Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Books I enjoyed in 2010

Every now and then I get into a reading slump, where I'll find myself without any good books to look forward to and no good ideas about what I should read next. But I've been lucky, in this past year, to have had a bounty of good book recommendations from other people whose tastes and writings I admire.

So I figure that it's time to return the favor. If you enjoy reading this blog, here are a few other printed materials that you might look for at your library or bookstore (if you click the links to buy them from Powell's website, you'll help finance my own book habit with a small commission).

Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem.

This has been described as a novel about an "alternate-reality" Manhattan, in which a giant tiger prowls the upper east side, stranded space station astronauts play out a survival drama on the nightly news, and a conceptual artist erases entire neighborhoods to build bottomless pits.

But the main characters spend the entire book struggling to determine what's real and what's fake about their city and their lives in it. And as they do, Lethem elegantly brings you to the inevitable conclusion: that on this island that's obsessed with real estate, terrorism, meaningless wealth, and celebrity diversions, "reality" of any kind, alternate or not, is a scarce commodity. The upside is that Manhattan's a rich source for a smart novelist like Lethem, since fiction is everything. I think this is the best novel about New York City since Don Delilo's Underworld, and it deserves to go down in history as the definitive chronicle of New York City in the first decade of the 21st century.

The Blue Flowers by Raymond Queneau.

At a wedding in Texas this spring, an Italian translator whom I'd just met somehow intuited that I liked Italo Calvino, and then she recommended this book, which Calvino had himself translated from French into Italian in the mid-1960s.

This novel switches back and forth between two plot lines: one of a Duke who advances through time through the history of France from the middle ages towards the present day, and one of a 1965 French pensioner, each of whom is having dreams of the other's life. As soon as one of them falls asleep in one plot line, the story switches to the other. It's a very funny book, even though I got the sense that half of the puns were lost in translation.

It turned out to be the most serendipitous book recommendation of my year, and led me to read other works by Queneau, including Zazie on the Metro and Exercises in Style.

The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard

I decided to read Ballard after seeing repeated references to his fictional landscapes on BLDGBLOG and elsewhere. I actually started by reading Empire of the Sun, his semi-autobiographical chronicle of his experiences as a boy in China during World War II. That book, with its gloomy descriptions of sickened prisoners living in squalid conditions, deserted neighborhoods, and the machinery of war, gives a lot of insight into his later stories, where similar themes reappear in futuristic dystopias.

In a lot of these stories, the abandoned hotels and lost colonies of Ballard's imagined sci-fi future bear an uncanny resemblance to the foreclosure-ravaged suburbs of our present day - good reading for the Great Recession.

Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast
, by Peter del Tredici

This is a great field guide to the wild-growing weeds, shrubs, and other plants that proliferate in empty lots and broken sidewalks. It goes above and beyond basic identification techniques, and delves into each species' natural history and ecological function - which plants fix nitrogen, which plants thrive in high-traffic, compacted soil, and which plants can tolerate or even treat various kinds of urban pollution.

Thanks go to Mitch Rasor for recommending this one on his twitter feed.

The Baron in the Trees
, by Italo Calvino

It will be a great disappointment when I finish reading all of Italo Calvino's novels. This one is about an Italian aristocrat who takes to the trees to escape his family in an act of adolescent rebellion, and then spends the rest of his life up there, travelling from branch to branch, never touching the ground. It's enjoyable enough as a fable, but Calvino enriches the story by involving the adult Baron in the Enlightenment, in revolutionary politics, and in the Napoleonic Wars, as well as in a bittersweet romance.

The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald.

It occurs to me that this book bears some resemblance to Ballard's - it's a fictional travelogue of various sites on the coast of Britain, including a number of abandoned military installations and struggling blue-collar villages. For Sebald, these sites serve as pretexts for a sweeping digressions on world history: for instance, a visit to Norwich, a former center for British silk manufacture, leads to a discussion of silk's strategic importance to various empires of history, and of the brutal rule of the dowager empress Tzu Hsi.

The narrative returns, again and again, from these sweeping discussions of historical titans to the lonely and seemingly mundane landscapes of contemporary coastal England. The effect is jarring, simultaneously demonstrating us how the passing years obscure the great crimes of history, while also demanding that we not forget that history. Sebald's books have the rare quality of physically affecting my mood as I read them - the mark of a truly engrossing book.

Two other things worth reading, although not yet in books:

"Victory Lap" and "Escape from Spiderhead" by George Saunders (published in the New Yorker)

George Saunders is a national treasure.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Some coastlines are more infinite than others

In October, the mathematician Benoît B. Mandelbrot died in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His obituary in the Times reminded me of two things from the schools of S.A.D. 6: first, the mysterious and beautiful Mandelbrot Set, the famous fractal, and second, the erroneous trivia (repeated even to this day on the tourist office's website) that Maine has the longest coastline of any state save Alaska.

The reasoning behind the latter goes like this: California and Florida's coasts may look longer on a map, but look closely at Maine's coast and you'll find thousands of islands, peninsulae, and inlets - features that those other states don't have. But take this reasoning even further and see where it gets you: you'd need to count the waterline on every mangrove root in the Everglades, and the outline of every grain of sand on California's beaches.

Every coastline infinitely long. Not only that, but every state gains and loses an infinitely long length of coastline every time the tide goes out, or every time a wave washes ashore.

I thought of this problematic state trivia because Mandelbrot's first academic paper, "How Long Is the Coast of Britain? Statistical Self-Similarity and Fractional Dimension," tried to tackle this paradox. It observed that how long a coastline looks depends on how much detail you care to look for - whether you're measuring on a classroom map of the contiguous states, or on individual grains of sand under a microscope. For instance, if we use a 50-mile yardstick, Maine's coast looks about 230 miles long:

But try using a 5-mile yardstick, and you'll find that there are at least 200 miles of coastline in Casco Bay alone:

And we're still missing so much detail! Who wants to try measuring Casco Bay with a mile-long ruler? Or an actual yardstick?*

If Maine's coastline were smooth, like Florida's, the 40-odd 5-mile rulers in the bottom map would have covered roughly as much territory as four 50-mile rulers.

Mandelbrot's insight was this: you could measure the "crookedness" of a coastline by calculating the relationship between how carefully you measure something (the scale of your ruler) and the total length you get.

This relationship is similar to the fractal dimension, a mathematical concept useful for calculating how some infinite sets are "more infinite" than others. It's also a way of describing things that are neither one-dimensional lines, nor two-dimensional planes, but fuzzy and in between - like the infinite coastlines that emerge and sink away under every one of the ocean's infinite ripples.

