pictures fast. I was taking one of several sheep walking along the southern ridge, when I heard a noise, and two were coming right at me! I’d been shaking with excitment at seeing these elusive creatures but now I was just a bit nervous as they got closer. They seemed much bigger than those from a distance on the ridge! I was amazed at the size of those horns that wrapped around their heads! The horns reminded me of big overgrown toenails! Being wild animals, I was concerned that they would try to ram me. However, I was in no danger. They gave me space and went on their way up the trail.But what a thrill!
We all felt priveleged that they came down that day so we could see them in their natural habitat. As my dad would say,” That was worth the price of admission!”  We felt especially lucky,when later, relating our story to others, we found that many people who live in Borrego Springs have never seen Bighorn Sheep in the wild!

The Good Life

In which Carrie is grateful and excited…

I woke up this morning feeling happier than I had a week ago.  It isn’t like “happiness” is my goal-in-life exactly, but it is interesting to notice changes in its dimensions and degrees, somewhat cyclically predictable.

I think I’ve taken a total of three good pictures in my life and the one below, taken in the Three Sisters Wilderness at a glacial lake in Broken Top’s bowl, is how I feel today.  A little bit “communist” perhaps, but more like love.

I listed the several “reasons” for this burst of good I feel in my journal, and I’ll elaborate a little on those rough thoughts below:

  • There was a text message from a friend in my phone asking if I was up late last night.  I snoozed through that, but felt a little bit like I did when we had those little handmade “mailboxes” in fifth grade where kids would put their valentines, homemade or store bought, and often filled with those sugary candies with the words on them.  I’m big into words.
  • It is raining, and everything looks pretty and smells junipery!
  • The Nugget Newspaper published my letter to the editor complementing local high school students for being so courteous to guests at their school.
  • I watched Iron Lady last night and remembered to look up the quote I wasn’t sure was attributed to Margaret Thatcher or someone else.  Turns out it was someone else, and quite congruent with a little side project tentatively called “my life.”

“Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character, it becomes your destiny.”
Lao Tzu

  • And, last, it is the launch of the central Oregon Socrates Cafe tonight.  My curiosity about a million anticipations is brimming.  I’ve been using the insect picture (below) as our “insignia” for now.  It isn’t a true gadfly (I don’t think) but it would “bug” me if it landed on my shoulder and started questioning me.

Citizen Science: The New Patriotism

In which we appreciate the efforts of science hobbyists making the world better for all of us…

There are two ways of doing science: 1. using the Method combined with seeking peer critique when results are obtained, or, 2. find every possible shred of “evidence” which supports the hypothesis you set out to prove according to certain biases or prejudices, even if those proofs are fictional.

Rene Descartes is famous for a lot….the Cogito ergo sum quote, analytic geometry, and is typically considered the father of modern philosophy.  What many don’t know is that he worked within the early “biological” field to determine if animals had feelings. While he fillets animals live and without numbing agents, he concluded that animals are incapable of feeling pain as humans are, despite their writhing and noises on operating tables.  His is a case of wanting to believe humans have superior brains to such an extreme that our way of “feeling” pain is unlike an animal’s, who, or which, according to Descartes, are not capable of such advanced mental activity.

On the other hand, we have been impressed with efforts made by modern day citizens  practicing a form of science, and generally aiding awareness of some animal populations as we coexist with them.  We ran across this idea of “citizen science” via Glenn Nevill’s blogsite whereby he supplies peregrine falcon photos to the Chronicle newspaper. The Peregrine is considered endangered.

One of the reasons we are highlighting Nevill’s work is due to our dissatisfaction, or feelings toward, with our local wildlife management practices, in addition to other practices of wildlife management which may be deemed unpatriotic.  For those of us practicing citizen science the right way, we can be considered scientifically patriotic by extension of the term “citizenship.”   Recently there were either 3 or 5 Mountain lions shot in the locale of central Oregon because a man’s dog was attacked, and there had been several sightings.  You can view Jim Anderson’s article in the Nugget here.

These migratory predators, as noted by Anderson, are following Mule deer, and homes have cropped up within their usual migratory range.  Since the “what if” question of “will these animals start attacking humans” is part of the debate, the modus operandi for combating the problem was to eradicate the offending population “just in case.”  This disturbs us because of what appears to be “bad science practice” and the fact that three, or more, of these complex organisms lost their life for reasons we might consider un-well-thought-out.

We wonder about the unintended consequences of such actions.

Jim “Raptor Man” Anderson deserves a special nod for his lifelong citizenry.  See this OPB special on this man’s field work and lifelong citizenry.

Announcement: Central Oregon Socrates Cafe

In which we notify the general public that Socrates Cafe in central Oregon commences April 11th…

What? Where? When?:
The first Central Oregon Socrates Café will be held from 6:30 to 8:30 PM at Dudley’s Bookshop Café on Wednesday, April 11th, 2012.  All subsequent Socrates Cafés will occur the 2nd and 4th Wednesdays each month. Dudley’s Bookshop Café does sell food, beer, wine, and espresso.  They will be staying open after hours to host our Socrates Café discussions.  We will hold the discussions upstairs.  Dudley’s is on 135 NW Minnesota Avenue, downtown Bend.

