Equality for All..?

To this old fart it sure seems as though the world, in general, and this country in particular has suddenly and tightly embraced the concept that everyone should be ‘equal’ in terms of social, economic and cultural aspects of their lives.  And so many feel this is a ‘right’.  I’ll deal with the fallacy of this concept in a later blog piece.  While a noble idea I find the very concept a bit removed from everyday reality.  Indeed, it seems to me to be more of a ‘lofty goal’ than something we humans might aspire to within a generation let alone a presidential race.  But my difficulty with this theory is more than I just mentioned; to the best of my knowledge I cannot identify one single example of this theory within Nature.  And, for me, living in harmony with Nature is something I strive towards and so many in other generations claim to embrace as well.  But how can we create a country let alone a planet where all humans are equal when there is no ‘template’ or examples within the realm of the natural world?

Equality is a human concept born of the idea that we should all be the same regarding our lives, our places within society and our material wealth.  A most benevolent concept but something unimaginably difficult to even begin to reach especially in countries such as the US in which a sizeable portion of the population prize their differences from others.  In this context it seems more like a topic to be bandied about by the so called ‘ivory tower’ types yet there appears to be a ground swell of support for this goal.  The younger generations are particularly enamored of this concept; this is hardly unusual or unexpected.  But to my mind no group let alone a single person has really demonstrated how this would work at the ‘nuts and bolts’ level.  Far too often younger folks become so captivated by such an exulted goal they fail to recognize the difficulties involved in even beginning to make it happen.  But as anyone who has set out to make large scale changes is only too aware ‘the devil is in the details’.  And this is where individuals like our politicians – especially Sanders – have not really been forthright with the American people.  Sanders talks of destroying the banking system and hacking up large corporations but these are just ideas; even if he does become president he will lack the power to make this happen.  And with what would he replace said systems or corporations?  He has never shared such details mainly because he lacks them.

But I go back to my discomfort with such concepts because there is no known model for this ‘universal equality’.  Certainly there is no such system among organisms like bacteria, viruses or even insects.  In their worlds they struggle to survive by eating, producing waste and breeding.  In fact, insects are just about a polar opposite as many species have highly regimented societies in which one is born to be a worker, a solider, a drone or a queen.  Such an order seems to permeate most groupings of organisms.  There are those who do the work of locating food such that others can harvest it and share it with the community.  But within said community there are others that serve the queen, protect the colony and service the queen’s needs.  Often even the size of organisms within such a collective varies based upon their ‘birth right’.  Moving higher up the evolutionary scale there are some examples of communities whereby there are more degrees of equality.  Take a wolf pack; in a broad sense most of the pack is close to equals with just the alpha and beta males and females holding a ‘higher’ status.  This affords them the ‘right’ to bear young whom the entire pack helps nurture and raise.  But the alpha and beta pairs have a higher status which is notable not just in terms of breeding but also at the site of a kill.

It seems as though the ‘right’ to breed within a community is something earned and then protected via ongoing vigilance.  Nature has determined this is her method for insuring the long term existence of a wolf pack.  Allowing every member to breed would not only ‘equalize’ the gene pool – something Nature seems to forswear – but would also make it almost impossible to sustain the pack for more than a few generations.  The need to pass one’s genes on in the ‘dance of life’ is one thing all organisms on this planet share.

Since I’ve used a canine analogy and I live near a village that truly fancies dogs, not mention I own a pair of wonderful canine companions, I’d like to expand upon canines and undertake a thought experiment.  Let’s look at the totality of the domesticated canine population.  First off there’s the size and breed differences; it is such diversity that makes the domesticated canine a successful race.  There are large, powerful canines like Newfoundland’s, Irish Wolfhounds, Great Pyrenees, Alaskan Malamutes and similar; these breeds adapted to their lifestyles of being predators well up the food chain.  Then there canines noted for their intelligence and joy of working with humans like German Shepherd Dogs, Standard Poodles, Doberman Pinschers and Australian Sheep Dogs.  Humans appear to have singled out their early ancestors probably because they did exhibit innate intelligence; over time humans bred them so the genes for intelligence were favored.  There are breeds particularly acclimated to water like retrievers and labs as well as those able to cope with dry extremes like Basenjis and similar.

