Siouxland Observer


Sunday, August 30, 2015

Respecting Nature

Rennie Sparks could not get rid of her ants.  They were attacking honey she had harvested from hives in her yard.  They were, in fact, marching right under the half-screwed-on lid of a honey jar.  Sparks, a lyricist, banjo player and author, shared her tale of woe in an op-ed piece for The New York Times.  She did everything she could to get rid of the ants, but nothing worked.

“After spraying the kitchen with vinegar, then withhot sauce, to no avail,” she said in The Times, “I finally called an exterminator.  She laid out baits filled with a poisoned sweet-syrup (it looked a lot like honey!) and also sprayed my kitchen and yard.

“ ‘Be careful,’ I pleaded as she spread her poison.  ‘Don’t hurt my bees!’ ” 

How the bees fared she did not report, but “alas, none of us travel more than briefly through this beautiful yard we call earth.  Regardless of how separate we may feel from other living creatures, we are all here together.  I suspect,” she said, “there will always be more things alive in my kitchen than I care to see.” 

Traditionally, beekeepers used lemon balm to attract bees to empty hives.  “The Essential Guide to Herbs,” edited by Lesley Bremness, also reported it can help fight infections. Such knowledge is not to be shunned.  But attracting ants is another topic.  Who cares?  They will come around with or without us.  It’s all about food.

Try something different, right?

Remember the ants?  When the little one stopped to climb a tree? Growing older we sometimes forget our childhood.... We forget we all belonged once.

If we take the time, many of us will remember we "talked" to some of the creatures as children.  A recent article in the Omaha World-Herald, for example, reported on a special zoo preschool at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha. One mother, Kristen Petersen, had reservations, and worried the program might be a glorified trip to the zoo. In truth, however, not only did her 3-year-old daughter learn to write her name, she became more nurturing.

Now, she avoids stepping on bugs, her mother said, and is quiet around the yard, careful not to "disturb this bunny's habitat."

It's true, many boys well remember trying to make rabbit snares.  But the creatures are not stupid. Even the ants.

A reporter scattered ants simply by coming home once, and discovered they will often disappear for good after being scattered, especially if it is combined with kitchen cleaning and better storage of food.  This has been confirmed, and it's as simple as turning on the lights, "banging" pots and pans, cooking food and allowing "the escapees" the freedom to return along their scent trail.

The insight went something like this: If the fear becomes associated with the food, escaping ants share their panic and pheromones.

Their pheromones shout: Stay away!

It's doubtful there will ever be an exterminator who clobbers ants with a Billy club.  But thinking outside the box might not be such a bad idea in the face of global extinction.  And, in fact, studies have shown, according to Discover, Science for the Curious, that this is true: ants might well learn the association.

The abstract of the study reads like a sociology text, but it seems to be saying that if you scare someone while they eat they lose interest in the food: The present research provides new insight on how emotional signals may be used to control impulsive responses toward palatable foods by the environment.

Of course, the ants can return, but with effort they do learn. There is not much online about this approach.  A recent search did find natural remedies.  Two of the best were Remedies, and Pest Kill, which both offered excellent approaches to eliminate an ant problem without using poison.

And there were many YouTube videos as well, but finding ways to encourage ants to look for food elsewhere was impossible without advice to kill them everywhere.  One sight did offered insight, Lotusland, but they are rare.

“Why go to war?  Many ant species are beneficial and should not be indiscriminately destroyed. They feed on organic substances and living insect pests and are one of nature’s most efficient ways of handling insects and smaller animals that die.”

A video is shared here and begs the question: Do we need to kill the entire colony?  Why not just put them to work in the garden? 

Christopher Solomon in a February op-ed, also had thoughts on this.  He wasn’t talking about the insect biosphere, per se, but about how we think about nature.  “When we think of injuring nature,” he said February 15, 2015 in The New York Times, “it is easy to point an accusing finger at mining companies and there strip mines or timber barons and their clear-cuts.  But could something as mellow as backcountry skiing or a Thoreauvian walk in the woods cause harm too?" 

He says yes, and calls for more concern.  (The video shared here is an exploration of how we damage the land without even walking around in it....)

“A century ago,” Solomon said, “nature had elbow room.  Now, there is a lot less of it ... recreational activities and nature tourism are growing in most parks, wilderness areas and other protected areas around the world.

“The National Park service has allowed marathons in parks, for instance, and the controversial push by mountain bikers to ride in federal wilderness areas is heating up again. …  The challenge is to find a nuanced balance between enjoying nature and protecting it, recognizing that recreation does not necessarily complement conservation or preservation.”

The op-ed hit hard.  Many stormed nature for fun and relaxation this last summer.  This is normal, and there is nothing wrong with this.  But advocates for sustainability worry.        

Harper’s voiced concern about nature conservation as well.  The sagebrush sea, an immense sea of sagebrush (once stretching 500,000 square miles across North America) is endangered.  It has been in the news a lot. 

