Category for local heroes

“Our reverenced god” — Moloch and The Gun

Four dead in NorCal — at least four. Another deranged gunman, armed for combat, targeting the innocent. This one tried to break into an elementary school and slaughter children but was foiled by a lockdown.

Brian Flint told a group of reporters that a man staying in his house was one of those killed and that some of his neighbors were among those who were shot.

He said that the gunman was a neighbor and said that he had threatened him, and had stabbed another neighbor, a woman, in a dispute earlier this year, and “I believe he was on bond because of that.” The authorities said the woman, whose name has not been released, was among the deceased.

“As far as we know he was, you know, crazy,” Mr. Flint said. “He shoots a lot of gunshots at night, in the morning, like a hundred rounds.”

The word “crazy” is not strong enough. But in an evergreen essay published a few years back, Garry Wills, one of our greatest historians, found language commensurate to this on-going horror. He compared the American faith in the gun to a primitive worship of the cruelest of pagan gods, Moloch, that god that demanded the sacrifice of children.

In the New York Review of Books, Wills poured his molten rage into the forms of scholarship and logic.

He writes:

The fact that the gun is a reverenced god can be seen in its manifold and apparently resistless powers. How do we worship it? Let us count the ways:

1. It has the power to destroy the reasoning process. It forbids making logical connections. We are required to deny that there is any connection between the fact that we have the greatest number of guns in private hands and the greatest number of deaths from them. Denial on this scale always comes from or is protected by religious fundamentalism. Thus do we deny global warming, or evolution, or biblical errancy. Reason is helpless before such abject faith.

2. It has the power to turn all our politicians as a class into invertebrate and mute attendants at the shrine. None dare suggest that Moloch can in any way be reined in without being denounced by the pope of this religion, National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre, as trying to destroy Moloch, to take away all guns. They whimper and say they never entertained such heresy. Many flourish their guns while campaigning, or boast that they have themselves hunted “varmints.” Better that the children die or their lives be blasted than that a politician should risk an election against the dread sentence of NRA excommunication.

3. It has the power to distort our constitutional thinking. It says that the right to “bear arms,” a military term, gives anyone, anywhere in our country, the power to mow down civilians with military weapons. Even the Supreme Court has been cowed, reversing its own long history of recognizing that the Second Amendment applied to militias. Now the court feels bound to guarantee that any every madman can indulge his “religion” of slaughter. Moloch brooks no dissent, even from the highest court in the land.

He never mentions Allen Ginsberg, but the poet’s bitter Howl of “Moloch! Moloch! Moloch!” haunts this excoriating essay like a ghost. So many of us have had it with the bloody stupidity of American gun worship.

The answer to problems caused by guns is more guns, millions of guns, guns everywhere, carried openly, carried secretly, in bars, in churches, in offices, in government buildings. Only the lack of guns can be a curse, not their beneficent omnipresence.

Bullet emerging from a handgun, on black

Bullet emerging from a handgun, on black

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Dear Sam Shepherd I miss you already

One of the most American of us all died yesterday. Sam Shepherd, I miss you today.

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In tribute, let me quote a short piece from his countless marvelous writings. This one happens to be about his father. It’s just another of his countless little miracles of writing, another “how did he do that?’ But it’s straight from the heart.

From a daybook of sketches and road thoughts called Motel Chronicles, published 1982 by City Lights.

My Dad keeps a record collection in cardboard boxes lined up along his bedroom wall collecting New Mexican dust. His prize is an original Al Jolson 78 with the jacket taped and even the tape is ripped. Last time I saw him he tried to bribe me into taking it back to L.A. and selling it for a bundle. He’s convinced it’s worth at least a grand. Maybe more, depending on the market. He says he’s lost touch with the market these days. 

My Dad has a picture of a Spanish senorita covered in whip cream pinned above the sink to his kitchen wall. My Dad actually does. He walked me over to it and we both stared at it for a while. “She’s supposed to be naked under there, but I’ll bet she’s wearing something,” he said.  

