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Transient Landscapes

Transient Landscapes: Insights on a Changing Planet

Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    Transient Landscapes
    Book Description:

    Landscape-the unique combination of landforms, plants, animals, and weather that compose any natural place-is inherently transient. Each essay inTransient Landscapesintroduces this idea of a constantly metamorphosing global landscape, revealing how to see the ubiquity of landscape transience, both that which results through Earth's natural environmental and climatological processes and that which comes from human intervention.The essays are grouped by type of environmental change: long-term, large-scale transformation driven by geologic forces such as tectonic uplift and volcanism; natural variability at shorter time scales, such as seasonal flooding; and modifications resulting from human activities, such as timber harvest, land drainage, and pollution. Each essay is set in a unique geographic location-including such diverse places as New Zealand, Northern California, Costa Rica, and the Scottish Highlands-and is largely drawn from Wohl's personal experience researching in the field.A combination of travel writing, nature writing, and science writing,Transient Landscapesis a beautiful and thoughtful journey through the natural world.

    eISBN: 978-1-60732-369-3
    Subjects: Biological Sciences, Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-xii)

    • [Introduction]
      (pp. 1-8)

      The short essays collected here record the times and places in which I have been privileged to feel the spirit of delight over the course of many years of exploring the world’s natural places. There are no natural places in the sense of true wildernesses that have never been altered by humans, for humans now indirectly alter the entire planet with global warming. In writing of natural places here, I describe places no longer primarily used by humans for living or gathering resources—places that are not primarily urban, suburban, or farmlands. In some cases these regions come as close...

    • Solid as a Rock? Geological Transience Out Far and In Deep
      (pp. 9-11)

      What are the most common similes in the English language for permanence and endurance? Old as the hills. Solid as a rock. Despite drawing on geological features, these similes are framed in human lifetimes. Most hills are old compared to a lifespan of seventy or eighty years, and a great many rocks change very little over a few decades. A few decades is all we have to directly experience the world, but we can infer a long history of change in the rocks and the hills; sometimes we can actually experience change if we get caught in a flood, an...


    • [Introduction]
      (pp. 13-14)

      Edges are inherently landscapes of change. Think of how we employ the wordedgein our language. To be “on edge” is to be at a threshold of emotional change into anger, frustration, or nervousness. If you cross the edge of a forest into a meadow or the edge of a river into the water, you enter a different environment. Early cartographers depicted a planar Earth with edges defined by fearsome creatures: “Here be dragons.” Edges create boundaries and frontiers that we sometimes fear, as in the “howling wilderness” of the first English settlers in eastern North America. Sometimes we...

    • Balance of Power: Camp Creek, New Zealand
      (pp. 15-20)

      Life exists within a thin film balanced between endless atmosphere above and immense depths of rock below. We delineate the natural world using boundaries at the surface: the shoreline at the edge of the ocean or the lake, the abrupt gentling of topography at the foot of the mountains, or the opening of the horizons passing from woodland to steppe. Sometimes these boundaries reflect the underlying dynamics of Earth itself, but sometimes changes in the landscape obscure boundaries below, as where the boundary between the Indian and Eurasian Tectonic Plates lies in the midst of the spectacularly crumpled terrain of...

    • Facing the Subduction Zone: The Lost Coast of Northern California
      (pp. 21-24)

      The coast is often foggy in summer. Thick, grayish-white mist spreads from the ocean toward the land like a creeping giant, fingers outstretched to poke into valleys and curl around hills. Cold water just offshore, flowing southward down the coast as the California current and welling up from the depths, feeds the fog. The days begin with fog, have a clear interlude, and end in fog. I am here during my first summer of graduate school as a field assistant for my friend Dorothy, another graduate student. During the interlude between morning and evening fog, we survey the heights of...