Now let’s imagine the canine world decided to make all members equal in status.  The smaller breeds would need to grow larger just as the large breeds would need to shrink in size so eventually all canines were of a similar size.  Size plays a large part in dominance and if all are equal ‘dominance’ shouldn’t exist.  Any ‘stand out’ traits would need to be muted unless they could be shared by all canines.  More intelligent breeds would have to be ‘dumbed down’ while those of less intelligence would have to be bred to be smarter.  Dogs with survival abilities like the Malamute would need to dramatically decrease such attributes while small, toy breeds would have to become more able to survive on their own.  The list goes on and on but I believe I’ve elucidated my point.  Nature had a huge part in creating the plethora of canine breeds and so most breeds became specialists.  By this very progression the idea that all canines could be equal becomes a fallacy.  All organisms on this planet are shaped by their surroundings – and, of course, their genes – so it is painfully obvious given the diversity of ecologies said organisms will be different and ‘unequal’.  Unlike the human generated concept of ‘equality’ Mother Nature has no such intent; indeed, she appears to drive diversity as a means to protect and embellish organisms and races.

Does this mean as a race we shouldn’t strive towards caring for our poor, sick and/or crippled?  Definitely NOT!  But we can accept all human beings are created equal but very soon develop along different paths yielding ‘unequal’ people.  Not everyone can be a nuclear physicist, a butcher, an author or an explorer because we are all inherently different with differing skills, intellects and aspirations.  We should revel in our differences and recognize that diversity makes our race stronger and better able to adapt and survive.

Changes…

As I find myself just three months short of completing my third year in ‘The Last Frontier’ I cannot help but look back and marvel at all that has transpired across those thirty three months.  Of course I knew there would be many trials and learnings when I set out from SE Michigan for Talkeetna but I also thought I’d pretty much planned for such challenges in the 18 months preceding the actual relocation.  But, as is so often the case, I was surprised by the number and often the complexity of so many of the demands; in addition more than a few were totally unexpected.

Coming from a history of suburban living in the lower 48 – mainly around large cities – I knew I’d have a lot of learning to do regarding semi-rural life in south central Alaska and I haven’t been disappointed.  Some were obvious like getting used to dealing with a well and septic field as versed with ‘city water and sewage’.  But others were not so discernible like trading lawn maintenance for lot conservation involving removing fallen trees and cutting up the wood to eventually serve as firewood.  I knew ‘the kidz’ would love the shift as they now have the immense boreal forest in which to romp and explore as well as a plethora of large mammals to irritate.  This is a far cry from life in suburbia where they had to stretch their legs while tethered to leashes and could really only run in local parks as long as there weren’t too many other people or canines around.

One of the biggest changes, although not unexpected, was the lack of local goods and services.  I knew this would be the case based on my many visits and I had some plans such as the purchase of a small freezer to add to my food storage capabilities.  But even so it has taken some adjusting in order to hold my trips to Wasilla and Palmer to just once every two to three weeks; I rarely make Anchorage more than six or seven times a year and two or more of these trips are to pick up and drop off visiting friends at Ted Stevens International Airport.  Yet I also recognize I have yet to deal with other situations such as basic vehicle maintenance.  There is a local shop which can handle general maintenance and repairs but they cannot replace visiting a dealer every few years.  But doing so will require planning well ahead to get an early morning appointment, get the vehicle in and then probably spend the day awaiting completion of the work.  If it should go beyond a day I’m unsure what I would do.  I could get a motel but the kidz would need someone to feed them and let them out.  I could also make arrangements for the Talkeetna shuttle to pick me up and transport me back home; I’d need them to get me back to the dealership once work is finalized.  This is the cost of living 60+ miles (96.5 km) distant from a dealership.

Learning to live with ever present wildlife has required a true mindset shift as well.  Although rarely seen grizzlies and black bears live in the general area and often pass through; signs of their passage (scat, dug up earth, scratched tree trunks, etc.) are often visible to the careful eye.  One must be very circumspect with household garbage during bear season; I store my filled bags in the mudroom until I can drop them off at the transfer station.  Any boxes, bags or similar which contained food are burned.  Moose are a fact of life in this area and I enjoy seeing them at a distance as I do all the native wildlife.  Being much more common than the bears I see them multiple times a week during the all seasons and often they are in my driveway or the immediate boreal forest.  I’ve learned to jiggle the door knob on dark evenings before I exit the house; this alerts any ‘critters’ to my pending presence.  Even so I’ve surprised a number of moose; thankfully they chose to run away!

