Open skies, vast landscapes, mountain vistas — this is what the west is all about. But as the weather turns colder and the days shorter, I’ve decided to look both inward for a different view on the colors and textures that shape this magical place.
“Timing is everything,” the saying goes. It’s true in life -- catching a wave, falling in love -- and in the natural world. In spring, snow melts and wildflowers bloom. Bears wake from hibernation. Migratory birds begin to flock north and the elk leave the refuge, headed to higher ground. But with climate change, these cyclical events aren’t happening at the same time every year. And plants are on the front lines of experiencing this change.
In the 1850s, Thoreau charted when Walden Pond’s highbush blueberry first flowered, generally around May 16. In the past 10 years, it has averaged around April 23, nearly three weeks earlier. This study of the timing of seasonal events is known as phenology. (Phen - to show, to bring to light, to appear.) When plants flower outside of their norm, migrating pollinator species, like birds and butterflies, miss their chance for that moment of interspecies-assisted coitus. Not surprisingly, this “phenological mismatch” can have broad consequences on species survival -- for both plants and animals.
Here in Jackson Hole, young upstart Trevor Bloom is looking at the timing of wildflower blooms. (Yes, apropos name for a botanist.) Bloom’s project, Wildflower Watch, builds upon the work of the renowned biologists Frank and John Craighead from the 1970s, who among many other legacies, took detailed notes of everything they saw outdoors near their home in Moose, Wyoming and published their findings in the popular book For Everything There is a Season: The Sequence of Natural Events in the Grand Teton-Yellowstone Area.
Now, nearly 40 years after the Craighead findings, a gaggle of citizen scientists have been recruited to document observations of leaf out, flowering, fruiting and seed drops of 14 different wildflower species at two locations in Jackson Hole. It’s the second year in a four-year long effort. Ultimately this information will get added to the National Phenology Network Database.
There’s probably a similar study happening near you, somewhere, wherever you are. Science, like art, boils down to observation, paying attention to the world around you. Science, like art, can force change. Science, like art, is something you can do.
Earlier this month I visited Germany to explore the "future of mobility" with 14 other Americans from around the country. The trip was funded by the German Ministry of Energy and organized by a German NGO called Ecologic and their subsidiary project POCACITO (which stands for Post-carbon Cities of Tomorrow). We met with transit officials, politicians, start ups, activists and academics to learn what the Germans are doing to create a post-carbon future. The tour is an effort, of sorts, to promote diplomacy on a smaller / local scale during a time when the US administration is a bit backwards on environmental issues...and pretty much every issue for that matter. Here are five takeaways/generalizations/observations from the visit:
When it comes to car use, there are a number of similarities between Germany and the United States, after all Deutschland is the home of Porsche, Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes. Both countries have high vehicle ownership rates and extensive highway networks (Eisenhower credited Germany's autobahn with his desire to create the Interstate Highway System). But Germans use transit at a much higher rate, even if they live in small towns or rural areas. One study found that Germans are five times more likely than Americans to travel by mass transport, and that's after controlling for gender, age, employment, car ownership, population density, and metro area size.
German land use patterns keep development concentrated in cities and towns; suburbia doesn’t exist much (though some say it’s creeping in). Such development patterns create a much more pleasant experience when you’re in the city, as transit and land use planning are much more easily integrated with density. It also better preserves farmland and wildland. It’s a difference obvious both on the ground and in the air. Take a look at the two pictures to the right. The top is just 10 minutes outside of Frankfurt.; development is concentrated in small towns and there are no houses or development in the agricultural fields. Compare this to the exurban sprawl on multi-acre lots outside of Denver, where if you need a loaf of bread, strap in for a 20 minute ride to the store for last week's freshness. Denver may be an easy city to pick on but the problems are the same in most US metro areas.
German hospitality, food, and humor have an undeserved bad rap. I appreciated the constant offerings of Rülpswasser (burp water) und Kaffee with actual glass and ceramic drinkware, matching, and in moderate 6-8 oz servings. I don't think I saw a single plastic or paper cup the whole week. America, we can do better. And German bier was, as expected, on point and something I didn't drink enough of. ...Also whether it was humor or hospitality, I don't care -- the autonomous vehicle at the EUREF Campus (a think tank of sorts for urbanism, mobility and renewable energy) is named Emily. Intelligent? Independent? Or does she just do what she's told?
