Memories of Highway 27

Angie and I have been wanting to return to the place we got married, Eufaula, Alabama, for some time and the timing was right to go on the weekend after my birthday this year. Our plan was to stay at a quaint-looking bed-and-breakfast we found on the internet in Blakely, GA and visit some places that held special significance for us.

We took I-10 E for most of the journey, passing through the Mobile tunnel for the first time in quite a while, and exiting at Chipley, location of Florida’s Falling Waters State Park (known for its highly-local-precipitation-dependent waterfall), to begin the leg of the journey that would take us north back to Alabama. In Cottonwood, Alabama, we stopped at the Alabama Welcome Center on Hwy 231, where we were greeted by a giant plastic peanut and a sign declaring that the Wiregrass Area is the “peanut capital of the world.”

From Dothan, we turned northeast on Hwy 52, crossing into Georgia over the Chattahoochee River, which forms the boundary between those two states for most of their length. About an hour’s drive later, we arrived at the Willis Country Home Bed and Breakfast on Colomokee Church Road. This beautiful residence, set on 28 acres of mixed-use property just north of Blakely, is run by Eve and Wendy Willis, a friendly and engaging couple who go out of their way to make guests feel like family. It was late in the afternoon when we arrived and we spent some time getting to know our hosts in the media room before going on a snipe hunt for a local covered bridge (which we found when leaving on Sunday).

After returning from a reconnaissance trip southeast to Colquitt, we found the front of the house covered in green treefrogs. The little guys were all over the front porch area, drawn by the Willis’ sprinkler system and the outdoor lighting, which attracted numerous insects, including a large phasmatodean (walking-stick).

The next morning we returned to Colquitt, site of the Mayhaw Wildlife Management Area where I worked on a field project for Craig Guyer 15 years ago, and where Angie and I spent a lot of time together. Unfortunately, there appeared to be many more trailers located on the property since we were last there and we were unable to locate the ranger station where I spent my nights during that time. Reluctantly, as the day was growing short, we turned northwest towards Eufaula, a town we occasionally passed through on trips from Auburn to Colquitt (or vice-versa). More significantly, the seat of Barbour County is where we got married 13 years ago.

An hour’s travel took us to Eufaula, where we stopped at the courthouse aka our “wedding chapel.” Because it was a Saturday, we couldn’t go in but we took a picture outside, smiling and showing our wedding bands. Eufaula is allegedly the bass-fishing capital of the world and sits on a substantial body of fresh water known (curiously enough) as Lake Eufaula.

We turned northwest again to go to Auburn, where I formally proposed (in The Village Mall) and where Angie went to school. We weren’t able to see much of the campus because a home game was being played at the Jordan-Hare Stadium and massive crowds were present to see the Tigers-War Eagles face off against Louisiana Tech’s Bulldogs. We were amused to see that, just as at a typical LSU home game, various individuals, schools, and businesses selling parking spots close to the university. We walked through The Village and also passed The Wynnsong theater where we watched one of Angie’s favorite movies, Meet the Parents.

We returned to Blakely by the route we usually took between Colquitt and Auburn, passing through Phenix City, Alabama, and Columbus, Georgia on Hwy 27 and riding on its many hills. We stopped at the Chevron station in Cusseta, GA at the juncture of Hwy 27/Hwy 1 and Hwy 280. This was the site of many a late-night pitstop for hot chocolate between Colquitt and Auburn in my dad’s old Ford Ranger. From here, it was a straight shot south to Blakely.

That evening we had dinner with the Willises, who made a delightful feast and endearing company. Sunday morning we reluctantly turned the car westward to retrace our steps home.


Ghost stories

Sting released his album Brand New Day in 1999, around the same time I became reacquainted with the woman who would later become my wife. As I was making our bed today, I contemplated this song from that album, one of her personal favorites:

I had heard it myself before we listened to it together but it was her special take on the song that made me reflect on how she has a unique way of viewing things. To me, the song described a lonely man in the heart of winter, stoking a fire and bitterly reflecting on a lost love. But, perhaps because of the tempo shift that occurs in this version right at 2:50, Angie painted an entirely different story, something that went beyond the original lyrical content to paint a tale of redemption and renewal not despair and suffering. When I asked her once, in this time before we were married, how exactly she could view this song that seemed to be drenched in sorrow as a happy song, one that she thinks of as one of “our” songs, she told me that it’s obvious that at the end, once the man admits to himself the truth he’s been denying for so long–that he truly loved this woman who was now gone–he immediately set off to find her and to be with her.

And I’ve never viewed it the same way since. While I still feel there is some validity to my original interpretation of Sting’s intent, Angie’s extratextual view quite frankly better fits the theme of the album on which the song lives, which is indeed about new beginnings. Her story is better than mine.