    • Himalaya: The Weather Makers
      (pp. 25-28)

      There are receptive landscapes that store the sediments carried from distant highlands by wind and water. These can be landscapes of great fertility where thick soils support diverse biological communities. And there are mountainous source landscapes across which rock weathers to sediment. The mountains deflect moisture-bearing air masses and become the source of storms, where avalanches, landslides, and floods violently strip away the sediment accumulating on the mountain flanks and carry it elsewhere. Thus do mountains repeatedly shake off the sediment and living creatures clinging to their flanks. Biological and human communities need special adaptations to survive such rough treatment....

    • Tortured Landscape: Mount Unzen, Japan
      (pp. 29-34)

      On a map, the islands of the Japanese archipelago form a gentle curve off the eastern coast of Eurasia. On the ground there is nothing gentle about these mountains that rise where the Pacific Tectonic Plate is forced into Earth’s interior beneath the leading edge of the Eurasian Plate. Japan stands facing another subduction zone, on the far edge from California of the Pacific Ring of Fire. Kyushu is the southernmost of the large islands that make up Japan, and volcanoes create Kyushu’s highest peaks, conduits for the magma generated as the subducting Pacific Plate melts.

      I spend six months...

    • Paradox: Sechura Desert, Western Peru
      (pp. 35-38)

      Westward, the Pacific Ocean stretches for thousands of miles across a substantial portion of the planet’s span. Eastward, the land rises steeply to the crests of the Andes and then drops away equally steeply to the lowlands of dripping wet tropical rain forest that stretch across 3,000 miles to the Atlantic Ocean. Between these reservoirs of blue water in the ocean and green water in plants lies the Sechura Desert—less than 90 miles wide but 1,200 miles long—a region so dry that most of the 6–8 inches of annual precipitation comes from fog. The fog is the...

    • Hell, 100 Years Later: Katmai National Park, Alaska
      (pp. 39-44)

      We cross the River Lethe under low, dense clouds that hide Mount Cerberus, Mount Katmai, and adjacent peaks. I am here with ten others on a Sierra Club backpacking trip, and today a cold headwind and intermittent rains chill us despite the exertion of hiking with heavy packs. A century ago, this was a dense temperate rain forest. Thick mosses covered the ground beneath the spruce trees, and beavers dammed the sinuous rivers. Now it is a Dantesque hell, and we cross broad alluvial fans on which not even lichens grow.

      Following a week of severe earthquakes, Novarupta Volcano exploded...

    • Juxtapositions of Violence: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona
      (pp. 45-47)

      Before dawn, the calls of a coyote pack resemble the voices of children making outlandish noises just to hear themselves. Listening carefully, I differentiate yelps, barks, and howls that grow fainter as the pack moves on. The surrounding plants and boulders develop firmer edges and take shape as the stars fade. In the half light, some of the mountains evoke lumps of dough kneaded into fantastic forms. Others have the classic triangular outline of Sierran peaks. They stand purple in the dim light, their rugged valleys and ridges softened by shadows. The mountains rise abruptly from the basin floor.



    • Buckeye Creek Cave, West Virginia: What Lies Beneath
      (pp. 51-54)

      Rain splattered loudly on the roof overnight and the morning is cool and damp, with pockets of fog in the valleys. Walking the road down the steep green hill to the cave, clad in coveralls and a helmet with headlamp, I feel like a Cornish miner going to work. I am here with my graduate student Greg, an avid “caver” who is examining cave streams for his dissertation, and his undergraduate field assistant, Ben. Buckeye Creek Cave has an easy entrance, a dark slit in the rock out of which cool dank air blows. It looks ominously like the sort...

    • Stepped Landscape: Augrabies Falls National Park, South Africa
      (pp. 55-60)

      Morning comes to our campsite in Augrabies Falls National Park in a manner familiar to me from other deserts. In the cold before sunrise, a leopard gecko lies unmoving, its patterned skin vivid against the reddish-orange sand. Hues of burned orange dominate the landscape, products of the iron oxides released by the bedrock as it weathers. Views are long and uncluttered in the clear air, and there are none of the insect calls or rustling plant sounds of greener landscapes. The stifflimbed desert plants stand unmoving in the light breeze. I pick out spiky kokerbooms and acacia and thorn trees...