He gave me a tour of all his walls. All his walls are covered with pictures. Wall-to-wall magazine clippings. Each picture is a point of view. Like peering out through different windows into intricate landscapes. I stared at the pictures. A waterfall with real rocks glued onto the foreground. Rocks he’d found to fit the picture. A white dog with a green fish in its mouth. Saguaro Cactus in the setting sun ripped from a 1954 Arizona Highways. An orange Orangutang fiddling with its privates. A flight of B-52 Bombers in Wing Formation. A collage of faces splattered with bacon grease.  

My Dad has a collection of cigarette butts in a Yuban coffee can. I bought him a carton of Old Golds but he wouldn’t touch them. He kept twisting tobacco out of butts and rolling re-makes over a grocery bag so as not to lose the slightest bit. He sneered at my carton of cigarettes, all red and white and ready-rolled. 

He spent all the food money I’d gave him on Bourbon. Filled the ice box with bottles. Had his hair cut short like a World War II fighter pilot. He gleamed every time he ran his hand across the bristles. Said they used to cut it short like so their helmets would fit. Showed me how the shrapnel scars still showed on the nape of his neck.  

My Dad lives alone on the desert. He says he doesn’t fit with people.  

Love that “on the desert.” So precise. So laconic.

In the book, they have some rough black and white pictures of Sam and his father looking at each other. In some of them, his dad is wearing a cowboy hat, a white cowboy hat. In some of the

In one of the pictures, his dad is wearing a cowboy hat, a white cowboy hat. In another of the pictures Sam is wearing the hat.

From today’s New Yorker, a wondrously lyric remembrance of Shepherd by Patti Smith, his one-time lover and lifetime friend. Just a slice of life here, I promise, nothing of its miraculous whole given away.

He sent a message from the mountains of Bolivia, where Mateo Gil was shooting “Blackthorn.” The air was thin up there in the Andes, but he navigated it fine, outlasting, and surely outriding, the younger fellows, saddling up no fewer than five different horses. He said that he would bring me back a serape, a black one with rust-colored stripes. He sang in those mountains by a bonfire, old songs written by broken men in love with their own vanishing nature. Wrapped in blankets, he slept under the stars, adrift on Magellanic Clouds.

Sam liked being on the move. He’d throw a fishing rod or an old acoustic guitar in the back seat of his truck, maybe take a dog, but for sure a notebook, and a pen, and a pile of books. He liked packing up and leaving just like that, going west. He liked getting a role that would take him somewhere he really didn’t want to be, but where he would wind up taking in its strangeness; lonely fodder for future work.

Smith-My-Buddy

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The genius of a place: Vaclav Cilek

Mesmerized to have stumbled upon a Czech geologist/climatologist/essayist/philosopher of place, via the great Robert MacFarlane, quoted here.

Vaclav Cilek sees the spirit of landscapes, or rather, sees the possibility of seeing the spirit, the true nature, the inner workings of landscapes (an idea with which he’s comfortable, having spent years cataloguing caves in and around Prague). One can’t summarize in a line or two the depth of his thought, one can only quote a bit, to which one wishes to return, as we return to poetry.

The Rule of Slow Approaching
The thought that you can arrive by a car, stay for a while and understand is in most places merely an illusion. Some places are shy, other places behave like a director in chief – they accept you, but you will need to wait. I know of one place (I am sure there are many, but I didn’t have enough time for them), where it is necessary to approach for three days. We never arrive to unknown sacred spaces directly, it is much better to walk slowly, to hesitate, to circle the place first and only then to approach. An unknown place is not only one that we do not know, but also one which doesn’t know us. Some places demand a great respect, but sometimes respect is in the way, and we achieve more with a smile.

And perhaps most exciting of all, Cilek although well aware of the changes to come in climate, does not appear to be a catastrophist.

My message is simple: the gods of the earth are awakening, the time of change is here, I say to myself with joy and apprehension.

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Extreme hiking in Sierra and The Guardian

We’re seeing more and better coverage of hiking in the media, I think that’s fair to say. Here are today’s examples. From Sierra (magazine) a sponsored content story about two hikers, young women, working their way up the length of the Americas. 20,000 miles. Which will take years.

