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.

Hearty Insects & Beautiful Spring Weather

In keeping with the ‘winter that wasn’t’ and the mild fall our break up has come earlier than usual and now spring is in full bloom.  We’ve seen five consecutive days of high temps in the fifties along with abundant sunshine.  The icy roads have finally surrendered to the warm sun’s kiss and now they are mainly just muddy although the higher points have also dried off to the point they are becoming dusty.  I see the ‘average’ highs in April for Talkeetna are around 46 F but we’ve been easily five degrees above this value; interestingly the average low is listed as 26 F and we’ve been right on that mark.  We’re approaching 16 hours of daylight on this Earth Day but the eastern sky begins to lighten around 05:10 AKDT and there’s faint light in the western sky even at 22:45 AKDT.  More and more bare patches of earth are visible in the boreal forest although anywhere the winter’s snow was heaped such as the sides of the local roads there are still piles of wet, rotting snow and ice.  While walking my dogs yesterday late morning I took the following image from around intersection of East Barge Drive and the Spur; it’s looking east down East Barge towards some foothills of The Alaska Range which are still solidly cloaked in white.


Every day I see more and more returning birds and I’m hearing more Red Squirrels as well.  The moose remain absent after being virtually ubiquitous the last ten days of March and the first few days in April.  I suspect the cows are back in the forest birthing their spring calves; with this underway the appearance of the local bears cannot be far off.  As soon as the low temps stop dropping below freezing I will hang my Hummingbird feeder; actually given the amount of sugar in the water I could hang it now as the high concentration of soluble solids will depress the freezing point of the water based mixture quite a bit.  Today I hope to place at least one of my Field Swallow birdhouses; I need to get them up so the returning swallows can hopefully build their nests within them.  All told spring has definitely ‘sprung’ for Talkeetna and the timeless dance of the seasons continues in full force.

I knew Alaskan insects were a breed apart in terms of being hearty since June of 1997 when I observed live mosquito larvae swimming in a small pool of water collected in a depression on a piece of ice in Denali NP&P!  Sure, the air temp was in the upper forties and it was sunny but that water had to be just above 32 F.  In the lower 48 one rarely saw insects in action while snow remained on the ground but this is definitely not the case in Alaska.  While writing some email over the weekend I happened to glance outside my office window on a late albeit sunny Saturday morning; to my surprise I could see numerous winged insects of various sizes fluttering about in the warm air.  When I really started observing I quickly counted fifteen flying insects just in my field of view and I know there were many more.  Even more surprising was having to brush away a mosquito yesterday early afternoon as I was working around the front porch.  One wonders how these little beggars survive night lows in the middle twenties but they must manage as once it warms up during the day they are very active.  Yesterday I took the following image of the sensor platform of my Davis Vantage Pro 2 wireless weather station mounted in my front yard.  Notice the unbroken snow in the background; it’s still around a foot deep in that section of my front yard.  If you look closely at the solar cell area you can see a large fly.  It was largely immobile soaking up the sun but when I caused a shadow to pass over it the fly did indeed take flight.  It never ceases to amaze me just how tenacious Nature can be; life will find a way even under harsh and demanding circumstances!



Reflections On A Year Past…

As we are just starting the second day of a new year I find it’s no surprise I’m reflecting back upon the past year and without question the focus of my reflections have been my successful relocation to south central Alaska and subsequent efforts at settling in.  I have already experienced my first Winter Solstice in ‘The Great Land’ as well as my first Christmas and New Years; I’ve tasted -24 F air temps on numerous occasions and expect to experience temps below -30 F before the winter is over.  I continue to accumulate important lessons day in and day out as I learn to not just survive but to thrive in my new home.  Talkeetna is perfect for me; the locals are a quirky mix of lifestyles, beliefs and economic statures but eminently tolerant of other viewpoints and share a deep belief in the importance of humor.  I mean where else can you find a town of 700+ year round residents that has a cat for a mayor..?  Mr Stubbs has held this position for at 16 years and does actually attend town meetings.  These people are as genuine as the day (or night depending upon the season…) is long and always ready to be of assistance if needed.  I’ve written much regarding the environmental conditions; I do love the cold and snow and look forward to a lot more of both before ‘the break up’ which is Alaskan for ‘spring’.