    • Islands of Rock: Kakadu National Park, Australia
      (pp. 61-64)

      Arnhem Land lies near the coast where the central portion of northern Australia bulges into the Arafura Sea. Deep in the tropics, it was named in 1823 for a Dutch ship that sailed by without stopping to land. The region remains sparsely populated, a place where Aborigines can still gather bush tucker and walk about. Flying over at night during the dry season, I spot an occasional bushfire glowing like a coal in the blackness below, as if Earth’s surface had ruptured and given birth to a new volcano. It has been a long time since energy from below disturbed...

    • Retreating Ice: Mackenzie River, Canada
      (pp. 65-69)

      The little town of Hay River, Canada, has its own leaning tower. As I walk around the town I look back at the building, wondering if the subtle tilt is real or a trick of perception. It’s real. The sixteen-story tower, tallest building in town, lists gently to one side where thawing of the underlying ice has caused the soil to subside. Portions of Hay River are underlain by permafrost, permanently frozen ground that stretches northward more than 2,000 miles to the Arctic coastline. Permafrost is the rigid boundary underlying this landscape. The thick layer of ice a few inches...


    • [Introduction]
      (pp. 71-72)

      I have always liked the titles of Thomas Wolfe’s novelOf Time and the Riverand the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon book,Time and the River Flowing. The titles evoke change and the passage of time, as well as Heraclitus’s saying that you cannot step twice into the same river. A river provides an intriguing blend of change and consistency: water constantly flows downstream, yet the river remains in place each morning, each year, and each decade when you return to its banks. Rivers thread my life and work and my perceptions of landscape, all of which I could aptly...

    • In Transit: La Selva Biological Station, Costa Rica
      (pp. 73-76)

      The cool, clear water of the stream reflects a rapidly shifting mosaic of varying shades of green. The tallest trees rise 200 feet above the stream, and a thousand intertwined layers of leaves and branches catch any sunlight passing beneath the uppermost canopy. Along with graduate students Dan, Jaime, and Kris, I am studying the distribution and effects of logs in headwater streams at the La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica. Thirteen feet of rain fall here each year on average, and this wealth of moisture supports dense masses of greenery. Plants do not just grow from the soil...

    • Summer’s Abundance: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska
      (pp. 77-82)

      Solstice on the Kongakut River in Alaska’s Brooks Range, at the east end of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: flying in, I’m amazed at how much water is scattered about this dry landscape. Even on relatively steep slopes, sunlight glints off little pockets of water, as though glass shards lay scattered thickly across the hills and valleys. Big rivers sweep unimpeded back and forth across the broad valleys between lakes large and small. Ponds and tiny pools of water occupy even the slightest depressions where the ground has subsided over thawing permafrost. Tiny dots of white resolve into Dall sheep...

    • Survival Strategies: Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska
      (pp. 83-88)

      I sit on a low hummock of tundra, looking across the Anaktuvuk River toward a nameless peak: another solstice in the Arctic, this time as part of a Sierra Club backpacking trip. The horizon changes rapidly as a cold wind drags along banners of low clouds. I look across the river to the massively draped velvety folds at the base of the peak, now glowing in sunlit shades of olive, umber, and emerald, like an Emily Carr painting. Above the softer-looking lower flanks rise dark gray talus slopes and cliffs of bare rock with snow lingering in the crevices. In...

    • Differing Scales of Transience: Wulik River, Alaska
      (pp. 89-92)

      I hurry to set up my tent before the light drizzle turns into harder steady rain. Backpacking along the Wulik River at the western end of the Brooks Range in late July with other Sierra Club members, I give up hope of staying dry. Instead, I learn to take advantage of the slightly less wet intervals for accomplishing tasks such as pitching or dismantling my tent. The Wulik is north of the Arctic Circle, so I come prepared for cold wet weather as the Arctic summer approaches its swift early end. My expectations are met. The only flesh I expose...

