The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Misanthropic Principle

The anthropic principle is an idea that initially dates to around 1973. The principle, as used by cosmologists and other scientists, states simply that we occupy a particular point in space and time from which we view the universe, due to the basic circumstances of where and when we can survive. Earlier in the universe's history, the ratios of basic elements were wrong for us to be able to exist, and later in the universe's life, they may again be wrong for our existence. Moreover, this planet happens to have the right conditions for us to have come into being, and if conditions had been different - a comet struck the planet at just the wrong time, the mix of oxygen was off, etc. etc., then we wouldn't exist.

Now, in one sense, this is really stating the obvious - "We're here to observe the universe because we happen to live in a universe where we are able to exist in this space and time." On the other hand, it points to something that we should always keep in mind - we are able to observe what we can of the universe because of our place in it, and that place is dictated by forces such as the creation of particular forms of matter, the effects of gravity on space dust, etc. etc. And our position in the universe may constrain what we can see.

So far, so good.

However, some folks have then gone on to claim that the fact that we can exist in the universe must mean that we were MEANT to exist in the universe, and that the fact that we do exist is proof of an intelligent "higher power" that brought us into existence for a purpose*. Now, on the one hand, I personally kind of like this idea. I do not believe in a higher power of any sort, but if you are going to, a belief system that both includes us as part of nature AND puts us in our place as a small part of the universe while still encouraging curiosity and exploration is, I think, a damn fine belief system. I have no problem with this, and as long as we are going to have religious systems (and I suspect that we, as a species, will always have some form of them), I would like to see such an attitude be part of these systems.

At the same time, I have seen this line of reasoning used frequently by people trying to convert me to their belief systems - "Well, the Anthropic Principle demands that there must be a higher power, so my beliefs must be right, and yours must be wrong!"

Uhh, no. the Anthropic Principle simply states that what we see in the universe is both aided and constrained by where and when we live, and that under different circumstances we wouldn't live at all. That's not to say that there would be no life, but that whatever life there would be under different circumstances would not be us. Nonetheless, the humbling implications of the Anthropic Principle - that we are what we are for reasons beyond our control and we should be grateful to get what we can - seem to all-to-easily be turned into an arrogant "we are here because we are destined to be here and the universe exists to bring us into being!"

In fact, fair consideration of the Anthropic Principle will make obvious that there are plenty of times and places where we can not survive. We are relegated to the Earth, and possibly nearby solar system due to the constraints against faster-than-light travel. We can only survive off of Earth with elaborate (and potentially prone to failure) equipment. Any of a number of cosmic accidents (asteroid impacts, comet impacts, astronomical activities that impact local gravity, etc. etc.) could wipe us out, possibly in some rather grizzly ways (I once heard an astronomer talk about a massive asteroid impact resulting int he heating of air to temperatures around that of a broiler, cooking most of the world's population alive). As the astrophysicist (and coolest scientist ever to have lived) Neil DeGrasse-Tyson puts it: "The Universe wants to kill you."

So, I propose a corollary to the Anthropic Principle, what I call the Misanthropic Principle: while it is true that we do have the amazing privilege of being able to view the universe around us coupled with the responsibility of being part of that universe, the same universe can be actively hostile to us. If the universe did have a consciousness, then the data available clearly indicates that it is ambivalent towards us at best, and possibly wants to do us in.

There you have it - the Misanthropic Principle: The universe either doesn't care, or is out to get you.

* This is sometimes called "The Strong Anthropic Principle", to
differentiate it from the accurate, if somewhat obvious, real
Anthropic Principle.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Sacred Mountain

So, I have been sent to Lancaster to perform archaeological survey surrounding access roads for some power lines that Southern California Edison wants to upgrade. Lancaster, as you may know, is in the California Desert, and is surrounded by mountains. The mountains to the north contain uranium, and, in point of fact, the town to the north is notorious for Cancer clusters as a result. The mountains to the south contain quartz and rhyolite and, as a result, are not carcinogenic.