Audubon Insectarium appears tailored to appeal primarily to children

The Audubon Insectarium is evidently the red-headed stepchild of the Audubon Institute family of parks. We visited the facility several weeks ago and simply getting in proved to be more challenging than I anticipated. Because the Institute made the dubious decision to locate this attraction on the premises of a federal building, there is an absurdly high level of security required to enter, including a  metal detector and an x-ray scanner for your personal belongings. We didn’t get to experience any of that at first, of course, because we had pocket knives that we customarily carry on our persons. When Angie apprised one of the guards of this fact, he told us rather pointedly that signs were posted outside the building and that we were breaking the law by standing there. So we walked the four blocks back to the car because I refused to throw my knife away outside the building. When we returned to the facility, we then got to experience the full range of amenities at the security checkpoint, including having to remove EVERYTHING from my pockets and take off my belt. The lady behind me had to remove her shoes because they apparently had some kind of metal component that offended the walk-through detector. It was all fairly humiliating for a simple trip to a zoological feature; I haven’t had that level of scrutiny in any airport I’ve ever travelled through.

After the trial that was getting into the facility, we discovered (not to my great surprise) that the “Insectarium” could probably be more properly referred to as an “Arthropodarium” (although I will concede that this does not roll off the tongue quite as smoothly). We were greeted near the entrance by some fantastic cave roaches, a species I had not seen in person previously. These are quite large organisms, getting as large as 10 centimeters (by comparison the largest roaches you are likely to encounter “in the wild” locally are American cockroaches which only grow to approximately 40 mm). Next we encountered some velvet worms and millipedes. An assortment of leaf- and stick-mimics were on display along with a colony of leafcutter ants, Formosan termites (a huge problem for wooden structures in New Orleans), and curiously, yellow-fever mosquitoes (Aedes aegypti), which have largely been displaced in this area (for decades) by Aedes albopictus.

There were numerous kid-oriented features. These included a “walk underground area” complete with a motion-triggered giant fake spider (fortunately I was able to steer Angie clear of this); a demonstration area with trap-jaw ants and Madagascar hissing roaches; and a “4-D” movie theater with a short, slightly-educational eight-minute animated film. The “4D” is apparently a term that refers to “interactive” features such as a misting spray to simulate pheremones and “jumping” seats to simulate the sensation of something crawling under your butt. William Castle would be proud.

There is also an “insect tasting” where visitors can try prepared edible insects but we were too late for the morning offering.

The tour finishes with a gratuitously Japanese-themed butterfly garden with tortoises, birds, and a koi pond tossed in for good measure. The butterfly garden is interesting enough but it’s fairly small and padded with lots of non-lepidopteran things and thus pales in comparison to the one found at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Unsurprisingly, the butterfly garden exits directly to the gift shop.

A casual trip through the facility will take approximately an hour. Given the extraordinary diversity represented by the Insecta alone, on the whole I found this experience to be somewhat underwhelming. The collection is not terribly large nor does it appear that much effort was made to design this facility with a sufficient scope to give kids or adults an appreciation for insects. There are no apterygotes and no real mention that they exist. There was a larger bee colony at the now-defunct Louisiana Nature Center (and there exists a larger one at the Bluebonnet Swamp BREC park in Baton Rouge). Aside from the economic damage caused by termites, the ecological benefits of ants, and the human costs of yellow fever, there is little discussion of the impact that insects have on the world and on Man. At the end of the day, this is essentially more of a “place to take the kids on the weekend” than a zoological park.

To the Northshore

The first day of autumn 2013 was appropriately and uncharacteristically (for Louisiana) rather cool. I decided I would drag Angie away from her studies on the day after my birthday (which was a very rain-drenched affair) to a park we had never before visited. We hopped into our newly-returned Corolla late Sunday morning and headed east, destination: Fontainebleau State Park in Mandeville on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain.

After scouting out the route to the park  from the intersection of LA-59 and U.S. 190, we started thinking about an interesting local place to grab some lunch. After tossing around a few ideas, Angie found a place called Rips on the Lake on her phone and it was only a few miles to the west, so we decided to check it out. The restaurant was indeed on the lake and it was a large, two-story building with the main dining areas upstairs and a vast patio/bar area downstairs. Angie and I sat at a wrought-iron table on the porch and watched the lake across the street.

The salads were great but the main courses were merely okay (my shrimp were a bit bland and Angie’s oysters were not her favorite). As many of you reading this may know, I’m on something of an eternal quest to find the ultimate bread pudding and Rips had an unusual contestant–a blueberry pudding with a traditional rum sauce. It was far superior to the dreadful concoction I ruined a day earlier by adding too much bread.