For what it's worth, these guys say that the coast of Maine's fractal dimension is 1.27 - slightly more infinite than the coast of Britain (at 1.25), but not nearly as infinite as the coast of Norway (1.52).

* Please don't.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

The alien life in Mono Lake

NASA's astrobiologists have discovered a new form of life that uses arsenic, a toxic chemical, as a critical building block in its organic chemistry.

If you haven't read more about the discovery of arsenic-based life in California's Mono Lake, blog io9 has a great writeup of what it's all about, why it's such a big deal, and some of the implications - from the possibilities of new biofuels to the possibilities of life on Titan.

Alien life has been discovered right here on Earth. Nature is pretty incredible.

Mono Lake at sunrise, by John Muller.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The abandoned spaceport

I finally made it to Flushing Meadows Corona Park last weekend to visit the ruins of the 1964 World's Fair. Technically, the abandoned New York State Pavilion is closed to the public, but the fence is poorly maintained and it's easy to sneak in:

And here's how it looked in 1964:

The park is an hour's bike ride from the Queensboro Bridge, or you can ride the 7 train to the Mets-Willets Point station. If you're in NYC, visit soon before the Parks Department fixes the fence, or worse, tears down the historic structure altogether.

Much more to come about Flushing Meadows Corona Park in future posts here...

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Atomic Age

I'm sharing Neil's comment on the last post (on 20th century atomic tests, and the associated spike in radioactive soil that dates to the 1950s) here on the front page, in case you missed it:
"And it's not just topsoil of course. Teeth and trees and deep sea corals and lichen and thereby reindeer piss all show bomb spikes."
Yes, teeth! Nuclear weapons going off in the upper atmosphere between 1955 and 1963 produced enough neutron radiation to create a dramatic spike in the world's supply of radioactive carbon-14 and strontium-90 (which are like regular carbon and strontium, but with extra neutrons fused on). These radioactive isotopes then lodged themselves into life all over the planet - including the tooth enamel of baby boomers.

This means that the degree of radioactivity in your teeth are can give a remarkably accurate determination (within 1-2 years) of when you were born. According to Dental Tribune (The World's Dental Newspaper), this forensic technique can be useful "in a large natural disaster or in an unsolved homicide case." Or if you're a biologist figuring out the growth rates of trees or corals.

So hey, the Cold War was good for something, wasn't it?

Image: advertisement for Detrifice Tho Radia, made from "a basic salt of thorium."

Monday, November 22, 2010

The 2,053 Nuclear Explosions of the 20th Century

Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto created this video timeline that shows the dates and locations of each of the 20th century's 2,053 nuclear explosions, 2,051 of which were detonated during "peacetime" as weapons tests.

When I was a college dilettante, I spent a semester's worth of evenings in training to become a NRC-certified operator of the chemistry department's research reactor. I dropped out of the effort when my economics coursework led me to balance the benefits of the effort - namely bragging rights - against the costs. It is justifiably difficult to pass the NRC's operator exam. But I did get a chance to power up the reactor under supervision in the control room, and it was a pretty great extracurricular lesson in nuclear physics and chemistry.

This video reminded me of one of the fascinating things I learned from that experience. All over the globe, undisturbed layers of topsoil that date from the early 1950s (when the Soviet Union detonated its first nuclear weapons and set off a rapid acceleration of tests worldwide) to October 1963 (when the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty went into effect and sent subsequent tests underground) are substantially more radioactive than surrounding layers of soil - and will remain so for thousands of years.

The 20th century's close brush with self-annihilation is therefore a part of the geologic record. Future archaeologists, if there are any, will find it just beneath the chemical traces of the global suicide pact we're writing now - the rapid spike in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Monday, November 08, 2010

History Repeating

NPR's Morning Edition reported today that gasoline and oil prices are on a steady rise once again. Though the US remains mired in a recession, many other large countries (like Brazil and China) are demanding more energy, while the supply for oil is flat or shrinking. The cost of crude oil is creeping towards $100 a barrel again.

When this happened in March 2008, forecasters correctly predicated that gasoline would soon be $4 a gallon. Over the summer, more and more suburban homeowners could no longer afford both to fill up their tanks and to pay their mortgages. And we all know what happened then.

But when all this transpired two years ago, people still had jobs and credit. That's not the case anymore - Americans have less purchasing power, which means that $4/gallon gas is going to hurt a lot more this time around.

One financial analyst quoted in the story brought up an interesting statistic: "A $10 increase in the price of oil is like a $200 million tax on the economy a day," said Gary Taylor, a principal with The Brattle Group. That's $1 billion every workweek.

Luckily, we have new government leaders coming in who are gung-ho to cut our taxes. I look forward to seeing how they'll set us free from the $1 billion/week oil dependency tax.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Up In Smoke

This is the Salem Harbor Power Station, a coal- and oil-fired power plant that's capable of generating 745 megawatts of dirty energy. That's more electricity than could be produced by all of New England's wind turbines, combined, on the windiest day.

The plant occupies a 65-acre site in the middle of historic Salem, Massachusetts. In fact, the plant's mountainous coal supplies - on a typical day, the plant burns over 700 tons - occupy a quay just a couple of blocks away from Nathaniel Hawthorne's birthplace.

Salem Harbor Power Station. CC-licensed photo by dsearls on Flickr.

According to New England's Conservation Law Foundation, Dominion Energy, the plant's owner, has filed documents to shut down the power plant in the near future. The combination of cheap power from wind turbines and cleaner-burning natural gas plants, combined with increasingly stringent Clean Air Act requirements, seems to be taking its toll on the 60 year-old plant.

This is good news. But New England still has work to do - there are still massive coal-burning power plants operating in our region, in places like Merrimack and Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Together, they send tens of millions of tons of greenhouse gas pollutants into the atmosphere on an annual basis, and these other plants have no closure plans in the works. The massive Brayton Point station in Fall River, Massachusetts, for instance, burns over 2 million tons of coal annually, and sent 148 pounds of neurotoxic mercury into the atmosphere in 2005 alone.

If the progressive and wealthy New England states can't shut down their climate-burning coal power stations, how can we possibly expect the rest of the world to do the same?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Marble Hill in Manhattan (not the Bronx)

I recently discovered* Pathological Geomorphology, where various geobloggers share "images of extreme landscapes, landforms, and processes," organized around a monthly theme. Last month was dedicated to landslides, for instance. This month: "the juxtaposition (or superposition) of distinctly human-made landscapes with nature's geomorphic forms."

