Putting Water Back In the Ground

A lot of people depend on ground water, aquifers, for drinking and irrigation. Some aquifers recharge on their own, and do it pretty quickly, such as the Edwards Aquifer in central Texas, or the Sandhills portion of the Ogallala Aquifer. Others either recharge very, very slowly, or not at all. Those are the ones that tend to get lots and lots of attention, unless Central Texas is dry, and Austonio begins talking about sending a pipeline up to the Panhandle to tap the Ogallala.

A quick note to clarify here, before I go any farther. I’m talking about aquifers in sediment like sand and gravel, not groundwater in bedrock, as is found in New England, Canada, and a few other places. That is a different formation, with different flow patterns, and I know next to nothing about how those “work” other than general theory. If you are in New Hampshire and you have a well drilled into bedrock, please contact a local expert.

How do aquifers recharge? It depends on the material above and below the porous layer. That’s what most aquifers are – a layer of sand and gravel that at one time was exposed to rain and snow, or was a river bed (large swaths of the Ogallala and Equus Beds). Under that layer is a watertight layer, usually a shale or something. Over time, that sand and gravel got buried by other things and now lies below the land surface. A few, like the Edwards in central Texas, have access today through caves and sinkholes, where rain can fall right in, or have a very porous layer above that lets rain and snow melt trickle down pretty quickly. The Nebraska Sandhills are pure sand, and water that falls there soaks in, recharging the Ogallala below. Unless there is an extended drought, recharge is not as much of a concern (over-pumping that draws down the water too fast is a different matter.) Other aquifers, like those in Arizona, coastal Georgia, and most of the Ogallala, would take hundreds to thousands to regain their water, if they can at all. When the aquifer is buried hundreds of feet below the surface and topped with firmly-packed dirt, caliche, and so on, water has a harder time soaking in. These are “fossil” waters, and you just assume they won’t recharge without help. How to help without destroying the formation, is another problem.

First, there has to be water to go back in. Without that, it’s pretty moot. Also, the material in the aquifer layer has to still be loosely-packed enough to accept water. If you draw enough out, the layer compresses, and that’s that. No recharge ever, unless all the surface material erodes away and rain falls directly on the sand and gravel.

Ideas for recharging aquifers all involve “putting the water back in down there,” or at least, giving the water an assist. Drilling a well and pouring water back in . . . has a lot of technical difficulties, including the fear of contaminating the rest of the aquifer if some chemical or biological contaminant seeps in – think fecal coliform, or avian cholera, or . . . So the water would have to be filtered, and dust kept out, and the water released high enough that the layers between the end of the well and the aquifer would filter some of the stuff. Oh, and you have to hope that on the way down, the water won’t pick up salt, gypsum, or dig a hole that causes a sink hole.

Around here, attempts were made to deepen the natural rainwater lakes, punching through the clay layer at the bottom of the shallow depression to allow more water to seep in. It started well, but the clay swells, and sediment filled in the holes, closing them. Also the rate or recharge did not justify the cost of the work, which has to be maintained. And depends on moisture. In a year like 1940-41, when the area got 40″ of rain or more, no problem! In a decade like the 1950s, or 2010-2014? Rain? What rain?

Most aquifers were “laid down” when the local/regional climate was much wetter. The Ogallala was sediment dumped from the Rockies by huge, enormous, massive, gargantuan rivers that wandered back and forth over the region for millions of years. Then things changed. In the case of the Ogallala, the goal in 90% of the region is to balance draw-down over time, so that X% of the current depth will remain in Y years. Some places are changing types of crops, other areas revert to range land, and irrigation is much, much more efficient than it used to be. The down side to better irrigation is that less excess water seeps back in to return to the aquifer.

Eventually, a way might be found to return water to places like the Ogallala, Equus beds, coastal aquifer, and so on. If the stuff has not compacted, and if there is sufficient rain and snow to permit that. And if people are willing to spend the money and time needed to do it.


