Kai Staats: writing

From the Road

/From the Road/

Finding Home

Towering House, Cascabel - by Kai Staats San Pedro River - by Kai Staats

For the past three years, since my return to the United States from South Africa, I have been searching for a place to call home. This has taken me from city to town to relative isolation, a study in the complexity of the definition of home and who I am.

If it were as simple as “I am a city person” or “I am a country person” then the path would be relatively easy to follow. But when I find joy in live music venues, a certain pleasure in hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and delight in live theater, I cannot say that cities do not offer a draw.

In those places where humans are as scarce as animals are in the city, I find that I open, my senses return to their full capacity. No longer am I tuning out, rather, I am actively tuning in, seeking, engaging, and absorbing all that is given. Bird calls, the rustle of debris with a gust of wind; movement of every mammal, small, medium, or scary is a reminder that I am a part of something that I cannot control nor can it be defined by measures of glass, steel, and concrete.

In the confine of a single month I was simultaneously envisioning myself in a large, warehouse studio in downtown Phoenix and a straw bail house past the high desert town of Oracle, two places so much opposites that I questioned how I could be attracted to both. Proximity to my parents, brother, and airport drew me to Phoenix while the passion that my partner Colleen and I share for the wild places, the splendor of dark night skies, and a craving for an analog community told me to wait … just wait … until it all comes together and feels right.

Through circumstances too complex to describe in this immediate story, I found myself in Cascabel, a place where ranchers, New York escapees, university professors, wild life conservationists, an astrophysicist, archaeologists, a medical professional and boat builder, bird watchers, artisans, and a filmmaker have each arrived through their own, non-linear paths. In Cascabel I found a personal connection to both land and people that feels rare in this digital world. In Cascabel, I finally found home.

The property is seventeen acres of mesquite forest and another forty that includes the confluence of Hot Springs wash and the San Pedro river. This second parcel will immediately move into the protective care of a conservation association. The house is a former mill that for a half dozen years in the 1990s generated mesquite wood products. Open, spacious, and naturally lit from all sides, it is a place that will never let you forget you are a part of something much bigger, just outside.

The San Pedro river valley is the longest undammed river in the American Southwest, with a diversity of mammals greater than anywhere in North America (or at least, that is what I have read). Some 350 species of migratory birds pass through twice each year, more than 500 including those that call this place home. Javelina (Peccary), deer, fox, skunk, coyote, mountain lion and an occasional black bear leave footprints for us to follow, a puzzle whose playing pieces change each day. I look forward to sharing with Colleen morning trail runs across gullies, down ravines, into the foothills of wilderness. On weekends, we will travel further, on foot, into the places you simply cannot find saddled atop a 4×4 nor fully engage from the air.

Most of all, after eight years on the road, most everything I own in storage, I look forward to wall lined with books, the rich sound of my home theater, and a place to explore working with wood, clay, fabric, and metal. It is time for the persistent digital interfaces to be set aside so that we can once again recall what it means to disengage and just … be.

Welcome to the Towering House of Cascabel! We hope you will visit soon, and stay for a while.

By |2019-03-24T15:03:59-04:00March 23rd, 2019|At Home in the Southwest|Comments Off on Finding Home

Where is Walter Gropius now?

I stumbled across an article about the Bauhaus, and how its founder Walter Gropius and members defied the Nazi regime for more than a decade. As a graduate of the School of Architecture and Environmental Design, the Bauhaus was core to our curriculum. I recall vividly images of profound shapes, stark contrasts, and bold lines that defined the artists of that era.

The one line of this article that stood out for me was this, “Gropius’s aim was to introduce soul into the age of the machine. The Nazis’ was to introduce the machine into the soul.” I was immediately moved to ask, are we not now in the age of the machine, far more than the second decade of the last century? And what has become of our soul now?”

Those international designers, musicians, potters, painters, and architects risked not only their standing in the local communities, which often rejected them for their expressions, but their lives under the increasing intolerance of the Nazi regime.

According to the Wikipedia article, “… —the radically simplified forms, the rationality and functionality, and the idea that mass production was reconcilable with the individual artistic spirit—were already partly developed in Germany before the Bauhaus was founded.”

I look at where we stand now, the machines we have designed, built, and integrated at every level of our lives—between us, communicating for us, in our hands, our back pockets, even embedded in our ears. We hear voices and see faces and receive written communications—digital representation of what was once a face-to-face norm. Each of us is now endowed with the capacity for personal expression, every message moved across a medium in which the entire world can view, reject or enjoy.

Is this what Gropius has in mind? Are we the very souls entered into the machines? Or have we become so intertwined, so dependent, so anxiety ridden when we are no longer connected by means of our digital companions that in fact the totalitarian machines have entered into our souls?

By |2019-03-12T12:54:02-04:00March 12th, 2019|The Written|Comments Off on Where is Walter Gropius now?

