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  • February 28th, 2020

HERE THEY COME AGAIN!

By Joel M. Vance

 

The Missouri legislature is considering HJR 100 which would if installed in the state constitution give the authority to oversee any agency regulation to what amounts to a super regulatory panel called the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR for short). In essence, it would mean that all fish, wildlife and forestry regulations would be subject to tinkering by this political entity. It would strip the Conservation Commission from its present authority to create regulations, an authority  which voters installed in the state constitution 83 years ago.

 

The bill currently is in legislative limbo after a public hearing heavily attended by conservationists outraged at the legislature’s blatant attempt to destroy the state’s fish wildlife and forestry program. HJR 100’s sponsor, Representative Robert Ross a Republican from the heart of the Ozarks, also sponsored a resolution inviting Donald Trump to deliver the State of the Union address from the Missouri capitol. That didn’t work out but perhaps Ross can persuade the Disney Corporation to send Goofy next year.

 

Legislators have been sharpshooting at conservation’s constitutional autonomy ever since 1936 and it has become an almost annual exercise in political banditry by greedy legislators to overturn it, eternally miffed because they can’t get their avaricious mitts on conservation money and rulemaking. Placing the authority to distribute conservation money without political interference has been vital and effective and replacing that authority with nonprofessional conservation managers is, on the face of it, destructive and without benefit to the common good of the state’s almost universal affection for a clean and diverse outdoors.

 

I wrote the following article in 2006 for the Missouri Conservationist magazine as a memoir of my involvement with the effort to pass a 1/8 cent sales tax constitutionally dedicated to fish, wildlife and forestry conservation. And other than updating a few spots, it seems as applicable and timely today as it was 14 years ago and, for that matter, 83 years ago when, by initiative petition, voters approved constitutional autonomy for the Conservation Commission, ensuring its financial independence from legislative tampering.

 

So here is what I wrote:

 

It was the longest night of my life. It lasted seven years. In the small hours of the morning, when even the best news doesn’t seem that great, we waited for final election results. Talk had dwindled to a minimum, mostly discouraged.

 

“I thought we’d lost it,” said Ed Stegner, who then was the executive secretary of the Conservation Federation of Missouri. He was one of the many who had given their heart and soul to the 1976 Conservation Sales Tax Campaign that began in 1969.

 

For me, passage of the Design for Conservation (the name of the program that the tax would pay for) was the end of the toughest half dozen years of what would be more than 20 years with the Department of Conservation.

 

The pressure began almost the day I started working at the Conservation Department in 1969. I had joined what then was the Information Section.“Have you heard about the Leopold Report?” asked fellow writer and editor Mark Sullivan. “You’d better bone up on it—you’ll be involved.”

 

That was an understatement. In the next half decade, along with many others in and outside of the Department, the campaign to realize a new conservation program would become almost an obsession with us. It was not a job; it was a calling.

 

The Department had been studied for a year by three consultants, with the fee paid by the Edward K. Love Foundation of St. Louis. The consultants were Starker Leopold, Irving Fox and Charley Callison.

 

Starker Leopold was the son of Aldo Leopold, considered the greatest philosopher/conservationist ever. Starker had deep ties to the Department. He’d been a graduate wildlife student in Missouri and had done turkey research on Caney Mountain Conservation Area. Irving Fox was a water resources expert from Wisconsin. The third team member, Charley Callison, was the executive vice president of the National Audubon Society and one of Missouri’s own. They looked at what the Department was doing in fish, wildlife and forestry conservation—and, more importantly, what it should be doing.

 

The trio concluded that while the Department had done an exemplary job of providing for hunters and anglers, it had neglected the majority of Missourians who didn’t hunt or fish. It was, the study concluded, a lack of money, not a lack of desire. And the flip side was that hunting and fishing areas were being used for many activities other than those two things, but the people doing the using were paying none of the upkeep.

 

The Leopold team concluded there was an obligation to provide and manage areas for everyone, but no money to do it. So, a conservation program for the future needed to find a funding source and then develop a program that offered something for everyone. It sounded like pie in the sky.

 

But there still were pioneers of the 1930s petition campaign that had given Missouri conservation its constitutional protection. There was also a new breed of younger, but no less dedicated conservationists. They believed that Missourians had faith in the program they’d created in the Depression days and would support a giant leap forward.

 

Conservation Department Director Carl Noren recognized that conservation in Missouri was stalled without additional funding. Every division and section wanted to do far more but had no money or staff to do it. The education program was small. A Natural History Division didn’t even exist. Compared to other outdoor states, Missouri was public land-poor.  Conservation agents literally qualified for food stamps. Missouri, with a history of cherishing conservation, dating to the 1936 constitutional amendment, was running way behind.

 

But you can’t just ask people to trust you with their money. You have to tell them where the money will go. That’s where the dreamers became planners. My boss, Jim Keefe, was among the handful of thinkers and wordsmiths. He’d been editor of the Conservationist since 1957, and his monthly column was the essence of the Department’s direction and philosophy.

 

The September 1971 issue of the Conservationist contained the text of the Leopold Report and the Department’s proposals in response. We called it “Challenge and Response.” The Leopold study provided guidelines, which were that people, especially urban people, needed places to go and Missouri didn’t have enough public land.

 

The dreamers, as inventive as they were, ran smack into hardheaded realists among citizen conservationists. “Yes,” they said. “all well and good, but we want dollar signs attached to these ideas.” The result was The Citizens’ Committee for Conservation, an invaluable group that provided the feedback necessary to learn not just what the Leopold study experts thought the Department should be doing, but also what the people of Missouri thought should be done. We put figures to the ideas and called it the Design for Conservation. But it all depended on money.

 

The first try was in 1972, a petition for a soft drink tax. The petition drive gathered the most signatures ever on a citizen initiative. But none counted because conservationists proved better at taking care of outdoor resources than they did at drafting a petition. The proposal lost a court challenge because it lacked the simple words, “Be it hereby enacted….”

 

It was like being Santa Claus and getting stuck in a narrow chimney, managing to struggle free, then dropping the gifts down the chimney… only to see them burn up because someone forgot to put out the fire. The Citizens’ Committee, both young and old, took a deep breath and decided to try it again, this time with a valid petition and a different funding source— a general sales tax.

 

No one person deserves more credit than Doris “Dink” Keefe, Jim Keefe’s wife. Mother and homemaker her entire life, she decided that someone needed to organize the petition drive. It was light years from anything she’d ever done, but she volunteered full time, unpaid, for a year at the Conservation Federation office, organizing petitions. There were thousands of signatures to check in nine congressional districts.  After the first debacle—leaving out four words—the second try had to be meticulously checked, and Dink was the checker. There were no phony signatures, nor mistakes. She made sure.

 

Charlie and Libby Schwartz put pictures and sound to my script for a movie called Design for Conservation that showed to groups all over the state. Carl Noren and Ed Stegner traveled many miles together, speaking to any group of any size. Carl would outline the plan, the Design, and Stegner would explain that a vote for the tax would ensure the plan.

 

We traveled the state talking about the Design. Everyone knows now that the one-eighth cent sales tax for conservation passed, but until those wee hours in early November 1976, we didn’t. We stirred restlessly at the Ramada Inn in Jefferson City, a television set muttering in the background with election news. Local druggist and hunter Jim Whaley showed me a pair of English double-barreled shotguns that had bluing deep enough to go swimming in. Lovely as they were, I couldn’t concentrate on anything but that television set with its talking heads and updated vote totals.

 

Hour after hour it looked grim, but this was such a great program and Missouri such a conservation- oriented state that I couldn’t believe what we’d worked so hard for could fail. A political consultant and friend of conservation had told Ed Stegner that the more voters who turned out, the more likely it was our tax would fail. It was a record turnout, and the governor, now retired Senator Kit Bond, lost his bid for re-election (he would win a second term four years later). He had been a staunch friend of Missouri’s outdoors for his four years in office.

 

There was so much at stake. The entire future of Missouri’s conservation program rested on what the voters decided that night. I doubt we would have tried a third petition drive, no matter that “third time is a charm” is supposed to be true. It started to turn from dark to daylight, but gradually the votes in favor of the tax climbed, and finally it was over. We had won.

 

So many dreams were part of the Design for Conservation; so many now-legendary conservationists had contributed their wisdom. Most have since died, but their names and faces are as close to me as those of my family: Jim and Doris “Dink” Keefe, Mike Milonski, Charlie Schwartz, Carl Noren. All are now gone. They have been named to the Conservation Hall of Fame, along with Ted Scott, chairman of The Citizens’ Committee. Ed Stegner is gone as is Libby Schwartzwho died on her 101st birthday.  Few remain among the living handful of those who thought it out and made it happen. The effort included folks from every corner of the state. Many carried petitions. Others spoke to any group that would listen. Most important, they voted.

 

When the word finally came, conservation had won. Missourians had decided to tax themselves to ensure the diversity and health of Missouri’s woods, waters and wildlife. It was and is a landmark effort, envied by every other state agency, and still is unique in its constitutional authority.  The conservation sales tax has endured for 44 years and has brought Missourians an extensive program as well as new places to hunt, fish, hike, birdwatch and whatever else folks do outdoors.

 

What sold the Design was reaching potential “yes” voters with a twofold message: first, that they should tax themselves to protect Missouri’s natural resources for their children and grandchildren, and second, that they should do it for themselves. It was an appeal both to altruism and self-interest.

 

It took people with a rare combination of foresight and luck to get it before the public, and it took a voting public with an even more rare confidence in one of its governmental agencies to make it happen.

 

The sun was coming up when I finally fell asleep. My last thought before I drifted off was We won, we really won…and then I amended it: No—Missouri won. It still is winning, 44 years later.

 

A postscript: contact your local state representative and senator by phone or email to register opposition to HJR 100. Contact information can be found online at www.ogi.oa.mo.gov.

 

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  • Blog
  • February 21st, 2020

THIS LITTLE PIGGIE WENT TO HOG HELL

By Joel M. Vance

 

It has been 58 years since my late and dear friend, Mitch Jayne, brought to life one of the last, if not the last Osage Indian in a memorable book titled “Old Fish Hawk.” Mitch, born in North Missouri, emigrated to the Ozarks of southern Missouri where, basically, he spent the rest of his life— as a one room school teacher in the waning days of an old life that depended on the bounty of the steep oak and hickory forested hills (“them hills ain’t so high, but the hollers sure are deep,” said the old timers).

 

Mitch found celebrity as a member of the fabled bluegrass band, the Dillards, equally famous as the Darling family on the old Andy Griffith television show. Mitch saw his book brought to movie theaters as a feature, oddly filmed in Canada, many miles from the Ozarks setting of the plot. But if the setting was not authentic, the main character, Old Fish Hawk, a remnant Native American, actually was an Indian— Will Sampson, a Creek Indian from Oklahoma (who also portrayed a memorable character in the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”).

 

Old Fish Hawk adroitly deals with a black bear that kills his dog, and then rids the backwoods neighborhood of a savage wild boar. Perhaps Mitch was having a bit of porcine prescience when he wrote the book because a half-century later the Ozarks not only has black bears, which were virtually absent in the nineteen sixties, but also the rugged hills today are plagued by, not one, but altogether too damn many feral hogs. Aside from occasional garbage can plunderers, bears have not become a problem in the Ozarks or elsewhere in Missouri, but feral hogs are a major threat to the rural environment, especially South of the Missouri River. Maybe not wild boars but the legacy of those frighteningly ferocious old world animals are the forebears (or forepigs?) of today’s rampaging hog herds. Often called “Russian” boars, the animals actually are Eurasian and once were native to Britain, so we can’t blame the Russians for the current foreseen porcine plague.

 

The problem is not confined to the Ozarks—feral hogs are increasingly prevalent in other states as well. As an introduced species they rank right up there with starlings, English sparrows, and other immigrant critters far less welcome to environmentalists than human immigrants are to Donald J “send ‘em back” Trump. Feral hogs occur in 38 states with populations on the rise. Texas, not only can lay claim to bigness in many things, it also leads in feral hog population with an estimated 2,600,000 of the estimated 45,000,000 feral piggies nationwide.