Well, I was walking along the road, up one of these wondrous non-carcinogenic mountains, listening to the field tech on the other side of the road prattle on about all things purple (no, I don't understand her fixation with purple, either), when I heard a voice coming from a scrub oak next to me. It said "Ouch"

"Pardon," I asked the scrub oak, "did you say ouch?"

"Yes." The plant's answer was decisive.


"Because you stepped on my foot!"

I looked down to see that my rather large foot, encased in a rather large boot, was stepping on a human foot clad only in a ratty, old pair of Birkenstocks. Yep, I had found a mountain hermit.

I seperated the branches of the scrub oak to get a look at the hermit's facial hair. The facial hair of mountain hermits is distinctive to each species, and if I was going to report this to the biologist, I would first have to determine whether this was an endangered species or not. Poking my head in, I could see the long hair at the chin, surrounded by somewhat shorter hair, typical of the former goatee of the Western Post-Yuppie Pseudo-Hippie (scientific designation Homo sapien obnoxious), an invasive species that competes with habitat and displaces the native Californian burned out hippie hermit.

"Sorry about that," I said as I pulled my foot off of his. I guessed that the wildlife biologist would have to put out some bait and capture this one in order to ship it off to either Los Angeles or New York, depending on where its plumage indicated that its source of origin was.

"So?" The hermit looked at me expectantly.

"So?" I replied, with my usual wittiness and panache.

"Why are you here?" He asked, looking a bit annoyed.

"Me? Oh, I'm an archaeologist. I'm doing surveys for the utilities company."

"No, that is why you think you're here, but you are really here to learn something. Something profound." He looked very pleased with himself.

"Uhh, no, I'm here to do archaeological surveys. Here's my business card, you see that it says 'archaeologist' on it? Well, that's me, the archaeologist."

"But are you not also a seeker of wisdom?"

"Not when last I checked." I said, adjusting my backpack to better reach my tazer should the need arise.

"Have you not come to this place, the sacred mountain, to find a master whose teachings you can follow?"

"No. I'm just here for work."

"Have you not come so that I can impart my wisdom to you?" He seemed to be almost pleading. I felt sorry for the guy, and could see that letting him down would break his heart. Of course, being the way I am, that didn't stop me.

"No." I answered. I had puled out my cellphone and was scrolling for the wildlife biologist's phone number.

"Can't I impart just a little wisdom to you?"

"I'm really not in the market."

"How about your friend?" He indicated the field tech.

"Oh, I don't think she can handle any more wisdom. She just finished reading 'The Secret', you see."

"Oh." He looked disheartened.

"Well, I'd better go now, we're behind schedule and need to make up time." I lied, of course.

"Well, may the road you go down..."

"No." I said, holding my hand up, "No wisdom, no sayings, no parables, and no homilies."

He then slipped back into the vegetation, and I could actually hear him slump as he vanished from my sight. I hit the "call" button.

"Hey, it's Armstrong, the archaeologist. Yeah, we've got another of the hermits up here. No, no, this one's non-native. Yeah? Gas now? Well, whatever you think is best. I'll text the UTM coordinates over to you."

I checked my GPS, fed the coordinates into the text message, flipped the phone closed, and walked away.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

It's a Bumper-Crop of Idiocy

First, the man who thinks that lame observations about bannanas overturn long-proven scientific fact, and who demonstrates that he knows nothing about evolution by carting out an image he refers to as the "Crocoduck" has a book out which claims to disprove evolution.

Read more at:

And an excerpt is available at:

My favorite part? Where he claims that quote-mining is a valid way of getting at truth because the words surrounding the quote he wants are like the dirt around a nugget of gold.

Let's try an experiment shall we? You are attempting to prove that one John Smith is a murderer. As evidence, you submit the fact that one Nathan Wilson wrote, and this is an exact quote, "Smith stood over the murder victim holding a bloody blade."

Looks bad for Smith, doesn't it? Unless the quote was excerpted from the following paragraph:

"At the Morgue, Dr. Smith, the county coroner, continued his work. Smith stood over the murder victim holding a bloody blade. He had made the incision, and was prepared to proceed with the autopsy."

Rather different, isn't it? But, Mr. Comfort would like you to think that the words surrounding the favorite quote don't matter. Of course, Comfort also hangs out with Kirk Cameron, so his judgement is clearly lacking.