After a long and leisurely lunch, we drove back over to the park. The park had been devastated by Hurricane Isaac last year. We met and spoke with the ranger manning the visitors’ center, who was carving a slingshot. He explained that he was sitting outdoors because the building had been inundated by water during the storm, despite the fact that it is several miles north of the lake. The storm also washed away part of the hiking trail, a boardwalk that led over a marshy area. There were quite a few revelers at the beach, though. The park had a fairly small beach area, dominated by picnic pavilions, playground equipment, and a splash play area.

Of professional interest to me was the site of the old Fontainbleau Plantation Sugar Mill. Nothing remains of the structures beyond some crumbling brick shells of buildings. In the mid-19th century, Bernard de Marigny used the site as his summer home and also pioneered the processing of sugar cane in the area. Marigny built the town of Mandeville as a part of his real-estate investments.

We arrived home late in the afternoon, but it was a great way to cap the weekend.

Brief sojourn to Lake Fausse Pointe today

We visited Lake Fausse Pointe State Park today in St. Martinville. Despite the good amphibian weather, it was a poor herp day: only one frog and he was wily enough to evade capture. Several birds of common varieties in this neck of the woods were present: a red-winged blackbird, a cardinal, and a great blue heron, as well as sundry smaller shorebirds and raptors.

Cholera outbreaks are tragic and easily preventable

Cholera is killing thousands of people in Haiti and Nigeria as I type these words. Like most infectious diseases, it hits hardest at the young, the elderly, and the immunocompromised. Unlike many such illnesses, it is pathetically simple to avoid contracting: have a clean source of water for drinking, cooking, and bathing.

In the Western world, we generally take the availability of clean water sources for granted. It’s a given that the water that comes out of your taps isn’t harboring dangerous fecal-oral pathogens. It’s only when the taps are shut off or unreliable as the result of a disaster that we really begin to appreciate what a precious commodity water really is.

Cholera is caused by Vibrio cholerae, a bacterium found in the environment that propagates when it finds a suitable host and is shed in the feces of the infected. If the only available source of water happens to be near where or indeed the same area where people use the bathroom, an epidemic is likely if not inevitable. It’s a pretty unpleasant way to perish, essentially death by dehydration.

For as much as we have as a species in the way of resources, it is inexcusable that there are so many people on this planet lacking in basic necessities such as food, shelter, and clean water.

A call for a rational approach to animal rights

The recent furor over the PETA billboard comparing obese Americans to beached whales (see here: got me thinking about animal rights advocates and rational approaches to the concept of animal rights. Any notion of animal rights must be balanced against the idea of human rights. It is irrational to argue that nonsentient entities be afforded the same rights as humans. Nonetheless, there are people whose ideas and opinions I otherwise respect (I’m thinking of Alec Baldwin and Bill Maher) who seem to have “drunk the Kool-Aid” in regards to animal-rights extremism. So here are my thoughts on the following topics:

Animals as performers:

I see little harm in television shows that chronicle the habits of animals in their natural environments (provided that the presentations are not disingenuous) or zoological displays. Zoos serve a valuable purpose in educating the public and inspiring (hopefully) in visitors a love of animals, even those such visitors might never see in the wild. My caveat for all of these discussions is that collections should be made in such a way as not to harm or injure the individuals or to endanger the wild populations; wild animals in captivity or captive-bred animals kept for whatever reason should be provided with a naturalistic habitat setting, adequate food and water supplies, and (if applicable) suitable equipment and/or areas for recreation and exercise. Circuses, on the other hand, tend to provide poor environments for the proper care of mammals like tigers, lions, and elephants; such travelling shows should eliminate so-called animal acts. Desmond Morris has an excellent book on this topic called The Animal Contract.

I don’t think animals should be exploited by putting “cute” versions of human clothing on them for contests, turning them into transvestites for absurd and stupid movies, making them run in ridiculous and abusive races for our amusement, or making them fight one another for a similar sick pleasure. Whatever uses we derive from animals we should bear in mind that they are living creatures who deserve to be treated with respect.