 

So far, efforts to control the expansion of feral hogs are complicated by the fact that the pigs are prolific, control methods are difficult, and uncooperative hunters, eager to add wild pig to their life list of trophy kills, have actually released fresh stock into the woods. Pigs enjoy sex about as much, if not more than their human counterparts, and give the fabled prolific bunny rabbit a run for its money when it comes to reproductive success. Given that a sow can have one or two litters a year, and that some of the up to half a dozen piglets will be females also capable of breeding the overall population is exponential, an explosion potentially capable of becoming an environmental disaster.

 

A few years back, an Ozark fishing guide, supplementing his summertime income by guiding hunters, offered to take me on a wild pig hunt. The idea was initially exciting—the opportunity to shoot an historic and fabled game animal that, at the time, I knew nothing about. I knew there were feral hogs in the Ozarks, but not that they were a problem. I didn’t take the guy up on his offer, and found later that he had been arrested and fined for poaching. I suspect perhaps he was among those backwoods types who encouraged pig prolificacy as a moneymaking venture and the hell with whatever damage it causes to the environment.

 

Wild boar hunting dates back almost to the moment when man, in his eternal search for food, began experimenting with ways to reduce wildlife to table fare. By the Middle Ages, boar hunting was elevated  almost to the equivalent of intrepid knights battling mythical dragons.

 

Given the once prevalent situation of open range in backcountry America, the introduction of Eurasian swine was akin to inviting the Russian mafia, bent on seduction, into the local debutant’s ball. After generations of injudicious crossbreeding between local piggies and their brawny and uncouth invaders, the result was what we have today—a feral hog.  As a bit of porcine trivia, a group of feral hogs is known as a sounder. Pigs are intelligent animals—probably close to the intellectual level of dogs. They definitely are smart enough to realize that when some hunter fatally shoots one among the sounder, it’s time to move on and become elusive. That’s why hunting or indiscriminate shooting is not an effective population control method.

 

Pigs, like humans are omnivores, eating anything that doesn’t eat them first. And, in feral hogs, that includes farm crops, food needed by resident wildlife, and even fawns or other small animals unfortunate enough to get in the way of foraging pigs. A sounder of feral hogs is the swine equivalent of a battalion of Roto-Rooters, leaving in its wake a ravaged countryside.

 

Wildlife introductions into the United States have not been notably successful. Florida is battling the unwelcome addition of pythons to its wildlife roster, and many large rivers are becoming clogged with Asian carp. Any introduced species inevitably competes with resident wildlife for food and housing—not to mention the possibility of introducing disease. And what fisherman wants feral hogs drinking from and wallowing in his favorite trout stream? For that matter what woodland hunter—deer, turkeys, squirrels or other wildlife dependent on nuts and other forest food for survival—welcomes feral hogs as competitors with native game? And certainly no farmer tolerates a sounder of feral hogs rooting up crops or eating the plants that are intended for people food or for sustaining domestic animals. Even if feral hogs don’t directly destroy crops, their rooting for anything edible turns topsoil into Erosion City.

 

Missouri conservationists have gotten proactive on feral hogs, forming what they call the Missouri Feral Hog Elimination Partnership—a group of agencies and organizations that are as they say “dedicated to the elimination of feral hogs from the state”  about 30 of the state’s 114 counties now are infested with feral hogs to the tune of “tens of thousands.”

 

Rather than shooting random hogs, the Conservation Department as the lead agency, recommends and practices trapping hogs and so far in what it calls Area One the group eliminated nearly 1000 feral hogs in 2017 and 18. The Department reports “once all known feral hogs are eliminated from the area, staff will monitor the area to ensure no hogs were missed and no hogs are illegally released.” The pig plan has closed most public land to feral hog hunting, and helps private landowners in hogicide on their own land. “It will take support and cooperation from all Missouri landowners to eliminate feral hogs from the state,” says the Department’s annual report.

 

Mike Bowdenchuk, from Texas’s wildlife agency, told Missouri lawmakers bluntly, “you can’t hunt your way out of this problem.” He said Texas had tried the hunting solution but only encouraged a hunting industry and the state now has millions of the destructive animals that caused an estimated $89,000,000 in damage in 2019 alone. He said “Allowing people to hunt them, putting a meat market in there and not regulating the movement of pigs allowed us to go from a few thousand pigs to 2,600,000 to 3,000,000 pigs. That’s a train wreck.”

 

Almost predictably, a relative newcomer to the Missouri House of Representatives, Chris Dinkins, representing a Southeast Ozark district, has become the champion of the feral hog hunters by introducing a bill that would decimate the state’s landmark conservation sales tax which finances what is universally acknowledged as the finest conservation program in the nation. The tax, constitutionally dedicated and insulated from legislative interference, passed in 1976 after a successful initiative petition drive put it on the ballot, much to the consternation of the state’s perennially greedy legislators who resent any money they can’t finagle.

 

Since the passage of the sales tax, the money has financed programs too numerous to list here but all to the benefit of Missouri’s outdoor oriented and enthusiastic citizenry. There have been numerous attempts by the legislature to overturn the will of the people, but all have failed. But you never know—in an era of political upheaval anything is possible. That a small group of special interest hog hunters, of whom my poaching lawbreaker of years back likely is symptomatic, could overturn nearly half a century of the country’s best and most progressive wildlife program seems impossible…. But even the possibility is frightening. All conservation groups, as well as other interested agencies agree that trapping is the key to elimination of feral hogs and that hog hunting is a highway to hog hell.

 

Mississippi State University has detailed instructions for building various hog traps, ranging from box and wire cage enclosures to larger ones intended to trap sounders. The drawback to a box trap or wire trap is that it is single piggy intended and both time and labor intensive. The obvious advantage to a sounder trap is that it captures several piggies at once and Mississippi State is sympathetic enough to include instructions on how to approach the trapped animals without traumatizing them and then how to send them to hog heaven “humanely”. The Mississippians even include instructions on type of ammunition and gun to use, as well as where to place a lethal bullet—and caution that you shouldn’t poke the gun into the enclosure where an aggressive or panicked animal can jostle the gun so that you wind up shooting yourself or a fellow trapper. Good advice all around.

 

Museums specializing in antiquities showcase weapons intended in medieval times to dispatch Eurasian boars which can be as formidable as any of the fabled dangerous animals of Africa. A true Eurasian (Russian if you prefer) boar has a hide that is almost impervious to any small caliber bullet or anything but the keenest arrow, as well as a pair of tusks fully capable of disemboweling anyone or anything foolish enough to get too close. In the Middle Ages, boar hunting consisted of boar hounds driving the animal to bay after which hunters on foot would use lances or mounted hunters swords to kill the beast. It was a sport mostly confined to the nobility, so cherished that kings and princes forbade peasants from fencing their cropfields to keep marauding hogs out. Today, one Internet site recommends fencing your garden plot, either with or without electricity, with a fence at least three feet high to prevent agile piggies from invading. I can’t even keep box turtles from somehow finding a way through the fence around our garden. I can’t imagine that a determined hog wouldn’t find a garden fence a minor inconvenience en route to a dinner appointment.  Favored boar hounds sometimes were clad in suits of armor to save them from goring by an enraged boar. Today one of the most effective’s feral hog hunting hounds is (are you ready for this?) The dachshund.

 

Once a feral hog has been dispatched to piggy paradise, the question becomes what to do with the body. One suggested remedy is simply to leave it where it drops, relying on scavengers to pick over the remains until nothing is left. But there are obvious drawbacks to this solution— dead hogs are less than aromatic, the family dog is every bit as attracted by defunct  hog as is the local coyote or buzzard. A second solution, favored by animal control folks is to bury the carcass. Labor-intensive, but effective as long as scavengers don’t dig it up.  One recommendation is for composting, although I think I would have second thoughts about snacking on root vegetables raised on dead hog compost soil. Or, you can call a dead animal disposal operation to give you that out of sight out of mind feeling.

 

People talk about “being in hog heaven.” But, as far as the state of Missouri is concerned it’s more like “being in hog hell.” Some folks actually eat feral hogs, ignoring the possibility of disease such as trichinosis (cooking to an internal temperature of 160° supposedly kills potential pathogens). Suckling piglet might well be a delicacy, but references say that cooking old boar both smells and tastes pretty rank. I think I’d rather leave a defunct feral hog as a scavenger smorgasbord or find a couple of shovels and a willing helper to inter the defunct porker.

 

Afterword:                                

 

I commented to representative Dinkins by email concluding , “stay out of conservation areas where you clearly don’t know what you’re talking about and where you have no business being.” I did not mean she has no business being in the legislature although we probably can argue about that point too, but that she has no business claiming expertise over conservationists with long experience in combating the feral hog situation.

 

 I received the following gracious (sarcasm intended) reply: “Unfortunately, you did not leave your phone number for a discussion with your comment so I suppose I must respond on here. As the old saying goes, “Follow the Money”.  I guess that also applies in this case too seeing MDC buttered your bread for so many years. As to your statement, “where you have no business being.” I am a Representative of the people. The people I represent have a different view than you and I plan to continue to represent the people that elected me. When they go to the cemetery and see their loved ones grave destroyed they do not think MDC is so wonderful. When their livelihood and their ability to provide for their family is at stake, they do not think MDC is doing such a wonderful job. So until you come to my district and see and talk with the people, I respectfully request that you keep your biased opinion to yourself and I will continue to work for the people who sent me to do just that.”

 

I doubt that those who voted her into office were exclusively hog hunters.  I can’t even begin to analyze her loopy justification that she represents her constituents (who, according to her, have loved ones all apparently buried in one grave). And it’s all the fault of the Conservation Department. I worked 21 years for the Department; she has represented her district for two. And the Conservation Department, proposed by citizen initiative and affirmed by all the state’s voters, has existed for 83 years. Do the math.

 

Forgive me if I consider this just another attempt by a Missouri legislator to overturn the will of the people of all the state who created the Department funding and independence by initiative petition in 1936 and again in 1976 specifically to put wildlife management in the hands of professional wildlife managers and insulate it from the uninformed and ignorant grasp of  greedy legislators.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  • Blog
  • February 14th, 2020

TO BEE….OR NOT TO BEE

By Joel M. Vance

 

I was maybe 6 years old, it was a pitch black night, cold in winter time, no time for a runty little kid to be out way past bedtime. But I was with the big men, mere shadows in the night, our path lit by a coal oil lantern (that’s kerosene for you city folk) —those being the days before rural electrification brought artificial lighting to the gullied hills of Chariton County, Missouri. We (they) were on a time-honored mission in rural Missouri. We were going into the nearby woods to cut down a bee tree and rob the resident bee colony of its winter food.  I may rot in hell for that environmental crime, but what did any of us know at the time?

 

After they had cut down the tree, someone handed me a small chunk of honeycomb and I can remember vividly the incredible sweetness of the honey there in the frigid winter night. Although refined cane sugar long since had become available to those whose idea of formal dress was a clean pair of Big Smith overalls, honey still, as it had been in pioneer times when it was the only available sweetener, still was a cherished accompaniment to the morning’s scratch made biscuits.

 

Missouri and the then territory of Iowa once nearly went to war over bee trees, the so-called Honey War of the early eighteen hundreds. A Missourian cut down some bee trees in territory disputed between the two political entities and both sides bristled at one another on another wintry night but ultimately stood down from armed conflict and today the border fight has been long settled, but the fight over honeybees is just beginning.

 

The little insects with the fiery butt ends today are the most prominent of all the pollinating insects in the United States, although they are immigrants, brought to this country by other immigrants—sorry, Donald Trump– yet another example of how immigrants have benefited our nation. Without pollination, the food crops we depend on for survival would wither. If you took sperm laden man out of the equation, leaving only women to populate the planet, you’d probably have a better society for a while, but it takes two to create and maintain civilization. That is equally true of plants which rely on insects carrying pollen from male to female vegetation to raise the veggies, fruit, and other food products that sustain us.

 

The Environmental Protection Agency which we all know as the EPA has been a mixed blessing ever since its creation in the early 1970s during the Richard Nixon administration. Under the Trump administration, the EPA has become a joke agency mostly dedicated to undoing what over the years it developed as some notable environmental protections.  All too often it has been become the fox in the chickenhouse with a political hack administrator who has seemed more interested in protecting the polluters than the environment. 