Sometimes it’s important to make a statement, even if it costs more money. Transit officials in Dresden decided to grow grass between the tram tracks, simply because it made a statement about the importance of green in a city otherwise covered in asphalt and cobble. (Of course, the ecological benefit of grass is quite small…) Other examples of this mentality include the cargo tram that supplies the Volkswagen factory (a la Willy Wonka, white jump suits and all) that makes the electric Golf; transport via tram maybe not as cheap as a semi, but it’s quieter, and takes up less space on city streets...and assuming the electricity to power the tram comes from renewables, it is ultimately cleaner too.
Transit can be cool. It can be, because it is. The Berlin metro partnered with Adidas on a limited release of 500 pairs of sneakers that feature the same pattern used on the city’s train seats and double up as an annual transit pass embedded in the tongues of the trainers. Wear these kicks and ride free. The cheapest annual ticket available from the BVG is currently €728, the shoes cost just €180.
Also, I gotta say, there is something to be said for a more collectivist mindset. One of the marketing strategies to promote bicycling, and multi-modal transit generally, used the slogan For You | For Dresden. It struck a chord with me. And might with the millennial generation (of which I barely make/miss the cut) who tend to be more civically minded.
So there's certainly some lessons to be learned from the Germans, minus Dieselgate and das fraud with Deutchebank.
Define. Defend. Fend. Fence.
Fences define [us]. Separate us. (And sell stolen bikes on Craigslist.)
Fences, of the inanimate kind, define space between wild and tame, human and animal, domestic and feral, public and private. They define space between tribes, countries, neighbors. Sometimes fences are natural barriers, erected from nature’s might, like the Andes between Chile and Argentina or the Pyrenees between Spain and France.
When you define something, you give it clarity, visibility, sharpness, contrast. You stay there; I belong here. Children mark their side of the room or the couch or car seat. “You cannot cross this line,” I must’ve said 10,000 times to my sister as we were growing up. But this often human construct of fences defies another aspect of human nature. We mingle. We explore. We engage and trade.
Cole Porter wrote the classic “Don’t Fence Me in” that’s been sung by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Bob Hope (on the Muppet Show!), Gene Autry, Willie Nelson, Clint Eastwood, Dean Martin, John Wayne, The Killers, Roy Rogers, Bing Crosby...and my personal favorite, David Byrne.
Oh give me land, lots of land, and the starry skies above
Don't fence me in
Let me ride through the wide open country that I love
Don't fence me in
Human instincts to pursue freedom compete with human instincts to mark our territory and stake a claim. Waves of globalization and democracy over the past century have lost traction in recent years. When the Berlin Wall was torn down a quarter-century ago, there were 16 border fences around the world. Today, there are 65 either completed or under construction. Evidently Sarah Palin wasn’t the only one who misinterpreted Robert Frost’s polemic “Mending Wall”.
Moving from a national scale to the local level, the fence, as marker of place denotes not just whether you are in or out, but where you are more broadly, culturally, regionally. A fence is our aspiration and a statement about where we are in life -- not just about what side of the fence we’re on -- but what kind of fence do we have?
Barbed-wire? Chain-link? White-picket?
The western fence --buck and rail-- is as iconic of its geographical location as the New England rock wall. You can’t drive a post into the ground in Wyoming, so buck and rail fences sit on top of the ground. In a land so open and vast, these primitive wooden a-frame structures keep cattle from roaming free, but also impede moose, elk and other large mammals .
I came to Wyoming from New England, where stone walls permeate the landscape, built more as a convenient way to clear the soil from rocks, than as a means to divide property or pen animals. The fence enclosing my parents’ backyard in suburban Washington, DC, was installed to keep deer out, but it hasn’t stopped the rabbits or fox or raccoons from stealing tomatoes and digging up roots. The white picket fence denotes both personal property rights and openness. At waist high, it still enables communication. There are no sharp wires to cut yourself on. In the Middle East and much of Latin America, stucco walls often line neighborhood streets, separating private property from public space, or one country from the next.
Cities rarely have fences. With population density comes limited land; the “commons” offer an alternative to the battle between public and private. Especially in moments of crises, common space, unfenced public space, is where democracy takes shape: think Tahrir Square in Cairo, Gezi Park in Istanbul and Zuccotti Park in New York City.