On a similar topic, the professional dogmatists and liars at the horribly mis-named Discovery Institute are out to prove evolution is evil, pretty much as usual, this time using newspaper columns to try to fool people into agreeing with them. I would dissect it and make my gripes, but Sam Ogden has beat me to it, and done a better job than I would:

Oh, and on the groovy side, check this out, and attempt to recreate Neandertal speech (and, no, that's not a typo, the correct spelling for the fossil type is Neandertal, no "h"):

I am dubious as to the accuracy of the reproduction - so much of speech is reliant on soft tissue that does not rpeserve, and the relationship between the soft tissue portions of the human vocal system and the hard tissue ain't so simple as many folks think, but the fact that someone is even trying is pretty damn cool!

Monday, April 14, 2008

My Wild and Wacky Forest Adventure

Part the First: Getting There is Half the Fun

In which I learn that, contrary to popular sentiment, a lack of communication on somebody else's part may, indeed, constitute an emergency on mine.

I wrote the following about ten months ago, a little after the events depicted occured. I wil be heading back out on this project soon, and so it seemed appropriate to post this now, and post the rest of the story as I have a chance to write it.

I returned from the field and wandered in to my hotel room in Napa. I turned on my computer and opened my email. Seeing one from my boss, I opened it and read the following:


I need you to take over a project in the Sierra Nevada.
Come back to the office on Monday.


T-Bone is not my boss's real name, which is good, as were that his real name it would suggest that he was a velvet-garbed pimp and my career little but a lie. I wrote back to him:


I'll be happy to do the work. Send me maps, crew
roster, and other information so that I can prepare


The next day, when I returned from the field to my hotel room (in all of its spit-on-the-wall-and-strange-stains-in-the-bathroom glory), after dodging a guy in the parking lot who wanted me to sell him drugs (why he thought I was a dealer is beyond me - I'm often mistaken for a cop, but only twice in my life has someone taken me for a dealer), I recieved the following email:


I'll fill you in on Monday, and give you the information


...and with that, I figured things were settled and ready to go. When I returned to the office the following Monday, T-Bone had prepared a box of materials for me to read before going out to the field.

The plan was this: a crew was heading out to the forest the following morning (Tuesday) from our Central Valley office to work a 10-day rotation on an excavation. I would go to join them in the field and work on the excavation until Friday, when that project was slated to finish. Starting Saturday, I would take the crew and we would work on the survey through Thursday of the next week, completing that project and finishing the 10-day rotation. Perfect, save time on both projects by transferring from one to the other...

...except that there had been miscomunication between offices, and the crew was not on a 10-day rotation and available to work. When I called the office of the other field director, I found out that he had headed for the field on that (Monday) morning, indicating that his crew would be working a five-day week (M-F) rather than a 10-day rotation (Tuesday through the following Thursday). I immediately set to work finding a field crew for my project, an effort I kept at until the following day.

On Tuesday afternoon, my boss approached me and announced that a member of the other crew had become sick and had to leave. It was now (allegedly) arranged that I would go out and replace this crew member, and then take over the crew. And with that in mind, I made preparations to leave.

Now, this project was in a fairly remote location, the nearest town with a hotel was a 2-hour drive away (actually, there was a town with a hotel that was closer, but the hotel only allowed people who were in town for weddings to make reservations - no I'm not making this up - so the field crew were persona non-grata). As a result, we had to camp at a site near the excavation project.

So, as the crew would not have been prepared for a full 10-day rotation, I had to go out and buy food for the crew, buy camping supplies that I would need, rent a truck, and make arrangements to get a satellite phone from our client (in case of emergencies) and a GPS unit from our Central Valley office.

Come Wednesday, I had a truck laden with canned goods and camping supplies, and was on my way to our Central Valley office to pick up the GPS unit. I arived, got the unit, and went through a tutorial on how to use it with our GIS guy (good guy, by the way). Then I drove another hour to the office of our client, where I picked up the satellite phone. After one last stop-off for some gear that I had forgotten, I was on my way into the mountains.