This immediately reminded me of Marble Hill, a neighborhood in the borough of Manhattan that is physically attached to the Bronx. Here's an aerial view - to orient you, this is the Harlem River ship canal where it curves around the northern tip of Manhattan. A small corner of the Hudson River is in the upper-left corner, and Broadway, and the West Side IRT subway lines, run diagonally from the middle of the bottom edge to the upper right-hand corner:

You can clearly see a looping s-curve through the middle of the picture. It's the old course of the Spuyten Duyvil Creek, which was widened and straightened in the nineteenth century for use as a ship canal between the Harlem and Hudson Rivers. On the left side of the photo is Inwood Hill Park, where I worked as an urban park ranger in 2005. The old creek is still more or less a waterway there, though it's been filled in substantially. The nature center and baseball field at the northeastern entrance of the park (the small peninsula left of center in the photo above) actually used to be connected to the Bronx.

The eastern loop is more interesting. It's been completely filled in - parking lots, warehouses, and big box stores now occupying the former creek bed. But the streets still trace the lines of the historic creek banks. The neighborhood between the new ship canal and the old creek bed is called Marble Hill. It was attached to Manhattan Island until 1895, when the ship canal sliced it off and marooned it as an island. Here's a map from that turn-of-the-century period, via Forgotten New York:

The creek was filled in 1917 to attach Marble Hill to the mainland of the Bronx, but the neighborhood, for political and judicial purposes, remained in New York County, and the borough of Manhattan.

I've heard, anecdotally, that a number of Marble Hill residents still insist on snubbing the borough that surrounds them by telling people they live in Manhattan, which sounds more upscale than the Bronx. So, while the historic geomorphology of the former Spuyten Duyvil Creek does survive to this day in a ghost-pattern of street layouts and land uses, it survives in a more tangible sense in the neighborhood's civic affairs and a general sense of inter-borough snootiness.

Of course, this is probably my best example of how ancient geomorphic forms have influenced human-made landscapes - but I've already written about that one.

*via mammoth, another blog I've discovered and really come to enjoy in the last couple of months - it writes extensively about urban infrastructure and how it relates to our economy and ecologies. If you like this blog, you'll enjoy theirs, too.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The global economy's kyūsho is in Denmark, Maine

The Japanese word kyūsho means vital point, or tender spot - the place where one applies the legendary "death touch" in kung-fu movies.

If you've been reading the news lately, you might be aware that a growing scandal over fraudulent foreclosures is consuming the entire global credit market in uncertainty. I was listening to a report on all this on NPR's "Marketplace" last night, and it occurred to me that, somewhere, there was a family that had been foreclosed on erroneously, fought the bank, and set into motion the events that are bringing credit markets to their knees once again.

In other words, somewhere out there was a single house that was powerful enough to shake the global credit markets to their very core. A kyūsho for the global economy.

And this morning, I found it, via the New York Times. Funnily enough, the house happens to be in the rural municipality of Denmark, Maine, just a few miles from where I grew up.

The Times reports:
Nicolle Bradbury bought this house seven years ago for $75,000, a major step up from the trailer she had been living in with her family. But she lost her job and the $474 monthly mortgage payment became difficult, then impossible.

It should have been a routine foreclosure, with Mrs. Bradbury joining the anonymous millions quietly dispossessed since the recession began. But she was savvy enough to contact a nonprofit group, Pine Tree Legal Assistance, where for once in her 38 years, she caught a break.
The story goes on to tell of how attorney Thomas Cox found and deposed the bank employee who had signed the foreclosure order. During that deposition, this employee "casually acknowledged that he had prepared 400 foreclosures a day for GMAC [the lender] and that contrary to his sworn statements, they had not been reviewed by him or anyone else."

The rest is more or less history. "Robo-signers" who approved hundreds of foreclosures a day without even looking at them were exposed nationwide, and foreclosures have now been frozen in 23 states.

This tiny $75,000 house in rural Maine is a lot like Bruce Lee's one-inch punch: we see the mighty banks knocked down, but it's damned hard to see how it happened. Mr. Cox and Ms. Bradbury are like Bruce Lee on the right, and the GLOBAL FINANCIAL SYSTEM is the sad sack on the left:

The entire story is extremely worth reading for anyone who wants to relish some schadenfreude at the expense of bankers and their lawyers, and as a case study for the lack of humanity in the financial system. Reporter David Streitfeld also tells us that Mr. Cox, the lawyer, had previously worked at a bank to call in loans on small businesses, often taking business owners' homes as collateral when they couldn't pay. The job ruined his mental health and his marriage, and he's since volunteered to work on behalf of borrowers "to make amends." I hope that this story redeems his conscience - it certainly ought to.

Ms. Bradbury's case deserves to make her a hero of modern times. It's already set a precedent that's letting thousands of families stay in their homes at the expense of negligent banks. And maybe someday, her humble house in the woods of Denmark will be memorialized as the place that finally foisted honesty on the banking system.

P.S. Pine Tree Legal Assistance, the group that Mr. Cox is volunteering for, is a nonprofit law firm. A judge ruled that GMAC would pay the legal expenses for Mr. Cox's work, but Pine Tree serves a good many clients who can't afford to pay, and here's how you can help them.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

High-Rise Birdhouses

Artists in London have installed clusters of hundreds of birdhouses on Ailanthus Altissima trees (a.k.a. the Tree of Heaven, Ghetto Palm, or the Tree that Grows in Brooklyn) growing in the terrace gardens various public housing projects.

The high-density birdhousing is meant to mimic the high-density human housing of the surrounding human neighborhood. And also, perhaps, to mimic the proliferation of Ailanthus trees throughout most of the world's cities.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Go to Detroit, Young Man, and Grow Up

Bizarrely, a boot company and the guy from "Jackass" have teamed up to debunk the hopeless, epicenter-of-the-recession "ruin porn" that dominates everyone's perception of the Motor City. It's pretty fantastic, so I'll buy into their viral marketing scheme by re-posting and recommending their film here:

Here's the link for the whole 3-part series. It visits some of the famous ruins of Detroit, but only in the context that people are reviving and doing exciting things for those ruins. In this telling, the empty prairies and abandoned buildings don't necessarily represent blight; they represent possibility. Like the frontier in Horace Greeley's day, Detroit offers amazing opportunities for people to reinvent themselves - and reinvent the city.

A lot of what appeals to me in this video reminds me of the things I loved about Houston. Because in spite of its rapid growth and booming economy, Houston (like any other big city) also had a fair share of abandoned buildings, even entire neighborhoods overgrown in weeds, and those were the places I loved to explore.

It was also cheap to live there, partly because Houston has a sprawling geography and very few rules about what people do with their real estate - there is literally no zoning law there.

