Monday, November 26, 2018

California: A Fire Survey

Stephen Pyne is among the world’s foremost experts on fire, and the author of many books.  California: A Fire Survey presents a blazing discussion on how fire has perplexed and bedeviled the Golden State.  One of every nine Americans lives in California.  Thanks to the arrival of industrial civilization, 170 years of rapid growth, and a culture devoted to the hardcore pursuit of wealth and excess, the state’s ecosystems resemble the smashed up cars at the end of a demolition derby.

Throughout the colonization process, the newcomers were possessed with a burning desire for prosperity.  The madness shifted into high gear as the nation industrialized, and created the infrastructure for mowing down ancient forests, exterminating millions of buffalo, eliminating vast numbers of fish, and extracting valuable minerals with fanatical zeal.

When it reached the Pacific, the culture of furious greed collided with an unusually flammable ecosystem.  “An estimated 54 percent of California ecosystems are fire dependent, and most of the rest are fire adapted.”  The land has been burning for thousands of years, because of natural wildfire, and human caused burns.  This has displaced numerous fire intolerant species.  Under ideal conditions, once ignited, a California fire can burn and expand for weeks or months.  The potential for expansion depends on three things: fuel, terrain, and weather.  Of these, the availability of fuel is something that humans can influence.

There are two main types of fuel, forests (mostly in the north) and chaparral (mostly in the south).  Chaparral is grassland dotted with brush.  Much of its vegetation is flammable, and chamise is especially so.  Once it is older than 25 years, it burns with intensity, and then reseeds and resprouts.

“Malibu Canyon is to wildfire what the Red River is to flooding.”  Pyne called it a fire bellows.  It often provides an ideal combination of excellent fuel, fire friendly terrain, Santa Ana winds, and human foolishness.  It burns explosively.  Many celebrities have built mansions in the canyon, because it offers fantastic views of the ocean.  Malibu had major fires in 1956, 1993, 2003, 2007, and 2018.  While mansions come and go, taxpayer anger grows at spending millions of dollars on fire control to protect the property of the superrich.

Native Americans limited the buildup of fuel by deliberately setting fires.  When little fuel was available, fires burned with less intensity.  In regularly burned forests, fires stayed close to the ground, and were less likely to become serious crown fires.  This kept the forest more open, easier to travel in, and provided better habitat for game animals.  Regular burning thwarted the sacred sequoia’s competitors — fir, cedar, and pine.  The competitors, especially white fir, deposited thick layers of flammable debris that prevented sequoia regeneration, and encouraged intense fires that could kill the giants.  Fire made the majestic sequoia groves possible.

The newcomers to America had a very different perspective.  In their minds, fire destroyed precious timber, sending enormous potential profits up in smoke — horror!  And so, the cult of aggressive fire suppression was born.  Fight fires like crazy, in every possible way, and send the huge bills to taxpayers.  The unintended consequence of this brilliant strategy was an enormous buildup of unburned fuel over time, which set the stage for major conflagrations.  Oops!

Southern fires arrive like Godzilla.  Northern fires arrive like a flash flood or blizzard — in late August 1987, lightning ignited 4,161 fires in Northern California, destroying 755,475 acres (305,729 ha) and 42 homes.  Firefighters worked furiously to extinguish every ignition, but some escaped and spread out of control.  By and by, a few wise guys began reconsidering their self-defeating strategy, and contemplated using regular prescriptive burns to control fuel buildup.  After many decades of fire suppression, the forests had become severely clogged with fuel.  Mechanically removing fuel buildup from vast areas of forest is a huge and enormously expensive project.

Southern California fires were violent, frequent, and unavoidable.  In addition to forests and chaparral, a new major source of fuel was growing — suburbs.  Wildfires happily reduced wooden structures to ashes.  So, the wise guys created fuel breaks — strips of vegetation 100 feet (30 m) wide were cleared to separate the McMansions from the chaparral.  This often worked to stop the spread of flames, but not airborne sparks.  Regularly maintaining fuel breaks was expensive, and taxpayers bleated about the cost of prevention.