Atmospheric Rivers, the Pineapple Express, and a Large Wetland

California’s drought is, if not broken, seriously dented, especially for the upcoming summer. As of Tuesday the 17th, average depth of snow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains was one and two-thirds the thirty-year average and increasing. As usual, once the media could get in, and the storms proved to be numerous and productive (and photogenic. Large bounders on the highway are cool. So are floating cars if they are somewhere far away from you,) people began trying to blame someone for the “atmospheric river.” (Climate change! Global warming! Cars and trucks! Hollywood’s moral turpitude!*) Um, well, not really. This isn’t new, just mildly uncommon.

California and parts of the western coast of North America have a Mediterranian Climate. This means that summers are warm and dry, because the ocean currents tend to be cold, and discourage evaporation. Also, winds from inland bring warm, dry air down from the mountains and push out to sea, sending any storms away from the coast. This makes for predictable seasonal weather – you can plan a picnic for July 15 and be 99% sure it will be sunny and warm, even if you set the date in December of the previous year. Likewise, November through March tend to be moist and cooler, although how wet and how cool vary from year to year. A strong La Niña pattern will send the moisture well to the north, and Seattle will get lots of snow, as will British Columbia. Southern California will be dry, and soon start worrying about water limits and rationing and Mega Drought. An El Niño year means California wades, the northern Rockies are relatively dry, and Arizona has a ski season as well as flooding. Remember when the Colorado River almost ripped out Glen Canyon Dam in the early 1980s? El Niño years. We’ve been having a series of La Niñas.

The short-term pattern his shifted, thanks to a series of Pacific storms that formed well south of the usual track in the Gulf of Alaska. These are sometimes called “the Pineapple Express,” because a southern branch of the jet stream picks them up from as far as Hawaii, and slings them over the west coast. From there they might go straight east, or north, or more rarely a little south**. They dump rain and snow on the West Coast.

Since California lives and dries by the winter rainfall and snow pack, all this would be great if it were spread out between October 1 and March 1. However, it is all in December-January, and the overload has filled rivers, flood plains, reservoirs, overloaded snow-removal equipment, and generally made a mess of the place. This is also not new. If you build a lot of hard surfaces along a river, it will rise higher and faster than before, causing flooding. Land-slides are part of the process as well, which people have observed going back to the Spanish colonial period. That’s just what the geology does in that part of the world, especially when very wet.

We’re nowhere near the mess of 1861-62 yet. Back then the Central Valley was still a wetland for the most part, undrained and grass covered, with meandering streams and only one major outlet. So when lots and lots and lots of snow and rain fell, and fell, and fell between November and January, some of it very hard and all at once, the Central Valley went under water. Literally. Sacramento was navigable by boat. Arizona, Washington, Oregon, and New Mexico also had flooding, and the Texas Panhandle finally saw the terrible drought of the 1850s broken for a while. A drought had plagued the area in the 1850s, and the shift to a very strong El Niño broke the drought hard. Very hard. Now, since there were far fewer people to be afflicted, it was a pain but not the disaster it is today. Only a few thousand people died (!) The rest of the country was more worried about the Civil War (and in TX, about the Comanches raiding again). It wasn’t that flooding hadn’t happened before, but that the scale was so impressive. Thirty-feet deep floodwaters are uncommon, and memorable. The good news was, it refilled the aquifers. The bad news was, it wiped out the ranches in the Central Valley along with a lot of other property, and cost human lives, and made a mess of the place. Wired has a pretty good article, if you skim the climate-apocalypse bits. The cautions and observations about the long-term sequence of floods and modern consequences is food for thought – and disaster novels.

Today, parts of the Central Valley have sunk from ground-water pumping. California’s water storage and use policies are . . . I will be charitable. Convoluted, awkward, complex, and perhaps slightly off in their use priorities. The current series of storms will be good in the medium-run, especially this spring and summer as the snow-pack melts and provides summer in-stream flow. Right now, it’s rough on people, livestock, and wildlife. It will also be a major concern for produce growers and other things, since so many fields are under water – literally – and will be water logged for a while. What the state of the soil will be after the water drains is to be seen. We may lose some to sand and other sediment deposits.