Chocolate

Tonight, I am deeply troubled by the fact that Hershey’s Syrup with Genuine Chocolate Flavor contains no chocolate. And we wonder how and when the world became prone to believing alternative facts? I say it started a long time ago, when we were first fed chocolate syrup, that is not.

By |2019-03-11T00:44:22-04:00March 11th, 2019|The Written|Comments Off on Chocolate

Counting raindrops in Oracle

Rain over the Biosphere 2 by Kai Staats

Rain in the desert is unlike rain in Pacific Northwest, the midlands or Florida. In Seattle it is anticipated so much so that it has become part of the folklore, the first thing someone mentions when you state you are visiting or live there. In Florida, the rains increasingly come not as a light afternoon shower, but as torrential downpours, the kind of storm that forces people to evacuate their homes.

In the desert, rain is a welcomed friend, the one that visits just a few times each year. Children rush out to meet her, the adults smile at the sound of her approach. The burden of the sun is temporarily pushed aside by cloud cover of her cloak.

When rain comes to the desert, it brings with it the generation of aromas that otherwise require the crushing of arid leaves between finger tips or stirring of debris underfoot. Sage, mesquite, and flowering ground cover entice human memories, stimulating something deeper than olfactory alone.

The emotions invoked are not unlike the embrace of a friend or caress of a lover, brought to life in the rapid transition from brown to green, dry to soaked. Yet they are fleeting, as quick to arrive as they are to depart. The aroma of the desert rain is diminished. We anticipate, but never expect.

By |2019-02-18T01:28:56-04:00February 14th, 2019|At Home in the Southwest|Comments Off on Counting raindrops in Oracle

What does the future hold?

For the third year in a row I have returned to our family farm in Iowa for the week of Thanksgiving. My grandmother of 99.9 years lives in town, at an assisted living center. Time with her is cherished, for while she will soon move into the start of a second century on this planet, we know intuitively that years past 100 are limited.

With each visit my mother and I engage my grandmother in story telling, recording each memory on our cell phones, camera, or audio recorder. She shares with us a blend of bitter, sweet, dismay, and wonder at all she has seen and experienced. In the century that has passed she has moved from moving between rented farm houses by means of horse and sled to the automobile, the first commercial airlines, jet engines, and Moon landings. She has seen communications evolve from installation of the first telephone lines to mobile phones, satellite, and the Internet.

Just yesterday afternoon, while decorating her apartment for Christmas I played a Putumayo album ‘Folk Playground’ which started with a fun version of ‘This Old Man’. My grandmother leaning just a bit forward on her walker, swung her hips left and right, tapped her feet, and rolled her shoulders to the lyrics and the beat. My mother quickly came ’round to my grandmother’s front and danced with her, both of them laughing.

The moment was just that, a few bars of a familiar song and a reminder of the countless thousands of evenings that my grandparents danced in Texas, Florida, and Arizona during their thirty years as Iowa Snowbirds. And then my grandmother asked, “Where is that music coming from?”

“From my little black box,” which is how she refers to my cell phone.

“Oh my,” shaking her head as she found her seat, “I just don’t understand how all of that works. All of that,” referring to phone calls, text messages, photographs and music, “in that little box?”

Once seated she concluded, “As I always say, what does the future hold? What … does … the future hold?”

She asks this with a certain degree of longing to know, and at the same time a need to let go. She seems content to know that it produced a song familiar to her, and in that moment she found joy. Moments are what matter most to her now, not the past nor the future. In some ways, she is living exactly how the wise have advised for millennia—in the moment.

By |2018-11-24T17:38:32-04:00November 23rd, 2018|The Written|Comments Off on What does the future hold?

Did we really find gravitational waves?

Letter to the editor, New Scientist:

Concerning “Exclusive: Grave doubts over LIGO’s discovery of gravitational waves” —October, 31 2018

When I was CEO of the software development company that produced Yellow Dog Linux, I was frequently interviewed about our product launches and related support of Apple, IBM, and Sony computers. In one particular interview the “reporter” got it all wrong, so bad that for the first (and last) time I was forced to take action to have the article retracted, as colleagues, even close friends reached out to ask if it was true.

It occurred to me then that if people who knew me, who trusted me were swayed by the power of the printed word to question my integrity, when in fact nothing of the sort occurred, how many other articles had I read by this small-town publication, and many more by large format journals, were equally incorrect or intentionally slanted to sell copy?

In reading the New Scientist article Did we really find gravitational waves? I was blown away by the disinformation contained therein, intentional misuse of key facts and figures, a total lack of understanding of the means by which the LSC isolates signal from noise, and the blatant disregard for the 70+ EM follow-up confirmations (not just one). The article reads as a children’s storybook, a version taken to such simple explanation that it becomes wrong.