And so: one man I'd met bought the concrete shell of an old rice mill near the bayou, lived in a bus parked inside its empty walls, and made art cars. Our friends bought an abandoned apartment complex and the old pool hall next door to house a successful after-school program. And the summer we lived there, Art League of Houston commissioned this project for two abandoned houses that had been slated for demolition in the Montrose neighborhood (which is one of the city's most vibrant, by the way):

So in general, the most amazing parts of Houston were the places that had recently been abandoned, and were on the verge of re-creating themselves. I think that the same goes for most cities.

So I guess I disagree, somewhat, with the derogatory term "ruin porn." There are at least a few of us who are ogling Detroit's gorgeous, abandoned architecture and new prairies not out of scorn for the Government Motors bailouts, nor for the sake of wallowing in self-pity about this recession, but out of genuine sense of possibility. We are imagining ourselves making something new there, and being a part of the revival.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Natural History of Playgrounds

For some time now, I've been meaning to write something here about playgrounds, which are substantial components in the natural areas and parklands of most cities worldwide.

I was first inspired by Rebecca Mead's "State of Play" feature in a July issue of the New Yorker. That article is mostly about a new generation of "imagination playgrounds" that are beginning to appear in Manhattan, but Mead begins her article with a description of the rainy opening day at the Lower East Side's Seward Park Playground, the first ever municipally-built playground in the United States:
"By 2 p.m., when the opening ceremony was scheduled to begin, twenty thousand children had swarmed the playground and its surrounding streets, climbing on rooftops and fire escapes for a better view of the seesaws, swings, and sandboxes... Eventually, the kids stormed the park gates, overwhelming two hundred police officers who were trying to keep order. 'They swept around and through the policemen, and, without pausing, leaped over the iron fence about the playground,' the Times reported the next day...

Mayor Low did speak, although the noise of the crowd was such that only those in his immediate vicinity could hear what he had to say: 'The city has come to realize that it must provide for its children, that they have a right to play as well as to work.'"
-Rebecca Mead, "State of Play"
Now that playgrounds have become a common feature in every city, town, and schoolyard in the nation, it's hard to imagine how the opening of one could inspire a riot of 20,000 children. But in 1903, when Seward Park opened, the Lower East Side was packed solid with poor immigrant families whose children worked from an early age.

Children stripping tobacco, from "The Little Laborers of New York City,"
Harper's New Monthly Magazine, August 1873.

Mayor Low was one of the first New York City mayors of the progressive era and an anti-Tammany Hall reformer. The playground he opened reflected a philosophy of social reform, that children "have a right to play," and that they needed opportunities to escape the crowded conditions of the tenements.

Kids playing in an empty Brooklyn lot, 1934. From the New York City Parks Department archive.

Seward Park had a lot of the ingredients we associate with playgrounds today: open fields, slides, monkey bars, swings, and sandboxes.

Seward Park at the corner of E. Broadway, Canal, and Essex Streets in 1912. Image from the Library of Congress.

In photographs, the playground equipment of 1903 looks incredibly dangerous to my modern eyes:

Seward Park playground in 1912. Image from the Library of Congress.

The height of those high monkey bars remind me that eugenics for the lower classes was also a progressive era fad that the playground's designers might, possibly, have had in mind. But that's probably just my paranoid perspective as someone who is both afraid of heights and living in a litigious society.

In addition to the play equipment, which was designed to encourage vigorous physical activity, the playground also had designated park employees who would lead children in athletic games, segregated by gender. In this 1908 photo from the Parks Department archives, a Seward Park employee leads a group of girls in something called a "Ten Pin Pursuit Race":

So, in spite of the chaos of the opening day, the city's first playground was clearly designed and programmed to control the playing behavior of the lower-class neighborhood's kids, who had been overrunning the streets in rough reenactments of Spanish-American War battles, and playing in the filth of the city's vacant lots.

This is a theme of playgrounds that continues to this day. Just last week, I attended a neighborhood meeting about a proposal to build fancy new basketball courts next to one of Portland's larger public housing complexes. The phrase "get kids off the streets" came up several times, even though, if the goal is to get troublemakers off the streets, some kind of playground for middle-aged alcoholics might be more useful.

Every park is the product of human values and physical interventions. Even our most remote, backcountry "wilderness" areas are shaped by hiking trails, fire policy, and the historical extirpation of native peoples by military force.

But playgrounds take the physical manifestation of our social values in the outdoors to the extreme. They're the section of a city park where nearly all plants have been removed and the soil itself has been replaced with a kind of soft, antiseptic ground cover (usually wood chips, or sometimes a kind of rubberized pavement). The way playgrounds are designed - how they dictate the terms of how children play - are a faithful reflection of a city's hopes and anxieties for the next generation.

Seward Park Playground
Seward Park Playground in 2004, courtesy of edenpictures on Flickr.

A century later, Seward Park still exists in the Lower East Side, and there's a newly-renovated playground there. It is strikingly less vertical than the first one, and probably safer. But there is no mob of twenty thousand children, breaking down the fences, desperate to start playing.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

How I Spent My Unemployed Vacation

Last fall, with a month to spare between jobs, I spent a week hiking through Maine's Hundred-Mile Wilderness on a freelance assignment from Maine magazine. It's just been published in their September issue, and illustrated with photos by Craig Dilger. Here's a short excerpt:

...right before our group descended below the tree line, a gust of wind suddenly cleared away the clouds. All at once, the vast forest across which I had trekked over the past week lay spread out below us under remnant wisps of valley fog: wrinkled piles of mountain ridges streaked with yellow birches, red sugar maples, boreal greens, and shimmering ponds.

From up here, it certainly looked like a wilderness. But that name glosses over the complexities of this landscape: it’s a solitary place populated with personable people, and a wild place entangled in the often oppositional industries of tourism and forestry.
Read it online if you're from away and can't find the magazine at a newsstand. Otherwise, buy a copy on paper, because this issue also contains writer Chelsea Holden Baker's and photographer Mark Marchesi's amazing profile of the people and businesses that wrangle huge oil tankers in and out of Portland's harbor.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Refugee Camps for the Middle Class

A 100 kilometer traffic jam that's persisted for nine solid days on a highway west of Beijing this week is just another spectacle of the sort we've come to expect out of the growing nation - an epic traffic jam to complement its equally epic public works, skyscrapers, and factories.

Xinhua, a state-run news agency, reports that truck drivers are camped out on the jammed highway, playing cars amongst themselves and forced to buy supplies from opportunistic vendors at inflated prices. Reports printed in this morning's newspapers claimed that some drivers had managed only to move a mile over the course of an entire day on the road's worst stretches, and that the jam could last another month, until a road construction project ends.

