What was it, roughly, that we were thinking there, if anything? Part two.

So, there was a high school class reunion a few months back, and it’s World Series time again, so now seems a good time for an overdue, second episode of our series of the above title. In episode one, I explored an incident involving sub-optimal decision making in high school so I think I’ll just continue on that theme here.

I saw a number of old classmates, and teammates, at the reunion. I think class reunions are great. They can cause one to reflect on really important topics, such as the passage of time, or the nature of life’s changes. Or to even deeper things. Explosives for example. Just what “loud” really entails. The nature of stupidity.

It seems that I had become aware that personal fireworks were legal in the next county, and had thus traveled the 40 miles to obtain a few dozen “M-80” fireworks, ostensibly for use during the Fourth of July. It also seems that sometime later, my friend Steve and I found ourselves parked in front of our friend Doug Brown’s house after dark, with said bag of M-80s and a lighter. Now, an M-80, we’d been told, contained the equivalent gunpowder of a quarter stick of dynamite, which I thought was pretty impressive but did no actual testing of. If one of these things goes off on, say, someone’s front porch, it would not typically go unnoticed, and that concept did seem, to us, worthy of some testing at that particular time.

It additionally seems that I was the driver and Doug’s house was off to our left. The plan, which I think we put a solid 30 seconds of thought into, was that we would launch one of these onto Doug’s porch–about maybe 75 ft away–while seated in the vehicle, so as to effect a prompt getaway. We came up with a fair and efficient division of labor in which Steve would light the fuse and hand the thing to me–I would then fire it toward the porch and immediately hit the gas, making ourselves rapidly scarce. It was a great plan as far as I was concerned: all I had to do was throw and floor it, whereas Steve had the equivalent of six to eight sticks of dynamite in a bag on his lap, with an open flame in his hand. This struck me as equitable, given that I was providing the vehicle and the right arm.

So…what’s the baseball connection here, you may wonder. Well, I played shortstop in high school, whereas Steve didn’t, and so it was logical that I should do whatever throwing was involved. Shortstop is a fun position, because you get to sprint to chase down ground balls, and then watch the first baseman sprint to chase down the throw you just sailed some distance beyond him. Now, 70-80 feet is a lot shorter than a typical throw from shortstop to first base…but an M-80 is also a lot lighter than a baseball. So I knew I should put some mustard on it to insure getting it at least somewhere near the porch. Being quite experienced at firing balls into the adjacent woods from deep short, I wasn’t too worried about it. If the M-80 banged off the front of the house first or whatever, no big deal, I mean assuming nobody opened the front door at the wrong instant.

Now may be a good time to remind ourselves of the importance of taking all potentially relevant variables into consideration–apriori even–in events like these. And do we think enough about the tangible value of trial runs? Probably some room for improvement there too.

Anyway, Steve successfully got said firework lit without blowing us up, and the ensuing exchange to me was also flawless. With right arm extended and a good five seconds or so to work with, I eyed Doug’s porch and applied my best Nolan Ryan fastball to the explosive. Now, I think it’s fair to say that (1) the average person is just not that aware of exactly where one’s car door meets one’s car roof, (2) that I qualify as quite average in that context, and (3) that that specific location took on above average significance, in that particular situation. In short, when my hand was just about to send said explosive device on it’s planned trajectory, said hand was inadvertently applied, with considerable force, to said vehicular location, and separated from said device, thereby placing the latter on a trajectory not nearly as likely to achieve the original objective. This in turn would necessitate a rapid adjustment in plan and action, not to mention vocalization.

This is more or less a science blog, and I ask you, are many topics more fascinating, really, than the physics of acoustics under confinement? Maybe heredity–I find that interesting too. Also, involuntary reflexes, impromptu vocalizations: good stuff. How about hand-eye coordination under duress? Personal safety and survival? Blood?
Bodily dismemberment? All topics worthy of consideration when you get down to it. Let’s explore some of these for just a moment.

Acoustic physics, let’s take. As we know, Newton’s First Law of Loud, states “Any acoustically active device, placed under spatial confinement, will manifest even more of its acoustic characteristics, in fact quite a lot more than you’d think just from theory alone”. Take spatial relationships: just how much room for rapid bodily movement is there, really, in the front passenger seat of a typical car? How can humans maximize movement efficiency in response to active, explosive devices experiencing random trajectories?