The roads wound up steep cliff walls like a snake fleeing from Samuel L. Jackson. The views were beautiful, and I was beginning to feel pretty good about things, though I was still uneasy about the likelyhood that the crew would stay on for my project.

Two hours into the mountains, I took a wrong turn. No big deal, I realized the wrong turn almost immediately, and seeing that the road shoulders were covered in gravel, a quick turn-around seemed relatively easy...until my truck stopped moving and I smelled burning rubber.
You see, the gravel covered the shoulder in a relatively thin layer, under which lay a thick layer of powdery silt, and my truck was stuck and literally burning rubber as I tried to pull out of it.
Okay, I thought to myself, I am a member of the species Homo sapien. I have an upright gait, opposable thumbs, and binocular vision. I am a member of the species who has built cathedrals and skyscrapers, launched men into space, composed symphonies, and produced the Furbie. I am even considered a particularly bright and competent member of this species. Surely, I can get a truck out from this mess!

Oh, how I paid for this hubris.

First I tried rocking the truck out of the silt, driving slightly forward, and then shifting into reverse, trying to build momentum to get out of the hole I had dug for my back tire. While I succeeded in moving forward, every attempt to reverse resulted in the initially small back-tire whole becoming a trench. Okay, this wasn't going to work.

Next, I tried to put all of the food, camping gear, and anything else I had in the bed of the truck in order to place more weight on the back tires, which were the ones that had become stuck. I then pulled the floor mats out of the cab and placed them under the rear tires to provide more traction. I then climbed back into the cab of the truck and began easing on the accelerator in order to try to pull out gently. I looked out the window and down the just in time to see the floor mat under the driver's side tire get shot towards the front of the truck. While admittedly rather cool to watch, this did little to improve my mood.

I opened the door, stepped out again, and looked around.

I saw several small (10 centimeter dimater and smaller) logs lying around, and had an epiphany. I pulled some of the logs to the rear of the truck, propped them under the tire, thinking that this would help provide the traction needed to get me out. After managing to put scorch marks on the logs without ever moving the truck, I got out of the cab again and looked around. I spent about half an hour looking for anything else that I could shove under the tire to provide traction, and pondering any method that I might be able to use to get the truck out. After thirty minutes, I had nothing, and consulted my map. Five miles to the campground...well, I had walked farther under worse circumstances, so this would be okay.

And then I remembered the satellite phone. I opened the box, pulled out the phone, turned it on, and waited for a signal..., some day you may meet someone who will attempt to tell you that satellite phones work fine in steep canyons within coniferous forests. When this person tells this to you, punch them in the face, and tell them that Armstrong sent ya'...

...anyway, the phone would occassionally get a signal just long enough for me to dial the number for the ranger station, only to lose the signal again just as the phone began ringing. I walked the five miles to the campground cursing the Roman god of satellite phones the entire way.
Finally, I arrived at the campground. The crew greeted me, and then told me that another employee of my company had been out to the site earlier in the day to inform them that I was coming, which left them confused as they had more than enough people to perform the task at hand.

"Well, I was told that you would be joining me for a survey starting on Saturday."

"Really?" asked the crew supervisor, "who told you that?"


"Well, none of us are available. We have all been assigned to different projects for next week. You should have taken some initiative and called me." The supervisor folded his arms, looking satisfied.

"I did call. You weren't answering your phone."

"oh, well, yeah, that's a problem, I'll give you that."

At about this moment, one of the field technicians, who I will call Ed, simply because I can't think of a better psuedonym for him, began laughing. He walked up, clapped me on the shoulder, looked me in the eye, and in between guffaws said "man, you got the T-Bone special! Thing about the T-Bone special is that it's like blue cheese - you might eventually get to where you like the flavor, but it's a shock the first time you have it."

The other field tech, who I will call Bender because I am having even more difficulty coming up with a psuedonym for him than I was for Ed, shook his head in sympathy. "Where's your truck?" he asked.

I told them the story of how the gods of roadside problems proved to me that I was but a mortal man. Without another word, the crew piled into a truck, got me in, and we headed out to where the truck was stuck.