So much can happen in Alaska, often in the blink of an eye, and the environment can be very unforgiving if one is not ready and respectful.  I’ve learned to always keep some basic supplies in my vehicle like extra clothing, gloves, matches, candles, rope, a knife, some energy bars and a space blanket.  I vary the load out based upon the season.  I learned the hard way one must be prepared for rough weather; after managing to strand my vehicle at the entrance to my driveway in a driving snowstorm I attempted to push it free wearing just poly-pro glove liners.  Given the air temp was -8° F (-22.2° C) combined with quickly saturating my ‘gloves’ has left me with a right index finger which aches when it gets even somewhat cold and can be horribly painful if it is exposed to really cold air.  Thanks to that experience I never leave the house in winter without being fully outfitted for the conditions!

These are but a few of the physical changes I’ve encountered but I also recognize some deep transformations within my psyche wrought by living in ‘The Great Land’.  I have no doubt some of these are age related but I remain sure all have been influenced by living up here.  While I was always something of a conservationist I’ve really become one since moving up here; Nature is just so ‘in your face’ where ever you turn in Alaska it’s tough not to be in touch with Nature.  I am much more circumspect regarding my outdoor activities and am extremely careful with all garbage and especially toxic waste materials like batteries.  I was ecstatic as were so many locals when recycling began in 2015.  Besides being so much more aware of my impact upon Nature I have developed a huge respect for her and really do try to live more in harmony with her ways.  And I’ve really seen a huge shift in my priorities!  Somehow so much that seemed so important in the lower 48 now just seems superficial.  I gladly take at least an hour each day – sometimes a bit less in the dead of winter – to sit in my rocking chair on my front porch and just watch Nature unfold before my eyes.  Previously I’d have wanted to be reading or listening to music but now I just want to see and hear Mother Nature in all her splendor.  My entire pace of living has slowed and I no longer try to cram all I can into each hour or day.  Very few things I do cannot wait until tomorrow if I feel like taking the kidz for an afternoon of exercise on local trails let alone pack up the Escape and head with Anana and Qanuk to the Denali Highway (AK 8) for a few days of car camping.

So much of this is known to the locals as living on ‘Talkeetna time’.  I’d heard the expression when visiting back in the late 90’s but I never understood what it meant until I moved up here.  Talkeetna time requires one just slow down a bit, take time to observe everything around you and let go of arbitrary goals and deadlines in favor of just enjoying the ‘now’.  I never really understood the importance of this concept although I embraced it from an intellectual perspective thanks to my fascination with studying the Enneagram.  It speaks to the importance of accepting that all we really have is the ‘now’ and we need to spend much more time embracing it as versed with worrying about the past or the future.  This has been a huge paradigm shift for me because I was always a planner and spent most of my time thinking about possible outcomes to my actions and how to deal with them.  Somehow that all seems so alien now…

Indeed, Alaska has engendered many changes across virtually all facets of my existence and I feel so much richer because of these changes.  I can only imagine what the next three years will bring in terms of changes and further growth but rather than plan for them or worry about learning as much as I can I think I’ll just take the few mile trip down the Spur to Mile 5 and contemplate Denali.  Somehow, when marveling at ‘the Tall One’ so much more comes into focus regarding my life…

Cloud Shrouded Denali with Top Just Visible

Denali shrouded in clouds but with both the north and south peaks just visible.

 

Three Years & Three Days

The following image was taken during my house hunting trip to Talkeetna across the first full week of April, 2013.  The actual date of the image is April 10, 2013 which corresponds to the day I made an offer on this property.  Notice in particular the snow cover:

15158 E. Barge Front

At that time there was approximately 34″ of snow pack which had increased to 38″ after a snow event the next evening.  I was informed by my realtor and good friend, Holly, that these conditions were pretty typical for early to mid-April in Talkeetna.

Here’s a picture I just snapped maybe fifteen minutes ago.  It is just three years and three days from the date of the previous image.  Without question the difference in the snow pack is both startling and revealing.  Since the winter of 2012-2013, which set records for snow fall across much of Alaska, Talkeetna has seen three consecutive warm and dry ‘winters’ all of which have set records in terms of warmth.

041316

Tale of Three ‘Winters That Weren’t’

Once again the incredible power of Mother Nature is on display in ‘The Great Land’ as we are now seeing a bit over fourteen and a half hours of direct sunlight each day and that is increasing by six minutes with each 24 hour cycle.  This amazing land truly amplifies seasonal shifts to the point they become almost mind boggling.  Just eleven weeks in the past we were struggling to get a mere five hours of sunlight yet now the sun doesn’t set until 21:18 AKDST after rising at 06:47 AKDST!  By the time we make the summer solstice on June 20th we’ll see 19 hours and 55 minutes of direct sunlight with the sun rising at 04:05 AKDST and setting at 00:00 AKDST yet this is just ten weeks from now.  It is indeed a wild roller-coaster ride in terms of light and dark but one which folks living in the higher latitudes are all too familiar.