All of these mythic reports come closely on the heels of news that China's economy has surpassed Japan's to become the world's second largest. The surreal traffic jam was an emblem of the nation's surreal growth and ambition.

But instead of delivering the promised capitalist paradise, an overdose of machinery and trade creates a sort of homeless gypsy encampment on the road to Beijing.

The news story reminded me of this scene in Week End, when bourgeois French families exercise their "freedom" to leave the city and enjoy the countryside, only to get imprisoned in an interminable traffic jam:

This scene itself was said to be inspired by Julio Cortazar's surrealist short story, "L'Autoroute du Sud," in which a Sunday afternoon traffic jam south of Paris dissolves into a days-long purgatory of survivalism and black market trade. Characters throughout the story are named only by the cars they occupy:
"Surprise would have been the last thing expressed by anyone at the way in which the water and supplies were being obtained. The only thing Taunus could do was manage the pot of money and try to barter as best he could. Ford Mercury and Porsche came every night to peddle their provisions; Taunus and the engineer took charge of distributing them, taking into consideration each person’s health. Incredibly, the old woman in the ID was still alive, lost in a stupor the women were trying to dissipate. The lady in the Beaulieu, who just a few days before had been vomiting and suffering from nausea, had recovered in the cold weather and and was one of those who helped the nun most with her companion, weak still and a little disoriented. The soldier’s wife and the woman from the 203 were minding the children; the travelling salesman, perhaps to distract himself from the fact that the girl in the Dauphine had preferred the engineer, spent hours telling them stories. At night the lives of the group took on a stealthy, more private character; the car doors would open silently to let in or out some shivering silhouette; no-one looked at anyone else, their eyes as blind as their very shadow. Beneath dirty anoraks, with overgrown fingernails, smelling of being confined in stale, old clothes, there was still a degree of happiness here and there."

- translation by Danny Fitzgerald

France's situation in the 1960s was similar to China's today: record-breaking economic growth after the war, greater mobility, and increasing status among the world's great nations. In both 1960s France and contemporary China, the traffic jam is a symbol of modern opportunity and success, but it's also a nervous reminder of the brutal, survivalist lifestyle that both nations had recently left behind. They're refugee camps for the new middle class.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Great Plastic Migration

This nature documentary about the trans-oceanic migrations of plastic bags is making the rounds today. The Californian nonprofit Heal the Bay is promoting the video as a means to rally support Assembly Bill 1998, which proposes to ban single-use plastic bags at California shops.

Note the appearance of the Los Angeles River around 2:20.

Though tongue-in-cheek, I would love to see more nature documentaries like this one. How about an episode about the larval stages of plastic bags, from the oil refinery to the grocery store?

Anyway, it's one thing to zoomorphize plastic bags. Why not anthropomorphize them as well - let them carry a human personality as they drift through the wind, freed from their more material cargo? This personality would necessarily need to have mixed feelings about its immortality - simultaneously self-important and lonely. And it would also have to feel a deep bitterness about its lack of agency, and resentment for the external natural forces that dictate its fate.

If you're saying to yourself, "Hey, that sounds a bit like Werner Herzog," you're in luck! He's precisely the man who narrates the thoughts of a lonely plastic bag in this video by director Ramin Bahrani:

After a tedious journey, Herzog the bag ends up in the Pacific Ocean as well, not particularly fulfilled by its migration, and somewhat bitter at its own failure to die.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

"Environmentalism" fiddles while the planet burns

In case you missed it, the United States Senate has given up on trying to pass a law that would slow down the nation's greenhouse gas emissions. Even after the nation's worst oil spill in history and scorching heat waves worldwide, Democrats failed to gain any Republican support for their proposals.

So we'll just have to let the planet stew in its own juices and wait until the next time progressive lawmakers with a 60-vote majority in Washington might be compelled by a massive environmental emergency to do something. But who wants to bet that can happen before our modern society and political institutions melt away in the heat?

In the last few days, there's been a lot of hand-wringing and finger-pointing from pundits and politicians. But I think that one of the best responses came from David Roberts at Grist, in a post headlined 'Environmentalism' Can Never Address Climate Change.

Roberts writes:
Environmentalism has a well-defined socioeconomic niche in American life. There are distinct cultural markers; familiar tropes and debates; particular groups designated to lobby for change and economic interests accustomed to fighting it; conventional methods of litigation, regulation, and legislation. Environmental issues take a very specific shape.

The thing is, that shape doesn't fit climate change. Climate change -- or rather, the larger problem of which climate change is a symptom -- isn't like the issues that American environmentalism evolved to address.
He goes on to make the point that the environmental establishment had its genesis in, and grew from, its battles against industry. Early environmental activists shut down factories that were dumping sludge into rivers and lakes and rammed their boats against whaling ships. Later environmental activists took industry to court over more abstract environmental problems like mercury emissions and underground groundwater contamination.

Those big problems have been largely addressed: by most measures (if you leave out greenhouse gas pollution), our American physical environment has less pollution to deal with now than we've had since the industrial revolution took hold.

So: can the same environmental establishment that gave us the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts save us from global warming? The recent failure in Washington does not inspire confidence, and Roberts makes a compelling case for why that is:
The entry of the problem [climate change] into American politics via environmentalism has set it on a certain cultural and political trajectory that is both inadequate and extremely difficult to escape.

Addressing the climate challenge will crucially involve restraining industry emissions (the vaunted "cap"). But that is only one of myriad strategies and changes that will be necessary. The environmental advocacy community has tried, of late, to reshape itself to the contours of the problem before it. It has tried to act with a more singular focus, in a more unified way, and to bring other interest groups (military, religious, etc.) into the fold. It has tried to reorient around a more forward-thinking, positive agenda ("clean energy"). Contrary to a lot of the sniping you hear these days, the efforts of those involved have been heroic.

But it's an impossible task. There is no siloed progressive interest group that can engineer the wholesale reindustrialization of the United States. Period. No amount of clever framing or thoughtful policy proposals can overcome the basic limitations of interest group politics.

Many green leaders are now saying that what's missing is a climate movement. That's obviously true in some sense; this will be the work of generations. But the question is whether "the environmental movement" can catalyze a big enough movement to be effective on this problem.