In “The Great Republican Land Heist," for example (viewed here), Harper's said the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), in 2007, closed portions of the sagebrush sea in Nevada.  Several parts of a canyon, Recapture Canyon, were closed to motorized traffic,but local residents were angry about it. The author, Christopher Ketcham, reported an event held in protest of this closing of public lands.  Area residents, riding all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), stormed into the canyon.  As the ATVs roared past, into the sagebrush, a crowd waved American flags.

They repeated the phrase ‘Thank you, sir!’ to each passing rider, some of whom cradled assault rifles,” Ketcham said.  “The only law enforcement on hand were some local sheriff’s deputies.  I asked one of the deputies whether he or his fellow lawmen had done anything to stop the incursion.  He laughed and said it wasn’t their job, it was the BLM’s.  I asked whether he had seen BLM officers.  ‘Not one,’ he said.  ‘Complete no-show.’”

Yes, respecting nature can help, but it doesn't look promising.

Back in the kitchen, the ants are gone.  Not forever, of course, but for now anyway: the ants have been a complete no-show for most of the summer.  They are not dead, they just changed their behavior.  Unlike so many of us, they learn in the face of danger. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Year of the Pig

February, normally the rainy season in San Francisco: Most strange, not the lack of snow, or the torrential downpours, but the sights seen on walks.  Living in “the city,” as many locals call San Francisco, is fun.  But without family, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people, being "alone" can be crushing.  The ocean can take hours on a bus; parking in the city is a nightmareeven near the coast.  The city is all about walking.  Its sights, sounds and smells—its elegance—are bracing, and even thought-provoking.

David Grimes walked the city (the thing to do), but to the "tenderloin," believing he'd find steakhouses.  Of course, David Grimes is a humorist, but there is truth in his observation.  Even though Union Square and Chinatown (and the areas surrounding both) are easy walking distance to the Tenderloin District (and the many three-story walkups on O’Farrell Street), the tenderloin is not pretty. 

“Our hotel was in midtown,” he wrote, “close to the Tenderloin District. I thought that was a place with an abundance of good steakhouses.  It turned out to mean a place where an abundance of people slept outdoors on cardboard.”

In February the rain sweeps the cardboard away and washes the streets clean. The homeless go to shelters, and the famed hills (even "Snob Hill") mellow, and especially on the short walk from O’Farrell.

Even the financial district, which runs south and east of San Francisco’s Chinatown—or thereabouts—is open to all. The empty, damp streets void of activity in the late evening when darkness fills mind and body with the need to wander.

Perhaps this is why the city is “The City.”  On Polk Street, for example, a reporter, talking comfortably with a stranger, discovered his new friend harbored a pepper spray canister close to her chest while walking and talking, the moon rising out of Oakland in the distance as they parted ways.

The Chinese New Year, according to MSN Encarta, is always lunar.  It is a celebration of the New Year in Asian communities around the world. The date of the New Year, determined by the lunar calendar, begins with the new cycle of the moon that falls between January 21 and February 19.

According to another source, written by a young scholar, Natalie Walker, very few people know when this holiday is celebrated without looking at a Chinese calendar.  The ancient Chinese used a lunar calendar, and on the lunar calendar (instead of the more modern solar calendar) the new year begins the first night of the new moon after the sun enters Aquarius—or sometime beginning January 21

Both sites record many activities, usually involving family, community and a lot of people. In San Francisco one of the more popular activities with the tourists is the dragon dance.

According to the article in Encarta, as many as 50 or more people, supporting long dragons and lions made from vibrant paper and cloth, dance in processions down city streets.

“The dancers perform to the beating of gongs and drums, while other celebrants perform acrobatic displays….

The eve of the New Year is the most strictly observed part of the holiday. It starts out with a late night feast with members of the family. Ancestors are honored and offering of food and incense are made to the gods. At the strike of midnight, the celebrating really begins. The sky is filled with fireworks and the streets are filled with people wishing each other a happy new year. The next morning, gifts are exchanged among family members and friends.

The celebration lasts 15 days. People return to work somewhere between the fifth and eighth day, but the spirit of celebration lasts through the Festival of Lanterns on the 15th day of the New Year. After this, life takes on its normal routines again.

On a side street one damp, dark night, between Chinatown and the financial district, no lanterns hung from storefronts, and there were no people, save for the dancers.  They were underneath a moving dragon, their coach guiding them. A wandering reporter saw the celebration and marvel at the wonder, watching until realizing the dancers were practicing.

Oddly, many who live in the city never visit San Francisco’s Chinatown, ride cable cars or walk across the Golden Gate Bridge.  Like Paris, where most residents seldom visit the Eiffel Tower, San Franciscans just don’t do what the tourists do….   And yet the dragon did what dragons do best on cold rainy nights. They make the world less lonely, and people less fearful

Interlopers can watch, but not for long. The dragon moved on....