Once at the site of the roadside travesty, we tried placing the logs under the tires again, but this time the field techs all got into the bed of the truck and sat directly over the stuck wheel. With this added weight, I managed to get the truck out. And with that, we headed back to camp.
Once we returned, Bender opened up a cooler and pulled out a large piece of fresh salmon. "Hey, Matt, you like salmon?"

I responded in the affirmative.

"Well, this piece probably needs to be eaten tonight, and you've had a tough day. Give it a try."
With that, he handed it over. I coated the salmon in a bit of salt and pepper, wrapped it in aluminum foil, and placed it on a grill immediately over the camp fire. About thirty minutes later, I had one of the best pieces of salmon that I have ever consumed.

I then sat near the campfire inflating my air mattress, with my breath as I had neglected to get the air pump that would have made this matter so much easier. In between jokes about me having experience with this due to my long line of inflatable girlfriends, the mattress began to take shape, and I could see a symbol of a decent night's sleep on the ground in front of me.
Now, here's the thing about field work in remote locations - how good or bad it is depends on who you are working with. If you are with people who annoy you, it's a bad scene. I was lucky this night, these three were good folks. They were clearly trying to enjoy themselves, and were more than happy to allow a fellow such as myself to be involved or be aloof as I saw fit. If they were doing something, they didn't insist that I join them, but they made it known that I was welcome. In other words, these three really were a class act, and after the day I had been having, their company was especially welcome.

After dinner, we sat about the fire, trading stories, talking about projects we had worked on, and generally just relaxing. After the sun had gone down, Ed said "I think it's time for the entertainment."

"The entertainment?" Bender looked at him, trying to figure out what the hell Ed was talking about.

"Yeah, the entertainment." And with that, Ed disappeared into his tent and emerged a few minutes later with a miniature disco ball and a small light mounted on a headband. He hung the disco ball from the branch of a nearby tree. He then put the headband-mounted light on, turned it on, and shone it on the disco ball while turning the ball with his hand and singing Bee-Gee's songs. Before long, we were all joining in a rousing chorus of "Stayin' Alive" (no, I had not previously known that it could be sung in a rousing manner either).

"It's kind of like television" Bender called out, "only less stupid and with fewer episodes of Survivor."

After a time, even the vast entertainment value of the disco ball was exhausted, and we all began to turn in to bed. I crawled into my sleeping bag, lay down on my air mattress, and lay back waiting for insomnia to take its hold.

I checked my watch on occassion, and I lay there for about an hour and a half before I finally started to drift off. No sooner had this happened than a loud buzzing noise began to eminate from nearby, and the walls of my tent shook. Ed was snoring. No, Ed wasn't snoring, Ed was SNORING LIKE A FUCKING BUZZSAW!

Now, don't get me wrong, I am fully convinced that Ed is a great guy, I'm glad to have met him and had a chance to work with him, but I will never share a hotel room with the guy. His snoring could be harnassed and used as a weapon of mass destruction.

I lay there for a while, thinking to myself "okay, he's got to turn over or shift position eventually, and then the snoring will probably stop." But he never moved and the snoring kept going. Then I thought to myself "okay, after a little while, this will become white noise, you'll be able to ignore it, and you'll get to sleep."

After waiting for two hours for the snoring to become white noise, I climbed out of my tent and went to my truck. I climbed in the cab, reclined the chair, and settled in to get some sleep. I began to doze off after about fourty-five minutes, but something, I don't know what, caused me to jerk awake, and I wasn't able to so much as doze for the next hour. After a time, I figured I should just go back to the tent, surely Ed must have moved by now. He may still be snoring, but not as badly as he had been.

If anything, his volume had increased.

I stood there for a few minutes, pondering what to do. Finally, it dawned on me. I pulled my air mattress out of the tent, went back to the truck, moved all of the assorted food and equipment to one side of the bed of the truck, put my air mattress inside, put on my jacket and secured the hood around my head (tempuratures were getting down into the 30's at night around there), climbed onto the mattress, pulled my sleeping bag on, and, around 4 am, finally drifted off to sleep.

Coming soon, Part the Second, in which our hero's descent into true madness begins! Stay Tuned!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Motto Needed!