Talkeetna is easily three weeks ahead of past ‘norms’ for weather conditions as we’re already into break up with open water appearing on lakes, ponds and streams.  The gravel back roads are almost completely free of snow and ice and some are even dried to the point vehicular traffic generates dust.  We have wildly varying snow cover based mostly on the extreme amount of ice generated last November into December; ice just does not melt as quickly as snow.  Currently I’m estimating 80% snow cover but that figure involves the boreal forest which surrounds this area; any surface which is relatively free of tree cover is almost bare regarding snow and ice.  And this trend models the past winter which was probably the mildest in terms of temperatures in Alaska’s history.  In addition the precipitation was also extremely low making this winter and subsequent ‘early spring’ almost a carbon copy of the previous period.

In fact, the past three winters have been the mildest on record for the state thanks largely to the huge blob of warm water apparently anchored in the Gulf of Alaska – it is running 1.5° C to 2° C above normal – and the record sized El Nino of the past two years.  I suspect this could well be further evidence for a warming climate although I also know that three warm winters does not a trend make..!!  Because I am a ‘weather weenie’ with a bit of a scientific bent I collect daily meteorological data from my Davis Vantage PRO 2 weather station and often review this data.  In so doing I created the following analysis of the past three winters:

3 Winters

I chose the five month period from November through March as that has covered the main ‘winter’ months although five or more years back I would have also added April.  This fact by itself speaks to the warming and subsequent shortening of the recent Alaskan winters.  The small amount of data I reviewed has suggested a number of trends.  The average mean temp across the aforementioned five months by year shows a slow increase (+3.4° F) while the number of days with temps below 0° F shows a slow decrease (11 fewer days) across the same period.  Interestingly, February shows up as the coldest month based on my data yet historical records show January is normally the coldest month in this area with December a close second.  The chart showing the monthly mean temps shows amazing variation; only the line for the winter of 2014-2015 shows anything close to what one would expect.  The trace for 2013-2014 does show cooler temps in December and February but January is extraordinarily warm beating January 2016’s mean temp by 7.1° F and January 2014’s mean temp by a whopping 15.2° F!  Meanwhile, the line for 2015-2016 shows December was the coolest month – as predicted by the historical data and averaged across the previous roughly 70 years to be 11.3° F* – but then the temperatures just continued to warm across January, February and March.  None of these years showed an average January temperature equal to the historical 9.9° F monthly average.  Maybe most telling is the historical mean temp for March is 21.6° F yet the mean temp for March of 2014 was 23.4° F (+1.8° F) while that for March of 2015 was 25.0° F (+3.4° F) with last month’s figure even warmer at 28.5° F (+6.9° F).

All of this information serves mainly to suggest that Alaska has seen a dramatic warming of its winters since 2013 and to this point I do not see anything indicative of a change to this trend.  The recent El Nino should subside, it is already showing some weakening, and that will help allow for cooler winter temps but until the warm waters of the northern Pacific Ocean either equalize or move away from the Gulf of Alaska I suspect we will continue to see much above normal winter temperatures.  The real question in my mind is how much of the Pacific warming is due to climate change?  Without question much more study and analyses are required before this question can be answered.  As someone who loves snow and cold I’m not at all optimistic regarding our near term winter conditions.  If there is a silver lining to this pattern it could be such warm and dry winters bring about an early thaw and snow melt.  This, in turn, allows the water from the snow melt to sink into the floor of the boreal forest or evaporate before it can form the small, shallow pools the mosquitoes use for breeding.  I suppose if I cannot see those much sought after -30° F air temps or that four foot snow pack at least I can enjoy a spring, summer and fall sans those nasty little blood suckers…

*Historical weather data courtesy of NWS and ‘climate-zone.com’

The Power of a Smile

With age I’ve come to appreciate so many of the simpler things in life such as sitting on my front porch and observing Nature in all her mystery and grace, that first sip of hot coffee on a cold early morning or the joy exuded by Qanuk – my male GSD – as he races through the boreal forest on the trail of some scent.  When one is open to such observations there seems to be no end to them and I relish identifying and experiencing all I can.  I’ve often noted the simpler these actions or situations the more pleasing they can become.  But most seem to stem from the world around me which is fine but also left me wondering why I am not the source of at least a few of my own ‘simple yet pleasing’ creations..?