As the sprawl monster expanded, there was less and less space for fuel breaks in new developments, at which point fuel reduction implied suburb reduction, an unpopular idea.  Many, many suburbanites, for decades, with astonishing ignorance, stubbornly resisted replacing their extremely flammable wood shingled roofs with fire resistant material.  A number of local governments did not ban development in fire prone locations where the landscape was a wind tunnel.

Reducing the fuel load via prescribed burns was possible, in theory, but fire creates smoke, and smoke annoys suburbanites, especially the palace dwelling celebrities.  Smoke does not readily blow out of the bowl-like Los Angeles Basin, home to 17 million.  By 1947, the air in L.A. County was so filthy that the herd got uppity.  Numerous regulations were created, but the wildfires laughed at them.  So, the only remaining option was expensive and intensive fire suppression.

Whenever the Santa Ana winds blow, and there is adequate fuel, ignition requires no more than a spark.  In one Southern California national forest, 37 percent of fires were caused by bulldozers, chainsaws, and other equipment, vehicles caused 2 percent, power lines 2 percent, miscellaneous 14 percent, smokers 5 percent, campfires 4 percent, kids with matches 5 percent, lightning 2 percent, car crashes 2 percent, arson 8 percent, and unknown 19 percent.

In 1849, when the Gold Rush began, a city of canvas tents suddenly appeared along San Francisco Bay.  By 1906, it had rapidly grown into a major city, in which 90 percent of the structures were still wood framed.  As many other U.S. cities had already discovered, this was a recipe for catastrophic fire.  Plus, the city was unluckily nestled close to the San Andreas Fault and the Hayward Fault. 

On April 18, 1906, an earthquake sent waves across the land surface, ripping apart streets, water mains, and gas pipes.  Numerous fires soon appeared and quickly spread.  Hot air rose so fast that it sucked more heat upward, creating a chimney through the atmosphere.  Four days later, 28,188 structures had gone up in smoke, and 2,000 to 3,000 people perished.  On the outskirts of the city, only a fringe of houses remained standing.

Many homeless refugees fled across the bay to Oakland, and many stayed there.  Prior to settlement, about 2 percent of the Oakland region was woods.  As the city grew, grassland fires above the town burned often and harmlessly.  But a new gold rush was emerging — real estate development.  Suburbs were expanding up the hillsides.  Wealthy elites built their mansions where the views were stunning.

Rapid growth in the bay region increased the demand for lumber, which accelerated deforestation elsewhere.  A super ambitious developer in the Oakland story was Frank Havens.  One of his schemes was to plant fast growing eucalyptus trees from Australia, and make megabucks selling lumber and firewood.  Too late, he tearfully learned that his trees were worthless until they were 75 to 100 years old.  He discovered this after he had planted up to eight million trees along a 14 mile (22 km) strip from Berkeley to Oakland.  These trees drop lots of highly flammable bark strips as they grow, and when hard frosts kill the trees, they dump loads of highly flammable leaves.

By and by, the East Bay hills became the Malibu of the north.  Seasonal Diablo winds frequently howled in from the east, rushing through the dangerous fuel buildup.  A 1923 inferno burned 584 homes.  This was followed by fires in 1946, 1970, 1980, and finally, the Tunnel Fire of October 1991.  That year, a frost had killed eucalyptus trees, boosting the fuel load.  A record heat wave followed a summer of drought.  Many homes in Oakland were jammed close together, and many had wooden roof shingles.

The Oakland Hills firestorm began as a grassfire, which then exploded as winds gusted up to 65 miles per hour (100 km/h).  Power lines got zapped, disabling 17 water pumping stations.  Oakland had nonstandard fire hydrants, which could not be used by assisting fire departments.  In just one hour, 790 structures were destroyed.  Eventually, 3,354 houses, and 456 apartments and condos burned.