What needs to happen is for concern over earth's biophysical limitations to transcend the environmental movement -- and movement politics, as handed down from the '60s, generally. It needs to take its place alongside the economy and national security as a priority concern of American elites across ideological and organizational lines. It needs to become a shared concern of every American citizen regardless of ideological orientation or level of political engagement. That is the only way we can ever hope to bring about the urgent necessary changes.
To put it another way: this can not be a traditional environmentalist battle against industry, because nearly everyone agrees that industry - and the entire economy - is what needs to be reinvented in order to stop burning fossil fuels and start finding more innovative, efficient forms of energy.

I have worked for years inside and in league with a number of old-line environmental groups, and from that perspective, I unfortunately have to agree with Roberts's diagnosis. "Environmentalism" carries too much baggage from the baby-boom generation whose suburban-back-to-the-land, materialist lifestyle has done so much climate damage.

For many people my age, it's extremely frustrating to see dominant "environmental" organizations behave as though the most productive thing we can do is to buy up lots of land for conservation reserves. Or worse, when we pour thousands of dollars' worth of nonprofit resources to file injunctions against the "scenic impacts" of clean energy projects.

Sure, these things satisfy the comfortable baby-boomers who want to have a nice view outside the picture windows of their ski condos.

But these kinds of actions, and their funders, are calcifying the environmental establishment into something that's demographically old and elite, and politically out-of-touch and ineffective.

Nero fiddled while Rome burned; the environmental establishment fiddles while the entire planet burns.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

How the Last Big Oil Spill Helped Create the Credit Crisis

My last post casually mentioned credit default swaps, a fancy financial trick that helped create the credit crisis of 2008 (Planet Money did an amazing reporting series on credit default swaps for NPR back while the crisis was happening).

What I didn't know when I started writing that post was that the Exxon Valdez oil spill actually inspired the invention of credit default swaps. In a way, the loan for restoring Prince William Sound was the first-ever subprime mortgage- the ultimate fixer-upper.

Here's how it happened. In the first court judgment against Exxon Mobil for the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, an Anchorage jury awarded the defendants $5 billion in punitive damages. This was in 1994.

Author Gillian Tett, a financial writer who possesses a valuable background in social anthropology, describes what happened next in her book "Fool's Gold," a detailed history of the financial innovations and machinations that led up to the credit crisis. John Lanchester provides a succinct summary in his June 2009 New Yorker review:
Exxon needed to open a line of credit to cover potential damages of five billion dollars... J. P. Morgan was reluctant to turn down Exxon, which was an old client, but the deal would tie up a lot of reserve cash to provide for the risk of the loans going bad. The so-called Basel rules, named for the town in Switzerland where they were formulated, required that the banks hold eight per cent of their capital in reserve against the risk of outstanding loans. That limited the amount of lending bankers could do, the amount of risk they could take on, and therefore the amount of profit they could make. But, if the risk of the loans could be sold, it logically followed that the loans were now risk-free; and, if that were the case, what would have been the reserve cash could now be freely loaned out. No need to suck up useful capital.

In late 1994, Blythe Masters, a member of the J. P. Morgan swaps team, pitched the idea of selling the credit risk to the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development. So, if Exxon defaulted, the E.B.R.D. would be on the hook for it—and, in return for taking on the risk, would receive a fee from J. P. Morgan. Exxon would get its credit line, and J. P. Morgan would get to honor its client relationship but also to keep its credit lines intact for sexier activities. The deal was so new that it didn’t even have a name: eventually, the one settled on was “credit-default swap.”
So the new "credit default swap" allowed Exxon borrow on more attractive terms than it otherwise would have gotten, while J.P. Morgan got to export the risk of the loan to Europe, and free up more of its own money to lend to other borrowers.

To draw a more familiar analogy, Exxon was like the shady homebuyer who might lose his job at any moment, and J.P. Morgan was the mortgage broker who nevertheless assured him that he was still completely qualified to borrow. And the oil-soaked Prince William Sound was the fixer-upper whose cleanup costs were on the bottom line. Thanks to the credit default swap, the actual responsibility for that mess - like the actual responsibility for millions of underwater mortgages today - wouldn't really be owned by anyone.

The irony is that this first-ever credit default swap actually worked out well for its players: Exxon merged with Mobil and the new company, ExxonMobil, now makes around $40 billion in profits in a typical year. The $5 billion punishment was also recently rejected by the Supreme Court. So needless to say, the risky loan never defaulted, and the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development kept its money.

J.P. Morgan, meanwhile, was able to offer more and more credit default swaps, and merged with Chase bank in 2000. By 2008, when it became evident that many of those credit default swaps were tangled up in a worthless house of cards, the company was one of the nation's four largest banks deemed "too big to fail," and received a $25 billion bailout from the federal government.

Most people would agree that ExxonMobil still hasn't served justice for the Exxon Valdez spill, but look at it this way: the company made $45 billion in profits in 2008, but a year later, it pulled in less than half that amount, thanks in large part to the global financial crisis. By seeking a cheap loan to cover its ass and pass the buck back in 1994, the corporation helped invent the financial device that inadvertently brought the world's economy (and the world's thirst for oil) to its knees. ExxonMobil still cleared almost $20 billion last year, though, so the schadenfreude is admittedly dim.

It's more interesting to think about how BP and the global financial markets will cope with the cleanup bill for the much larger Deepwater Horizon disaster. Suddenly, the multi-trillion dollar business of drilling for oil miles below the surface of the ocean looks a lot riskier. But it's still an extremely lucrative enterprise, which means that the world's bankers will inevitably invent new contortions and pyramid schemes to cover those risks and finance more wells.

So what will become of our economy and society when those schemes, like the underwater wells they're designed to finance, inevitably fail one more time?

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Pelicans Meet the Markets

The Planet Money podcast - which continues to be excellent, even now that we're (maybe?) out of the economic apocalypse and there's no longer a pressing need to explain what a credit default swap is - takes a crack at tallying the price tag for dead pelicans in the Gulf:

This is a practical problem right now as we figure out how much we should fine BP for its spectacular oil spill. What's a fair price to put on the damage? In some cases, that's pretty easy to figure out: we can multiply the x tourists who won't be visiting oily beaches this summer by the y dollars they might have spent at seaside hotels and beach towns, and then we can add in the loss of p tons of commercial seafood, which would normally sell for q dollars per pound.

But how do you calculate the value of rescuing an oily pelican? Unlike shrimp and hotel rooms, there's no market for most of the Gulf's wildlife.