 

                The EPA currently is hanging fire on a ban of the pesticide clothianidin which the EPA approved for use on plants in 2003 even though its own scientists objected.  In brief, clothianidin is accused of causing “colony collapse,” an epidemic that has resulted in more than 30 percent of honeybee colonies to die off each year since 2006.  Europe’s leading food safety organization, the European Food Safety Authority equivalent of the EPA, has termed the pesticide an unacceptable danger to honeybees.

 

                And in case you’re tempted to reply, “Who cares,” the quick answer is “you’d better.”  Without bees to pollinate crops that provide just about every vegetable and fruit food humans eat, it would be a hungry time a’comin’.  Not to mention the incredible economic tangle that would result if corn and other crops lose their source of pollination.

 

                 Honeybees are the most efficient pollinators that exists.  Wind will scatter pollen, but it’s fickle and indiscriminate.  Bees are specific, flying from one blossom to another, with the precious pollen clinging to their legs. 

 

The threat is not just pesticides that kill pollinating insects; it also is herbicides that kill the flowering plants where bees and other pollinating insects gather pollen. Once we had a thriving colony of butterfly weed, a beautiful orange blossom milkweed beloved by butterflies and other insects. We have never sprayed anything anywhere close to those plants, but over the years they have dwindled to a single plant. A partial solution is to buy and plant butterfly weed and other native plants from nurseries that specialize in native plants, shrubs and trees.

 

Honey bees expanded to North America with human-assisted migration during the 17th century. Many Europeans fleeing wars, poverty, land laws or religious persecution brought extensive beekeeping skills to the United States during the next two centuries. Meanwhile, English colonists took bees to New Zealand, Australia and Tasmania, completing human-assisted migration of Apis mellifera around the globe.

 

Beekeeping became commercially viable during the 19th century with four inventions: the moveable-frame hive, the smoker, the comb foundation maker, and the honey extractor. These inventions still support commercial apiculture. A fifth invention, a queen grafting tool, allows beekeepers to control genetic lines.

 

 

                If the EPA does not take immediate action to ban clothianidin, it will be several years before it reviews the pesticide again.  And several years is just about what it has taken to create an environmental catastrophe in the first place.   Given another five years or so and we could be out of honeybees. 

 

                Clothianidin is more and more pervasive and the only American studies as to its longterm safety are from the industry that produces it, termed by the European FSA as “deeply flawed.”  Bobwhite quail eggshell thickness was affected when the test birds were given a diet consisting of relatively large amounts of clothianidin-treated seeds.  If you remember back a half-century, we almost lost the bald eagle because of eggshell thickness problems, due to so-called “hard” pesticides.  Will clothianidin be the next insidious pesticide threatening the Midwest’s most popular game bird?

 

                Or is it already?

 

                Dan West, who owns an apple orchard near Macon, Missouri, and who also has about two dozen honeybee hives to pollinate it, is convinced that clothianidin is bad news.  And Macon County is Missouri’s largest ethanol processor and ethanol depends on corn….which is a crop where clothianidin has become endemic.  For years West has rescued bees who have taken up residence where they’re not wanted, especially in houses. Rather than exterminating the invaders, West extracts the colony and relocates it to his orchard where the newcomers not only pollinate the apple orchard but also provide honey which West sells from his store in Macon. “I’m still beekeeping and rescuing bees but not as much as I have in the past,” he says.  “Gotten wiser and don’t like heights as much either.  The beekeeping rescues have turned more to catching swarms, which is kinda of an art in itself.  Caught 12 or so last year  and have a friend who caught 22 or so.”

 

He says, “Easier in the long run and still a joy to see them take off and produce a full colony and maybe even some honey their first year.  Our area of North Central Missouri is still doing well in an overall sense.  The bees are still plagued by pests including mites as well as the small hive beetle. The small hive beetle although I personally have little problem with them are particularly sinister in as much as they will hide in the hive and mimic a hungry bee, getting the passing bee to feed them directly. They lay eggs in open brood and also in honey and if the colony is not strong, the colony will soon perish.”

 

If nothing else the threat of honeybee extermination should emphasize how historically important honey has been to mankind, both as a sweetener and as a homeopathic remedy.  Honey as medicine is almost as old as bees and human ailments. The human digestive system must convert cane or other sugar, but the bee already has done that in making honey so people with digestive disorders could benefit from honey by cutting one step out of the process. 

 

                Many a country kid has had a ragged cough soothed by a judicious mixture of honey and whiskey.  Which of the ingredients did the most to mellow the kid is open to debate, but in addition to kiddy cocktails, honey has been used as an ointment for rashes and burns.  Despite its long tradition the jury still is out as to whether honey really cures or ameliorates anything.  But it tastes so good!  A south Missouri bee enthusiast once discovered a bee tree filled with honey that tasted exactly like bourbon whiskey.  He theorized the bees had been feeding on residue from an Ozark moonshiner’s still.

 

                At the other end of the bee-honey production line, bee venom is widely used to treat arthritic pain.  Vermonter nurse assistant Reyah Carlson is an advocate of apitherapy which she used to treat Lyme disease.  “I don’t claim cures,” said Carlson, who said she had been stung 25,000 times. “In some cases, it’s ongoing treatment for life. For many diseases including multiple sclerosis and lupus, it’s a great way to keep things in check and under control.”  But some are violently reactive to insect stings to the point of death–anaphylactic shock.

 

Honey use in food is thousands of years old. The Egyptians flavored baked goods with honey but, disconcertingly, also used it in embalming corpses.   Many tea drinkers, including me, sweeten tea with honey, as do many others trying to wean themselves from processed sugar.  Honey is mainly fructose, about 38.5 percent and glucose, about 31.0 percent.  There are small amounts of other compounds hailed as antioxidants.  

 

                The late Senator Henry (Scoop) Jackson proposed  legislation that President Nixon signed in 1970.  The law and several other environmental revolutions came into being in the 1970s—notably the Clean Air Act extension and a number of clean water acts.  All had their direct roots in the tumultuous 1960s when the nation, led by activist youngsters, decided enough was enough on civil rights, voter rights, and the environment, and became a force too strong to resist.

 

                The first Earth Day in April, 1970, was the catalyst.  Another great Senator (what ever happened to those) Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, created the Day as a way to focus attention on an environment gone haywire and 20 million Americans celebrated it.  That many voters will get Congress’s attention every time and presently there was an agency dedicated to cleaning up our fouled nest.

 

                It has not been an easy row to hoe.  The EPA is under direct control of the White House and thus its dedication seems to reflect the philosophy toward environment of whoever sits in the Oval Office.  Some have been notably hostile to environmental regulation and even the most liberal often have been lukewarm when it came to regulating industry or farming.

 

In April 2008, the Union of Concerned Scientists said that more than half of the nearly 1,600 EPA staff scientists who responded online to a detailed questionnaire reported they had experienced incidents of political interference in their work.  The EPA has repeatedly ignored scientists’ warnings and Americans’ urgings to ban some pesticide use, citing lack of evidence. It’s pretty scary when the watchdog bites the farmer rather than the fox in the chicken house.

 

                And that brings it full cycle to clothianidin, one crop farmer’s pest control tool.  Studies show that pesticide dust released at planting time may persist in nearby fields for several years and be taken up into non-target plants, which are then foraged by bees and other insects.  Dan West says,  “Overall I’m not terribly worried about our bees here in North Central Missouri.  Even though we are a farming area and pesticides are the norm with farmers the bees seem to overall be holding their own.”

 

                In the seven decades or so since the end of World War II, farming has increasingly relied upon pesticides and herbicides to the detriment of native plants. Call them weeds if you want, but many of those unwanted plants are precisely what bees and other pollinators need for survival.

 

Some solutions? Abandon the decades old philosophy of “clean farming” which mandates that a landowner scrub his holdings of anything resembling a weed. Encourage instead leaving native plants that offer pollinators safe haven. The state of Minnesota is pioneering incentive payments to homeowners to plant their lawns with pollinators.

 

The late Don Christisen, prairie biologist for the Missouri Conservation Department, once got crossways with  officials in his home city of Columbia when he allowed his lawn to go unmowed. To the city, it was unsightly and an affront to their idea of beautification. Don countered by having his lawn declared a prairie research area, immune from mowing. Instead, he showcased a mini native prairie, exactly what Minnesota is proposing its landowners should do and get paid for it.

 

It’s encouraging that Minnesota’s pioneer program is a start toward solving the impending crisis posed by the loss of pollinating insects. If we could as a society discourage weed growth and insect invasion by chemical solution, perhaps we can, with research and dedication, reverse the problem we created and bring back an environment rich with pollinators and pollinating insects.

 

Maybe the little insects with the stiletto tails will persist in spite of the scary array of threats to their very existence—and, by extension, our existence.

 

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  • February 4th, 2020

HAMBERDERS FOR THE KANSAS CITY, KANSAS, CHIEFS

By Joel M. Vance

 

The Kansas City Chiefs rallied in the fourth quarter Sunday night to win the Super Bowl 31-20 over the San Francisco 49ers and when they went ahead for good I let out a yell that could have been heard in Kansas City more than 100 miles distant. That game was all that is good in sports, no matter that the players are making millions of dollars and I’m not. The Chiefs lived out a Horatio Alger story, underdogs, coming from behind in super dramatic fashion to give coach Andy Reid, a beloved figure by players and fans alike, his first Super Bowl victory and all was well in the world.

 

And then Donald J Trump, who thinks Puerto Rico is not part of the United States and Puerto Ricans are not United States citizens, and who once promised a border wall between New Mexico and Colorado under the apparent impression that New Mexico is part of old Mexico, managed to throw dirt on the Kansas City win with this tweet: “you represented,” he told the Chiefs via Twitter, “the great state of Kansas and in fact, the entire USA, so very well. Our country is proud of you!”

 

Probably someone delicately pointed out to the Dolt in Chief (because you don’t want to piss off the great leader) that the Kansas City Chiefs, in fact, play in and represent the state of Missouri, not Kansas. To a Missouri sports fan, in anything concerning sports, Kansas is the arch enemy and has been since the Civil War when there was considerable bloodshed on both sides of the state line. Since then, spilled blood has largely been confined to sports venues, but the animosity remains.

 

Missouri reaction to Trump’s in-your-face insult to the Chiefs and Missourians in general was summed up specifically by former Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill succinctly: “it’s Missouri, you stone cold idiot.” She was replaced in the Senate by Josh Hawley, a Republican lightweight butt kisser who, as far as I have seen, has yet to comment on the inexcusable gaffe by the geographically challenged  presidential dumbass. I suspect his fawning Republican devotees will ignore this unforgivable insult to the state’s beloved football team and probably will vote for the idiot once again in November, just as they did more than three years ago. For a few brief hours, Missouri was a red and white state (the colors of the Chiefs) not the politically red one, a sorry distinction it shares with Kansas.

 

Perhaps Trump had visions of moving Arrowhead Stadium from Metropolitan Kansas City across the state line to Kansas. After all, he once proposed moving the capital of South Korea, Seoul, when he found out how close it is to the border with North Korea. If you can move a city, why not a simple thing like a football stadium?  And this is a wizard who can with a single stroke of a Sharpie, move a hurricane one or two states inland. A little thing like the Super Bowl is simple, like his mind.

 

Now that football has faded into thoughts of spring training and other sporting events of the warmer days, my memories return to fleeting glimpses of my misbegotten decade as a sports editor of a small Midwestern daily newspaper. Those days will not come again and in some cases, I’ll be just as happy. There was, for example, the night when the temperature was 17° and my town, Mexico, Missouri, was playing Jefferson City, the state capital team and also the reigning state champions.

 

Predictably, as I tried keeping score, prowling the sidelines with numbing feet, fingers without feeling, the Jays romped over Mexico like a high school version of the frequent national champions of the day, the Oklahoma Sooners who exploded at the snap of the ball with frightening speed and ferocity. Mexico didn’t have a chance and, when I covered Oklahoma versus the Missouri Tigers at Memorial Stadium, Missouri didn’t either.

 

Mexico football has improved since then; the Jays have declined somewhat in the years subsequent to the retirement of legendary coach Pete Adkins (who racked up eight state championships and405  Victories in his career at Jefferson City high school. Missouri football also enjoyed its best years in that decade from 1959 to 1969 under the leadership of another legendary coach, Dan Devine.

