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Creek Running North

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March 02, 2005

Writing on a wide variety of topics

It may surprise new Creek Running North readers to learn that when I started this blog, it was intended to be a place where I could write about things that didn't raise my blood pressure. I edit a radical environmental magazine, and publish a related website and one other - though the other one is slipping down the long dark slope of neglect these days - and I really needed a place to write about little eddies in a suburban creek, the way grass bends lower to the ground as dew condenses on the blades in the evening, the waveforms implied in bands of clouds and the tailfeathers of the red-shouldered hawk trying to eat my rabbit. I write about the world coming to an end for a living. Why do so to relax?

Rest assured I'm not giving up that aspect of Creek Running North, no matter how it may seem I've gone over to the dark side of continuous rage.

I had a long, utterly wonderful phone conversation this weekend with Carl Buell. At one point Carl was ruminating about the recurring and incredibly stupid "Whey all the blog chicks at" theme, and he idly wondered if it had anything to do with diversity of focus. He'd noticed (and so had I) a tendency for many male bloggers to focus more or less exclusively on their area of alleged expertise.

There's a similar tendency (again, based on observed blogs and subject to vagaries of interpretation with plenty of exceptions, weasel weasel weasel) for women who blog to cover a wider subject range. Take my pal Rana, f'rinstance, who often gets typecast (including by herself) as an academic blogger but who writes just as often about knitting and politics and environment and silly quizzes. Or Roxanne (new to my blogroll, check her out in the unlikely event you haven't already) a top-notch political blogger who holds forth with just as much expertise on culture and travel and who has a pretty good web novel in progress to boot. Or Beth, who has a range to match the sum of contributors to the New York Review of Books, and a voice that's the equal of any of them. But the self-appointed serious blogger guys see they have to search through posts on cable stitching or analyses of 14th century devotional art or photographs of brick walls in small New Hampshire towns to get to the one subject they care about. And they get bored and confused and wander off and forget where they were and then two weeks later claim there aren't any women bloggers.

I have to admit the diversity hypothesis has its counter-arguments. Atrios publishes silly jokes and cat pictures with some regularity, Timothy Burke has thrown in the odd Ren and Stimpy-related post here and there, Bérubé is all over the map and hilarious to boot. Oddly enough, I never see any of those guys asking where the women bloggers are. Maybe it's not a division between male and female so much as a division between the fox who knows many things, and the hedgehog who only knows one big thing. And maybe most of the hedgehogs, for reasons potentially having to do with inflated sense of self-importance and unrealistic evaluations of the mellifluousness of one's own voice, are men.

Insert stupid "also, many women are foxes" joke here.

In other words, there's a fight between the spice of life and the monotonous, regardless of the gender of the blogger. And I know what kind of blog I'd rather read. And write.

PZ Myers, who has been extraordinarily generous with links to CRN these days, added Creek Running North to his blogroll in the "science blogs" category. Though this surprised me for a moment, it's as as good a pigeonhole as any. I write about science as often as probably all but the top five percent most science-obsessed bloggers, which is to say I write about science once in a while. About as often as I write about politics, say, or about hiking, or about old bad memories dredged up from 1983.

But somehow, regardless of topic, it all comes back to the bad news these days.

F'rinstance. The other day I found a site that'll be incredibly useful in writing the Joshua tree book. Olle Pellmyr has done a bunch of research on yucca moths, the insects responsible for pollinating (you guessed it) yuccas. As Joshua trees are yuccas, I will be writing about the moths in my book.

Yucca moths are fascinating, Chris wrote, as his readers slipped into a deep slumber. The yucca-moth relationship is the textbook example of coevolution. The female moth, in genus Tegeticula or Parategeticula, deliberately gathers pollen and puts it in the spot in the yucca flower where it needs to go to fertilize the ovaries. She then lays eggs in the flowers. The eggs hatch, and the caterpillars eat some of the seeds as they grow, then drop to the ground and rest - for as long as twenty years - before they metamorphose into adult moths and lather, rinse, repeat. The moth gathers enough pollen to make sure that each flower will produce more than enough seeds to feed its young, while still having plenty to make new yuccas. I've dissected a few ripe yucca fruit on many of my desert trips, and oh, what the hell. Let me dissect the Yucca baccata fruit that's sitting on my desk right now. Be right back.

Looks like approximately 120 seeds distributed through six seed chambers. One of the chambers is completely undamaged, and a few others have some intact seeds still remaining. Call it about twenty percent efficiency in seed production, certainly sufficient considering that a single yucca flower stalk can hold two dozen fruit, and that many yuccas bear multiple flower stalks in any one flowering season. That's a lot of seeds to scatter on the desert soil, enough to feed the woodrats and jackrabbits and still germinate a surviving yucca every few years, which is all the yuccas need.