It has occurred to me that archaeologists need a motto under which we can unite. Sure, there's the usual "We tell forgotten tales" claptrap, or the "it's good dirty fun" nonsense, but I think we need a motto that better demonstrates our true relationship to work. To that end, I have come up with the following potential mottoes. Those of you who are my fellow trowel-monkeys and shovel-bums, please submit your own in the comments section.

"Archaeology - Running scared from shotgun-wielding marijuana farmers since 1965!"

"Archaeology: Taking you to exotic shit holes since 1906."

"Really, that's a poison oak rash, not an STD, baby!"

"Archaeology: the gift that keeps on sapping your bank account."

"Archaeology - Keeping the funk alive!"

"Showers are for sissies."

"Proud to be the world's most highly-educated under-paid migrant workforce."

"Be one with the clay dust"

"Poison oak, chiggers, and mites, oh my!"

"Hygiene? We don't need no stinkin' hygiene!"

"Midden Soil: it's what's for dinner."

"Archaeology: Embrace the suck"

"PhD-wielding poverty line dweller."

"My other car is broken down in the middle of the desert"

"Archaeology - silt happens"

"Have student loan debt, will travel"

"Archaeology: Mom was right, I should have been a lawyer"

"As a field tech I drank for fun. As a project manager, I drink to dull the pain."

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Bovids of Destiny

On reflection, it's amazing how many of my field stories involve cattle.

Recently, I was responsible for a survey in eastern Tulare County. We were surveying potential routes on which an electrical utility is planning to build a major transmission line, and much of these routes traversed ranch land.

Throughout most of this survey, when we encountered cattle, they moved away from us, more than eager to be away from the bipeds. However, there was one ranch on which the opposite was the case. On this land, the cattle, usually rather dumb and disinterested animals, seemed to be very curious about us, and what we might be carrying with our magnificent opposable thumbs.

For safety, I told my crew to stay on the opposite side of the fence when a herd was close by. However, this land still needed to be surveyed, and so I jumped the fence and examined the ground. The cattle would routinely come within five feet of me and stop, staring at my with their big, bovine eyes. They kinda' freaked me out, as I sat there wondering what, exactly, they were plotting.

Every time I moved, they followed, keeping their constant distance. I quickly discovered that I could control the movement of the entire herd with little more than a few footsteps, leading one of my crew to start referring to me as "the Moosiah."

And then the mooing started.

Now, you may have heard a cow moo before. You may even have seen an entire herd moo before. But imagine, just imagine, being in the center of a herd, guiding it, and then being struck dumb by the sudden and unexpected sound of the entire herd bursting into mooing simultaneously. At first, it sounded like just the classic "moo" - but soon, there were all manner of variations, from a low, growling moo, to a loud, high-pitched yelp that sounded like a wounded jackass being pushed through a meat grinder.

It was eerie.

I quickly moved to the other side of the fence, and the cattle began pressing towards the fence to be near me. My crew and I moved on with the survey - pushing eastward, afraid that the cattle were about to break through the fence and attempt to follow us with evil on their minds. Eerily, all along the route, we found piles of decaying cow carcasses and dense scatters of cattle bone (no, I'm not making any of this up).

We eventually came to the eastern end of our survey route, and found ourselves near another herd, grazing on the side of a hill. This one was small, and was some distance away from our survey route. We figured that this was fine, as the cattle would probably ignore us, and we would be able to finish our work for the day.

We crossed the barbed-wire fence and began walking our survey transects. And then we heard the mooing, again. This time it was from a distance, but we saw a single cow come from around the hill, walking towards us. Turning around, we could see the herd that had been distant begin moving towards us, vocalizing along with the the one that had come from around the hill. Then, on the heels of the first one that had begun making noise, we saw another herd following her, coming from around the hill.

We continued trying to work, but soon one of the cows was close enough to try licking us, and two bulls had appeared, and were moving towards us, heads lowered. We found the nearest barbed wire fence, and jumped over it, the cattle continuing to move towards use, stopping only when the barbed wire made it difficult for them to follow.

Odd as this experience was, it was only the latest of a series of odd cow encounters.