    • Transient Rivers: Bungle Bungle
      (pp. 93-96)

      The air around us vibrates with heat. The gray and orange striped rock walls rise steeply beyond the dry channel where scouring sediments have rubbed the rock a raw whitish-gray. Nothing but us and the flies moves beneath the intense sun of midday. They are only house flies. They do not bite or sting, but, like every other living thing during the dry season, they seek out moisture. They crawl incessantly about our eyes, noses, and mouths. A wave of the hand sends them buzzing off, briefly. A head net keeps them away but also stifles the minimal breeze that...

    • Amazon I: Flood Pulse of the World’s Greatest River
      (pp. 97-102)

      The Andes Mountains form an abrupt wall at the western end of the Amazon basin. From their heights the land falls away steeply to the flat green lowlands where rivers sweep back and forth in extravagant loops, trailing secondary channels and sloughs in their wakes. The greatest river of them all, the Amazon, flows more than 2,300 miles across this landscape created by rivers before it reaches the Atlantic Ocean. My friend Bob Meade, who in his retirement lectures about geology and hydrology on natural history boat tours down the Amazon, invites me to come along on one of these...

    • Amazon II: Várzea of the Rio Napo
      (pp. 103-108)

      From the big ship, we go out in small inflatable rafts to wind in and out of narrow channels beneath the canopy of green. Along the Rio Napo we follow progressively more mysterious routes where there is no obvious channel but instead water spilling everywhere and flowing among the tree trunks. Flowers bloom in cascades of color or single flashes, and I imagine the Gardens of Babylon. Gentle perfumes waft by on the warm moist air that envelops like a blanket. Immense kapok trees form an umbrella-like canopy over the other trees by branching in several directions at the same...

    • Amazon III: Igapó of the Rio Ampiyacu
      (pp. 109-114)

      Afternoon along the Rio Ampiyacu. Once again we take to a small inflatable raft and follow green tunnels, this time into the secret world of the igapó, the flooded forest of the black water rivers. The delightful wordigapósounds like something a child or Lewis Carroll might make up, and I enjoy saying it aloud. Looking down into the tea-colored water of the Ampiyacu, I see the tops of submerged shrubs like the roofs of a drowned city. Clouds and overhanging vegetation reflect perfectly in the still water. The air is sweet and soft as a wash of subtle...

    • Black Water Swamp in Autumn: Congaree National Park, South Carolina
      (pp. 115-118)

      The swamp is rising again. The water table lies so close to the surface here that four inches of rain spread over several hours are enough to put the forest floor under water. Pale muddy water spills out from the main river across the adjacent floodplain, following the sinuous, linear depressions of sloughs left behind when a meander bend was cut off during an earlier flood. Clear water dark as black tea seeps out from the base of the bluffs bounding the floodplain, following the most subtle dips and troughs of the land, pooling here, flowing swift but shallow there....

    • Flowing Rivers: Missouri River, Montana
      (pp. 119-122)

      It is late June, and the prairie grasses of eastern Montana are green from recent rains. As the road descends into the town of Fort Benton, I see the Missouri River flowing wide, high, and brown between a narrow fringe of cottonwood trees. I have come with a group of friends to paddle the Missouri from Coal Banks down to Kipp State Park. This is a designated wild and scenic portion of the river, and we hope for wild scenery.

      The first day foreshadows succeeding days of intense heat barely relieved by occasional stiff head- or crosswinds. Turbid brown water...

    • Negev Desert, Israel
      (pp. 123-126)

      The Sonoran Desert is lush with dozens of varieties of cacti and succulents. Elemental blocks of color—vertical cliffs of red sandstone beneath azure sky—characterize the high desert of the Utah canyonlands. The crystalline rocks of the Sinai Desert form orange-colored mountains rugged as a clenched fist. By comparison, the Negev Desert appears subdued. Weathering and erosion dismantle sedimentary rocks that come in hues of cream, tan, and brown, leaving great piles of broken blocks everywhere and a landscape that seems to be a massive crumbling. The desert is nearly completely devoid of vegetation, leaving the skeletal structure of...