One strategy is to ask people how much they'd be willing to pay to save one pelican. Animal rescue groups, for instance, are spending about $500 on each bird they save. That tells us that each pelican is worth at least $500 among bird enthusiasts, who may well be willing to pay even more than that. But presumably most people aren't ready to cough up that much money to save one bird.
BP Oiled Birds in Louisiana

Broadening this approach gets into the economic method of contingent valuation, which was first employed on a large scale to figure out the damages caused from the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. In this method, economists deliver surveys to a broad swath of the population - including people who will never see a pelican in the flesh - to ask them if they would be willing to pay $X dollars to save one bird. As with any product, values will differ: some people will say "no" to paying $2, while others will say "yes" to paying $100. But with enough responses, economists can construct a demand curve, and figure out the equilibrium where the marginal cost of saving one more bird is just equal to society's marginal benefit.

So, if there are 20,000 people in the world who say they're willing to pay at least $500 to save one pelican, and it costs $500 to save each pelican, then BP should pony up $10 million to save 20,000 pelicans.

This method, too, is controversial. Its biggest problem is that it's too abstract - it's easy to tell a survey-taker that you'd pay $500 to save a pelican, but if the opportunity actually presented itself, would you really postpone your credit card payments to save one bird?

Even for environmentalists, it's a problematic question. Most would probably argue that we, as a society, should spend $10 million to save birds, right? But what if that means that we, as a society, will no longer be able to afford to spend $10 million on a solar energy project, or to conserve a wilderness area from development? Is the immediate plight of few thousand pelicans in the Gulf more important than shutting down a coal plant, or preserving a wild forest?

When I studied environmental economics in college and administered contingent valuation surveys about Oregonians' values of wild salmon in a seminar with Dr. Noelwah Netusil, there were a number of campus activists in my classes who bristled at any notion of putting an economic value on wildlife. Preserving the environment was a moral imperative, in their view, and it needed to be done without regard to the cost. They also criticized its anthropocentrism: how dare we impose our human values, and the structures of a social science, on a natural system that had been around for billions of years before Adam Smith?

That's a nice sentiment, and it may even be an honest reflection of their personal values - they may well have been willing to sacrifice everything they owned for wild salmon.

But it's not realistic for society as a whole. Economics is about managing scarcity, and dedicating our limited resources to achieving the best outcomes. Homo sapiens isn't the only species that practices economic calculations. A wolf makes hunting decisions based on whether the expected value of a meal is worth the cost of running to catch it; plants allocate energy and resources to roots or leaves depending on the respective values of nourishment from the soil or from the sun.

In the 21st century, environmentalists have no shortage of demands on their time and money, and our time and money are scarce resources. The view that everything in nature is sacred and has infinite value is not productive. It's preventing individuals and organizations from setting priorities and winning victories.

At some point, we'll need to stop worrying about the pelicans and start paying those workers to build solar panels and public transit lines, instead of using toothbrushes to get oil out of feathers.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Dumpster Pools on Streets Without Cars

Damn, that last post was a real downer. Sorry, everyone. Why don't we beat the heat by taking a dip in a recycled dumpster parked on a car-free Park Avenue in front of Grand Central Station?

This is roughly what Park Avenue near 42nd Street will look like on three consecutive Saturdays in August, when the city invites pedestrian and cyclists to enjoy major streets without any motor vehicle traffic. It has all the trappings of a futuristic Ecotopia, where fashionable pedestrians have re-conquered the highways from automobiles and dumpsters hold swimming pools instead of garbage. Luckily the image above is just a Photoshop job, so that kid diving into the shallow end isn't really going to break his neck.

The dumpster pools are a new addition for the second annual "Summer Streets" event. This massive prohibition of motor vehicle traffic on one of Manhattan's major avenues to is actually an initiative of the city's Department of Transportation under the leadership of Janette Sadik-Kahn, an avid cyclist and pedestrian. Let this be a lesson to all the other Departments of Transportation: while your pencil-necked bureaucrats are making life more difficult for pedestrians and designing expensive new ways for people to waste their time in traffic, New York City is showing us how transportation planners can actually be lovable.

Monday, July 19, 2010

It's been warm where I am, and where you are, too

This Guardian summary of the latest record-breaking temperature data from NOAA is chockablock full of staggering and depressing facts. Among them:
  • Last month was the hottest June ever recorded worldwide and the fourth consecutive month that the combined global land and sea temperature records have been broken.

  • According to NOAA, June was the 304th consecutive month with a combined global land and surface temperature above the 20th-century average. The last month with below-average temperatures was February 1985.

  • Separate satellite data from the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Colorado shows that the extent of sea ice in the Arctic was at its lowest for any June since satellite records started in 1979.

I found this report via Wired writer Bruce Sterling's Twitter feed, where he made the powerful observation that we'll spend the rest of our lives "dolefully watching physical realities like 'hottest month ever recorded.'"

Future heat waves will break records of the less-distant future, which themselves will outdo these heat extremes of the present day. Struggling journalism institutions like the Guardian will cut costs by recycling the same report, tweaking the details as necessary, and someday soon getting rid of the reference to Arctic sea ice when Arctic sea ice disappears altogether.

But at some point, the reports will cease. When agriculture fails and as more and more nations collapse over water shortages and economic turmoil, organizations like NOAA will either lose their capacity to collect and analyze global climate data, or cease to exist altogether. At that point in our lives, if our lives haven't gone the way of our political and economic institutions, we'll no longer be burdened by these reports and their staggering statistics.

We'll merely be burdened by the staggering reality of a broken world.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Organic labels

Via Wonder-Tonic.com, "a downloadable set of 16 stickers to let you label your favorite foods, books, and appliances as organic. Just print them out, stick them on, and start feeling good about yourself!"

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Hot Days Incinerate Oil

If you're an electric utility, you don't take the dog days of summer lying down. No, when it's 95 degrees outside, that's when you want to burn millions of gallons of oil in your oldest, least efficient power plants. Beat the heat by starting a thousand-degree inferno.

That's exactly what's happening across the northeastern United States this week, as record temperatures are also breaking records for electrical consumption. It's the first law of thermodynamics writ large: as millions of office buildings, supermarkets, and houses work their AC units to stay cool, the region's utilities need to put massive amounts of heat into the system, and they fire up every power plant they have at their disposal to meet the demand.
Most utilities keep a handful big power plants in reserve, maintained year-round just to operate a handful of times a year when the grid needs to call in the cavalry. Many of these plants tend to be old and relatively inefficient: they're not economical to run on a daily basis, but they're maintained in running condition for the handful of days each year when they might come in handy, and when spot-prices for electricity rise high enough to justify their high costs of operation.