What we’re seeing isn’t new, just news. It’s not caused by people but by atmospheric pressure and temperature systems. Rain happens, and sometimes a lot of rain happens all at once.

*The Book of Genesis says no more global floods. There’s nothing about a localized scouring not being an option.

**The southern track is more common with El Niño patterns, and that’s where southern NM, TX, and northern Mexico get winter precipitation. Or we get it from the Gulf of Mexico, but that’s rare this time of year.

Dust Storm or Just Blowing Dirt?

If you are not from the area, it might seem like a difference without a distinction. If you happen to live in a place where, as long as we have written and geologic records, the soil has traveled downwind, it’s an important difference.

Note the make of the cars. Welcome to the Filthy Fifties, which were drier than the 1930s around here. Image source: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2019/04/07/dust-storms-just-part-life-west-texas/3378177002/

The above is a dust storm. They happen when the wind picks up so much dust that it starts attracting more, and you get black (or deep red) skies and lots and lots of static. In my part of the world, they often came from the north, part of a screaming cold front, but not always. In the 1950s people could identify the looming wind shift based on the color of dirt. Some cars would be shorted out by the static in the air, and woe betide you if you touched a barbed-wire fence. They became electrified. A dust storm is a haboob, “black roller” that tosses dirt and sand well into the sky. If you can see over it from the ground, it’s not a dust storm (by local standards). Back in the day, some were so bad south of the Panhandle that the blowing sand would strip the paint off of cars. I’ve not heard of that in a very, very long time.

I’ve been inside a dust storm once. The sky turned dark red, the wind howled, I could see two blocks in town, and the power went out for four hours. There wasn’t much to do besides read on my Kindle, then sit and listen to the wind and wait for the power to come back.

Blowing dust is just that. In local areas you will have poor visibility, such as downwind of a construction site or bare field (depending on soil moisture and wind direction). The top soil departs and gets into the air, but you can see blue-ish sky over the layer of dirt. Straight up might be blue, or somewhat brassy (as I type this, it is brassy in town, so it is probably icky brown in more open areas.) Visibility can drop locally, but you don’t have huge swaths of the area shut down because of no visibility at all. As I type, the wind is 270 at 41 MPH gusting to 67 MPH. Which explains why, as I drove back from Day Job, I saw exactly one semi on the interstate, and he was east bound. Everyone else is staying parked until this weakens, lest they end up on their sides, or needing to refuel every ten miles. We’re supposed to get a hard wind shift around 2000, 50 MPH from the north, then tapering off quickly.

If you go back to the earliest written accounts of the region, and from areas to the east, you find that the dirt blew long before humans farmed out here. The bunch-grasses had gaps between clumps when it got a little dry. Bare soil + steady dry winds = traveling topsoil. The dust storms are less common, but still happen.

Local Scents

I can’t locate myself by the scent of the place, but I can tell you who is doing what, which animals have been around, and wind direction. Come with me on an evening walk in a typical neighborhood during late December, around 1845 CST.

I set off southbound. The strong whiff of manure tells the world that the wind has switched to the south-west, bringing eau d’feedlot. It’s not so strong as to be unpleasant, and the wind has been fading anyway, so the scent will go away. A sharp whiff of smoke followed by the heavy scent of pitch warns of someone burning cheap pine wood, not the good stuff. That’s a little rough on the chimney, but some people like it. There’s a bit of humid floral scent, the universal perfume of a dryer. No matter what soap or dryer sheet (if any), all dryers smell the same from outside the house. That family does a lot of laundry, based on what I observe in the evenings.

