June 2007


Ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys, prepare yourselves for a world you have scarcely seen before! A world of punishing hardship and unimaginable beauty. A world as dangerous as your nightmares and as nurturing as a mother’s breast. A world that will haunt your dreams long after it is gone.

Yeah. I’m talking about the outdoors.

A month ago I quit my job as a carpenter and went forth into the hills in search of wild morel mushrooms (Morchella conica) to gather and sell. Conicas grow best in last year’s forest fires, so I spent three weeks dragging myself up and down a mountain in northern Oregon, climbing over and falling on burned out fir trees. I slept in a small tent hidden in an unburned section of forest (the Forest Service might have some things to say about these activities), drank stream water, and ate out of a cooler I hauled in with me every week. I carried mushrooms in buckets and backpacks, stored them on tarps and window screens (to aid the drying process), and eventually ran them all through a dehydrator when I returned to town.

Why would anyone volunteer to do this instead a good ol’ honest job, you ask? Consider this: In three days of work I could make half again as much as I was making in five days as a carpenter; I had no boss, no schedule, and virtually no expenses; at night I could listen to coyotes howling, and find deer, elk, and bobcat tracks every morning. Here’s the kicker: there are thousands of people doing this right now.

I was working a small fire. No more than a couple hundred acres. The mushroom-buying companies (mostly high-quality, natural food wholesalers) hadn’t really bothered to track this fire, which means that they hadn’t been telling any pickers to go there, nor did they send buyers. The only way people were finding this fire was by seeing it from the road (a two-lane state highway) or by word of mouth. And there were still dozens of people showing up to pick. A big fire, say, three thousand acres, might have three to five thousand pickers on it when the morels really start coming up.

If you go to the grocery store and buy dried morels (you can almost never find them fresh), you’ll pay something in the neighborhood of twelve dollars an ounce. Odds are good that those were wild morels, picked either in the American Northwest or somewhere around the Himalayas. Companies dealing in morels send buyers to the firesites where the morels are currently growing. Buyers will buy from whoever shows up, paying a fluctuating market price that is likely to be six to eight dollars per fresh pound, cash. On a good fire, a buyer might buy more than a thousand pounds in a day, which then has to be trucked back to whatever city their company is located in for processing, to be then sold either fresh or dry.

Some pickers may be locals who just happen to have some time off, but most are pros. They travel from fire to fire as each comes into season, gradually moving further north and further up in elevation as the season progresses. Many are immigrants, both legal and illegal, but there are plenty who aren’t. Some can’t get normal jobs, but most just like hiking the hills and camping out better. When the morel season is done, there are always other mushroom varieties or other crops to pick. Sort of like migrant workers, but less organized and better paid.

Something to think about the next time you’re banging your forehead off your computer monitor at work.

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I haven’t made up my mind on my choice for President in 2008 because it’s still way too many months away, and frankly, I like having candidates cater to me. I like Obama for some reasons, Hillary for others, and even sympathize with some of what Ron Paul is saying about Iraq. I want to ease into this decision, so I’m listening to everyone.

By now, most of you have heard about or seen this. Take a moment to watch, if you haven’t. It’s Hillary’s somewhat clever announcement of her campaign theme song which spoofs the Sopranos finale. I read an article about it before I saw it, and got my hopes up that it would be hilarious and the song would be awesome. It wasn’t that funny, and the song choice sucks. I liked the idea for the video, but neither Hillary nor Bill was a good actor. They’re not professional actors, of course, but shouldn’t Bill be a better actor for his skill of lying? (Don’t get me wrong, I love Bill just like the rest of you.)

I didn’t dislike the video as much as Maureen Dowd. I like the Sopranos and appreciated Hillary’s acknowledgement of the hit show. I doubt she’s a regular viewer, but I’m pretty sure Bill’s a big fan. Obviously the video is a contrived attempt to connect with the people, but they didn’t choose the most popular tv show (American Idol anyone?) to parody. The video was set to please a distinct set of voters. The Sopranos was wildly popular for a cable show, but most people don’t have HBO. It was a show educated liberals could admit to watching and not feel guilty. As of now, Hillary’s voters do not include older, educated women.

For me, the most objectionable part of the video was the actual song choice. Celine Dion is a talented singer, but why would you choose one of her songs for your campaign theme song? “You and I” does not cause your heart to beat faster, which is actually a requirement for a campaign song. Trust me. It’s in that campaign funding bill that McCain put up a few years ago. You’re trying to energize people with a campaign song. You play the song at your rallies. Celine Dion makes people cry during Titanic. Maybe Hillary is a fan of Celine, and she’s sticking with her actual music preference. That’s laudable. However, if it was a choice to please some boomer ladies, that’s fine, but she didn’t win any points with me.

That’s probably the whole point of the video. Both the video and the song aren’t targeted exactly at me. That would be okay, but right now, most candidates are flirting with me, and I’m flirting back. Hillary stopped flirting with me. In any other potential relationship, that means she’s probably not interested. Pretty soon, I might stop flirting with her.

I love space. I love learning about other planets, fantasizing about being weightless, and watching Apollo 13. Ender’s Game is one of my favorite books. I actually didn’t hate that my older brother made me watch Star Trek: The Next Generation with him when we were kids. I went to Space Camp in Huntsville Alabama. Twice. When Sally Ride gave convocation at my college last year, I grinned for the whole hour of her talk. Just like the eight year olds up front. When I got back to lab after her talk, my labmate and I confessed that we really wanted to be astronauts, and grad school was a small part of our secret stellar plans.

So you can imagine that I was happy to see space shuttle (STS-117 Atlantis) take off on Friday for another mission to the International Space Station. The purpose of this mission is to install another truss segment and to replace a solar array on the station—essentially what occurred on the last mission, only on the starboard side this time. The truss segment is one of many that will form the backbone of the Space Station. Atlantis docked with the station earlier this afternoon, despite concerns about a tear in the heat shield. Installation of the truss segment and solar array will take place in three space walks, or extra-vehicular activities, as they’re known in space lingo.

Another part of this mission is to swap crew members Sunita Williams and Clayton Anderson. Williams will return to Earth after running the Boston Marathon in just under four and a half hours…in space. Additionally, she will have broken the female record for longest single spaceflight for her 118 days in orbit. Clearly, a go-getter. But remarkable as well, so I hope she comes home safely.

Eventually, the space station will serve as a research station and a rest-stop between Earth and other destinations. Obviously I’m all for space exploration. However, I’m bothered when legislators and NASA administrators claim furthering scientific knowledge as a principal reason for the existence of the station. Indeed, data gathered on the station about the planets and rest of the universe is extremely valuable, and those experiments should continue. But often, the science that is played up includes fantastic claims like manufacturing disease-fighting compounds in zero-gravity environments. It’s theoretically possible, but it’s not practical. Even if a compound panned out, that would mean mass-production of a drug in space. That’s definitely not practical right now.

Space exploration is a worthy purpose of the space program. I know it’s cliché, but where would we be without explorers like Columbus and Magellan? Similar challenges faced them hundreds of years ago. Kings forked over lots of money and supplies for many explorers. Many explorers died because travel across the Atlantic Ocean was tough. Yet, exploration yielded our country, so in a way, we have to be grateful for the daring journeymen (yes, there are the bad parts of exploration as well—as of now, there are no Martians, so we won’t face some issues again). I don’t think we should have to present science experiments as a reason to bolster the validity of NASA. Space is a cool enough treehouse on its own.