Turns out I am capable of adding to the simple joy around me and by far the most powerful source for me is something I never thought twice about over the previous decades – my smile.  Since I can remember people have always commented on my smile, generally noting its ‘intensity’ and its apparently pleasing nature.  Sadly I did not smile much from my teens through my early thirties while in the grip of what I now understand was clinical depression.  Only when some internal biochemical shift occurred in my early to middle thirties did the heavy, dark cloud of this depression begin to lift and with that I became a ‘lighter’ and more outgoing optimist.  Of course my smile had always been with me but now it really did have a chance to blossom.

Across the past thirty years I’ve become more and more aware that my smile did set me a bit apart in some people’s minds and for the most part was seen as a positive.  It has allowed me to ‘break the ice’ with many a stranger and sometimes these occurrences have developed into friendships or more.  As with all such gifts it is a dual edged sword; often insecure people or those who feel ostracized or left out feel comfortable approaching me and starting conversations.  At first I was a bit unnerved by these events but with time I came to understand their basis and just went with the flow.  In so doing I learned to talk to almost anyone; developing this skill went hand in hand with my strong tendencies to verbosity in speech and writing.

As I reflect more and more on my smile I realize I have a history of using it to my advantage.  Yes, it was often a good ‘ice breaker’ but it also served to put others at ease and seemed to communicate I was a friendly and open person.  I now recognize I can readily employ my smile, along with humor, to put others at ease and this served me well when dealing with people from whom I needed something.  With the proper employment of said smile I could often ‘encourage’ someone to assist me or go that extra mile for me.  Without question this is a form of manipulation and in this context it doesn’t feel so ‘appreciated’.  However, we humans are social beings and there are schools of thought that espouse the idea all our communications generally proceed from a ‘power base’ in which one person is dominant and the other submissive.  If this is true then I’m sure I’ve employed my smile when acting from a ‘submissive’ position to help me modify the communication basis and ‘elevate’ myself.  While it is manipulation it does seem to be of a lesser degree than, say, verbally or through body language implying threats or similar.

Only across the past fifteen years have I come to understand that my smile – and, for that matter, most people’s smiles – can be a real force for good.  Smiles seem almost universally understood by humans and even many animals as a sign of peace, friendliness and openness as well as an invitation to communicate.  I’ve seen very young children, watching me from their Mom’s shopping cart in a grocery store, light up when I smile at them.  While volunteering in an Alzheimer’s facility there were many residents who showed a definite preference for being around me; the staff finally decided it was because of my beaming smile.  Sometimes when just walking in the village or other locations I will smile at a stranger and almost invariably they return my smile.  Many socialized dogs understand my smile to say I like them and mean no harm; this ultimately benefits us both as I love animals in general and canines in particular and I’ve never met a dog who doesn’t enjoy having their ears scratched.  In hindsight I’m pleased to note I’ve left a lot of happiness and comfort around me and 99% of it has come from just my smile.

Smiling is such a simple thing and an action we humans take for granted yet this response does possess a real power of its own.  But I’ve also noticed I get the best responses to my smile when it is genuine.  Sometimes I will just ‘force’ it when I’m preoccupied or not feeling particularly positive; almost always the results are much less impactful.  I much prefer to feel upbeat and positive when I unleash my smile so I’ve worked at insuring when I smile I mean it.  Doing this means I need to engender a generally positive and cheery outlook in my daily existence.  And this encourages a real ‘win-win’ situation for me; as I work to insure I maintain a generally buoyant and positive outlook I feel so much better and that’s reflected in the intensity and sincerity of my smile.

Please do not just take my word for the power of a smile; do your own research.  But here’s an interesting article from the website longevity.about.com which lists ten reasons to smile:

  1. Smiling Makes Us Attractive
  2. Smiling Relieves Stress
  3. Smiling Elevates Our Mood
  4. Smiling Is Contagious
  5. Smiling Boosts Your Immune System
  6. Smiling Lowers Your Blood Pressure
  7. Smiling Makes Us Feel Good
  8. Smiling Makes You Look Younger
  9. Smiling Makes You Seem Successful
  10. Smiling Helps You Stay Positive.

 Maybe now you will join with me in spreading smiles far and wide?  It’s so very simple yet it can, and does, have profound and far reaching impacts!