At the end of the second block I turn east. The air is cool and crisp, dry. Crunching through leaves brings up some dust and leaf-smell. A diesel pickup chugs past, leaving exhaust in the air for several seconds. Diesel fumes always take me back to Europe, to London and even more to Vienna, because of being out and about during the wee hours of the morning, when deliveries are permitted in the central district of the city. Only workmen, me, and the truly devout are generally moving at those hours. After another few blocks I swing south. Moist dampness reveals someone watering grass. A rich, fatty smoke drifts down. Someone else has piñon in the fireplace. I stop to sniff appreciatively. The wood is rarely burned around here, now. Growing up, it was a common “luxury” wood around Christmas. Two houses pass. Another dryer.

Come the next block, I wrinkle my nose. Clackita clackita clackita hssss, and the sweet, too sweet, scent of a chemical. Not paint exactly, or solvent, but something too sweet and artificial. The wind paces me and the scent lingers for five houses before I escape and return to the usual night smells. Once I turn the corner, eastbound once more, sharp burning and scorch. I shake my head. Someone’s burger fell into the coals. No one is smoking meat tonight, alas, but several grill, mostly burgers.

A bit of dust comes through the air. Road construction has torn up several stretches of pave, and the dirt is departing, as it so often does around here. A sharp, bitter underscent cuts through everything else. The skunk has expressed unhappiness, and is sharing that distress with someone. Who will pass it along wherever he goes. Skunk fades and I catch a whiff of balsam. A new wreath on the Little Free Library adds scent to the air.

Cool, chilly night settles on the area. Stars have no scent, unless it is the clean, moist cold of snow after a storm that clears out the skies, revealing Orion, Taurus, and the Sisters in all their brilliant glory. I return home, exercised and entertained. Home smells of gingerbread and dust and a bit of tomato tartness from supper. Soon the spicy perfume of a winter tea will join the blend, held in chilly hands that ache oh so faintly from the cold.

Book Review: The Vortex

Carney, Scott and Jason Miklian. The Vortex: A True Story of History’s Deadliest Storm, an Unspeakable War, and Liberation. (New York: Ecco Books, 2022) Kindle edition.

The short version – this account of the 1970 Bay of Bengal cyclone and the war between East and West Pakistan is well written, makes good use of sources, and is painful to read because of the topic.

Scott Carney and Jason Miklian tell the story of a natural disaster that became the catalyst for war, including attempted genocide (their term). Hurricane forecasting was just starting to move into the realm of science, and in 1970, different countries used different ways to predict storms and warn of their intensity. Sattelite imagery too lagged behind time of need, and the National Hurricane Center in the US didn’t get images quickly. When trying to warn people on the other side of the globe, that lag became lethal, as did the confusion in intensity scales. A US Category 4 sounded mild on the older 1-10 scale. It wasn’t.

The book follows five people – two young men from East Pakistan, an American woman and her husband who work in Dakka, East Pakistan, President Yahya Khan of Pakistan, and a Pakistani officer. President Richard Nixon and a few others appear at times. The way the authors use those characters can make the story a little confusing, because each chapter focuses on one person in turn. I found the American woman and the young man on the island to be the most intriguing. They tried to stay outside of politics, and for various reasons got pulled in: she organized international aid and distribution, and he became a guerilla fighter.

The story quickly turns ugly. The cyclone, which caused an estimated 250,000 deaths (possibly as many as 500,000) led to unrest in East Pakistan. This caused the government of West Pakistan to act against those who had been calling for more political rights for the flat, ethnically Bengali half of the country. The solution was to eliminate anyone in leadership and anyone who did not speak the languages of western Pakistan. The resulting “Operation Searchlight” led to the deaths of millions, either through execution through or disease and hunger as refugees fled to India, or tried to. That in turn galvanized East Pakistani units in the larger army to mutiny, and individuals in East Pakistan to turn to irregular warfare.

There are clear villains in the story as told. Yaha Khan, the president of the country, Richard Nixon (who gave Khan a blank check and arms in exchange for helping facilitate the opening up of China), the West Pakistani military commanders who encouraged murder, rapine, torture, and other things. Heroes include those who tried to help, and those who fought for the freedom of what became Bangladesh. Missing is India, for the most part.