 

And the Tigers have been off and on since Coach Devine left to guide both the Green Bay Packers and Notre Dame. But not before he left me with one of the most memorable moments of my sports reporting days. I don’t remember who the opponent was, but I certainly remember what happened. Dan Devine had a sweet personality, likable and quiet until something triggered a volcanic temper that lurked, always alert, just below his otherwise calm demeanor.

 

I was on the sideline just at the edge of the coach’s box, the space along the field where the coach was allowed to roam freely and speak words of wisdom to the officials. One of those officials called a penalty on Missouri and that pushed Devine’s button. Clutching his ever present clipboard, Coach Devine charged onto the field apparently intent on mahem. He was pursued by a large assistant coach and corralled before he could commit officialcide. I always suspected that coach rather than being hired to supervise a component of the football team, was only there on salary to keep Devine from committing a capital crime.

 

Devine grudgingly turned back toward where I crouched, clutching a Speed Graphic camera, a Tyrannosaurus rex of photography, as relevant to today’s digital marvels as a model T Ford is to a Lamborghini. Devine’s expression looked remarkably like the dark green cloud that looms on the western horizon just before a funnel cloud drops down to the ground. And then, perhaps 15 feet in front of me, a frame filling moment for the 4 x 5 Speed Graphic large format, Devine spiked his clipboard, slamming it to the turf with Gallic rage. All I had to do for a front page prize-winning photograph was press the shutter release button on the camera. I didn’t. He scared the crap out of me and I missed the shot of the century.

 

Ah, sweet memory!

 

Often, during Missouri football games, I was not on the sideline but up in a pressbox, long since replaced by a modern facility, but then a rickety structure, always seeming on the verge of toppling over the back side of the stadium wall to the parking lot far below. A row of sports reporters from various newspapers around the state huddled over score books, typewriters, and telephones, depending on what form of communication with the home base they used. We were lavishly supplied with food by the University in the form of processed cheese and white bread sandwiches and warm Pepsi-Colas. I suspect today’s underpaid and overworked sports reporters eat far better than we did but, hey, it was free and no reporter I ever knew would turn down a free meal, no matter how humble it was.

 

I much preferred to patrol the sideline to be closer to the action although there were inherent risks— a fan, probably a diehard alum, who I think had inhaled more than a little Tiger spirit suffered a head on collision with a running back who careened out of bounds about five feet from me. The back bounced up, ready for battle once again, but the unlucky fan slept on, colder than that night when Mexico played Jefferson City. Another time, a running back sailed out of bounds and nailed an official, breaking the zebra’s leg. So I turned down stale cheese sandwiches for the perils of the sideline including the possibility of a fractured skull from a flying clipboard.

 

This is the same University that recently expanded seating on the South end of the stadium to the tune of $80,000,000 so more fans would have the opportunity to watch the Tigers lose. The athletic department reports that it is running in the red, so I suspect they’ll be begging for more money. I doubt that any additional funds appropriated by our bumbling legislature will go toward teacher salaries or improvement of the educational aspect of the University.

 

Speaking of free meals, one I cherish still was a dinner at the Mexico country club with a local sports enthusiast who had invited a famed football player to speak at a local event. I somehow got invited to dinner with Red Grange, the legendary Galloping Ghost. Without him, possibly there would be no Super Bowl today, because it was Grange who was the first college superstar to sign on to the National Football League and bring respectability to a sport which until then, had mostly resembled a parking lot riot on Saturday night at a sleazy roadhouse.

Red Grange was a college All-American halfback three years running at the University of Illinois where he lettered 18 times in four sports– baseball, track, basketball, and football. He scored 33 touchdowns eluding tacklers so deftly that he earned his nickname, the Galloping Ghost. In 2008 he was named the best college football player of all time by ESPN. He averaged more than five yards per carry, racked up 2649 total yards of offense.

 

Somehow the Chicago Bears convinced him to sign a professional contract and for 2 years he turned what had been poorly attended mayhem into the kind of mega attraction we see today. His 1st game drew 40,000 fans. He played only 3 years in the NFL before a knee injury, today’s ubiquitous injury, slowed him. After football, Grange appeared in movies, became a motivational speaker (which he was when I dined with him) and a sports announcer.  In 1978 he flipped the coin at Super Bowl XII. He was the first football player to appear on a Wheaties box.

 

When I had dinner with him he was a successful businessman, in his mid fifties, soft-spoken and gentlemanly and one of the nicest human beings I’ve ever encountered in or out of  sports. After I wrote a genuinely gushy story about our talk together, he sent me an autographed photo which I still have and  cherish.

 

Over the years I have interviewed and hung around with several superstar sports figures and of them all he and hockey legend Gordie Howe rank as the best. Predictably there also has been a worst, another NFL legend whom I won’t name, but who you can see in various television commercials today. I’ll stick with Red Grange who epitomized how we would like to think professional football player should act.  And Dan Devine who, over all my years, still to me is the finest football coach/human being I’ve admired.

 

And the Kansas City Chiefs who at least for now are the modern  personification of that epitome.

 

I also suspect the Chiefs would be gracious enough to honor the office of the presidency if Dumb Donnie invites the Super Bowl champs to the White House for a fast food feast instead of doing what I wish they would do and tell him to take his hamberders and shove them. Perhaps, being the ignoramus he is, he’ll invite the 49ers instead.

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  • January 31st, 2020

wET WONDERLAND

By Joel M. Vance

 

Okay Kiddies, sprouts, whippersnappers, and all others whose combined years on earth are fewer than those of this boring old coot nattering on about how things used to be so much better than they are now. Time for the old guy to reminisce over yesteryear.

 

Today’s kids are so saddled with outdoor fun created for them in Silicon Valley or some other Valhalla of childhood marketing, that they don’t have time to go outside, unsupervised, and suffer broken limbs, abrasions, and the thousand cuts, that once were the accepted norm for growing up. Who among today’s pale equivalents of Huck and Tom can offer the next generation a story of how his brother shot him in the lip with a .22 caliber short? Not that I am recommending today’s kids start practicing fraticide with the family squirrel gun—far from it. But it is a truth that my father’s brother once plugged Dad accidentally with the aforementioned squirrel pellet and my father enjoyed tightening his lower lip to show the ancient projectile still buried beneath the skin.

 

It was tough being a kid growing up on a hard rock farm in the early years of the 20th century and many youngsters of that era failed to grow up, victims not so much of small caliber accidental shootings, but because of such now vanished medical nightmares as diphtheria, scarlet fever, whooping cough, and a host of other medical emergencies that plagued society before the dawn of antibiotics and the miracles of today’s advanced medicine.

 

I even benefited from a medication dating to the dawn of modern medicine when I came down with blood poisoning from having scraped my arm on a tree during a quail hunt. I woke in the night with my arm throbbing and rummaged through the available medical supplies for some sort of antibiotic and came upon a long forgotten bottle of sulfa tablets. The family doctor told me that I had accidentally done the right thing for the problem at hand (or arm actually). I survived; he had had a patient with similar symptoms who died.

 

Anyway boys and girls, there was no sulfa available for my dad when he and his brother who had been squirrel hunting came home without squirrels, but with a wounded warrior. My dad did what any youngster of the time would do—he hid out, somehow managing to conceal his wounded lip until it healed over and his parents were none the wiser. They had enough problems trying to raise a family of Hucks and Toms without worrying about a minor bullet wound.

 

His mother coped with the daily brutal necessity of raising a brood of children as well as a bounteous garden which provided the family with canned goods throughout often harsh Missouri winters (we had winters like that once upon a time), and tending to life on a farm that barely provided enough to sustain life. You try milking a cow in the predawn darkness by the feeble light of a coal oil lantern, or dibbling tobacco seedlings, painfully bending over to poke a hole in not very fertile soil in which to plant a spindly seedling, part of the family’s only cash crop. If the boys could come home with a squirrel or two to supplement the supper table, so much the better, and who had time to worry about a stray bullet.  Structured playground for the youngsters? What’s that?

 

Which brings us to the subject at hand, children, those of you who are still awake. By the time I was of an age to tote a 22 caliber rifle, my father had rigorously schooled me in gun safety (obviously having learned about it the hard way) and my outdoor fun took place on a different venue—the Dalton Cutoff.

 

The Dalton Cutoff, playground of my teen years. Back in the seventeen hundreds the ever capricious Missouri River decided to carve itself a new channel and severed off a bend of the old channel leaving behind a lake cut off from the new watercourse. Thus the name, the Cutoff. It spans 645 acres running roughly from North to South. 

 

Long vanished is Sasse’s Hole, the swimming pool of our teen years. It, itself, was a cut off from the Cutoff, a possibly spring fed blue hole of about one fourth acre, separated from the big lake by a narrow natural dike. The water was cool and clear, an unbelievable bonanza on a hot summer day, many of which occurred in relatively modern times. Boys and girls in the know gathered there to frolic and we kept it our secret as much as we possibly could. The Sasse brothers, Chris and Romeo, who owned the land adjacent were goodhearted and didn’t mind us trespassing and, in those litigiously loose times, probably never gave a thought to the possibility of lawsuit if someone got hurt. Neither did we. And so we sported without care during those long lost times.

 

The idea of suing someone for injury incurred on private property also never occurred to me when, during a pickup hockey game on the frozen Cutoff, I took a header on the ice and split my chin five stitches worth. I drove to Salisbury, trying not to bleed on the family car seat, and found a doctor who sewed me up. I wore a conical (and comical) bandage I looked like King Tut while it healed.

 

Today, a gravel road dead ends at the North shore of the Cutoff and this road unaccountably is named for me. Joel Vance Avenue is about a mile long from its junction with another gravel road that traverses between Dalton and Brunswick to the west. Apparently, I am considered a notable former resident of Dalton but with a present population of 17, Dalton doesn’t require much accomplishment for one to become notable.

 

I tried over the years to find out who is responsible for forcing Chariton County to the expense of buying a pole and road sign with my name on it, but with no success. No one will own up to it. Possibly shame, regret, tacit admission of a stupid error, clerical stumble, left over money in the budget, or obscure joke? All are possibilities, but with a limited catalog of notable achievements over the decades, I’ll take it.

 

While I unaccountably have a gravel road named for me, far more famous personages than me paused at or near the Cutoff.  When, Lewis and Clark explored the Missouri in 1804 they camped near the Cutoff which, they said, was connected to the Missouri River by a creek. There are no local gravel roads named for either of the famed explorers who headed West to discover the other two thirds of the country that,  until then, were a vast blank on the map of North America.

 

In 1832, George Catlin, traveled some 2000 miles from St. Louis up the Missouri as far as the Yellowstone River to document in paintings the life of Indian tribes along the way. His 500 or so paintings show the life of some 18 Native American tribes, including some that were decimated by smallpox epidemics, caused by white traders spreading the disease through infected trade blankets. Aside from his paintings, Catlin is honored by his name being associated with a Minnesota’s rock, used by Indians to fashion ceremonial pipes, today called catlinite.

 

And then, in 1843, along with his son, Victor, John James Audubon, the famous painter of birdlife in America, explored up the Missouri River, pausing along the way to do what, next to artistry, was his favorite pastime—shooting birds. That obsession with blasting the life out of feathered creatures causes dyspepsia today in the sensibilities of bird watching little old ladies in tennis shoes who think of Audubon as their patron saint. It’s entirely possible that Audubon stopped by the Cutoff to whack a few birds because he commented that along the way he and his company paused to enjoy what he called “great sport” bird hunting.

 

At Glasgow, not very far east of the Cutoff, Audubon reported that they got shot at by “the blackgards on shore” but “they did us no harm.” Farther on upstream which had to be very close to the Cutoff, and in floodwaters, they paused near Brunswick, near the mouth of the Grand River. No mention of stopping off at Sasse’s Hole for a cooling dip. Just more shooting of and at almost anything that moved.

 

So there’s the Cutoff, a playground like no other in my life. It was there through all seasons, offering some sort of recreation where a teenage kid could find something to do. In the summer we fished in it, in the fall we hunted ducks there, and in dead winter we skated on its ice. We picked up pecans for a dime for 10 pounds in the pecan groves in the Missouri River bottomlands bordering the Cutoff. Brunswick is known as the pecan capital of Missouri. Dalton is known in the history books as the site of the Dalton Vocational School, a black institution patterned on the famed Tuskegee Institute of Alabama, and founded in 1907 by a protégé of Booker T Washington who founded Tuskegee.