And so, dear reader, I wonder if treating an ecosystem like a treasure chest, and looting it as fast as possible, with complete disregard for future generations, using all the latest gizmos invented by mad scientists — “progress” — is truly a healthy path.  I wonder why our schools are still preparing youngsters for a life of mindless hardcore looting.  That seems a bit odd.  It isn’t even fun.

One thing missing in the book is the Big History perspective.  Fire was domesticated in Mother Africa, and the hot idea eventually spread everywhere.  Siberian hunters originally brought fire-making knowledge into the Americas.  What was California like when they arrived?  Did thousands of years of Indian burning displace fire intolerant species, and actually create a fire prone ecosystem?   

Bill Gammage described the scale of Aboriginal burning in Australia.  Most of the continent was burnt about every 1 to 5 years.  Just 40 years after the British colonists banned burning, the site of a tidy dairy farm could be replaced by dense rainforest.  This suggests that the hunter-gatherers radically altered the ecosystem.  In another book, Fire: A Brief History, Pyne described how domesticated fire altered many ecosystems.

Pyne, Stephen, California: A Fire Survey, University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 2016.

There are several Pyne videos on YouTube, running from 15 minutes to an hour.  He is articulate and well informed.  Many of his fire books are available on Amazon.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Wild Free and Happy Sample 03

[Note: This is the third sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild Free & Happy.  I don’t plan on reviewing more books for a while.  My blog is home to reviews of 196 books, and you are very welcome to explore them.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews, if you are interested in specific authors, titles, or subjects.] 

The Primate Clans

Primates include both apes (no tails) and monkeys (tails).  Over the eons, different primate species evolved in different ecosystems.  Each location had a different mix of climate, food resources, advantages, and dangers.  These variables encouraged unique evolutionary adaptations.  The adaptations that best increased the odds for survival were more likely to be passed on to the following generations.  Each ecosystem was also in a process of endless change, sometimes slow and gradual, and other times fast and extreme.  Over time, in response to change, primate evolution fine-tuned beneficial adaptations, and abandoned the duds.

Since Neanderthals disappeared from the stage, our closest living relatives are the chimps and bonobos, with whom we share up to 99 percent of our genes.  Next closest are gorillas, and in fourth place are orangutans.  The ancestors of all four relatives have inhabited tropical forests for millions years without trashing their ecosystems.  Mainstream culture teaches us that they are less intelligent than we are (an advantage?).  Unfortunately, evolution has not outfitted them with bulletproof hides to protect them from bushmeat hunters and crabby farmers.  They do not instinctively mob and exterminate loggers, miners, and developers.

Let’s take a peek at a few of our primate relatives.

Snow Monkeys

Japanese macaque (snow monkey) habitat ranges from sub-tropical to sub-arctic.  In their sub-arctic locations, temperatures can dip to -4°F (-20°C).  Snow might cover the ground for four months, in depths up to 10 feet (3 m).  As winter approaches, their summer fur grows and thickens into gorgeous insulated coats.  Bands sometimes take a pleasant soak in a hot spring, on a snowy winter day.  They have been observed at elevations as high as 10,433 feet (3,180 m).

During the summer, they build up body fat by feasting at the warm season buffet, which includes the fruit, seeds, nuts, the vegetation of 213 plant species, and the crops of crabby gun-toting farmers.  They also dine on fish, insects, and invertebrates.  In winter months, they survive on stored body fat, and rough foods like leaves and bark.  They huddle together to keep warm. 

Hominins (human ancestors) evolved for life in the tropics, where there was no need for warm fur.  When they migrated into non-tropical regions, life got dangerously chilly.  To survive in snow country, they needed warm clothing and shelters — technological crutches that require tedious time-consuming toil that was completely unnecessary in their natural habitat.  They did not gradually move out of warm lands, and let evolution perfectly fine tune them for cooler places.  They were already extremely unusual high-tech critters, with their thrusting spears and domesticated fire.  They impatiently bypassed evolution.  Oh-oh!