But in this climate of haves and the rest of us, it feels like the dream of the white picket fence is becoming one where we are separated from each other by six-foot tall chain link or barbed wire. Maybe our dream of the white picket fence is a bit off. It’s too easily distorted and sold for something harsher, cheaper, less inviting.
Being in Jackson feels a bit removed from the issues of the day; at first glance, life here can seem all about powder and pitches, guns and gear. It’s a landscape of extremes -- home to North America’s apex predators (grizzlies and wolves), some of the steepest mountains in the Rockies and lots of opportunities for an adrenaline rush. So it may come as little surprise that Wyoming’s male-to-female ratio is second highest in the United States (with 104.3 males for every 100 females), after Alaska, which has 108.9 men for every 100 women.
But the women who are here tend to be pretty remarkable -- setting records, breaking barriers, cleaning up shop, and just all around kickin’ ass. So on this 31st anniversary of MLK Day I am going to write about some of the equality issues that have been on my mind since moving to the West.
Wyoming’s first black female legislator, Liz Byrd, sponsored a bill nine times to make Martin Luther King day a state holiday before it was finally adopted in 1990.
While machismo may be the veneer in this western town, an undercurrent of progressivism runs through this place. Jackson women have been making waves since at least May of 1920 when this tiny frontier town of 300 elected an all female city council, months before even the US Congress passed the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote. Wyoming gave women the right to vote -- and property rights separate from their husbands -- in 1869, partially as a way to lure more women to the region, during a time when there were six adult men for every adult woman, and very few children.
Jackson’s all-woman town council was made up of Mae Deloney, Rose Crabtree, Grace Miller, Faustina Haight and Genevieve Van Vleck. They served from 1920 to 1923.
The years leading up to the 1920 petticoat takeover were the epitome of the wild west, with laws going unenforced and taxes and fines unpaid. The town’s coffers were drying up and streets were swimming in mud and garbage. Instead of a Wyatt Earp figure who could put a stop to the lawlessness and decline, Jackson stumbled on a radical solution to its problems: female rule. One of the new Councilwomen, Rose Crabtree, bested her own husband by 19 votes! These newly elected officials also appointed women to additional administrative positions, including a 22 year-old town marshal with a pearl-handled gun.
So I thought this “Equality Day,” which in Wyoming is a shared holiday with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, might be an opportunity to write about some of this history of this place -- and highlight some contemporary women here making waves, especially as today Wyoming ranks dead last in its percentage of female state lawmakers at just 13 percent.
So here are three women that I’m inspired by, one from each of the worlds that shapes Jackson -- the public sector, athletics, and the environment.
Hailey Morton Levinson
The youngest person elected to the Jackson Town Council, Morton Levinson earned the most votes in both the 2012 primary and general elections. She’s been an advocate for affordable housing, mass transit and pedestrian/ bicyclist safety. She also went to college in DC, so gets a few bonus points for that.
At age 8 Kira had her leg amputated due to a rare birth defect that deformed her pelvis and hip. But that didn’t stop her from excelling at skiing... or yoga...or swimming...or equestrian sports. Kira makes the most of what she was given, the epitome of grace and strength.
Kate Wilmont manages the Wildlife Brigade, a team of Grand Teton National Park staff and volunteers, that attempts to mitigate encounters between wildlife and humans before they become problematic. You don’t wanna mess with a grizzly mamma, or Kate Wilmont.
Am using this page as a place to reflect on landscape and the human and natural forces that shape it. Mostly I’ll be writing about design, planning, and conservation although other topics may also sneak their way in. (Will be writing about music over at the newly revived the b part...)
Though I’ve lived all over the US, this is my first time in the intermountain west -- and my first time living so close to truly wild places. The Teton Mountains, the youngest range in the Rockies, provide a striking backdrop to human settlement in this region, rising 7,000 feet from the valley floor, which already sits more than a mile high above sea level. I live a five minute walk from the National Elk Refuge and the Bridger Teton National Forest. Here in Teton County, 97% of the land is federally owned -- National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Department of Fish and Wildlife, etc. The remaining 3% of the land is what I am tasked, as a planner, to help protect. The interplay of conservation and development is at the heart of my new position here -- protecting water bodies, wetlands, and wildlife habitat from the impacts of development.
Lots to learn, lots to explore! Onward and upward.