The hikers’ next challenge is to make it through the deserts of Chile. In these parts, precipitation is all but unheard of. The Atacama stretches a thousand kilometers south to north, with few services or natural water sources. The hikers scoured satellite maps for water sources, and reached out to social networks to find volunteers willing to make water drops.

Other solutions are decidedly low-tech. In the Atacama, they will follow roads, not trails, Hughes says. “We have made it through two of the longest dry stretches, ninety-plus kilometers [56mi], with a large ‘water’ sign on my backpack. Again and again, the generosity of strangers has carried us through the toughest stretches.”

Before encountering the Atacama, as the two women walked north from Uspallata, Argentina, they entered the southernmost outposts of the Qhapaq Ñan, the famed Inca road system connecting a diverse empire that now encompasses six countries. The stone walls, irrigation channels, and rounded huts of the tambos (former forts and storehouses) remain. The hikers set up camp among the ruins. For Hughes, it was a transcendental moment of arrival. But she also noted, “To them, this was the end of the road, the middle of nowhere. The only Incas who made it down this far were the well-walked, outcast odd-balls—like us.”

Speaking of outcasts, the next example, from The Guardian, focuses on a legendary hiker known as Nimblewill Nomad, who has left all conventional life and family behind as he became a man who walks everywhere ceaselessly.

In his 61st year on this earth, the man who calls himself Nimblewill Nomad left home and walked a very long way through the mountains – about 10 million steps, he estimates, or 4,400 miles. Then, he took another, even longer walk. And then another one. And then another. Soon, he had given away almost all of his money and taken to walking almost year-round, roaming the post-industrial wilderness of North America in what he called “a desperate search for peace”.

Excellent and personal story from the writer Robert Moor, who for three days walked with Nomad by the roads of west Texas. Nomad no longer bothers with trails, but still finds islands of wildness along the way.

The next night, we slept in a copse of gnarled oaks beside a graveyard, a shady grove carpeted with slender, rippling leaves. It was strangely lovely. Eberhart found them everywhere, these forgotten little shards of wilderness. The problem, he said, was that hikers tended to divide their lives into compartments: wilderness over here, civilization over there. “The walls that exist between each of these compartments are not there naturally,” he said. “We create them. The guy that has to stand there and look at Mount Olympus to find peace and quiet and solitude and meaning – life has escaped him totally!”’

It’s true that nature is not “out there” as Gary Snyder likes to say, but “home.” Unfortunately, it’s also true that those in search of life at home in nature are considered “odd balls” and perhaps always have been, if Bethany Hughes and Lauren Reed’s accounting of Incan walkers can be trusted. Maybe that’s okay?

SIERRA Thru-Hiking the Americas 4 WB (1)

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The forgotten radicalism of Jack London

In the West Coast’s leading literary journal, Threepenny Review, Howard Tharsing explores the forgotten radicalism of Jack London. Like Tharsing, London knew the relentless humiliation of poverty all too personally and all too well.

Tharsing writes:

Having myself been homeless for most of 2012, I was struck by the recognition that life for the poorest among us, the unhoused, is today very much what it was a hundred years ago when Jack London wrote about his own experience of poverty. Like me, London knew the general torpor into which poverty drives you because, having no money, you can find simply nothing to do; the hostility which the comfortable direct at you, and the ease with which they pass judgment; and the small humiliations, such as the exhausting hours spent waiting in line for a bed in a shelter only to be turned away when you finally reach the front of the line because the place is suddenly full.

London’s youth sounds almost movie worthy:

In 1896, when Jack London was twenty, the San Francisco Chronicle had referred to him as “the boy socialist of Oakland.” His fame grew out of his power as a public speaker. Week after week he stood on a soap box in the little park in front of City Hall arguing that the unbridled capitalism of his day condemned a great many of his fellow citizens to lives of degradation and misery while enriching a small number outrageously. Dozens of speakers held forth in the park every week, but Jack London always drew the biggest crowds and held their attention better than any other speaker. And in 1897, when Oakland passed a law forbidding public meetings on public streets, London challenged the law by getting himself arrested for climbing on that soap box and speaking. Oakland authorities were surprised that instead of paying the fine or consenting to spend a few days in jail, London demanded a jury trial. Acting as his own lawyer, London argued that the law violated the constitution’s guarantees of the rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, and he won.