Now back to our story. To cut to the chase, upon hand-car impact, our active device–the one under current discussion–experienced a rather sudden change of x coordinate velocity–one markedly away from Doug’s front porch, opposite that really, which is to say in the general direction of one Steve. More specifically, toward Steve’s male-specific, hereditarily significant anatomy. And there it landed, for a brief moment. Although entirely stunned, and with my hand feeling possibly broken, I was still able to collect myself, breathe a sigh of relief and comment on just how fortunate we were, really, that said M-80 had not taken an alternate trajectory and landed instead, in or near the bag of 30 or so other M-80s, within the confines of our vehicle, in which we too were present, due to our plan, in the street in front of our friend Doug Brown’s house. Steve also reflected for a bit on this fortunate state and concurred that such an outcome would have been potentially problematic on several counts, not the least of which was just how autopsies and identifications based on scattered body parts are conducted.

The preceding is not in fact what transpired at that moment.

Rather, Steve executed what I think to this day is the most rapid series of body movements I’ve ever seen from a human being, with the possible exception of the time I scrambled up and over a rock to find my neck about three feet directly in front of the head of a large rattlesnake. Conscious thought was not part of the process. M-80s had fuse times of roughly six to seven seconds, going strictly from memory. I’d guestimate that at this point, about four of those remained. As I recall it, there were, in order (1) an involuntary yell, (2) a ceiling-constrained jump upward, and (3) a failed attempt to flick the thing, by a backhand motion, away from where it resided. This process took maybe two seconds, maximum, and led to another entirely frantic attempt–panicked would work–which succeeded in flinging the thing down towards Steve’s feet. This, very fortunately, was not where the bag of other M-80s had been placed, and additionally, it’s one thing to have your feet blown off but quite another to have your evolutionary lineage ended.

Down there our device detonated, with a flash, maybe 1 to 1.5 seconds later.

What M-80 detonations lack in duration and beauty of light display they make up for in sheer decibels; they aren’t fireworks so much as small bombs. This was the most unbelievably loud thing I’d ever heard, and that includes seeing Ted Nugent in the old concrete and steel Toledo Sports Arena (also with Steve). It was concussive. Steve told me he basically could not hear for several days. The car was immediately filled with an acrid cloud of sulfurous smoke. My hand felt very possibly broken. I could neither hear nor see, and my first thought was “We gotta get out of here right NOW, before Doug comes out and sees this”. Or even worse, his dad, with a possible call to the police. But even in the best of circumstances, it’s not easy to go straight from Nolan Ryan to Mario Andretti, quickly. I could not see without sticking my head out the window, which I did until the breeze created cleared out the cab. I’m not sure that Steve knew exactly what had happened or even where he was, but didn’t have time to investigate. I was pretty sure he was alive and that would have to be good enough for the moment.

I think the evening’s festivities were concluded with this event, although I wouldn’t necessarily place money on that either. If Doug is reading, I’d like to formally apologize for the rubber patch laid in front of his house and any subsequent effect on property values that may have resulted.

Thanks for reading and please stay tuned for the next episode, in which we’ll explore how surprisingly inconvenient cul-de-sacs can be in certain circumstances, and/or other fascinating topics.


On a mission on Independence Day

Independence Day, anniversary no. 241 is upon us, a holiday surely on the short list of important ones in the United States. There’s no end to the philosophical and political ideas that can be, and have been, expounded upon. But as for me, I’m thinking about connections inspired by the research and personal reading I’ve been doing lately. Bear with me grizzlies, while I attempt to connect genetic research on rare California plants to American history.

I started graduate school in genetics, not ecology, and that field has always been the most fascinating to me. I’m in fact currently working on a topic that bridges the two fields, referred to as genetic biocontrol, the aim of which is to use genetic methods to reduce fitness, and hence population sizes, of harmful or otherwise unwanted species. So, I was sad to learn in a recent special issue devoted to the work of Dr. Leslie Gottlieb of UC Davis, on polyploid genetics, that he had passed away five years ago. The major focal taxon of Gottlieb’s work was the genus Clarkia, and I had some good conversations with him when I was doing restoration and propagation work on a very rare Clarkia (C. lingulata) endemic to the Merced River canyon, the main river flowing into, and through, Yosemite Valley. This is a famous species in plant genetics, cited in textbooks as an example of instantaneous speciation (see here and here), derived from it’s progenitor, Clarkia biloba. Clarkia lingulata is found in only two populations near the junction of the South Fork Merced with its main stem, a few miles west of the western boundary of Yosemite National Park.