The important thing - the thing that gets this relationship into the textbooks - is that neither the yucca nor the moth could reproduce without the other. Such a relationship is called "obligate mutualism," and it's cool not only to watch this take place in the field but also to figure how the relationship evolved.

Anyway. I'm reading an article by Pellmyr (Yuccas, Yucca Moths, and Coevolution, A Review. Ann. Missouri Bot. Gard. 90:35-55, 2003) that covers what's known about yucca moths, and Pellmyr describes Prodoxus, a closely related moth that lays eggs on fertilized yucca fruit. Its larvae eat the seeds or other tissues, but it provides no benefit to the plant in return. It's commonly called the "bogus yucca moth."

And Pellmyr writes about Charles Valentine Riley, an entomologist best known for saving the entire European wine industry from phylloxera, but who also did almost all the initial research on yucca moths. And I read this footnote:

"V.T Chambers, an amateur lepidopterist, mistakenly used the first non-pollinating bogus yucca moth to challenge Riley's description of pollinator yucca moths (Chambers, 1877). In a rebuttal, Riley (1880) untangled the confusion and used Chambers's moth to erect the new genus Prodoxus (Gr., 'judging of a thing prior to experience')."

And the first thought I have on reading that footnote is "wow, an organism that parasitizes the labor of another, and it's named for shooting off your mouth without knowing what the hell you're talking about? I've got to write about this moth as a metaphor for the Bush Administration."

I hate this millennium.

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This part cracks me up: "And they get bored and confused and wander off and forget where they were and then two weeks later claim there aren't any women bloggers."

My own opinion is that the reason fewer women are in evidence online is because they tend to be off in the kitchen washing dishes and taking care of housework, kids, domestic chores, etc., while the men of the household take advantage of gender roles and so have more free time to tool around on the Internet....

Posted by: Z*lda at March 2, 2005 01:34 PM
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Thanks for writing all those nice things. I guess I'm going to have to try and live up to them.

Posted by: Roxanne at March 2, 2005 02:54 PM
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Oh, and my father-in-law used to work at the CCT, too.

Posted by: Roxanne at March 2, 2005 02:58 PM
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You're making me blush, Chris.

Posted by: beth at March 2, 2005 03:06 PM
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Hmmm ... I never considered EIJ to be 'radical' and I dont score all that high on the environmentalist scale (at least for someone from Bend) so I think that is a fairly unbiased opinion. I tend to think of you as more a rational environmetalist.

Maybe you said that just to improve your chances of getting on Horowitz's list.

Posted by: Desert Donkey at March 2, 2005 03:55 PM
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"Whey all the blog chicks?" Are you sure that was part of OUR conversation? I'm getting too old and senile to talk about "blog chicks", although a couple I read do make me wish I were half my age.

Posted by: OGeorge at March 2, 2005 04:46 PM
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Don't worry, Carl: I wasn't trying to reproduce our chat verbatim. I would have gotten tired of typing all those "prithee"s and "zounds"es.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at March 2, 2005 04:50 PM
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Hmm. I always just thought I was scatterbrained. ;)

No, seriously, I did go through a period as a young adult when I was terribly jealous of those people who knew what they wanted out of life and focused on it until they got it. Now I'm more comfortable with the idea that I know a few things about a lot of things. After all, it's me who can thrive equally well on a farm, in a suburban mall, in a foreign city, or in a remote wilderness while my more focused colleagues freak out about dirt and strangeness. At the very least, it makes me more interesting to talk to at parties.

A mental omnivore, I am. Adaptability is good. :)

Posted by: Rana at March 2, 2005 05:23 PM
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(btw, didn't I also write on something similar to this (much more pedantically) about a year ago? I forget. Yep, scatterbrained!)

Posted by: Rana at March 2, 2005 05:25 PM
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The way I see it, there's tons of political blogs. Tons of news blogs. Tons of whiny tween girl blogs. Tons of bloggers blogging about each other.

But there seems a dearth of blogs written about the environment and the myriad issues that relate to such causes. A blog (or any written work) transports the reader momentarily into the world of the author. The "place blogs" that I read attempt to take readers on a vicarious journey into places and environments which are often foreign to the readers. The best ones instill a sense of place, and awaken a longing to experience firsthand the things the authors write of.

Focused? Yes.
Monotonous? *Never.

*depends on the writer

Posted by: Dr. Jim at March 2, 2005 05:57 PM
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