Editor’s Note: Our thanks to iNetours for these images. There were no cameras on the street in the damp of 1983. Please visit to see and learn  more.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015


Frank Clark liked to “scarfrimbly"—not a real word, of course, but Frank used it all the time. I could hardly write a word when I first met Frank. In fact, even writing a letter was difficult. It took weeks, and several drafts, before a letter I wrote found a stamp. Thus, I've thought about Frank's words a lot.

The root used above, scarf,” for example, is a transitive verb.  It takes a direst object: food. "Scarf,” by itself, is a noun.  A scarf is worn around the neck or on the head.

A trivial detail for sure.  Still, when my friend continually used his word, “scarfrimbly,” I could not figure it out.

Clark was a student at Cal State Chico in 1976.  I heard him long before meeting him.  He had a raspy, hiss-like voice that accompanied his speech; it could be heard wherever he was in conversation, and when you heard it—once you knew Frank—you knew he had corralled another listener.

A native of Californian, Frank lived in the Colony Inn.  I had moved there from Iowa, and together we forged a friendship.

Because Frank talked so much, it got annoying sometimes (and his endless words too), but he made friends easily, and one night three of us crowded into his Volkswagen Rabbit for Mexican food in Hamilton City.  It was fun to get out of Chico.  Along the way the palm trees on Mill Ranch Road, just off state Route 32, stood tall and stately in the scorching heat.  But Frank wouldn’t look.  He just talked and talked, and then Mill Ranch Road was gone.

Thinking about the words “scarf” and “nimbly," there’s scarfrimbly.  Of course, Frank used an “r” instead of the letter “n” to make up the word, which, of course, means to eat quickly, or perhaps: "I'm hungry, and I want to scarf down some good food now!"

Oddly, I thought about this when my air conditioner broke down one day (there was no air conditioning in Frank's crowded car that night).  I remembered the car, crammed full of an eclectic group of young adults: the angry dude from Missouri, "Storming Norman," the preppy Frank Clark from Amador County, me and a fry cook, Richard, talking on and on (between Frank’s babbling anyway) about cooking McDonald’s hamburgers—the only one in our group not going to college, or graduate school.

I was puzzled by Frank’s words, and found them confusing sometimes. So on this journey I spoke up and said: “Frank, you should put together a dictionary of your language.”

But, of course, he never did. And worse than that, he did not take the hint.

On this journey I decided to use some of my own made-up words. I had been thinking about this for a while, and had created several words of my own. Listening to Frank’s endless “scarfrimbly” chatter (like many of the other words of his communications) I decided to speak "Cliff," and I blurted out my own word, "bandanerif."

Yes, it happened in the summer of 1976, on an outing of Cal State Chico students (and Richard, the fry cook), and surprisingly, actually sparked a comment from Frank to a would-be “protégé.”

It was an interesting exchange (in a "Going Chico" kind of way).

Frank, of course, had been talking about stuff—probably about the “stupidents” at Cal State Chico, and how they were “blorches” (loosely translated, dummies and drunks)—and how satisfying the scarfrimblies would be in Hamilton City.  There was no doubt (according to Frank) that the journey would solve all the problems of the countless stupidents on the Cal State Chico campus by making fun in a small valley town’s air-conditioned restaurant. 

Of course, all I knew was that I was hot and crammed into a small car, sitting next to Richard grumbling about a hot grill.  I was never sure if I even liked the restaurant (couldn’t we go somewhere else?).  And so, I said: 

“Bandannerif,” Frank.  “Bandannerif!”

The question that comes to mind, of course, "Who cares?"  But understanding Frank was my mission. What a dunce.  “Scarf” is like a bandanna only if it's used as a noun, and not as a transitive verb.

Why couldn't I learn this?

Thinking back, I can’t remember how long it took Frank to answer (not long), but my moment in the sun, so to speak, soon ended when I heard a chortle:

“Oh no, son,” he said in his special inflection, a cross between a hiss and disbelief. “Oh no.”

Of course, Frank never did explain the error, but heading into the restaurant Frank didn't hesitate:

“Scarfrimbly time," he said.

It has been over forty years now, and Frank has passed away.  A mutual friend said he died from a brain tumor.  A few years after Hamilton City, when I was studying at Sonoma State University, Frank came to a class I was taking and hung out to see if I would show up.  It was the only day of class I missed due to illness, and my classmates finally had to ask Frank to leave.  The work we did there was very personal.

I am not sure when I finally figured out how good a friend Frank Clark had been, or why my declaration fell so short that evening.  But I've never forgotten: The night a budding young writer spoke to a sapient student, and the day he reached back in friendship.

Editor’s Note: Our thanks to the folks at American Towns; and Andy Tomaselli, who took the beautiful photo on Mill Ranch Road.

In Memory of Frank Clark