One such power plant is located right on the edge of scenic Casco Bay, visible from Portland's Eastern Promenade Park and from thousands of other waterfront vistas in greater Portland. Wyman Station, about which I've blogged previously here, is a 1970s-vintage oil-fired power plant capable of generating more electricity (over 800 megawatts) than any other plant in Maine. It's old, it's inefficient, it burns expensive fuel, and it occupies extremely valuable coastal Maine real estate. But it's still there for those few times when a million air conditioners ask the grid to turn the juice up to eleven, and pay for the privilege.

In 2005, the most recent year for which data is available, Wyman Station, in spite of its sporadic use, still managed to produce 2860 tons of sulphur dioxide, 155 tons of carbon monoxide, and 736 tons of nitrogen oxides (source: US EPA). According to the US Energy Information Administration, burning a thousand gallons of heavy oil in a typical boiler yields about 47 pounds of nitrogen oxides, so a little math tells us that Wyman burned somewhere on the order of 30 million gallons of oil in 2005.

In SI units, that is 1.3 shit-tons of filthy fuel. Imagine the Deepwater Horizon oil leak spilling into Casco Bay for 7 days, and you'll have a rough idea of how much oil Wyman burns every year. Go ahead, imagine it.

As I said before, this is for a plant that's only run for a few days each year. So here's the good news: every New Englander who turns off the lights in their office, or shuts down their computers during the hottest mid-afternoon hours to do some old-fashioned analog work, can help save a few gallons of oil from going up in smoke. Many utilities are giving large customers a price break if they do this on the hottest days, since asking your customers to turn off the lights can be cheaper than running expensive diesel backup generators. Right now, this is all done with polite phone calls, but in the near future, appliances will develop a hive mind to communicate with the electric grid, take turns sucking down scarce juice, and keep places from Wyman Station from starting fires on hot days. Others have argued that the situation calls for more solar panels, which tend to generate the most electricity on these hot and sunny summer days.

In the meantime, consider giving your appliances - and your local power plant - a break on these hot afternoons. With or without futuristic "smart grid" technology, if a few thousand New Englanders manage to cut back their consumption on hot days, we could shut places like Wyman Station down for good.

Friday, July 02, 2010

In Seach of Moosey Paradise: A Walk Along Portland's Inner-City Wildlife Corridors

The big news here in Portland yesterday was a young bull moose who had wandered into Deering Oaks Park, a formally-landscaped open space in the central city. Just like the opening credits of Northern Exposure, but with more spectators.

According to reports, the animal took a dip in the park's pond, where it attracted a small crowd of onlookers, as well as the city's police department and a state game warden, who were concerned about how it would cross I-295 on its way out of the city. One of my favorite details of the story is how they were going to shoot the animal with a tranquilizer, but the warden's gun jammed just when she got a clear shot. Apparently Portland's big-game armory has suffered from infrequent use.

It ended up taking the Forest Avenue underpass, crossing one of the city's busiest streets twice, then escaping through the University of Southern Maine campus. It was later spotted at Chevrus High School, located in an inner suburban neighborhood, before it made its way west through the woods in Evergreen Cemetery. The animal was reportedly exhausted, but unscathed.

This isn't the first time a young bull moose has appeared in downtown Portland. A few years ago, police shot one in the middle of the city's Munjoy Hill neighborhood - an even stranger place to see such a huge animal, since it lies at the end of a peninsula, cut off from the mainland by a freeway and the city's central business district. That was also early in the summer, a time of year when juvenile males tend to strike out on their own and take risks in pursuit of their own territory.

These moose that wander into the city obviously have no conception of where it was, just a sense of hope that, on the other side of this neighborhood, it might find a big-enough block of swampy woods with a small surplus of female moose. I'm reminded of how deer and other mammals came to populate islands far from and out of sight of the mainland, swimming for hours on a vague scent, with no way of knowing how much further land would be, or whether they might drown in the crossing. At the risk of anthropomorphizing, I'm impressed at this moose's sense of adventure - its willingness to take big risks to find a great new place.

This kind of exploration is hard to come by for anyone who actually lives in and knows the city. But the moose's path in and out of Portland seems to have gravitated towards the city's remaining blocks of undeveloped land and forested parks - and the places where a moose would feel most at home happen to be the kinds of places I most enjoy exploring myself.

Because there aren't any public reports of the moose before it was sighted in Deering Oaks Park, it's hard to tell how this particular moose got into the city, but I suspect that it either came in the way it left, through Evergreen Cemetery, or it ventured in along the banks of the Stroudwater and Fore Rivers. Here's a map:

Although Portland is on a peninsula, there are two large blocks of wildlands on its fringes that extend towards the central city. To the south, critters like deer and coyotes regularly migrate into the city along the Stroudwater River, which is surrounded by a large block of swampy, undeveloped woods, as well as several farms and golf courses. The Maine Turnpike, probably the biggest barrier for critters trying to get into the city (it's the red-dashed line running across the map above) flies over the Stroudwater on a wide bridge, which makes it easy for critters (and people - this is roughly the path of the Stroudwater Trail) to cross under the highway:

On the other side of the Turnpike, just north of the mouth of the Stroudwater, there's the Fore River Preserve, a former Maine Audubon property that occupies the headwaters of the Fore River along with acres of marsh and forested uplands. From the Preserve, a moose bound for the city could walk through the sparsely-populated neighborhood between the Fore River and the railroad tracks, cross under I-295 at the bridge, and then follow an abandoned railway into Deering Oaks, without seeing a human soul.

Alternatively, a critter could cross the Turnpike at one of two other Turnpike underpasses: one at Warren Avenue, a relatively rural-feeling road that cuts through an industrial area, and one where the Presumpscot River passes under the Turnpike in the city's northernmost reaches. From either of these options, a moose could cut through the thin patches of woods between houses in the city's low-density outer suburbs, before reaching the the Evergreen Cemetery. While the front of the Cemetery, along Stevens Avenue, is highly landscaped, and doesn't offer much cover for critters, the back of the Cemetery is a huge, wild forest that extends almost all the way to the Turnpike. Better still, right across Stevens Avenue from the Cemetery is Baxter Woods, a forested city park, which itself is just a skip across a busy road and railroad tracks to a smaller tract of woods around the new Ocean Avenue School. From there, its just a matter of trespassing through some inner-suburb backyards to get to the parklike University of Southern Maine campus, which is right across the freeway from Deering Oaks Park. The moose yesterday opted to take a detour to the north to visit Chevrus High School, but this roughly describes his escape route.

By coming into Portland, this moose has demonstrated to us an inner-city bushwhacking course through the wildest remaining areas of our city. While I've hiked portions of this itinerary before (such as the Stroudwater Trail, which I described here), I've never tried to do the whole thing in a day, as this moose did. But I think it would be fun to try.