 

The Missouri River has not been kind to Dalton. Once it was a thriving railroad stop on the St. Louis and Pacific route. It also, I believe, had once been a river port on the Missouri before the river decided to go somewhere else.

 

There was a recent listing of 163 acres on the east side of the Cutoff at $369,000. That figures out at more than $2000 per acre, a substantial chunk of money to plunk down for a playground—especially one that historically has been prone to disastrous flooding. There’s not much point planting any kind of row crop when it may become submerged several feet under Missouri River overflow. In fact, that’s what doomed Dalton to its present piddling population. An historic flood in 1993 and another in 1995 drowned the lower end of the town, that which huddled below a low bluff (the mostly African-American population found itself safely above the flood on high ground).  In 2019 another flood swamped the area once again and predictions are that if 2020 has even a moderately wet spring, the Dalton bottom once again will become a humongous swimming pool.

 

I think that the parcel for sale is what once was the Dalton Hunt Club, a lodge for big dollar hunters. Once, three of us, me, Karl Miller, and Foster Sadler used to hang around the clubhouse and talk to the old man who was the caretaker. When the old man got sick and spent his last few days in the Moberly hospital, we went to visit him.  He was wasted and hardly recognizable as the kindly old man who had put up with teenage pups, answering our questions and showing us how the other half recreated. I don’t think we ever knew his name, only that he was tolerant of youngsters and seemed to enjoy our company. Maybe every would be outdoor kid needs an old man to show him the way. Robert Ruark wrote a couple of books about the old man and the boy. We had our old man too.

 

While the Cutoff was a playground for us teenagers, it also hosted the rich folks. The lake is located in what is known as the Golden Triangle, an area between Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Fountain Grove Conservation Area, and Grand Pass Conservation Area, a trio of wildlife refuges that annually hosts many thousands of ducks and geese. This wildlife fertile location is a magnet for big dollar waterfowl hunters and the triangle acts as a funnel, the lower end of which spills into the Cutoff. It still is a magnet for migrating waterfowl, but not nearly as attractive as it was in the glory days of the nineteen fifties, 70 years ago.

 

So there is my playground, muddy old lake with a sometimes glamorous history, without monkey bars, slides, and teeter totters.  It’s where my dad and I hunted geese and ducks from a rude blind on the opposite shore from where the rich guys hunted. They shot a lot more birds but we had just as much fun. Once, according to local legend, the lieutenant governor of Missouri, ran the governor out of the rich guys’ blind with a shotgun, during a political discussion. Maybe true, maybe not, but it adds to the myth of the Cutoff.

 

The Cutoff has survived for many decades, has seen historic legends pass by, has endured floods and has endured for me in memory and words. May she long thrive, muddy old playground—until the Missouri River once again decides to change course and erase her, doing what the Big Muddy always has done. What it damn well pleases.

 

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  • January 24th, 2020

WORD(S) FOR THE DAY

By Joel M. Vance

 

As one who has dabbled in the English language for going on 70 years, I occasionally find myself puzzled by questions, not to mention nagging irritation over the use and/or misuse of words, both published and spoken. I realize that I run the risk of being labeled a grammar Nazi, not to mention setting myself up for being sharp shot by those who are bugged by having their grammatical shortcomings pointed out by a smartass, otherwise known as me.

 

I was trying to take a nap the radio on low volume when a guest on a talk show, who just happened to be a former poet laureate of the nation, used the word “argumentative” and my linguistic and grammatical antennae bristled. Do we need the “at” in the middle of that word? How about a simple “argumentive”? I have long been bugged by those who say they do “preventative” maintenance on something. But then that’s me— I’m too lazy to look it up in my tattered Miriam’s dictionary from college days to find out which, if either, is correct.

 

After all, I spent many years believing that the word “gazebo” instead of being pronounced “gah-zee-bow”was pronounced “Gazebo” as if a damsel were gawking at her beau and I once confused  the family doctor by confusing a “diuretic” with something that causes diarrhea. He didn’t know whether to prescribe Kaopectate or give me a motorman’s friend to pee in.

 

Back in the latter stages of grammar school, kids were terrorized by the necessity of diagramming sentences. I don’t know if that exercise exists today, but I am certain that lingering trauma in my subconscious produces a visible shudder of revulsion at the very thought of dissecting a simple sentence as if it were a defunct frog in a biology lab.

 

As best I remember, trying desperately not to, you took a simple declarative sentence and broke it down into subject, predicate, modifiers, and other stuff that I’ve forgotten, by drawing lines as if you were outlining the bracket of a basketball tournament.

 

The result was an assortment of hashmarks that looked like the back of a galley slave whipped by the first mate of a pirate ship for having questioned the orders of the evil ship captain, possibly by using incorrect grammar.

 

Most of what I know about grammar and punctuation, has been learned through osmosis— reading until my eyes turned bloodshot and writing until my mind was the same. When I was in high school I had access to my parents’ antique Underwood typewriter, a manual contrivance as distanced from today’s computer keyboard as a model T Ford would be from a Lamborghini. On this rickety anachronism I wrote a novel, the plot and voice of which I swiped from the, for the times, bawdy writing of Thorne Smith—an alcoholic fiction writer from the Roaring Twenties whose most notable character was Cosmo Topper.

 

One of my pet peeves language wise is the use of the word “wise” adjectivally. There’s nothing wise about it— it is just stupid wise. After many years of trial and error (mostly error) I have finally solved the mystery of the difference between “it’s” and “its.” But I suspect I am in the minority.

 

And I confess that I’ve never quite figured out the whys and wherefores of who and whom. Where would Dr. Seuss be if he had written “Horton Hears a Whom”? Or who would go to listen to a rock band titled “The Whom”? And I would never have watched the old television show Kojak where tough guy Telly Savalas menacingly rumbled  “who loves ya, baby?” “Whom loves ya, baby?” I think not.

 

 I have no right to criticize those who mangle basic English. In common with, I suspect, the vast majority of English-speaking people, I misuse “lay” and “lie” with regularity. I know that you lay a book down before you go to lie down for a nap— inanimate objects take lay while animate ones get the lie verb. (I resisted, mightily, the urge to say “the book got laid, before the person did.”)  What’s more, the Ink Spots song tells us that “it’s a sin to tell a lie.” Is it a sin to confuse “lay” and “lie”? Common usage has pretty much eliminated the distinction between the two and I, for one, am willing to bend to the will of the majority.

 

More confusion with lay/lie. You can lie while standing up, but theoretically you should lie down, not lay down before your nap. So many words spelled the same have totally different meanings. You can lead a horse to water, but unless it is the jumping frog of Calaveras County, you shouldn’t fill it with lead. And you can lie either standing or prone—Donald Trump does it all time.

 

Of all the confusions of the English language—and there are many— the one that perhaps bugs me, as an old artilleryman, more than any other is the misuse of the branch of the military once known for riding horses. The folks who climbed the Biblical mountain, likely were riding camels when they ascended Calvary. The folks who messed around with the wrong Indians at the foot of the Big Horn Mountains in Montana were horse-mounted cavalry.

 

 

 General Custer made his big mistake saying to his troops “I couldn’t care less about how many Indians are over the hill.” Instead of saying what far too many people incorrectly say “I could care less,” he was grammatically correct and fatally wrong. Possibly he also said “all’s I want to do is whup up on some Indians.” I hear it all the time (often, dammit not “all the time”) — people adding an “s” to the word “all”.

 

Speaking of superfluous words I just read it in a book by one of my favorite authors. Two people “met up” in a social encounter. Unless, perhaps, they met on top of Mount Calvary, they probably met on the level or just, more accurately, “met.”  And my favorite author just stumbled again by referring to a “consensus of opinion.” Too much information—“consensus” is correct.

 

Furthermore, he said apropos of nothing, what is the difference between “further” and “farther”? You wouldn’t say “farther more, apropos of nothing.” And you wouldn’t sing “further along, we will know all about it.” According to the experts, “farther” refers to physical distance—for example something is farther than something else, while “further” refers to “figurative and non physical distances.” (I.e. or, if you prefer, e.g. and isn’t this getting confusing and farther, er, further from the truth.) The hell with it.

 

Geographically, you can get to “Laugh-e-ette” in Louisiana (not “Loff-e-ette” Louisiana, by way of the “Appa-latch-ian” Mountains (not “Appa-lay-chian”) mountains. Probably always best to ask the people who live there how they pronounce their homeplace. Back during World War II when there was some sensitivity about long-standing place names the town of “Ber-Lynn” became Burl-in and Japan became”Jay-pan”.

 

Down along the southern border of the United States is a group of people whose grammatical status is, to me, confused. Their actual status is abused, maltreated, bullied, misunderstood, and wrongfully reviled by the political right wing. But, grammatically, are they immigrants or emigrants? I think technically, they are emigrants, those who seek to enter the United States from somewhere else. It’s my possibly confused understanding that they are not immigrants until they actually enter the United States and so far Donnie Trump and his evil minions have done their worst to prevent that from happening. Everyone in this country, dating back to the dawn of mankind, is an emigrant, an arrival from somewhere else. My distant forebears emigrated from France more than a thousand years ago as immigrants to what became the British Isles, from whence they subsequently emigrated to what would become the United States…. as immigrants. Subsequently, they journeyed from Virginia to Missouri’s territory, thus becoming migrants. Confusing, ain’t it?

 

Over the centuries no group has altered English more than poets.  For example, suppose Clement Moore had written “’twas the night ere Christmas….” Say what? And what does “’twas”mean? But if he had said “it was the night before Christmas….” It wouldn’t scan and almost certainly would not be around to be recited every holiday season. Poets are free to wrestle the English language to the mat in order to bring music to words, not words to music.

 

I know ‘twas is a contraction of it was, and a useful word in poetry. For example, Charles Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) used the word to great effect to begin a verse warning of the dangers posed by a mythical monster named the Jabberwocky. His nonsensical caution sounds to me frighteningly like the garbled ravings of a certain politician of today at one of his political rallies preaching nonsense to his devoted deplorables.

                                “Twas brillig and the slithy toves/

                                Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.

                                All mimsy were the borogoves/

                                And the mome raths outgrabe.”

 

Our present day presidential Jabberwocky is especially frightening because he has his finger on the nuclear (not nucular) button. Others of my grammatical gremlins. Want a couple more? How about “realatore” instead of “realtor” and “jewelery” instead of “jewelry”?

 

Although some of the finest stories I cherish are, indeed, mini novels poetically set as lyrics to memorable tunes. I am a great fan of story songs—those musical pieces that encapsulate a mood or a story in a few words. “So set ‘em up, Joe/I’ve got a story that you oughta know….” So lamented Frank Sinatra in his memorable story song “Make it one for my baby/and one more for the road.”

 

Speaking of lost souls pouring out their sad stories in barrooms, how about June Christy opting for “something cool” in the song of the same name.  The Misty Miss Christy, in a story song about a faded and jaded lady tells us about the downward spiral of this careworn beauty who “once went to Paris in the fall” but now is stuck in a bar a long way from home, coyly accepting a cigarette and “something cool” from a stranger whom we have no trouble imagining is a guy looking for a cheap hookup.

 

Sometimes it’s not pathos that characterizes a story song, but the sheer cleverness of the lyrics. In “Glowworm” the Mills Brothers tell a lightning bug to “turn on the AC and the DC.” And “swim through the sea of night, little swimmer/thou aeronautical boll weevil.” Absolutely magical use of words. The incomparable Peggy Lee characterizes the romance of John Smith and Pocahontas (no, Donny, the historical Indian maiden, not your arch enemy): “sun lights up the daytime/moon lights up the night. I light up when you call my name/’cause I know you’re gonna treat me right.”

 

But the very same Peggy Lee went from the feverish heights of passion to the pit of desolation in what has to be the most despairing story song of all time: “Is That All There Is?”  “And when that final moment comes and I’m breathing my last breath/I’ll be saying to myself…. is that all there is?”

 

But as for me I won’t be saying “I couldn’t care less.” And I hope I say it grammatically correct.  When I check out alls I want to do is get it right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  • January 17th, 2020

WHOLE LOTTA SHAKIN’ GONE ON

By Joel M. Vance

 

Recently while surfing channels on television I stumbled— tripped and fell face forward is more like it— into a movie the likes of which I have never seen and, if I’m lucky, never will see again. It was a Western, I think, called “The Fastest Guitar Alive” starring, improbably, Roy Orbison.