    • Motion and Fixity: Shortgrass Prairie, Northeastern Colorado
      (pp. 127-129)

      October rain. In twenty years of class field trips to the Pawnee National Grassland of northeastern Colorado, I have never seen it rain before. The vans sway rhythmically across the slippery silt of the unpaved road. A coyote silently watches us pass. We park at the edge of a steep escarpment and hike down a dry channel to a badlands sliced by the vertical cuts of a dozen arroyos. The landscape into which the channels are cut appears deceptively flat. Driving out, what seemed to be a roadside light rose steadily as we approached until it became an airplane beacon...


    • [Introduction]
      (pp. 131-132)

      The most readily apparent forms of landscape transience are those caused by people. We clear the native vegetation and replace it with crops, pastures, and cities. We alter the flow of rivers with dams, diversions, and levees. We drain wetlands, pump groundwater, and trap the beavers and remove the beaver dams that create over-bank flow and wet meadows. We pump such enormous quantities of vehicle and industrial emissions into the air that we change atmospheric chemistry and alter global patterns of precipitation and temperature. The effects of our activities on landscapes are ubiquitous at the start of the twenty-first century,...

    • Terra Nova: Hawai’i
      (pp. 133-138)

      We fly for hours above the blue Pacific, turbulence rocking the plane just enough to keep us seated. As we begin to descend, I see whitecaps on the waves below. We descend to the anomaly of tiny flecks of land amid the vast Pacific Ocean, far from any plate boundary. Relatively few places like this exist. Here the upward flows of heat and magma from Earth’s interior are sufficient to break through the cold, brittle crust and bubble up in massive volcanoes. Immediately above the hot spot, the island of Hawai’i is young and growing. The islands to the northwest—...

    • Old-Growth Forest Stream, Colorado Front Range
      (pp. 139-142)

      An old-growth riverside forest is extraordinarily messy. In the relatively dry climate of the eastern face of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, a tree can remain standing for a century after it dies. Once the tree falls over, it can take another 250 years to completely decay. Meanwhile, the trees continue to fall, sometimes catching on living trees and toppling only partway, sometimes taking other, smaller trees with them. Branches take a long time to decay, too, so each fallen or partially fallen tree bristles like an enormous round hairbrush. The resulting threedimensional tangle is extremely difficult to walk through....

    • Vernal Pond, Northeastern Ohio
      (pp. 143-146)

      This is a childhood memory of a place now paved and developed and a father now dead.

      Winter is a time of withdrawal in a cold, damp climate with little sunshine. Being outdoors requires effort to stay warm, to get about in the deep wet snow, or to accomplish what is needed in the few hours of daylight. The excitement of Christmas past, you search for signs of returning light and warmth long before the equinox. This is why I am fond of skunk cabbage, despite its name and homely appearance. It is the first plant to bloom each year...

    • Watershed: Upper Rio Chagres, Panama
      (pp. 147-152)

      Flying out of Panama City by helicopter, my colleagues and I pass over agricultural lands where the forest has been cut and burned and the hills scraped bare to red soil. Cattle graze on grasses sprouting quickly after timber harvest. Further out stands the pristine rain forest of the Upper Rio Chagres, where the untracked enchanted broccoli forest—the lush, multi-textured, multi-hued rain forest—thickly covers the nearly vertical slopes except for the occasional red scar of a recent landslide. Birds flash through the canopy below the helicopter. I spot a bright green parrot, then a toucan following its outsize...

    • Refuge: Coweeta Forest, North Carolina
      (pp. 153-156)

      Beyond the borders of the forest, cars pass swiftly along the winding hilly roads. The drivers have sought to remove themselves from the crowded, harried pace of life by buying secluded property in the North Carolina hills and building a dream house. But they must drive from the isolated house to work, to the grocery store, to all the developed places that tie us to a crowded, harried life.

      Here in the forest it is quiet. Sunlight cascades down through the canopy, touching first the tulip trees. The tall, straight, slender trunks of the tulip trees reach far above the...