The book is well written but painful to read. Genocide is not pleasant. I’d read about Operation Searchlight in general, but not the horrible details and how it was organized and carried out. The results of the 1970 cyclone – bodies, death, emotional pain, starvation – are also hard to read, although perhaps more familiar. I got tired of the Anthropogenic Climate Change drum being beaten, especially in the final chapter. The disjointed nature of the story, hopping from person to person, could also get confusing. Having a map in hand helps.

I’d recommend the book for those interested in the history of South Asia in general and Bangladesh in particular and those looking at the interplay of natural disasters and politics. I’m not comfortable with the amount of blame the US gets in the book for Operation Searchlight, but I’m not a diplomatic historian and don’t have enough background to be able to tell if the authors overplay the importance of the US’s reaction or lack there of to the West Pakistani actions.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book for my own use and received no remuneration from the authors or publisher for this review.

Book Review: The Yellow River: A Natural and Unnatural History

Mostern, Ruth. The Yellow River: A Natural and Unnatural History (Yale University Press, 2021) hard cover.

It was once called the Great River, and flowed clear. Over time, human use, climate shifts, and political responses to floods and droughts led to the river becoming the Yellow River, sometimes called China’s Sorrow. How this happened is a story as convoluted as the river’s floodplains, and a fascinating lesson in parts vs the whole, and the limits of human power. People and water, and silt and sand, worked together to destabilize the great river over the course of a thousand years.

Asian environmental history has been relatively under-studied, in part because of problems with language, in part because of the enormous spans of time involved. European environmental history is easier to divide, and the archaeological pieces are gathered into tidier “heaps” of sources, so to speak. Only within the past 20 years or so have many works about the environmental history of China been published. This book builds on several classic works of that history, and expands the time-span of the history of the Yellow River.

Mostern argues that while climate shifts and weather pattern changes played a role in the changes observed in the Yellow River watershed, human activity played a far greater role, especially after roughly the year AD 600 CE. Differences in priorities between imperial governments and local officials, plus the focus on relatively free-market development and agriculture, led to Han Chinese culture expanding into regions not suited for intensive farming. By 1855, the Yellow River had become unusuable and impossible to manage (given the finances and technologies of the time), and what had once been a fertile and prosperous region turned into a salty, gravel and sand-choked series of barrens and wetlands. The Loess Plateau in the bend of the Yellow River transformed with ever-increasing speed from grasslands and mixed forests to a rugged, eroded near-desert that sent millions of tons of sediment to cover the floodplain downstream.

Warfare caused much of the damage to the ecosystem of the upper Yellow River, but stable imperial regimes could be just as bad for the environment. The region is one of conflicts – hot and cold air masses, desert winds and tropical moisture, herders and farmers, imperial centralization and tribal societies. Competing armies stripped the land of forests and grass, and the soldier-farmers of Imperial China denuded the land to build walls and grow food for their own survival. When the nomads chased the Han back to the river and farther south, they too removed forest cover, although long stable periods did allow for regrowth of grass and trees. Sometimes. The development of iron-bladed plows and intensive farming technologies caused further, faster, erosion. Demand for fuel and building wood in peace time as well as war devoured more and more forests, causing more erosion and more flooding downstream.

Some observers saw what was happening and argued that the erosion and loss of ground cover needed to stop at the source. When the capital city remained in the upper Yellow River, the government seemed—sometimes—more interested in considering those ideas. But once the government moved downstream, the focus shifted to coping with the results of the problem, not the sources. Huge floods in 1048 and other years devoured tens of thousands of farmland, displaced millions, and drained the imperial treasury. Only the Grand Canal made it possible to feed and supply Peking/Beijing as the land around it turned sandy and salty from inundation and sediment dumping. In 1885, efforts to keep the Grand Canal open failed, and sea transport became the only to move food to the city. Southern China refused to pay for the problems of the Yellow River.