 

While Roy Orbison is one of the greatest singers in history and a personal favorite, I never quite equated him with John Wayne when it comes to horse operas or, for that matter, even with Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, a couple of other guitar slinging and singing ersatz cowboys. I lasted about 30 seconds with Cowboy Roy, watching the bad guy (predictably wearing a black hat) sneak up on a scantily clad young lady who was doing something in the bushes—this being a family type movie, I think she was getting ready to bathe in a nearby stream. The bad guy had evil intentions and when she spied him, she screamed like Fay Wray encountering King Kong for the first time.

 

Cowboy Roy was propped up against a tree, singing and playing his guitar when he heard what I suppose was his lady love threatened with ravage by Black Bart. Roy leaped to his feet, clutching the guitar by the neck as if it were a dead goose, and raced to the rescue. What was he going to do? Maybe beat the bad guy to death with his guitar, although that seems like more of a terrible fate for the musical instrument than it does for a bad actor (in deed as well as in acting prowess)., But our hero had a secret weapon which you ain’t gonna see in most movies. The bad guy dropped the imperiled damsel at which point Cowboy Roy slung the guitar neck forward and shot the hat off Black Bart with a gun concealed in the guitar neck!

 

I think it is entirely possible that this movie contributed to the fatal heart attack that Roy Orbison suffered some years later. It certainly didn’t do anything for my mental health, but it did spark my thinking about the origins—musical, not acting— of Orbison and his musical peers.

 

I’m fairly confident that that awful movie was the end of Roy Orbison’s cinematic career except for his ethereal voice singing the title song about “pretty woman” in the movie of the same name starring the delectable Julia Roberts. Another singing cowboy, Tex Ritter, also contributed a title song to a movie, “High Noon” starring the equally delectable Grace Kelly. Tex starred in many oaters and his voice was about 4 octaves lower than Orbison’s, but they both headed for musical fame in different directions—Orbison to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, Ritter to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

 

As far as I know and hope, the Fastest Guitar was Roy Orbison’s only foray into the world of cinema, unlike his Sun Record stablemate, Elvis Presley, who made a whole covey of teen heartthrob schlock movies (more than 30). Even Johnny Cash, another Sun alumnus tiptoed in the cinematic waters not as dreadfully as Cowboy Roy, but working on it. Sun records! Created by the eccentric and erratic Sam Phillips, the tiny Memphis, Tennessee, recording studio spawned more musical geniuses than any other major record company ever.  In addition to Elvis, Sam Phillips corralled Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich, BB King, and Johnny Cash as well as a host of other midrange rockabilly, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll artists.

 

Where  Sam Phillips and Sun Records is concerned I get a mental picture of a lion who, after an arduous hunt, has managed to kill his very own wildebeest only to have a band of hyenas and other scavengers, dart in and grab the juiciest pieces of Simba’s evening meal. That’s what the major record companies did to Sam. first, RCA Victor, paid him $45,000 for all rights to Elvis which, given the eventual earning power of the Pelvis was pennies. Johnny Cash went to Columbia and has sold an estimated 90 million records since. Both of them continue to make more money dead, than Phillips did when he was alive. Today Elvis alive and dead, has sold an estimated one billion records, making him the best-selling solo artist of all time.

 

Those are just two of the legendary musical artists who Phillips let get away and who made more money for other labels than Phillips ever could’ve imagined when he signed them for pennies. He had under contract the legendary Million-Dollar Quartet consisting of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins (the latter of whom was born in a shack, so poor that he couldn’t have afforded even a worn-out pair of blue suede shoes until he and Elvis both scored mega-hits with the song).

 

It has been 68 years since Philips first opened the doors of Sun Studios, inviting would be superstars to come and record. He didn’t talent scout— the many musical legends who recorded for him were walk ins, including Elvis who merely wanted to make a record for his mama. But Phillips heard something special in the North Mississippi hillbilly and when he heard Elvis and pick up musicians guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer Bill Black fooling around with “That’s All Right, Mama”, a song which black artist Arthur Crudup had recorded in 1946 and had made popular in rhythm and blues circles, he got the trio to record what would become Elvis’s first megahit.

 

I was browsing in a Montgomery, Alabama, used record store in 1956 when I spotted a Sun record by Elvis. It was off a jukebox, but not heavily played and in good condition. I knew who Elvis was—I had heard him on the radio from the Shreveport, Louisiana, Jamboree, a minor league Grand Ol’ Opry which had spawned many a country music star. And I liked Elvis. So I bought the record for a few cents and, some years later, sold it for $350. It was Elvis’s first record and so little thought of that someone had pasted the B-side label on both sides, but had scratched out the wrong title and had handwritten in the correct name. Maybe Sam Phillips himself. At that time, Sun Records was such a tiny operation that it amounted to Phillips and a secretary.

 

That was a 78 RPM record, a format long since superseded by LPs, compact discs, and digital downloads—but to a collector of Presleyana, I suspect it now would be worth far more than what I thought at the time was a humongous windfall. At the time in my penurious young adult years, $350 was equivalent to Little Orphan Annie hooking up with Daddy Warbucks (and I have always wondered how daddy made his bucks—from the sound of it he might’ve been a munitions mogul selling weapons of war worldwide, a real role model for the moppet).

 

Sam Phillips continued to acquire billion-dollar talent and often frittered it away for the next 19 years. In 1959 he increased the size of the original tiny studio and in 1963 he (having invested in the Holiday Inn Hotel chain) started Holiday Inn records and then in 1969 sold Sun records to a fellow named Shelby Singleton. The sun, you might say set on Sun records but it rose again in 1985 when Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash reunited for a recording session titled “class of 55.” And then in 1987 the original Sun Records reopened as “Sun Studio,” which was as much a tourist destination as it was a business enterprise.

 

Rockabilly, under the new Sun label became a distant memory, superseded by artists like U2, Def Leppard, Bonnie Raitt and Ringo Starr, the latter being symbolic of the British invasion that largely spelled doom for those old-time rock billies. Since, there have been sporadic attempts to revive rockabilly, recorded at the modern Sun Studio. But, lacking a mad scientist in charge (would that be Doc or Sam?), and a DeLorean capable of hitting 88 mph in a lightning storm, the old magic remains just that—old.

 

The rockabilly icons are all gone now save one who seems to be eternal—but then they all thought that when they were riding high. The Million-Dollar Quartet is down to one now—Jerry Lee Lewis, the Killer, who still can pound out an increasingly feeble version of “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On” and who hobbles on stage like the old man he is.

 

Just recently another giant of rockabilly who never received any of the accolades that the million-dollar gang, the Sam Phillips refugees, the darlings of 1950s teenagers got. Sleepy La Beef died at 85, still rocking in up to 200 performances a year, but unknown except to a few like me who refuse to let go of our deep-seated love for the roots of rock ‘n’ roll. I wanted to see Sleepy in performance ever since the first time I heard him on a record. He reached deep down into what apparently was a cavernous chest to belt out in a near basso profundo voice legendary songs from the vaults of early rock ‘n’ roll. Call it rockabilly which is what the critics came up with to describe music that was a combination of rock and hillbilly music. It wasn’t Fats Domino or Ray Charles but it was the white version of black music fused with up-tempo country. Sam Phillips said that if he could find a white singer who sounded black he could make a millon dollars. He thought he had that singer in Elvis, but it was RCA that made the million. Some listeners swore that Elvis was black when they first heard him until they saw him on various television shows (Milton Berle, the Dorsey Brothers, Steve Allen, and finally, reluctantly, Ed Sullivan).

 

Not only did Sam Philips pioneer rockabilly; he was the producer of what is credited as the first rock ‘n’ roll song ever “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brentson, recorded early in March, 1951. It was recorded at Memphis Recording Service, the precursor of Sun Records. But the first record that I would consider rockabilly, at least at least the first one I remember hearing, was “Maybelline” by Chuck Berry, who recorded the song in 1955. Berry died at 90 in 2017. He has been called “the father of rock ‘n’ roll.” He recorded his landmark on Chess records, not, Sun” which, by 1955, was well past the heyday of rockabilly. And he holds the distinction of being the only black rockabilly artist among an otherwise white group of rednecks. Perhaps in heaven he and Jackie Brentson can have a dragstrip race between Brentson’s Rocket 88 and Chuck’s V-8 Ford.

 

But…. Rockabilly historians generally credit Elvis’s “That’s All Right, Mama” as the first true rockabilly song. Berry actually swiped the music for “Maybelline” from the Western swing song “Ida Red” a staple of the repertoire of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Maybe we should give Wills the title of the first rockabilly?

 

Roots rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly line up almost exactly with my high school and college years. By 1960, the heyday of both had come and gone. The British invasion led by the Beatles took over and screaming guitars and screaming vocalists displaced the thumping pianos of Fats, little Richard, and Jerry Lee. In the ensuing years there were occasional flashbacks, but not many.  Woodstock, in 1969, is mostly remembered for Jimi Hendrix’s show stopping performance of the “Star-Spangled Banner” along with many other performances by artists contemporary to the time—but a welcome (to me anyway) interruption was by Sha Na Na who probably confused the bulk of the half-million or so kids in attendance by bopping to ”At The Hop”.

 

It’s a sort of symbolic passing of the torch, or perhaps more appropriately an extinguishing of the torch. The recent passing of perhaps the last true rockabilly Sleepy la Beef, and a few days later the passing of the lyricist and leader of the modern rock group Rush Neil Peart exemplifies the truth that time moves on and there’s not a thing we can do about it.

 

When Marty McFly rode a DeLorean back to 1955 in the 1985 movie “Back to the Future”, it was to the tunes of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and the Penguins‘ “Earth Angel.” Jerry Lee became a fallen angel of rockabilly when he married his 13-year-old cousin, but he reinvented himself as a country singer with a definite rockabilly beat and even today sings what could be the anthem for that lost era “Who’s Gonna Play This Old Piano When I’m Gone?”

 

Who, indeed?

 

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  • January 10th, 2020

IT’S NOT EASY BEING A BIRD

By Joel M. Vance

 

A few million years ago at the dawn of civilization, when I was a callow youth in journalism school at the University of Missouri (as opposed to the callow old man I am today) we were assigned a “beat” which consisted of a square residential block in Columbia. The idea was we would timidly knock on doors and asked if the residents had any news to report.

 

One serendipitous day. I knocked on the door of a man who happened to be one of the wildlife professors at the University and he told me that a number of birds had been killed at the University’s television station, KOMU TV, the night before when a low cloud ceiling pushed the migrating birds into a collision course with the television station’s transmission tower. The story made the front page of the University newspaper, the Missourian, and I felt as puffed up with pride as if I had pulled off the scoop of the century.

 

Bird collisions with inanimate objects often result in avian mortality. In common with all other wild creatures, no bird dies in bed (unless, somehow, it happens to fly headlong into the headboard). We have a door leading onto our deck, with glass panes in it, where we have pasted the silhouette of a hawk. This is supposed to frighten small birds and discourage them from flying into the door with fatal results. Nevertheless, I have heard a small “bonk!”  And found a dazed bird lying outside the door, apparently unfazed by the hawk silhouette.

 

Ted Williams (not the ballplayer, but the major league environmental expose reporter) whose “Incite” column in “Audubon Magazine” for years has been the bête noire of those who would pollute or otherwise disgrace the world’s natural communities.  Ted often brings to light threats to the environment that are largely unknown or ignored.

 

One such is the threat to birds posed by the common house cat. Feral cats, those allowed to roam unchecked outdoors, kill more birds annually than nearly any other cause. We have two cats in our household— the operative word being “in”. Both are strictly confined to the house, never allowed out. They are members of the family, cherished and loved and, since our kids all are grown and on their own, the cats have become Marty’s and my de facto kids.

 

Except for Marty’s good graces, both today would be feral cats, intent on avian slaughter, rather than the coddled, cat chow munchingcreatures they are. Mama cat appeared one night at our back door (the one with the hawk silhouette pasted on it) underfed and overly pregnant. It was inevitable that Marty would feed this vagrant feline and that’s all it took for Mama Cat to settle herself in a convenient wicker basket on the deck and deliver five kittens. Ultimately, we kept one, a butterscotch colored female with more energy and curiosity than the other four. We found homes for two others and delivered two to the local animal shelter.