    • Altering the River’s Pulse: North Fork Poudre River, Colorado
      (pp. 157-162)

      The first stop is always the gate. As I step out of the car, the wind instantly reminds me that I have left town. Most days, a forceful presence knocks me partly off balance. The wind has a long fetch here, blowing across miles of high, gently undulating grasslands. I twirl the combination lock and wrestle with the heavy, awkward catch as I swing the gate open to drive through.

      I close the gate and drive down the familiar gravel road. On the western horizon, the Medicine Bow Mountains rise white into the blue sky. In spring and early summer,...

    • Rivers and Oceans: Broome, Australia
      (pp. 163-166)

      I float in a tropical sea. As I sit with my toes perpendicular to the incoming swells, the motion around me creates the feeling of racing along while I sit unmoving. My coppery toes, deeply tanned by weeks of tropical sunlight, poke up through the turquoise water.

      I have been working in the interior with my graduate student Susan, studying the sediments left by big floods along the Margaret and Fitzroy Rivers and the little creeks of the Bungle Bungles. It is winter but stiflingly hot and dry. Winter and summer have little meaning here: wet and dry seasons are...

    • Beaver Meadow, Rocky Mountain National Park
      (pp. 167-172)

      My foot sinks abruptly into the soft mud and I lurch forward, trying in vain to arrest my fall by bracing against the raft of small sticks floating on the dark water before me. My graduate student Lina tries, not too hard, to stifle her laughter. The raft disperses and I catch myself on a low wall of logs and mud across the channel—a beaver dam. Like the other dams that wind through this wet meadow, the dam is abandoned, slowly decaying and dispersing in the swift, cold waters of each year’s snowmelt flood that surge across the broad...

    • Twilight of the Mountain Glaciers: Sermiligâq Fjord, Greenland
      (pp. 173-178)

      My first view of Greenland as the airplane descends toward the small village of Kulusuk sends the “oh, wow” factor nearly off the scale. Below one side of the plane lie fleets of icebergs shining white on the blue sea. Below the other side lie dark, rugged mountains hung with glaciers and snowfields. As we get closer to the ocean, the field of icebergs resolves into small, narrow pieces of ice almost like dolphins or seals in the water. Among them float larger vertical-sided icebergs that resemble battleships or cruise ships or even high-rises floating in the sea. Even larger...

    • Deep, Dark Forest: Temperate Rain Forest of Northwestern Montana
      (pp. 179-182)

      When I was a child camping with my parents, my father used to start each night’s story with “Once upon a time, a traveler got lost in a deep, dark forest.” Despite the vague menace implied in those words, I was asleep within minutes. I think my father never actually made up a complete story, let alone many stories, for I never could stay awake long enough to let the story really develop. We have always liked forests, my father, mother, and me, but most of those we encountered in Ohio and the dry lands of the western United States...

    • Vanishing Wonderland: Great Barrier Reef, Australia
      (pp. 183-186)

      Three months of camping and hiking in the dry interior of Queensland in northeastern Australia. Three months of digging into sand banks in search of prehistoric flood deposits, brushing at the flies that swarm ceaselessly from first light to dusk, sweating, drinking sun-warmed water, and eating dehydrated food. Now, work done, a day of cool water, sea breezes, and relaxation, a day of snorkeling above the famed Great Barrier Reef.

      My grad student Susan and I leave early in the morning from the harbor at Cairns, where white boats lie moored among blue sea, green mountains, and blue sky. The...

    • Rio Pequeño? Big Bend National Park, Texas
      (pp. 187-190)

      From the rim trail of the Chisos Mountains, I look south toward the Rio Grande across a huge expanse of ridges, peaks, canyons, and basins. The chaotic jumble of topography makes me think of a coastline where successive incoming waves interfere with outgoing waves to create a mixture of abrupt troughs and crests. Below, a dry streambed drops suddenly over the cliff, a common occurrence in this terrain. I am here during spring break purely for vacation, to camp and hike, relax a little, and see what I can see. But of course I cannot ignore the features that always...