A year ago in November, I was working on a pipeline survey along a route that ran from King City in Monterey County to Coalinga in Fresno County. We had two vehicles, and would perform survey by driving to our end point, dropping off one vehicle, and then driving tot he begin point, walking back to the first vehicle, and then driving back to our starting point before moving on to the next portion of our survey route.

We came to a ranch where we were to drop off our first vehicle. As soon as the truck came to a stop, cattle began to move towards it. I figured that they would disperse once I got out of the car and began moving about, so I grabbed my equipment bag and stepped out of the car, only to find that the cattle sped up, and began mooing in unison. I quickly got back in the car (perhaps a bad move, maybe cattle can smell fear), and waited for my partner to show up with the other car. As soon as he was there, I jumped out of the car, only to have a cow begin grabbing towards me with it's teeth and tongue.

I have been close to cattle on many occasions, but I always forget what snotty, saliva-covered slimy beasts they are until I am up close. Truly, these are revolting animals, and they wanted to slime me. I didn't run, but I did walk quickly to the other vehicle, and we headed off, watching the cattle watch after us int he rear-view mirror.

We arrived at the other end of the survey route and parked the vehicle. We then walked our transects, arriving back at the other vehicle a few hours later. As we came close, we discussed the cattle, and decided that they likely had become bored and moved away in the hours since we had left. As we arrived near the vehicle, though, we were disabused of this notion. The cattle were still around the truck, and as we came into view, they moved towards us.

My partner picked up a disused wooden fence post from the ground. He began beating it on the ground as we approached, yelling things such as "Hey? You know what fillet Mignon is? It's YOU!" I simply kept my eyes open, looking for escape routes should the cattle have gotten the taste for human flesh.

As we came even closer, the unison mooing began again, and in earnest. And then, out of nowhere, a horse galloped across the pasture and began to make its way towards us. The horse ran past us, and then looped around to walk up between my partner and I. Every time a cow would come close, the horse would dart out and chase the cow away. And with the help of our equine savior (hallowed by his name), we arrived at our truck to discover that the cattle had decided that it was tastier than a salt lick - the entire truck was covered in a foul mix of cow spit and snot (as I later discovered, this is not unusual, cattle often like to lick cars, and occasionally have been known to climb on top of them).

Needless to say, we paid a trip to the car wash on our way home.

However, the there is one cattle story that stands out above all others in my memory. This is the story of an event in which so much of my life and personality seemed to be crystallized in one single moment...

I was working for a federal facility, and the facility management was interested in building a radio tower in a location near an archaeological site. One of the other archaeologists, an engineer, and I headed out to take a look at the location.

The location was on a small knoll overlooking a beach, and this area was frequently used as a cattle pasture. We stood on the knoll, trying to figure out whether the site was here or not, when we heard a rumbling. We looked up just in time to see a herd of cattle running at full speed in our direction.

We didn't have time to move, the cattle were moving quickly enough that we couldn't have gotten out of their way in time. I believed that I was about to die - I was later told by the other two that I had an "enigmatic" look on my face.

Talking about it later, we discovered that the engineer had begun praying, the other archaeologist had begun panicking, and I had a sense of amusement as the following go through my head:

"Huh? So, I get killed by a cattle stampede. I never saw this coming."

So, apparently, I react to certain death by being mildly amused.

At the last minute, the cattle turned and went around us, and in less than a minute, they were past us, and still running.

I remember once reading an essay by Penn Gillette, in which he described being in a plane that was experiencing mechanical problems. While the other passengers were frightened, he was grinning like a maniac, figuring that he'd enjoy the ride if it was going to be his last. Now I think I know how he felt.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Quest for Domestic Bliss

I have a project in the Mission Hill area of Santa Cruz, which is a historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places. While doing background reading for the area, I found the following quote in the district's National Register nomination form:

"Bounded by Sylvar, Emmet, Mission, and High Sts. is the Plaza Municipal Park, also known as the upper plaza. It was originally the Mission quadrangle…In the early days quarrelling couples were placed in stocks on the upper plaza to be jeered at by crowds"

Yep, marriage counseling was rough in the 19th century.