 

Mama and the long-haired kitten we named Fuzzy Butt have adapted well to in-house living and pose no threat to local birds. Not so, their uncounted millions of feral peers. Both are sexually defused so pose no risk of adding to the world’s puss population. They are, in short, cherished house pets, not threats to a bird population which, in many areas, is declining.

 

Why? He asked rhetorically. The reasons are several, with habitat loss the major one, but predation by feral cats ranks as the number one preventable cause of bird deaths. The Sibley bird guides are a standard reference for birdwatchers and also a good source of information on the causes of bird death. Habitat loss ranks number one but it’s not always the direct cause of avian fatality— think of it in human terms; when a tornado levels a neighborhood, many if not all the people simply move somewhere else. The same is true of birds, deprived of their habitat. That is, of course, if there is somewhere else for them to go. The sage grouse today is imperiled in the heart of its habitat, most of the state of Wyoming, by an exploding oil and gas exploration boom. Disruption of the bird’s nesting, feeding and roosting areas by oil and gas drilling is part of the problem, but also access roads and other disruption adds to it.

 

For a comprehensive discussion of the sage grouse situation, see Noppadol Paothong’s marvelous new book with wonderful and evocative writing by Kathy Love. The photographs will melt your heart and energize your mind toward helping to preserve this symbolic and direly threatened Western bird. (This beautiful book is $45 published by Laguna Wilderness Press, Box 5703, Laguna Beach, California 92652 – 0149–check it out@Lagunawildernesspress.com)

 

Sage grouse, as well as other avian species that are habitat specific, don’t have an alternative when their home turf is destroyed. My beloved bobwhite quail have been squeezed into tighter and tighter pockets of quail friendly habitat and their numbers have shrunk accordingly.  Mega-farms, fall plowing, intensive chemical drenching of the land with herbicides and pesticides all have conspired to make what was, in the glory years, a ten covey hunt into, if you’re lucky, maybe one covey– and you feel guilty about taking even one potential breeder out of that covey.

 

According to the Birdbrain in Chief, the alleged leader of the free world at least until he and his evil minions manage to eliminate freedom as we have known it for more than 200 years, a major culprit in bird mortality are wind turbines. Not even close. The aforementioned feral cats, according to Sibley, kill more than 500,000,000 birds annually. This compares with their estimate of 33,000 deaths by collision incidents involving the wind generators. My KOMU tower and its communication kinfolk account for at least 5,000,000 deaths and possibly as many as 50,000,000 annually. And, my hawk silhouette notwithstanding, collisions by birds with windows are estimated somewhere between 97 million to 976 million birds/year. 

 

“[Wind power] kills all the birds,” Trump told 2012 Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain (who is at least in the running for being every bit as crazy as Trump). “Thousands of birds are lying on the ground. And the eagle. You know, certain parts of California — they’ve killed so many eagles. You know, they put you in jail if you kill an eagle. And yet these windmills [kill] them by the hundreds.”

 

“There are places for wind but if you go to various places in California, wind is killing all of the eagles,” Trump said. “You know if you shoot an eagle, if you kill an eagle, they want to put you in jail for five years. And yet the windmills are killing hundreds and hundreds of eagles… They’re killing them by the hundreds.” Trump singled out Palm Springs, California, saying it had been absolutely destroyed by what he called the world’s ugliest wind farm, presumably one that has killed, in his words, hundreds of eagles. The Fish and Wildlife Service says that in the last 22 years Palm Springs wind towers have accounted for exactly two bald eagle deaths.

 

Another estimate is that wind turbines account for the deaths of between 140,000 and 368,000 birds annually, a figure substantially higher than the Sibley estimate but certainly far lower than Trump’s implied wholesale mortality. One estimate is that the number of birds killed by cell towers is 6.8 million and the total done in by glass building collisions is up to one billion each year. The point here is that no matter who is doing the estimates they are far lower than the fantastic claims spouted by Donald Trump, designed only to disparage alternative forms of energy in favor of his cherished oil, gas, and coal industries.

 

Trump also told Cain that solar and wind are “very, very expensive” and “not working on a large-scale.” And he criticized the way wind turbines look, calling the windmills in Palm Springs, California a “junkyard.” Someone should tell Trump about the threat from feral cats— he’d probably go on some sort of insane rant against cats and thereby alienate yet another substantial bloc of otherwise uncommitted voters.

 

The unfortunate truth is that no form of energy is without its inherent risks and downside. Carbon-based fuels spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, an obvious (at least to the bulk of science and thinking people) cause of global warming. So-called clean energy (i.e. wind, solar and hydro) each have a downside— wind, giving Trump a teensy bit of credit, does contribute minimally to bird death, but more to disruption of habitat.  And, Trump fantasy notwithstanding, wind turbines do not cause cancer.

 

Dams kill fish, either by turbulence, or by creating low oxygen problems, plus they often result in downstream flooding and there is the habitat lost by the creation of a lake.  Solar energy has the same inherent problem as wind energy–the installations  occupy space and inevitably upset associated habitat by roads and other disruptive intrusions.

 

Nuclear energy is scary stuff. Russia’s Chernobyl proved that dramatically, as did Japan’s Fukushima disaster and as Three Mile Island nearly did to the United States. And then there is that atom bomb thing in 1945 and how do you dispose of all that radioactive goo?

 

So we have a Great Oz in the White House, living in an alternate reality served by what the Wicked Witch of the West Wing, Kellyanne Conway calls “alternative facts.” The simplest solution for today’s insatiable hunger for energy is to have fewer kids, keep more cats (indoors only), protect and encourage expanded wildlife habitat, and, in the words of an unknown political philosopher, “vote the bastards out.”

 

Werner and Lowe must have been anticipating future times when they wrote the lyrics to a song from the Broadway musical “Paint Your Wagon” in 1959. The song was “They Call the Wind, Maria” and part of the lyrics graphically describes the Windbag in Chief:

 

I am a lost and lonely man/

without a star to guide me/

Maria blow my love to me/

I need my gal beside me.

 

Change Maria to Melania and need I say more?

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  • January 3rd, 2020

I’M NOT LION TO YAH!

By Joel M. Vance

 

Back in the 1970s there was a report of a mountain lion roaming the wilds of the Current River country in the Missouri Ozarks. Mike Milonski and Alan Brohn, both of whom would become assistant directors of the Missouri Conservation Department, mounted an expedition to prove or disprove the existence of the cat.

 

They didn’t have a visual sighting of the animal, but did find a paw print and made a plaster cast of it. Department wildlife biologists agreed that it certainly looked like a mountain lion track. But, echoing the prevailing philosophy of the day, they agreed that Missouri did not have wild mountain lions and if there was a cat present, it probably had been released there by someone possibly disenchanted with it as a pet. The prevailing philosophy for years was that if mountain lions existed in the Missouri wild, one would have been shot by a hunter or, at the very least, captured on a trail cam.

 

More than 30 years later, a motorist (perhaps driving a Mercury Cougar?) Killed a male mountain lion on Highway 54 between the state’s capital, Jefferson City, and Fulton, to the north. Blood tests proved that the cat indeed was a wild, not pet, animal, most likely having originated far to the west—perhaps in the Black Hills of South Dakota . No explanation as to how it came to be in Missouri, but young male animals, looking for territory of their own, often travel long distances to establish their own identity. Evidence that Missouri could and would play host to visiting mountain lions was reinforced when a second lion fell victim to one of Detroit’s finest on a highway in North Kansas City, and a third lion recently succumbed to automotive caticide after being hit by a car on Interstate 44.

 

These are widely divergent geographic locations which would indicate that mountain lions, being reclusive by nature, and while not widely exposed to public view, are indeed a statewide resident.

 

At least one female lion has been among the 74 confirmed mountain lion reports since 1994–and one female, among all those randy male lions certainly raises the possibility of young ones.  But there have been hundreds if not thousands of reported mountain lion sightings and it seems as if every other person who has spent any time in the outdoors claims to have seen a mountain lion—or at least knows someone who has. But what you see is not necessarily what you get. Over the years there have been many supposed sightings of black panthers which, I feel confident in saying, do not exist in the Missouri wild— and I further suspect that the family black Labrador retriever on walkabout has been responsible for most of them.

 

Some reports include having heard a lion screaming in the night. Not to discount them, but raccoons squalling, as they often do, could easily become the wail of a mountain lion to the ears of a listener.

 

Mountain lions, like wolves, spark an immediate and primal fear in people. Both are apex predators (kind of like people). Wolves have been the stuff of legend for hundreds of years, not to mention fairytales like the Big Bad Wolf (or in the case of Archie Campbell’s Spoonerised version of the three terrorized piggies, the Pee Little Thrigs). Every one of the very rare attacks by a mountain lion breeds immediate fear of being assaulted by a ravenous big cat in legions of outdoor enthusiasts. Statistically, any wilderness traveler stands a far better chance of being killed by lightning than he or she does being killed by either a timber wolf or a mountain lion. A mama grizzly bear with cubs is another story entirely but Missouri so far has avoided being invaded by grizzlies. Black bears could be a threat, especially with cubs, but again watch out for the lightning.

 

Not to discount the possibility of a mountain lion attack—last year a Colorado hiker strangled an 80 pound lion after it attacked him. And just recently Arizona wildlife officials shot three mountain lions who apparently had happened upon the body of someone who died in their territory and they scavenged the poor person’s remains. “We do not believe the lions attacked the individual who died there,” said Mark Hart, spokesman for Arizona Game and Fish. “An autopsy will tell us more. But our belief is they were eating the human remains after the fact.”

 

The ubiquitous presence of trail cameras nowadays is behind almost all the confirmed Missouri sightings— it’s hard to argue with a sharp photograph. It’s equally impossible to deny the evidence of a lion carcass, one of which is mounted in the Conservation Department’s Runge Nature Center in Jefferson City.

 

Recently an alleged mountain lion sighting in the heart of Jefferson City dominated discussion on Facebook where the wilder the allegation, the more discussion, often heated and outlandish, proliferates. The sighting was atop a cliff face at the Menard’s store. A woman posted a video of an obvious cat of some sort walking along the top of the cliff, somewhat obscured by grass. She said it was a mountain lion.  The Conservation Department stationed someone at the top of the cliff with a cutout of a common cat and a mountain lion. What the woman had seen was, the Department said, a feral cat (and feral cats are responsible for hundreds of thousands of bird deaths every year).

 

There was an immediate firestorm of comments on Facebook from those who, mostly, claimed to have seen mountain lions to those who accused the Department of some sort of cover-up. Many claim that the Department has lied about the existence of mountain lions in the wild for years, although there is ample discussion about the animal on the Department’s website, and the prevailing official view is that yes, there are mountain lions in the Missouri wild, but no evidence of a breeding population.

 

There have been 74 confirmed sightings of mountain lions in Missouri since 1994 amid thousands  of reported sightings, unconfirmed. Although the confirmed sightings are fewer than 1% of the total reported, the Conservation Department takes mountain lion sightings seriously enough to have formed a mountain lion response team in 1996 more than 20 years ago. And, the Department takes the presence of mountain lions in the state seriously enough to post instructions on its website about what to do if you encounter a lion, panther, catamount, puma (all names for the same critter).

 

Statistically your chances of encountering a mountain lion and definitely your chance of being attacked by one, is less than your chance of being struck by lightning or savaged by an angry dog. According to wildlife experts,  fatal mountain lion attacks have averaged one in every 7 years since 1980 in the United States compared to lightning strikes that kill more than 80 people annually.

 

Yet, the Facebook comments on the alleged sighting in Jefferson City range from casual to hysterical.  One posited that the Conservation Department for reasons unknown is stocking mountain lions. Some years back one of the Western state conservation agencies  suffered allegations that it was parachuting mountain lions into the wild immediately before elk season to drive the game animals deep into the back country so they would be unavailable to hunters. Why the department would do this, considering that elk permits, are a substantial contribution to the department budget, is beyond reason—but then reason rarely stands in the forefront of those who endorse and pass along outlandish rumor.

 

In the case of the alleged Jefferson City mountain lion, the most outlandish accusation was that (given that Missouri is a solidly red Republican state) the lion was part of a stocking plot by the Democrats. No explanation given but I assume that the rumor monger believed the lions are programmed to eat Republicans. The local newspaper, resolutely conservative, has not reported the loss of any of its most ardent readers, some of whom regularly write letters to the editor endorsing whatever the current right-wing conspiracy theory happens to be.