    • Rannoch Moor, Scottish Highlands
      (pp. 191-194)

      The snowy mountains shine with a reflected light that is the more exciting for having been absent for weeks. The sun will not rise far above the horizon here at 56°N on this morning in late January, but its presence invigorates me after long days of gloomy clouds. A light cape of snow mantles the rounded tops of the surrounding peaks, thinning along the gray granite of their steep sides, forming white streaks where streams have etched the slopes. Above the peaks the sky rises into progressively deeper hues of blue. Insubstantial puffs of cloud hint that the fine weather...

    • Wild Gardens: The Moorlands of Northern Britain
      (pp. 195-198)

      From the top of Coledale Beck, I can see northwest across the Solway Firth to the hills of Scotland. In the other directions lie the highest peaks of the Lake District—Skiddaw, Scafell and Scafell Pike, and Helvellyn—as well as Bassenthwaite Lake and all the other bodies of water known as mere or simply water, as in Buttermere or Derwentwater. I can take in this broad panorama because the clouds are high and scattered widely in the blue sky and there are no trees to impede the view. Environmental historians describe the sweeping open stretches of moor all around...

    • Missing Pieces: Italian Dolomites
      (pp. 199-204)

      Driving north across the Po Plain, we are on the African Tectonic Plate, but the scenery meets my expectations for the Italian countryside: white houses with orange tile roofs surrounded by vineyards. As we continue north, we meet the African Plate’s tumultuous boundary with the European Plate. Mountains rise abruptly from the flat plain. We drive upstream along the Piave River valley, which becomes progressively narrower until gray- and buff-colored dolomite cliffs shadow the valley bottom. Larch, spruce, and a few deciduous trees create a thick forest cover despite the steepness of the valley walls. Clouds drift through, obscuring the...

    • Shrinking Ecosystem: Kruger National Park, South Africa
      (pp. 205-210)

      The rhino abruptly turns to face our car and aggressively paws at the ground, raising a small cloud of dust. What has been an intriguing spectacle suddenly turns threatening as I realize that the animal is larger than our car and the three of us crammed inside it. We turn the car jerkily around in a series of hasty maneuvers and retreat. I have some sense of how threatening these enormous animals can be to humans unsheltered by twentieth-century technology.

      After a month of field research along the Orange and Vaal Rivers, I am visiting Kruger National Park with my...

    • Y2K in the Thar Desert, India
      (pp. 211-216)

      The Thar nestles into a crook in the massive band of the Himalaya. To the north-northwest, the Indus flows from the Hindu Kush and the Karakoram Range, where peaks 28,000 feet high snag the prevailing winds and wring moisture from them to feed glaciers and snowfields. To the northeast, the rampart of the Himalaya and the Tibetan Plateau curves southeast and then east, feeding the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Irrawaddy Rivers. The meltwater from snow and glacial ice bypasses the Thar, whose name means desert. All the greater and lesser rivers curve away from the desert as though magnetically repelled.


    • Mountain Pine Beetles in the Colorado Front Range
      (pp. 217-220)

      The sun shines below, but it is dim as twilight beneath the snow cloud near the summit. The outside thermometer reads 17°F as I park at the trailhead: not nearly as cold as some of the temperatures in which I have skied, but cold enough. I start up the trail toward Blue Lake. The finely crystalline snow is ideal for gliding, but thickly strewn pine needles roughen the surface. Clumps of needles lie about, as though the trees are animals shedding their winter coats. But winter is just starting, and new needles will not grow on the sickening trees. Burrowed...

    (pp. 221-224)

    Spring is on the move around my home in Colorado. Newly falling snow and gale-force winds hide the mountains on the western horizon in a smear of white. Down on the plains the landscape is starting to green. Tender new blades of grass emerge among the stiff dry stalks that persisted through winter. The branches of the big old cottonwoods that curve above us lose their angularity as buds appear along them. We are having our typical spring yo-yo weather—beguilingly warm one day, snow flurries the next, with strong winds keeping each warm and cold front moving smartly along....

  9. Selected References
    (pp. 225-234)
  10. Index
    (pp. 235-236)