But I thought it might be some fun to look at some key learnings I’ve developed over the past four plus months; things that really reflect living in rural south central Alaska.  So it’s from this perspective I look back on my first five months of living at Mile 7.1 of the Spur:

  • As we’re now into winter I think some lessons learned regarding Talkeetna winters are in order.  Although I did have respect for the cold up here I also had bad habits from the lower 48 which are quickly being erased sometimes rather painfully.  In SE Michigan it was no big deal to run out to the store in a snowfall event wearing minimal outdoor gear and sometimes wearing only tennis shoes.  Hah, such times are now history for me as to run to the store nowadays means wearing full winter gear including insulated boots and insuring I have my ‘survival kit’ in the cargo portion of the Escape as well.  While sliding off the road in Michigan could be an inconvenience up here it could be a death sentence based upon your location and your level of preparedness.  Even when just venturing out to start the car so it can defrost and be ready to go I wear stout outdoor clothing and especially gloves.  I learned the hard way that just a minute of two of scraping windows with the ice scraper and bare hands when its -17 F leads to very painful hands!!
  • When it does snow if I’m not planning to go anywhere for a few days I’ll leave the car covered with snow.  This prevents the cold overnight temps from building up a thick layer of ice on the glass surfaces due to radiational cooling.  Of course this means when I do plan to use the car I need a bit more time to broom off the snow but it’s much easier than fighting to clear ice when it -15 F or colder.
  • Once it gets below -15 F outside and stays that way for at least a day or more any metal protruding into the house which is tied to metal on the exterior of the house will begin to form layers of frost.  I keep my place in the 58 F to 61 F temperature range but this has no effect it stopping the slow but relentless build up of frost layers on exterior door hinges, door latches and window cranks.  The robustness of the frost build up is proportional to the temperature but more importantly to the duration of time the temperature has been below -15 F.
  • How cold it feels outdoors is of course related to the temperature but it also seems influenced by the amount of time its been cold outdoors.  I’m not sure why this is but I have experienced it numerous times now; -20 F will feel quite cool when I let the dogs out first thing in the morning after we’ve seen temps around 0 F.  But the third morning its -20 F and I do the same it feels much colder just as based on the aforementioned there’s much more frost on interior metal objects linked to exterior surfaces.  Just spending ten minutes outside after its never risen above -12 F for 48 or more hours feels much colder than the first morning it’s dropped to -18 F.
  • I can easily handle -22 F air temps when properly dressed as long as there’s no wind.  However, add just a 2 to 4 mph breeze to an air temp of -17 F and I’d better have all exposed flesh covered or I’m going to have a problem within just a few minutes.
  • Layering is THE way to deal with Alaskan cold!  I’ve been fine at any of the low temps I’ve experienced thus far wearing only a wind proof/rain resistant synthetic rain parka as my exterior layer; underneath this I’m wearing heavy sweat pants, thick Carhartt wool/synthetic mix socks, a long sleeve tee-shirt and a fleece vest along with poly pro glove liners, gloves and insulated boots.  I can always add thermal underwear when it gets  really cold and if I do start to get too warm from exercise its always possible to modify clothing openings or even shed a layer.
  • The one windshield ‘star’ on the passenger side – courtesy of a maintenance truck in Saskatchewan – finally grew a low-level but almost windshield length crack.  It was -18 F and I was rushing to get into KTNA for a substitute newscast so I had the defroster set at 80 F and the fan to max.  The Spur was not in great shape with many rough icy patches and as I navigated one I saw a crack grow from the center of the star and slowly grow across the lower quarter of the windshield towards the driver’s side.  Apparently a combination of the extreme temp differences inside to outside and the uneven motion of the vehicle was too much for the already damaged glass.  After speaking with Holly I learned its best to just deal with the crack until fall and then have it replaced; most windshield chips and ‘stars’ occur during the summer months with the increased traffic and construction work.  Therefore it does make sense to hold off on replacing the windshield until after construction season; Holly suggested late September.