When climate change shrank the forest and expanded the savannah, the ancestors of baboons evolved in a way that allowed them to spend much of their time on the ground.  Few of them now live in tropical forests, but all baboons have retained the physique for scampering up trees.  Baboons intelligently avoid wild predators by sleeping at the top of steep cliffs.  Sleeping in trees protects them from lions and hyenas, but not leopards.  In daylight hours, when many large carnivores are snoozing, baboons forage in groups, paying constant attention to reality.

Spending time on the ground increased their vulnerability to daytime predators.  Male baboons evolved big, strong bodies and large canine teeth.  When predators approach, male baboons form a point defense to obstruct a quick, easy, surprise kill.  While the males hold off the threat, the females and their offspring have a chance to escape.  Baboons did not fabricate weapons and hunt animals larger than they were but, on happy days, they could mob a leopard and disassemble it.  Readers who have killed adult leopards with their teeth and bare hands know that this can be very dangerous.

The ancestors of both baboons and humans moved onto the savannah, where they learned to survive as ground dwelling primates in a rough neighborhood that included lions, hyenas, leopards, cheetahs, and crocodiles.  Baboons demonstrate that primates can survive in a dangerous habitat without spears, fire, or complex language — and they can do this without causing irreparable ecosystem degradation.  With smaller brains, grunt communication, and sticks and stones, the baboons have brilliantly lived sustainably for millions of years.  They continue to enjoy a healthy, pleasant, and traditional wild life.  Thus, our ancestors were not forced to choose between tool addiction and extinction. 

Baboons have tails, so they are monkeys, not apes.  Paul Shepard noted that ground monkeys are “the most aggressively status-conscious creatures on Earth.”  High-ranking males have primary access to females and food.  The rank order in the hierarchy regularly changed.  So, to maintain or elevate your rank, it was important to brutally attack your inferiors at every opportunity.  Daily life was a state of heightened stress and anxiety.  Any minute you might be chased, pummeled, and bitten. 

Robert Sapolsky spent 30 years studying a troop of baboons.  Over time, he came to like a few of them, but he really disliked the troop, because they were exceptionally mean to each other, hour after hour, day after day.  He came to understand that hierarchy and competition can be a destructive force in a community, and this principle also applied to humans, many of whom are shattered by stress filled lives.


Gorillas evolved a different mode of sustainable living.  They never left the tropical forests, and their diet is primarily vegetarian.  They would have a hard time surviving outside of the forest.  Gorillas spend hours each day stuffing their faces at the salad bar.  They have evolved large guts in order to digest this bulky fibrous feast.  Insects provide the animal food in their diet.  In one study, 25 percent of gorilla poop samples contained bits of termites.

Males can be twice as heavy as females, growing up to 485 pounds (220 kg).  The big guys can’t climb trees, but smaller gorillas do.  Trees are a place to sleep, and to escape from predators.  They live in groups of 6 to 30 individuals, dominated by one or two silverback males.  Silverbacks are generally shy and relaxed, except when disturbed by uninvited humans or other gorillas.  The only predators they fear are humans.


There are about 20 species of gibbons, apes that inhabit the tropical forests of Southeast Asia.  Gibbons are primarily arboreal, and they live in small monogamous groups.  They can swing through the tree canopy with astonishing speed — up to 34 miles per hour (55 km/h).  Science calls this form of travel brachiation.  Today, physically fit humans still have a limited ability to brachiate.  As a schoolboy, I used to swing by my arms, from rung to rung, on the monkey bars at the playground. 

Members of most gibbon species range in size from 12 to 17 pounds (5.5 to 7.5 kg).  Because they are small, confronting large predators is not an option, so the males and females of most species are about the same size.  Smallness is an asset, enabling them to travel rapidly through the forest canopy.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

The Rise of Homo Sapiens

The Rise of Homo Sapiens, by Frederick Coolidge (psychologist) and Thomas Wynn (anthropologist), is a book about the evolution of human cognition.  It describes the seven million year voyage that resulted in the magnificent mind that’s throbbing between your ears right now.  This voyage began with the first hominins — bipedal (two legged) apes who were either our direct ancestors, or our long lost cousins.