As anyone who has ever read London’s great The Road will recall, he was fearless and relentlessly active  — recently his photographs from London, focusing in part on the poor he wrote about in “The People of the Abyss,” were exhibited.

Below is a photo he took in 1902, of Spitalfields Garden in London, of homeless women sleeping.

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The Hazardous Truth wins 2nd Best Investigative Reporting in CA for 2015

Yours truly is not going to win a state-wide award, or second place, too often, so please let me say that the Ventura County Reporter and I won a Best Investigative Reporting in California, 2nd Prize, for 2015.

The California Newspaper Publishers Association only gives out two such awards in each category (in our case, for weekly papers of about 30k subscribers) so it’s pretty meaningful methinks. Here’s what the announcement looked like from my editor Michael Sullivan on fb a week ago.

CNPAawardtoKitStolz

What did I learn from the experience of trying to report on the disaster at Santa Clara Waste Water? In which over fifty people were sent to the hospital by exposure to an explosion, fire, or a toxic plume of chlorine dioxide gas? In which the entire upper management of the company is on trial on 71 felony counts?

It takes an obsession. In my case, six months worth of obsession. Here’s the story, if you haven’t seen it.

And below take a look at a picture of the disaster the morning of November 18, 2014, from county records:

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Wait — is that a Half Dome in your beard?

Happy Birthday John Muir!

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Taken wholesale for Jer Collins, a fascinating artist and adventurer, highly recommended, for his care in drawing, and for his imagination. On Instagram. Affiliated with National Geographic.

 

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A prayer for the earth: Pope Francis

On Valentine’s Day, one can’t overlook (well, one can, but shouldn’t) love for the earth from which we came.

From “Praise Be” from Pope Francis, a prayer for the earth [passage 178]:

A prayer for our earth

All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe and in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.
Pour out upon us the power of your love,
that we may protect life and beauty.

Fill us with peace, that we may live
as brothers and sisters, harming no one.
O God of the poor,
help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth, so precious in your eyes.
Bring healing to our lives,
that we may protect the world and not prey on it,
that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction. Touch the hearts
of those who look only for gain
at the expense of the poor and the earth.
Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,
to be filled with awe and contemplation,
to recognize that we are profoundly united
with every creature
as we journey towards your infinite light.
We thank you for being with us each day.
Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle
for justice, love and peace.

h/p: Eric Holthaus

Kennedy Meadows

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Storm denial: what forecasters couldn’t mention

Coincidentally two stories this week focused on how in the past scientists were not allowed to name certain types of storms. Dr. Jeff Masters, of Weather Underground fame, writes about the Great Dust Bowl, and reveals that many attempts — and many successful attempts — were made to control the reporting of the news.

Writing about Timothy Egan’s excellent book about the Dust Bowl, The Worst Hard Time, Masters notes that attempts were made to dismiss the ruinous nature of the dust storms.

In Dalhart, Texas, the town paper, the Texan, started a campaign with a tribute to the sand storms as majestic events that should draw people in to see the wonder. There was outrage that the East Coast and national press was trying to slander the town and the region – trying to discredit the people of the region by blaming them for the degradation of the land and dust in air. There were those in the East saying that those in the Dust Bowl were exaggerating their situation trying to extort money from Washington.

There was in this campaign a quest to make the dust storms majestic and divinely positive events, a rejection of both the obvious collapse of people and towns and of the increasing scientific evidence that at the very core of the collapse was the behavior of people. From the Texan, John McCarty, wrote that people should

“view the majestic splendor and beauty of one of the great spectacles of nature, a panhandle dust storm, and smile even though we may be choking and our throats and nostrils so laden with dust that we cannot give voice to our feelings.” ( The Worst Hard Time, page 185)

Amazing. But the same thing happened with tornadoes, according to a wonderful story in Atlas Obscura:

From 1887 up until 1950, American weather forecasters were forbidden from attempting to predict tornados. Mentioning them was, in the words of one historian, “career suicide.”