The book is very well written with excellent illustrations, tables, and a long appendix of methodologies. It helps to have a background in overall Chinese history, but that is not needed. A bit of hydrology helps even more, otherwise the learning curve might be a touch steep in the introduction and first chapter. I found the book an easy read, but one with lots and lots to ponder and mull over. The author is even handed in her approach – people can’t know what they can’t know, and the imperial hydrocrats’ priorities made sense to them. They lacked the tools and the resources to see the entire watershed as a whole. Those who did pull back to see the larger picture lacked the will to sacrifice the imperial capital to floods in order to pour resources into the upstream lands.

The author’s use of some terms struck me as odd, enough so that it pushed me out of the story a few times. I disagree with using the term “Anthropocene,” although in this case there is some logic to it, given the importance of human influences on the life of the river. Other usages were literally correct, but jarring, almost as if the author were not a native speaker. I do not know, and it does not affect the overall readability and quality of the book.

I recommend the book to historians of water, historians of China, people interested in the interactions of government and the physical environment, and conservationists. The idea that “the problems caused by central control can be fixed by central control” rings all too true in the West today. I am reminded of an interview I did with a farmer about flooding on a small river. He shrugged and said, “Rivers flood. That’s what rivers do.” People can try to work around, with, or against floods and droughts, but only by looking at the watershed as a while, rather than reach by reach. This is an excellent addition to the literature in several disciplines.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book for my own use and received no compensation or remuneration for this review.

Well, That Was Odd

So there I was, driving back from an 0700 appointment at Ye Haus of Autos. The air temp was a blazing 21-24 F, depending on where the thermometer happened to be hiding. Thick fog covered the areas away from town, and thinner fog in town. The sky turned heavy, low gray at sunrise. The first wave of cold air had oozed in overnight.

As I drove back into town, white began to frost the sidewalks and road. Cars shimmied a little as they pulled out of parking lots and side streets. The road had become slick. This wasn’t the usual “some [unkind word] left the sprinklers on” ice on the sidewalks and gutters. The fog thickened as well, even though I was surrounded by developed areas. How odd.

Up ahead, snow slithered across the road, whirling up behind cars. Snow? Snow had not been forecast at all. I eased forward when the light turned green, and the rear of the truck shivered a touch even so. Very bad traction. I glanced off to the side, into the park, and saw the large rainwater pond there. A few ducks and geese basked on the unfrozen water. Then I turned my attention back to the road. There was my answer. Indeed, the snow disappeared and the fog thinned two or three blocks past the pond, and the pavement returned to its usual rough self.

Pond-effect snow. The water had not frozen over, and the wind was just enough to cause “lake effect” precipitation.

How it works: Fair Use under Creative Commons. Original source: https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/buffalo-lake-effect-snow-what-it-is-how-it-happens-1.2842119

This region gets orographic snow on a slightly different scale, but lake-effect isn’t as common, despite having a large lake. The canyon walls around the lake interfere with the airflow. What does happen is a north and south difference across the Canadian River Breaks, with more snow on the south side as northerly winds are forced back up onto the plains. It’s not as dramatic as Buffalo New York’s two meters (six feet) at a time, but it is noticeable if you look for it.

So I got to see lake-effect snow 60 miles or so from the closest official lake. I love Texas!

The Longest Night of the Year

“Iron for the birthday, bronze carried long,

Wood from the burning/stone out of song,

Fire from the candle-ring/water from the thaw.

Six signs the circle, and the grail gone before.”

The very first time I read the novel The Dark is Rising, I memorized the poem that comes from. I can still see in my mind’s eye the Walker, the rook’s feather that fell in through the roof hatch/skylight, the Dark Rider, and hear oh so faintly the aching sound of a tune played on an antique flute as a door between times opens and closes. Set in the Thames Valley in England, the book, and the others in the series by the same name, taps English, Cornish, and Welsh folklore in ways I’d never encountered before. They are urban fantasy before such a genre existed. Although officially classed as YA today, they are so rich that adults read and enjoy them today.