Said River of Mercy is not merciful this year though, or any time at high water, should you happen to be in it. It is uncontrolled, and at high water rages through a steep, boulder filled death sieve as it leaves Yosemite Valley and heads for the San Joaquin. I still remember well the day that a woman, with her three kids, fell asleep at the wheel after driving all night, and drove off the road and into the river at daybreak, just above this location, drowning them all. When I was kayaking, the Merced was the only river that ever scared me off the river, although part of that was due to being solo and exhausted, which is a full-on recipe for disaster. There is also some very interesting history regarding Clarkia lingulata‘s location, one involving the cause of the American discovery of Yosemite Valley in 1851, but I won’t go into that here.

In one of our discussions, Les discussed some aspects of another rare Clarkia species he was working with, Clarkia franciscana. The species is so named because it is found only in the immediate area of the San Francisco Presidio–and this makes for a segue from genetics to history, involving the SF Presidio, Spain, Mexico and the United States, Upper (or New) California, and July of 1776.

The history of what is now the state of California has, I think, to rank as one of the most interesting of any in the world, and especially so from 1846 to 1850. Just a week before the momentous event in Philadelphia, a small group of Spanish Franciscans, with a small military escort, arrived from the Carmel River area (just south of present Monterey, CA), to extend the Spanish Upper California dominion northward by establishing their third presidio (military base and/or fort, the first two being at San Diego and Monterey in 1769/1770), and with it another mission of course. These establishments were significant because both were to carry the name of the order’s founder, Saint Francis of Assisi.

On June 27 1776, this group came upon a small creek draining the peninsular hills east (toward San Francisco Bay), which they named Dolores, and decided that this would serve as the future mission site. On June 29 they established an altar and consecrated the site, and then began looking for a strategic location for the presidio and fort, which they located on a high bluff commanding the narrow entrance to the bay (the “Golden Gate”), just to the water side of what is now the southern anchorage of the Golden Gate Bridge.

A depiction of Mission Dolores circa 1893 by Edward Borein

At this point, books worth of material could be inserted discussing the Spanish (and after 1822, Mexican) discovery, settlement and management of Upper California, and with jaw fairly agape at both the process and the end result (circa 1848), for much of it. And we, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, wouldn’t be the first to do so either–the Russians, the British, and especially the Americans, of that time, did so also. It’s documented in various writings, which are for me at least, entirely fascinating. Some of it seems to defy logic. If anyone could write an authoritative book titled “Imperial expansion: how not to do it”, it would have to be the Spanish and/or Mexicans.

To say that things went downhill for the Spanish from 1776 to 1848 would be the understatement of the century. Twenty-one missions were established in Upper California during the “mission period” from 1769 to the American conquest in 1846, but for various reasons including Russian presence starting around 1805, only two north of Mission Dolores (Missions San Rafael and Solano), and both of those quite late in the game. The events in Philadelphia five days after consecration of the Mission San Francisco de Assis (= Dolores) site, caused the Spanish to pull back on several intended plans in northwestern New Spain, now the western United States, including expansion north of San Francisco Bay and another plan for a series of missions in the interior lands east and south of it.

Mission Dolores circa 1842 by Henry Miller

One argument has it that in so doing the Spanish were hoping to marshall their energies to re-claim parts of Spanish Florida lost initially to the French, and hence to the British after 1763, thinking that the Revolutionary War might offer their best chance to do so. But this plan, along with apparently about everything the Spanish and Mexicans did from 1800-1850, backfired. Not only did they not increase Spanish Florida, they quickly lost what they already had. This was followed later (1822) by the entire loss of New Spain, i.e. Mexican independence. The fracturing of the once vast Spanish empire then continued as the Mexicans in turn quickly lost Texas to independence, whose annexation by the United States about a decade later thus led to the Mexican-American war. In amazingly short order therein, they then managed to not only not reclaim Texan territory, but instead to astoundingly quickly lose both California and New Mexico. This was followed in less than a year by surrender, and with it the additional loss of what are now roughly the states of Utah, Nevada and Arizona. The total area is a large and very valuable chunk of real estate, by any standard.

I’m no historian, though I read my fair share, but compared to the serious difficulties and drain of two wars with the British spanning 40 years, and the even more extended and often ferocious wars with various Native American tribes, this sudden acquisition of a vast, important territory without much of a fight stands out. James Marshall discovered gold in the tail race of John Sutter’s sawmill east of what is now Sacramento just about two weeks before the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo officially ceded all this territory to the United States. That this should happen to a people who had historically been obsessed and sometimes deluded by various fantastic stories regarding that material, kind of says it all. Marshall and Sutter tried to keep the discovery secret for a couple of months but that was a lost cause, and they likely knew it–it was a virtual certainty that the gold veins and placer deposits that ran up and down half the Sierra Nevada, and elsewhere, would be found in almost no time by those about to pour unobstructed into what was now the United States. And so they poured. And the rest as they say…