During that time, Roger Edwards of the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center writes, “tornadoes were, for most, dark and mysterious menaces of unfathomable power, fast-striking monsters from the sky capable of sudden and unpredictable acts of death and devastation.”

Less than confident in their own predictive powers, and fearful of the responses of a panicky public, “the use of the word “tornado” in forecasts was at times strongly discouraged and at other times forbidden” by the Weather Bureau, Edwards writes, replaced by euphemisms like “severe local storms.”

[edit]

“Forecasts of tornadoes are prohibited,” announced the Weather Bureau Stations Regulations of 1905, 1915, and 1934.

Meanwhile, Mathis, writes, throughout the ‘20s and ‘30s, “the death toll from tornadoes mounted.” People facing a rash of storms–the Palm Sunday Tornado Outbreak; the Great Tri-State Tornado–were left on their own: “There were no warnings, no time for people to seek shelter.”

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“The forks in the road”: Park Williams

Happy to say I found a way to profile the adventurous young forest ecologist Park Williams for the Santa Barbara Independent. The on-line version is the complete version of what I wrote; the print version is somewhat shorter. But let me add a couple of images and notes, because this story has a lot of different angles.

First, here’s a pic (if I can find it) of the way fog characteristically forms on Santa Cruz Island:

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Under those fog banks grow Bishop Pines — and nowhere else on the island.

These pics came with the help, may I add, of researcher Sara Baguskas, who presented a paper on the subject of Bishop Pines and other trees on Santa Cruz Island at the AGU science conference this past December, and passed on her slides.*

But that’s background. Here’s the story.

A sense of play and a willingness to take big chances have always been important to Park Williams.

Although he is one of the most honored young scientists to attend UC Santa Barbara in recent years, winning a Graduate School Researcher of the Year award at UCSB and an Ecological Society of America award for young scientists in 2013, as well as becoming a fixture at the prestigious Tree Ring Lab of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Williams didn’t plan to become an ecological scientist, and he didn’t have his heart set on attending UCSB.

Born in l981 and raised near Sacramento, he went to UC Irvine for his B.S. degree but had a difficult time choosing a field after graduating. He applied to Berkeley, to Davis, and to Santa Barbara, each in different fields, from atmospheric chemistry to geology to forest ecology (at UCSB).

“I applied to UCSB, but I thought I was going to Berkeley because it had a bigger name. But then I visited Santa Barbara and talked to Chris Still, who later became my graduate advisor,” he said. “After talking to him, I accepted their offer the next day.”

Still, who now leads an ecosystem research lab at Oregon State University in Corvallis, remembers working with Williams well. They bonded over a fascination with cloud forests — moist tropical or subtropical forests filled with low-level clouds.

“Park is a terrific scientist, but he’s also a person who loves life and has a great time, which is a balance not all scientists have worked out,” Still said, mentioning a wild and crazy charitable project Williams launched after Hurricane Katrina.

Amazingly, a little of that direct-from-the-time is available on line through archives kept in UCSB’s geology division. Here’s the link.

In fact, there is an on-line available picture of Park in this wild and crazy phase of his life.

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And how does Park explain his outfit? From September 21, 2005:

“Thanks for noticing,” Park Williams said when I commented on his outfit. Well, it’s hard not to notice a strapping weightlifter when he’s wearing a pink tutu, pink hair curlers, and pink slippers—and sporting a new moustache. No, he’s not campaigning for gay rights or doing field research on an arcane aspect of behavioral geography. As Park, a grad student working on his PhD in Climatology, puts it, ”In an attempt to spice up my life and do my part to save the world at the same time, until November 1, 2005 I will be accepting and acting upon dares and double-dog-dares for monetary donations that will go directly to the Hurricane Katrina Red Cross relief effort.”