 

As an aside, some years back in a location not far from Menard’s a black bear was treed at a time when Missouri conservationists believed that few if any black bears existed in the state. Black bears actually are featured on the official state symbol, and there now is what appears to be a fairly thriving population of the animals, especially in the Ozarks. They probably are the progeny of bears stocked in northern Arkansas which disrespected the border between the two states.

 

 Similarly, mountain lions have no geographical know how and can leap across a state line with one mighty bound.

 

By the time Charles and Elizabeth Schwartz produced their landmark book “The Wild Mammals of Missouri” the mountain lion was considered an extirpated species in the state. “By 1850 most had disappeared although during the next 75 years occasional individuals were reported in the southern part of the state,” they wrote. “The last one definitely recorded in Missouri was killed in 1927 in the Mississippi Low Land.” The two authors presciently predicted “Pumas are primarily predators of deer and since the deer population has increased greatly in Missouri in recent years, pumas may come back too.”

 

Charlie and Libby said “an adult puma can easily be distinguished from the bobcat.”  Although, apparently not from the feral house cat. Bobcats, although larger than a house cat, are certainly smaller than the mountain lion (puma) and are bobtailed, rather than featuring the readily identifiable long tail of a puma, panther et al. And, bobcats are considered a major predator of wild turkeys in North Missouri—not white tailed deer (or livestock, house pets, and small babies). And none of the cats are notorious for dining on human beings, although anyone who is ever tried to stuff a house cat inside a small carrier for a trip to the vet might disagree.

 

Perhaps it is significant that three of the 15 bronze sculptures created by Charlie Schwartz after his retirement from the department feature a mountain lion. It’s possible that Charlie never saw one of the big cats in person in the Missouri wild but there is no doubt he considered them a valuable subject of his wildlife art. Charlie shared with me an affinity for the unloved of Critterdom— I cherish number one of an edition of 25 of a Charlie Schwartz sculpture featuring a disdainful coyote casually peeing on a sprung leghold trap.

 

Do I believe the Jefferson City woman saw a mountain lion? Almost certainly not. Do I believe there are mountain lions in Missouri? Indisputably. Do I believe there is a breeding population? Possibly. Do I believe they pose a threat to hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts? No. What I do believe is that there  is indisputably a thriving population of people willing to believe the most bizarre rumors and post them on Facebook.

 

No mountain lions were harmed in the production of this blog.

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  • Blog
  • January 1st, 2020

HAVE I GOT A STORY FOR YOU!

By Joel M. Vance

 

Any book publisher will tell you that short story collections do not sell, so save your time and money by not submitting them for publication. Try telling that to James Michener whose short story collection “Tales From the South Pacific” became a bestseller, a Broadway musical, a movie, and a staple of repertory theaters across the country. Try telling it to Stephen King who, when he is not writing 600 page epic novels, turns his hand to short stories and often sees them turn into major motion pictures.

 

A short story is a novel squeezed into a few pages and is as different from a novel as a diamond is from a chunk of road gravel. The novelist can sprawl all over the place, travel down by ways and alleys, and explore ideas that occur incidental to the theme of the story the author is exploring. Conversely, the short story writer needs to hew to the line and avoid being sidetracked. Every word counts.

 

Short stories offer the reader a sharp, sometimes disconcerting, glimpse at life. Sometimes they leave the reader hanging (“The Lady or the Tiger”), letting the reader imagine his or her own finale. Sometimes, a short story contains possible hidden themes, offering different interpretations, depending on what the reader decides they mean. Often a story is just that— a good old tale told by a good storyteller where there are no hidden messages and the intent of the writer is nothing more ambitious than entertaining.

 

I grew up when popular magazines proliferated (even delivered Saturday Evening Posts for a few weeks when I wasn’t much bigger than the bag I carried, filled with that week’s issue. The exploits of Crunch and Des, Tugboat Annie, Horatio Hornblower, and the many other short story characters in the Post entertained and inspired me to want to write short stories.

 

I took a class in short story writing in college, taught by William Peden, a wonderful teacher who overlooked my clumsy and obvious attempt to write like J. D. Salinger, and who encouraged me to keep at it, graciously ignoring the fact that I was not and never will be J. D. Salinger.

 

I actually once published a short story in a literary magazine—one of those known-by-very-few-readers  magazines where you don’t get any money but you can leave the free copies which function as pay for your story on your coffee table, hoping that visitors will notice them and be suitably impressed by your literary accomplishment.

 

My first short story collection “Grandma and the Buck Deer” is directly inspired by the short stories of Jean Shepherd, who I heard telling them on late-night radio when I was in high school. He made a fortune when his stories were adapted into the wonderful movie “A Christmas Story” (narrated by him). Perhaps the same will happen to me. What the heck, there’s still time—after all, I’m only 85 years old.

 

Some of the best American writers ever specialized in short stories, too many to pick out individuals. Raymond Carver is noteworthy for wonderful slice of life tales, sometimes as short as a page or two. For fantasy writing, no one beats Ray Bradbury. Right up there with him are Roald Dahl and John Collier.

 

I cherish every story ever written by Thomas McGuane. His storytelling is straightforward and perhaps a reflection of his long experience as a screenwriter. His many novels and nonfiction are well worth your reading time, but his short stories stand out and make him one of the best of the contemporary short fiction creators.

 

Among the literary writers, the Nick Adams short stories of Ernest Hemingway are fine reads especially for anyone who hunts and fishes. William Faulkner took time out from his chronicles of Mississippi family drama to write “The Bear” and some other notable short stories, collected as a book titled “Go Down Moses”. Currently I am reading Kurt Vonnegut’s “Welcome to the Monkey House”, a collection of mostly funny, sometimes fantastic tales. I’m alternating between that and E. L. Doctorow’s “Sweet Land Stories”.

 

Perhaps my favorite short story writer is Jim Harrison who died a year or so ago. He wrote voluminous poems as well as a number of memorable novels, but basically became the master of the novella— a cross between a very long short story and a very short novel—usually about 100 pages. Every one of them is a gem of wonderful writing. One “Legends of the Fall” became a movie and cemented Harrison’s reputation as one of the best writers in American history. His writing, like that of his close friend Tom McGuane, falls easily on the ear and the brain.

 

Here’s a few of my favorite short stories to spice up your new year.

 

A Sound of Thunder: of all Ray Bradbury’s many short stories this is the most memorable to me. And a word of advice— watch where you step or you might be dooming your relatives many generations in the future. If nothing else this story will give you a much greater appreciation of butterflies, which have enough problems in the present without considering what may have happened millions of years ago.

 

 

Broke back Mountain: Annie Proulx’s New Yorker story garnered eight Academy award nominations as a movie adaptation and probably should’ve won best picture. The story chronicled a gay relationship between two seasonal cowboys in the West. Annie Proulx writes sentences that are so perfect that after more than a half-century of writing for a living, they make me want to throw my word processor in the lake and get a job as a greeter at Walmart

 

A good man is hard to find: readers have been analyzing the theme and the underlying symbolism of the story ever since Flannery O’Connor wrote it. My take is that it dramatically illustrates the underlying truth of the statement “life’s a bitch and then you die.” Make of it what you will—good versus evil, God versus the devil, but remember that O’Connor herself was under a death sentence from disease and perhaps this is her bitter recognition of that.  A wonderful writer whom I don’t much like because her many layered stories confuse me and make me think, a dangerous affliction.

 

Why I Live at the P.O.: Eudora Welty is the finest of the Southern short story writers.  This delightful excursion into rural Mississippi is a combination of Hee Haw’s Culhane family and the dysfunctional family skits on the Carol Burnett show. I’ll swear I’ve known some of these people and Ms. Welty captures them for us memorably.

 

The Road to Tinkhamtown: if there is an aging grouse hunter who ever has followed an aging dog and who can read this story without puddling up, that man is not me—and I don’t want to hunt with him. Corey Ford’s short story in “Field and Stream” magazine is the greatest hunting story ever written.

 

The Open Window: H.H. Munro who wrote as Saki made it well worth five or 10 minutes of your time when you’re feeling grumpy and mad at the world to read this story and be delighted by the inventiveness of a irresistibly clever young con girl. We can only hope she grows up to be the Democratic Speaker of the House.

 

The Secret life of Walter Mitty: there’s a little bit of Mr. Mitty in everyone with any imagination. Every kid with a basketball imagines himself making the winning shot at the buzzer. I comfort myself often at night imagining myself invisible so I can invent endless ways to humiliate Donald Trump, including the use of a fart machine while he is debating with Democrat opponents in front of a national audience and close to a sensitive microphone. Thanks to James Thurber for bringing me and millions of other wannabes to life in fiction.

 

The Ransom of Red Chief: probably the inspiration for Dennis the Menace and the Home Alone movies, O. Henry’s 1907 “Saturday Evening Post” story is about the kidnapping of a 10-year-old boy by two men, who he drives absolutely nuts with his hyperactive antics to the point where they pay his father to take him back. Good story to read before you go on a long road trip with the kids in the back of the station wagon. It appeared as a segment in a movie titled “O. Henry’s Full House” starring Oscar Levant and Fred Allen as the two bedeviled kidnappers.

 

An Incident at Owl Creek Bridge: Ambrose Bierce survived the battle of Bull Run in the Civil War only to vanish years later amid revolutionary turmoil in Mexico but he left us with this eerie short story and also his definition of “I have a very good brain” Donald Trump   In his “Devil’s Dictionary” Bierce said: “Brain: an apparatus with which we think we think.” Bierce’s Civil War story magnificently survived him. I hope we can do the same with Trump and his inappropriately self-described “very good brain”.

 

The Telltale Heart: it’s tough to pick a single Edgar Allen Poe story since there are so many but this one and the Cask of Amontillado stick out in my memory. Poe’s life was nearly as chaotic as his short stories, which probably explains why his imagination created some of the most memorable and spooky short fiction ever.

 

The most dangerous game: a short story, sometimes called the most popular short story ever written, with the same general theme as The Lady or the Tiger. Published in 1924 in “Collier’s” magazine it’s a good example that, at one time, the country benefited from short stories in popular magazines like “Colliers”, the “Saturday Evening Post”, and many others. Sadly, those magazines largely are gone and reader exposure to popular short stories has gone with them. F. Scott Fitzgerald, known as a literary novelist, made a good living off writing Post stories.

 

The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County: I’m not sure we would be celebrating Mark Twain as America’s most famous writer today if it weren’t for this short story that jumpstarted (inadvertent pun) his long career. It’s a tall tale from his early days as a newspaperman in the Frontier West. Of course, you might say, that much of Twain’s stories were tall tales, amplified to novel length, but this one is pure campfire storytelling and is as much fun to read today as it was when I was a kid— and as it was when Twain wrote it more than a century ago.

 

The body: Stephen King occasionally takes time out from writing nuclear bomb size novels to write short stories. This one, Tom Sawyer for the 21st century, became the movie “Stand by Me”, which made a star of young River Phoenix who then proceeded to kill himself with drugs while still a teenager. It was, I guess, a fitting Stephen King like ending. In my mind, King is at his best when writing short stories.

 

Big Blonde: Dorothy Parker’s award-winning short story in the “New Yorker” was a sharp contrast to the usual picture of the wild, untamed life of the 1920s flapper— the party loving subject of the story is the antithesis of Zelda Fitzgerald, F Scott’s wife and the real life antithesis to Parker’s unhappy heroine. Zelda wound up a tragic mental case and Parker herself often was unhappy and far from the happy-go-lucky image she portrayed, much like the character in this most famous example of her short fiction. Once, my wife and I stayed at the Algonquin Hotel which hosted the famous Algonquin Round Table where Parker and other 1920s writers and famous characters gathered.   I hoped to soak up the atmosphere there— but aside from the hotel’s ever present lobby cat (probably not the same one from the 1920s) there was no ambience.

 

This is just a handful of short stories that have stuck in my memory for years. I have a deep and abiding love for short fiction and as far as those many publishers who say that short fiction doesn’t sell and therefore they won’t risk publishing it, I say the hell with them and the horse they rode in on.

 

Check out some of these writers and you might find that instead of burying yourself in a long novel you might also become an aficionado of the short story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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