Today is the Winter Solstice. If Sommerwende is a day for parties and savoring the warmth and bounty of summer, the winter turning is a time of dread and fear. Will the sun return? Will there be enough to get through the hard, lean times ahead? The return of the sun was cause for rejoicing and wild celebration, even as people still looked over their shoulders. The weeks around the solstice held power. The veil between the worlds thinned, and the Wild Hunt rode. Ghosts walked, and the price for denying hospitality might be severe indeed. It was the time to bless the fruit trees and share the joy of the season with them (wassailing the orchards). War was supposed to stop, at least in Christendom. Since only fools, the mad, or Teutonic Knights actually wanted to fight during midwinter, the rule was generally upheld.

I’ll be out after dark, looking at stars, admiring Christmas lights, and watching Orion rise above the trees. Storms are due overnight, bringing hard cold and screaming winds. Winter does not go easily, even as days slowly lengthen.

When light from the lost land shall return, Six Sleepers shall ride, six Signs shall burn,

And where the midsummer tree grows tall, By Pendragon’s sword the Dark shall fall.

Book Review: Beasts Before Us

Panciroli, Elsa. Beasts Before Us: The Untold Story of Mammal Origins and Evolution. (NY: Bloomsbury, 2021) Kindle edition.

I’ve been reading the history of the 1970 cyclone and the birth of Bangladesh. I needed an escape. So I relapsed into some of my older interests and started reading paleontology again. In this case, a book about the pre-mammals and proto-mammals. The book only goes up to the Tertiary, and ends before mammals, monotremes, and marsupials got too dominant. It’s a great book about digging up bones around the world and how the proposed ancestors of mammals developed and succeeded (or didn’t).

Beasts Before Us is both about paleontology and the early mammal-finders, and about the ancestors of mammals. Dr. Panciroli did much of her work in Scotland, and it turns out that Scotland plays an important role in the story of how people sussed out the (presumed) origins of the creatures that became the ancestors of mammals, monotremes, and marsupials. [WordPress, “monotreme” is a word. Trust me.] Or I should say, the few exposures of the type of rock that were laid down when the area that is now Scotland had dinosaurs and other ancient life. That’s part of the problem of finding pre-mammals: they tended to be small, which means fragile and easy to overlook. Dinosaurs were large and cool, and then paleomammals became trendy (but not as much as dinosaurs). Tiny squirrel-like not-mice sorts of things just don’t have the cachet, and don’t get the funding, assuming that people can even find them.

A lot of Panciroli’s book is about tracing the development of life on Earth, how it survived multiple mass extinctions (the Cambrian Extinction, several regional die-offs, the formerly-known-as-K-T Event that ended the dinosaurs . . .) In parallel it traces how we know about the ancestors of creatures. Sometimes, all we have are teeth and a few bits of bone. In other cases, we have entire skeletons with food in the innerds, or in one case with 21 babies.

The book is very well written, although it helps if you have some biology and anatomy background, because the author defines terms once or twice, then expects you to remember them. This is more of a problem in the e-book, where you can’t go flipping back a few pages to refresh your memory. The author also jumps at times from the bones to the people who found them, especially if those people were not European or British males. I didn’t have trouble keeping track of the larger story, but the back and forth can be a bit distracting and require a momentary mental reset. Some of the newer terminology is also distracting for those of us who grew up with Precambrian, Cambrian, Tertiary, Quaternary, and so on.

Dr. Panciroli goes to great lengths to remind readers that 1) anthropogenic climate change will doom creatures, 2) that native peoples were aware of the fossils before European explorers showed up, 3) women have been involved in the field but did not get as much prestige as others, and 4) that there is no such thing as linear and clear-cut evolution based on survival of the fittest. The last chapter is about how anthropogenic global warming will cause problems, and how those few creatures that do manage to hang in there will manage to cope with the inevitable disaster. I had some trouble with her pointing out that Native Americans and Mongolians and Chinese knew about the fossils because she implies that the locals knew what the funny bones/rocks were and the Europeans ignored this valuable Native wisdom. “Dragon bones” used for traditional medicine is a rather different understanding compared to “early Sauropod that lived in a humid, swampy region and raised its young in herds.” Nor do I care to be informed several times that every time I look at a dino skeleton or mammal skeleton, it was stolen. Was it? From whom? Who owned it? Who cared about it? That part of the story didn’t make the book.