Here’s what happened:

After New Orleans was devastated late in the summer of 2005, Williams set out to raise money for the Red Cross. He launched a site called Daring is Caring and took on dares for contributions to the cause. “It was really a hilarious thing he did,” said Still. “Basically he enlisted a bunch of his friends to help him out and solicited dares for pledges to the Red Cross.”

Williams began by singing karaoke rap songs down on State Street but soon graduated to wilder gigs, wearing tutus, delivering pizza around campus in a Speedo, and taking “a double dog dare” from a local radio show, which included going to a high-end pet store — now defunct — on State Street dressed only in a bathing suit and covered with dog treats and allowing the dogs to lick him clean.

(A reliable source told that Williams raised considerable funds with the help of a radio station — into the thousands.)

In an interview at the enormous fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco in December, Williams admits that at first he had a little too much fun at UCSB.

“I think it is a party school, at least compared to some of the other UCs,” he said. “And I think undergraduates especially need to be careful to be sure they can succeed in an environment where there’s a party going on almost all the time. It took me a couple of years.”

Williams initially wanted to do research into the cloud forests of Costa Rica, but he couldn’t find funding and ended up working in cloud forests much closer to home — on Santa Cruz Island.

“I don’t think I appreciated at the time how beautiful it was and what an opportunity it was to be living in Southern California but isolated from the gigantic human population,” he said.

Although he spent most nights in the field station on the western side of the island, the work often called for camping and rising at dawn to check the harp-like machine constructed to harvest fog water. By comparing the chemical composition of fog water to that inside the trees, the research group discovered how dependent the tree was on fog — about 10-15 percent it turns out.

So, it seems, Williams went from a wild and crazy party life at UCSB, to pursuing his science into beauty and isolation on Santa Cruz Island and, somewhat to his own surprise, discovering a whole new world out there.

This world includes some tough news, an example being how devastated Bishop Pines were on the islands by long (five-year) droughts, as of 1987-l991, and the most recent drought, which is also going into its fifth year. The land is changing profoundly out there, even without direct human intervention.

Here’s a slide from Sara Baguskas’ research, linked below.

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Let Park explain:

Williams went on to compare tree ring growth with records of fog occurrence kept by local airports and showed that the trees do grow significantly more in years with foggy summers. The rare pine species also depend on winter rain, and droughts — such as the drought of 1987 to l991— led to mass tree mortality.

Williams went on to pore over decades of cloud records collected at airports since the 1940s to see if fog behavior has been changing, possibly as part of global warming.

“I was really surprised what a clear story came out of the data,” he said. “Out of that jumps this correlation between the urbanization of Southern California and the warming which comes with that.”

In a widely publicized study last year, Williams showed that in large urbanized areas the warming associated with the “heat island effect” means that marine moisture condenses into clouds at higher altitudes than it does in wild environments, reducing shading and fog and raising temperatures on land in cities.

“These low clouds are really important regulators of drought at the Earth’s surface,” he said. “For people, it’s not such a big deal [because they have alternate water sources], but for ecosystems the fog water is all they’ve got during summer.”

Williams has gone on to become something of a wizard at crunching vast datasets. He has worked with noted researchers in the Southwest, including Nate McDowell and Craig Allen, showing how imperiled forests in the region are by climate change. With a team led by Richard Seager, he studied global warming and drought in California, showing that about 15-20 percent of the drought’s impact can be attributed to human-caused warming.

“Global warming has significantly enhanced an existing trend towards fire weather in the Southwest,” he said. “It’s tough watching this happening, and it makes for a lot of sad stories, but maybe this work will be of benefit to western land managers and allow them to peer into the future.”

As for advice Williams would give to younger researchers, he turns contemplative. “Don’t sweat too much about the decision of what to study,” he said. “Just go and work very hard. Do something you’re interested in, and don’t worry too much about the forks in the road.”

And then, the way I would like to present the image:

And then he grinned.


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[*Baguskas presented a paper at the AGU on fog and mass mortality among pines at the AGU, filling in for a colleague, but it happened not to be the paper available from the conference for linkage.]

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