Animals as suppliers of meat, clothing, or other goods:

This is a somewhat complex topic, so I’ll break it down into subtopics, starting with the use of animals and/or animal products as sustenance. Simply put, humans have evolved as omnivores and it’s not natural for humans not to consume red meat, fish, chicken, and other animal products. Humans are not cows; a cow has 4 stomachs and an intestinal tract roughly seven times the length of a human’s. Why is that? That “processing power” is needed to fully digest the grasses and (especially in the case of farm-raised cattle) grains that comprise their diets. I know vegetarians and I know that such folks adopt this “lifestyle” for a variety of reasons, but none of them has a basis in biology. A human can obtain all required nutrients and minerals from a vegetarian diet but it must be a very carefully constructed one. The billboard in question was promoting eliminating meat from a person’s diet as a way to lose weight; another recent example of PETA’s misinformation campaign on this topic is the suggestion that consumption of cow’s milk leads to an increased risk of prostate cancer. Actually, the idea that consumption of various animal products is directly linked to an increased risk of developing cancer is a popular and nebulous claim by many vegetarians; once again, these claims have no basis in fact (it is, of course, just as easy to lose weight by through moderation of intakes of foods of all types and a suitable regimen of exercise).

PETA is also opposed to fishing and presumably hunting as well. I will find just this much common ground with that organization: such activities should not be pursued solely for recreational purposes. If a fisherman or hunter throws back his catch or leaves his kill to rot on the ground, that is a waste of a valuable resource. If, on the other hand, he (or she) properly cleans the carcass and makes some use of it, that is a valid activity.

Harvesting animals for skin products is as old as the concept of hunting. As I’ve stated above, as long as it can be done in a sustainable way, this should not present a moral problem. Interestingly, biologists tend to find themselves on opposite sides of this issue. There are those who have a tendency to view the notion of individual animal preservation as paramount, such that a single specimen harvested is wrong; on the other hand, many biologists view a controlled harvest as a means to an end (i.e., a sacrifice of individuals to conserve populations and habitats). This concept is known as value-added conservation. The idea is that a government or regulatory authority may allow a controlled harvest of a population of reasonably abundant animals in order to preserve populations and secure habitats. This is a sound and reasonable strategy for populations of organisms that can sustain this kind of harvest; for those animals already too endangered to do so, obviously more rigorous protections are needed. Balancing these kinds of conservation philosophies can be difficult challenges, but I think the take-home message is that it’s not unreasonable to expect that humans will want to (and should be able to) obtain resources from their local ecosystems; however, this resource utilization should not be taken to such a degree that habitats are decimated and species are driven extinct.

Animals as companions:

Over the span of human evolution on this planet, men have domesticated certain mammals for various reasons, including some already mentioned. The vast majority of domesticated animals have been altered in this way in order to provide us with companionship. This is a mutually-beneficial relationship, for although human keepers of pets sacrifice resources such as time, and money to care for their charges, they gain a source of love and sometimes other benefits, such as assistance with chores or with guarding the home; the animal companions, on the other hand, have sacrificed to a large degree their ability to function in the natural world, but they gain a source of guaranteed (at least in most circumstances) love, shelter, food, and medicine in perpetuity. This is another topic discussed in great detail by Morris in The Animal Contract. Provided that the companion animals are suitably cared for, there should be no moral issue with this kind of relationship.

Animals as subjects of experimentation:

Primates are an interesting test case of this concept. Many Western countries have banned the use of primates for research; the U.S. is the primary exception to this rule. Why conduct research using primates? Well, the obvious answer is that because we share virtually all of our genes with chimpanzees, they make an ideal test model for us to be able to understand the effects of disease and treatments on the human body. A chimp makes a far better model than a mouse or some even further removed critter. Why not conduct research using primates? Well, the countries where such research is banned argue precisely because we share such genetic similarities and close evolutionary ties that it is inherently unethical. Unfortunately, I have to call on a dominion argument here: Man won the intelligence and adaptability race and frankly we deserve to place our own interests above those of the other inhabitants of this planet. While it doesn’t mean we should abuse or neglect the planet in some ridiculous belief that somehow “God” will fix everything, it does mean that if we can cure debilitating illnesses by conducting research using our close cousins, we are morally obligated to do so. As I stated previously, any animal used for such purposes should be treated with dignity and cared for as one would a beloved pet. It also doesn’t mean that we should cause animals unnecessary pain or subject them to pointless experiments; this is why institutional animal use and care committees exist at most American universities.

This is probably an appropriate place to discuss the dissection of frogs and other model organisms. Frog and invertebrate dissections are commonplace in many schools throughout the country and, of course, in advanced anatomy classes, other model organisms like cats, pigs, and (in medical training programs) humans are also studied. Many people have suggested that it is cruel and unnecessary to use these animals for these purposes. I disagree. Yes, there are computer models that can show “virtual frogs” and for some applications (perhaps at the primary or secondary-school level) these may be appropriate, but for teaching anatomy, there really is no substitute for feeling the proper way to separate epidermal layers from the underlying superficial musculature or being able to hold and feel the texture of a gall bladder or liver. I believe this is a valuable component of pre-med or general biology training and I hope it continues to be so.