Note that the details of human evolution are the cause of endless barroom brawls among rowdy paleoanthropologists and archaeologists.  They constantly argue about the members of our family tree, the transitions between one species and the next, and the dates when changes happened.  To keep it simple here, the first brainy hominin was Homo erectus, who arrived on the African stage 1.8 million years ago.  Erectus probably evolved into Homo heidelbergensis, who was maybe the common ancestor of both Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens (our hero!).  Neanderthals are our cousins, not our direct ancestors (we share at least 99.5 percent of our DNA).

The authors believe that there were two significant surges in cognition, (1) Homo erectus 1.5 million years ago, and (2) Homo sapiens 40,000 years ago.  Erectus had a large brain, knapped stone tools, and was the first to move beyond woodland habitats.  They were able to survive in everything from dry savannahs to tropical rainforests.  From Africa, they spread to southern Europe and much of Asia.  Around 1.5 million years ago, they invented a major advance in stone tools — biface knapping.  These were hand axes and cleavers that had two cutting edges.  For the first time, folks could now effectively butcher large animals — an ability that greatly expanded their food resources.

Razor sharp stone tools were revolutionary.  Great apes, monkeys, and other mammals can only cut and chop with their teeth.  This book made me appreciate, for the first time, the huge importance of stone tools.  Cutting is big juju!  Imagine a world in which teeth were the only cutting edges for any purpose.  Civilization would be impossible, and you and I would be naked wild things on a sunny African savannah.

Another revolutionary technological discovery was the domestication of fire, which kicked open the gate to life as we know it.  The earliest evidence of fire was found in an African cave, dating to 1.4 million years ago.  Erectus was probably a fire user.  Prior to manufactured tools and domesticated fire, our ancestors were still ordinary animals, like baboons — wild, free, and happy.  These two changes shoved them outside the community of all other animals, and put them on an ominous new path.

In the million years following the invention of biface cutters, Homo erectus artifacts reveal no evidence of further innovation.  Maybe they now had everything they needed, and life was grand.  But the book’s authors live in a culture that is constantly disrupted by hurricanes of innovation.  To them, a million years of stability and sustainability is glaring evidence of feeblemindedness. 

Both authors are shameless out-of-the-closet human supremacists, and their book is a flag-waving celebration of human brilliance.  They write, “Homo sapiens has transformed the natural world into one of culture and civilization that our distant ancestors, let alone members of other species, possibly could not imagine.”  No kidding! 

The authors are also masters at the mysterious art of academic writing.  Behold: “The allometric trajectory that best distinguished anatomically modern Homo sapiens and Neanderthals was a tendency towards klinorhynchy or globularity in modern humans.”  The book was not a pleasure read for a general reader like me.  I was not the intended audience.

In the book, hominins are essentially presented as being biological machines.  Much attention is devoted to brain size, brain components, brain processes, and genetic evolution.  Subjects include decision making, planning, memory, learning, abstract thinking, language, communication.  Bones and artifacts reveal little or nothing about stuff like thinking, memory, or speaking, so the book indulges in a lot of speculating, which could get quite frisky, sometimes hopping over the fence of credibility.

Homo sapiens maybe emerged around 200,000 years ago.  Somewhere around 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, there is evidence of a significant shift that is often referred to as the Great Leap Forward.  It was an era of breathtaking cave paintings, decorative ornaments, ceramics, carvings, and innovation in hunting technology.  The authors make the highly controversial assertion that this big shift “developed because of an additive genetic mutation or epigenetic event that affected the neural organization of the brain.”  And so, a new and turbulent chapter in the human saga was the result of random genetic juju that scrambled our thinkers.