You at your most philosophically curious!

Make sure you bring a question that makes the ground shake beneath your feet.   If you would like assistance posing a topic into a form you like, we will help you.  We choose a question from all of the collected questions by two votes.  We will have a quick, preliminary vote in which we vote on the questions we feel least expert, then for the second vote we’ll have our discussion topic for the night. Your facilitator will guide you through this process.

Your pre-selected facilitator will serve us as the most active listener…an important facet of Socrates Café…while helping to guide the discussion along the Socratic method adapted  by author and Socrates Café memoirist Christopher Phillips. You will receive some background knowledge on what these five principles are:

  • 1. look for built-in assumptions in the question,
  • 2. find embedded concepts in the question,
  • 3. identify differences of kind and degree concerning the topic,
  • 4. point out logical or illogical consistencies or inconsistencies, and
  • 5. offer any compelling or alternative viewpoints.

Our goal is not to necessarily “answer” the question or arrive at a group consensus. We are inquirers simply asking questions to potentially understand ourselves and society better, discover frameworks of thinking we might be unaware of in our own life, or break down and build up structures of thought formulated by the group’s common experience during discussion.

You do not need to be a philosopher or have a vast education. This is a group for the sole purpose of inquiry “by the people, for the people,” and all people are welcome. Socrates Café is not wholly a debate or an argument; it is not about preaching and proselytizing.

Socrates Café is about philosophical sharing, about inspiring each participant to reason and further discover his or her unique story, and to come to a keener sense of how we can best contribute to an evolving self and society.  At our Socrates Café-best, we are all storytellers who use the life of reason as the foundation for our narrative.
We look forward to meeting one and all. Bring a friend and a question that has been bothering you.  If you have any questions, please write us at or see our website at Portland Socrates Cafe.  Thanks again for your interest. We hope to provide an engaging and friendly atmosphere for meaningful discussion. Until the second and fourth Wednesdays at Dudley’s Bookstore Café…

April 11th
April 25th
May 9th
May 23rd
June 13th
June 27th
…and so on…

Watching Stardust: Alaska’s Aurora

Guest Post: In which Jon Renner, a.k.a. Don Quixote, enlightens us…

When you are standing in -1 degrees Fahrenheit darkness,  and the sky lights up like this … well, it’s just amazing.  The two bright points of light below and to the right of the moon in the pictures are Venus and Jupiter, respectively.

These pictures are fairly long exposures (15 seconds) at f2.8 … and although you get the general sense of what it’s like to watch the display, the subtle changes are completely lost.  In the bottom picture for example, just before this picture was started there was a flash of light where the greenish light in this picture was captured, but much brighter.  The image that was actually captured shows the dying light from the initial surge of particles into our atmosphere … a light that dances and sways as it dims.  The top picture shows the crescent moon, distorted by the long exposure and resulting blossoming on the image sensor, but also captures an earlier stage of the energy pulse … and far from being static … or even predictable … the sky seems alive, dynamic in a way that even the most beautiful sunsets never manage.

As we stood in a frozen parking lot at the top of a pass 40 miles north of Fairbanks, watching this silent light show, I was struck by how interesting it was that we and perhaps 50 other people were all here, in the middle of nowhere, staring up at the sky … quietly amazed.  The particles that caused this display were emitted from one of the many coronal flares on the sun earlier in the week, and although sites like this one predict when and where the displays will be visible, nothing really prepares a person for the experience.  These pictures were taken at a time when the aurora was at a “3” on a 9-point scale, and it’s hard to imagine what a “9” display would look like.  I’ve read that you can see the color of the aurora during this kind of event by looking at the snow instead of the sky!

In the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska Fairbanks there is a room called “The Listening Room,” and in this dimly lighted space one can listen to both the seismic and auroral sounds of the area.  A very eerie place where the earth growls and shrieks and the aurora sounds like wind chimes.  While we were there both the earth and sky were quiet, but the sound of the pipeline served as a constant background dirge … somehow appropriate to our time.

(Editorial note: As an after-thought on our modern technology sensing and the senses beyond sight and sound, Jon writes…)

The north pole of the planet isn’t in the same place as the Earth’s magnetic north pole, and this causes some interesting effects, including a very noticeable “wobble” in the aurora.  It also really confuses “apps” like Google Sky that relies on a Hall effect sensor in the user’s phone to figure out where “North” is so that it can properly align its sky map.  Some animals like geese, and possibly humans as well, have a sense of direction based in part on their ability to determine the position of magnetic north, and use this sense to guide long range navigation.  Because the two poles are so far apart at this latitude, the display on your smart phone, oriented by magnetic information, doesn’t match what you see in the sky very well.  Worse, someone who generally has a “good sense of direction,” becomes easily confused as to whether to turn left or right out of the parking lot to get home.  It’s a good thing that we have bread crumbs.

A wonderful way to spend Spring Break!

(Biographical note: Jon Renner is an “old guy” with lots of illuminating and humorous stories to tell.  After serving a stint in the U.S. Navy he went on to rock and roll the engineering world.  After a few years of that he decided that he really wanted to do the world some good and got into the education business.  He teaches social studies, psychology, technology, and how to do our duty as productive and participating citizens.)