  • Moving ahead with more ‘generic’ learnings – Forget about addresses to indicate where you live; this place may be 15158 East Barge Drive, Talkeetna, AK but to the locals its transitioning from ‘Dan & Erica Valentine’s place’ to ‘that place owned by the big bald guy with the two big dogs’.  Hey, it works for me!  No one gives you a number address once you’re out of the town itself; you tell folks you live ‘just past the curve on Joan Street’ or ‘at the top of the hill on East Barge Drive’ and that’s good enough.  I know from experience it does make it hell for the delivery people unless they have a long duration experience of finding residential locations in this area.
  • I learned last fall I will not be able to wear shorts and short-sleeved tee shirts when the spring finally arrives; at least not once the biting insects make their appearance.  I remember wondering during my first few trips up here why the locals always wore long sleeves and long pants; now I know!  Wearing these coupled with your insect repellent of choice – I have four ‘natural’ formulations I’ll be trying come insect season but to this point rubbing a dryer sheet on my clothing worked best last year – at least gives you a chance to forgo losing a pint of blood every time you spend more than ten minutes outdoors.
  • There’s a rhythm to rural life that one slowly discovers with the passage of time and is indelibly linked to one’s one lifestyle.  At this point mine is anchored around my newscasts at KTNA and the need to replenish my grocery situation once every three to four weeks.  The latter grows out of the fact Talkeetna lacks any amount or variety of goods and services; one of its biggest improvements came a few years back when Cubby’s Market opened at the ‘Y’ (Talkeetna talk for the junction of the Spur and Parks Highway) .  While it’s barely larger than most convenience stores in the lower 48 it does provide important grocery items rather than just junk food.  In fact, I’m told people drive all the way from Anchorage to buy their meat as it is truly delicious and handled with care.  This is important because the next true grocery stores (Fred Meyer, Carrs) are 60+ miles to the south in Wasilla.  As such one wouldn’t want to be making this 120+ mile round trip more than once a month if possible and that’s really true come winter when the Parks Highway can be a real mess of ice and snow.
  • My newscasts anchor the times I visit the Talkeetna PO which is just up the Spur from the station’s building on Second Street; although my drive in is just a bit over seven miles its much more convenient to leave for the station a bit earlier so I can stop by the PO, check for mail and packages and then proceed on into the station.
  • My two canine pals are pushing me to get into better shape through regular walking; they hunger for that daily opportunity to head out regardless of the weather and explore the area around their new home.  The longer we take on these walks the more they expect; when I first started walking with them I could barely handle 30 minutes because I was a ‘flat-lander’ and nothing is flat up here.  Before the real cold came on I was up to 70 to 80 minutes of continual walking and even making at least three trips up and down Bonanza Hill (aka ‘Exercise Hill’ to the locals) during any given week.  I need this and more; I’ve been forced to shorten the duration of our walks when the temps are in single digits or cooler because Qanuk’s pads do not handle the real cold well at all.  I’ve ordered an insulated set of dog booties for him; I see the dog teams that mush this area use them and that’s a good enough recco for me.
  • Without question the extended darkness has had no observable effect upon my perspectives or outlooks; in fact I can see no issues whatsoever with the longer nights.  I also suspect this will not be the case with the June through August period when it’s almost continually light; thank goodness for light blocking drapes!
  • Although we are just 12 days since the Winter Solstice I can already see the beginnings of the dawn occurring a few minutes sooner than back around the solstice.  Yes, one has to be looking for the shift as well as be a ‘sky watcher’ but it is indeed already evident.

These are just a few of the myriad of learnings I’ve embraced in my first five months of living in rural south central Alaska; I know I have many, many more coming my way.  For whatever reason I actually enjoy the prospect of continued learning as I’m finding the whole rural lifestyle is something that at this point in my life is indeed very near and dear to my heart.  I’m finally beginning to feel like an Alaskan in general and a Talkeetna ‘local’ in particular.  I look back on the decades spent living in the urban lower 48 and wonder how I managed to do so as now so very much of that lifestyle seems slightly insane.  Why would I live someplace with terrible noise pollution which daily intrudes into even a closed up house, why would I live someplace where traffic and congestion can make a five-mile drive require twenty minutes, why would I live someplace with dirty air and light pollution so severe one can see just a handful of stars even on a clear night, why would I live someplace where ‘wildlife’ means squirrels, sparrows and raccoons and why would I life someplace where the people are introverted and treat strangers with initial distrust???  No, I think I’ll take rural south central Alaska, thank you very much..!