I’d recommend the book for those who are serious about the hard science of pre-mammals and their development. I learned a great deal, and enjoyed the biographies of the people who worked in the field. I skimmed or skipped over the modern environmental assumptions, and I admit I was a little disappointed that Dr. Panciroli puts so much faith in the assumption that models are truth. As mentioned above, it helps if you are familiar with taxonomy and basic biology, but it isn’t necessary to get the gist of the story.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book for my own use and received no benefit or remuneration from the publisher or author for this review.

Crossing Over a Storm

The flight to visit the northern branch of the Red family was amazingly quiet, calm, and uneventful. The forecast appeared to promise the same for the return journey, but November had the final say. A big low pressure system opted to move north rather than south, dumped rain where it was needed (but not everywhere it was needed), snow where it was not expected, and then lurked along the line of travel between There and Home.

Happily for my peace of mind, the severe weather associated with the low wrapped up before the flight, at least along that route. It would return farther to the east, but I went west. The people shepherding everyone onto the flight warned that it was both full and full of kids, so please be patient. Indeed, I’d say a third of the passengers were babies or children under age six. That’s great! We boarded under clear skies, and took off on time, heading west and south. Soon white ripples and sheets of clouds hid the ground. The plane bounced a bit, light turbulence but nothing more, and I read. The cloud deck solidified. I could see a few low mesas of cloud to the east, but nothing towering or sending out streamers of hail and snow.

The plane sank through the clouds to emerge about two thousand feet or so above the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex*. Rain had drenched the place recently, based on the puddles, streams, and wet roofs below. Grey covered the world, the usual color of early winter, at least in my mind. The usual flurry of disembarkation followed, and MomRed, DadRed, and I found our gate and threaded our way through the bustling crowd to find a place to wait. We had a few hours. The clouds outside remained low and dark, as forecast. The windsock in the distance flapped in the usual Texas way. At least it wasn’t horizontal with the narrow end flipping up from time to time. That would come later, once the low finished chugging by.

MomRed and I went in search of dinner. We found a Baskin-Robins, and I tried the Spicy-and-Spooky chocolate. Dark chocolate, ghost pepper (just a tiny bit), dark and light chocolate chunks—what more could a chocolate buff ask for? It was great, and cleared my sinuses in a good way. Mom tried that and two milder flavors. As we finished the treat, the rain began to patter down lightly on the windows and roof. Ah, November.

The captain of the next flight told the flight attendants that they’d stay strapped in for the flight. That’s usually not a great sign, but I was too tired to sweat it. Plus we were in a nice, solid 737. We had the option of altitude if necessary. The plane launched into the grey, clawing through layers of grey and white to emerge into a painfully bright yellow-gold burst of light over a white rippled world. The plains of cloud mirrored the land far below. They reminded me of sand dunes, driven by the wind from northwest to southeast. The few bumps were no worse than my daily commute, and later the captain apologized for the lack of service. The ride from Amarillo to the D/FW area had been rough, and he was concerned about a repeat. As short as the flight was, I didn’t mind the lack of snacks, and I don’t think it bothered anyone else. We were all still in a bit of turkey-torpor I suspect.

We arrived in Amarillo to a striking sunset. Gold dripped from the clouds down toward the land as the sun set. Brilliant yellow and gleaming gold, like a Baroque church altar, draped the sky and washed the ground. A pillar of light, not an ice pillar but the last bits of virga, marked the place of the now-vanished sun. The cab driver agreed that it was one of our better sunsets.

It was a good day.

*There’s a regional saying that when you die, you have to go through Dallas/Fr.Worth before you can get to either Heaven or Hell. It was most certainly true about flying anywhere until very recently.