Far less attention is devoted to significant factors that were external to the brain machines and their magic genes.  By the time of the Great Leap, folks had struggled to overcome a number of major challenges.  They had figured out how to survive in a chilly temperate climate — warm clothing, secure shelters, food storage.  Utilizing the latest state of the art technology, they had become highly skilled at team hunting.  They lived in regions having abundant game.  People who are struggling to survive are not going to have time to fool around with nonessential amusements.  But people living in times of prosperity, like the Baby Boomers, or the cave painters, can indulge in fanciful excesses and extravagances.

In the Great Leap era, the world was unimaginably alive and a spectacular, breathtaking miracle.  Modern folks would eagerly pay big money, and get on a 40-year waiting list to experience a pure, thriving wilderness filled with mammoths, lions, aurochs, and buffalo.  To gasp with wonder at vast clouds of birds filling the skies with beautiful music and motion.  To listen to rivers thrashing with countless salmon.  To see, hear, and feel the powerful vitality of the reality in which our species evolved, the type of world that the genes of every newborn baby expects to inhabit — a healthy, sane, beautiful, wild paradise.

Craig Dilworth wrote that the cave painting tribes were the luckiest humans of all, because they lived at the zenith of the entire human experience.  A number of revolutionary innovations had provided them with a temporary opportunity to experience a magnificent way of life.  But the road ahead was a rough one.  Another ice age was approaching, and Europe would get colder than it had been in 100,000 years.  Large game would become less abundant due to habitat change, and to the long-term consequences of, century after century, killing a few too many big critters that did not breed like bunnies.

Technological innovation has a regular habit of sharply biting its clever inventors, and their societies, on the ass.  Patching up the damage caused by the unintended consequences of progress typically inspires even more innovation, leading to even more unintended consequences, resulting in a treacherous downward spiral. 

Humans have retained some characteristics of ordinary animals — our minds are focused on the here and now, our capacity for acute foresight is flaccid, and we often become prisoners of habitual thoughts and behaviors.  Over time, human numbers grew, and food resources diminished.  Storms of devastating cleverness eventually led to the domestication of plants and animals, a transition that many anthropologists refer to as the Great Leap Backward. 

And now, dear reader, here we are, standing in the growing shadow of an era of climate change helter-skelter, a painful withdrawal from a total addiction to energy guzzling, and the eventual obliteration of life as we know it.  And, here we are talking about a book that celebrates the miracle of human cognition.  Oy!

A year ago, I spent a few hours with this book, and set it aside.  Recently, I looked at it again, because I was interested in some anthropological information.  I contemplated reviewing it, but decided not to.  Then, my muse gave me a dope slap (SMACK!).  The book is perfect!  It’s a haunting mug shot of the mindset that is engaged in a full-scale war against all life — yet refuses to notice it, or care.

This is the mindset in which educated brains are thoroughly marinated from childhood onward.  Like standing in front of a curvy funhouse mirror, the distorted reflection we see is Superman or Superwoman, powerful beings of greatness and goodness.  Thus, the notion of superheroes knowingly engaging in pathological mass destruction is perfectly ridiculous.  We much prefer the flattering portrait to the lost and confused critter behind the mask.  This may not be the path to a happy ending.

One passage noted that, “excepting humans,” today’s great apes are in decline (chimps, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans).  Could their big brains have doomed them?  “Large brains are expensive and have profound life-history consequences.  If they no longer yield a competitive edge, their owners will, predictably, go extinct.”  Do you think that humans truly are the exception?  Is our ever-growing cleverness rotting out our competitive edge, as it undermines the ecosystems that make our existence possible?  Will our superhero brains ever snap out of their trance, open their eyes, and become fully present in reality?  Stay tuned.  And now, a message from our sponsor…

Coolidge, Frederick L., and Thomas Wynn, The Rise of Homo Sapiens: The Evolution of Modern Thinking, Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, U.K., 2009.