Now, as I did many years ago, I question the integrity of the publication as a whole. While I have for a half decade enjoyed NS’ snippets of information in a diversity of subjects, fully aware of the sensational cover stories, I am baffled by how this article could be called an “investigation”. An investigation requires the reporter to become something of an expert in the subject during his or her information gathering campaign. This was clearly not your agenda. Rather, you moved to publish cover story to capture the attention of the reader without concern for the integrity of the information contained therein.

It is one thing to give a scientist a platform on which to question a colleague’s work. That is the very reason we publish. But to call it an “investigative report” and feature it on the cover when the article doesn’t even begin to describe the methods by which the LSC conducts its research is a completely different ball game.

I am not an astrophysicist, yet I could give a half hour lecture on the points of this article that were intentionally slanted or simply wrong. I was proud to have my latest film LIGO Detection, launched by New Scientist but will not be renewing my subscription in 2019. Not because as a member of the LSC I am offended. No. Because I know enough to recognize the fallacy in what was published, begging the question how many more of your publications portray research in an equally incorrect manner. You have given in to the need to capture attention through conflict instead of good science in a world that needs more critical thinking, not polarized controversy.

Cheers,
Kai Staats, MSc

Read a more complete story at Ars Technica

By |2018-11-25T12:56:21-04:00November 14th, 2018|Critical Thinker, Humans & Technology|Comments Off on Did we really find gravitational waves?

Update from the Mt. Meru Astronomical Observatory

An update for the Mt. Meru Astronomical Observatory (MMAO), “Since the last update on December 15, 2017, there is much to tell about the Mt. Meru Astronomical Observatory. Thank you for your patience and steadfast interest in this important project.

The observatory itself is nearly complete. The telescope pier was set with rebar and concrete nearly two meters deep, isolated from the observatory floor, then finished with four threaded rods ready to receive the 120 kg steel pedestal and telescope …”

Photos and more at Astronomers Without Borders

By |2018-11-23T23:04:43-04:00October 12th, 2018|2018, Out of Africa|Comments Off on Update from the Mt. Meru Astronomical Observatory

Two days From the Road

Thursday, August 30
It is a bit after 11:00 pm. The camp ground is completely silent, save the crackle and occasional pop of our campfire. Elk Meadow, one of the more than forty California State Parks designated to protect what remains of the redwood trees, is the kind of place where I would gladly make home for a while.

Everyone has complied with the Quite after 10 rule, in fact, Colleen and I were likely the ones making the most ruckus, our Toyota Prius engine kicking on every twenty minutes to compensate for my DC/AC inverter and laptop. I admit to confusion when I say that I should be able to run my laptop for a few days if it were providing power via the drive train battery pack rather than the starter. Wishing Toyota would provide a manual switch and digital readout to allow me to make that choice. For as much as I enjoy the mileage, there are myriad things I would change about this car, that rant saved for another essay.

Colleen and I roasted corn over the fire, and in aluminum foil a sauté of potatoes, zucchini, onion, crushed black pepper and garlic. The result, all three times we have prepared this meal in the past five weeks, was splendid. Everything tastes good outside, everything is appreciated more. Even the simplest of meals, boiled carrots, snap peas, and rehydrated Shitake mushrooms over Raman noodles is a welcomed delight.

Friday, August 31
It has been difficult for us to take it all in. When one walks from a valley to a mountain top, the transition unfolds in the count of hours, not minutes as in a vehicle. Even then, we find that just a few hundred meters on a trail took us from the dark, cool shade of a massive coniferous forest with dense undergrowth to a barren saddle and bold stacks topped with countless flowering heads. At the pace of our own feet, we were often caught breathless, not for the pace at which we hiked nor the elevation gained, but for the rapid transition from one magical wonderland to the next.

But now we again move at high velocities, those same valley to mountain transitions unfolding in a matter of minutes, entire ecosystems lost to the rear view mirror in the matter of an hour. It’s overwhelming in a whole new way, for what we experience from the air conditioned, closed cab of our earth-bound spaceship is via a single sense, our vision. No aroma of recently fallen pine needles or fresh scat left by a passing bear. No sound of the wind high in trees nor stream underfoot. No more breaking of fallen branches by a deer down slope. No longer do we taste the ash of too many fires in Washington and Canada to the north.

Now, we hear only the tires on the road covered by audio books and music, the smell of unburnt diesel as trucks pass, and the taste of whatever we ate last, a return to food less invocative as that which we enjoyed on the trail.

By |2018-11-23T22:42:58-04:00August 31st, 2018|From the Road|Comments Off on Two days From the Road

The Lost City of Z

In our travel down the coast of the Pacific Northwest, we are listening to an audio version of the book “The Lost City of Z” by David Grann (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lost_City_of_Z). This engaging, compelling narrative simultaneously tells the stories of three adventurers: Englishman Fawcett, Brazilian banker Lloyd, and the American reporter and author Grann. The early twentieth century, English explorer Percy Fawcett repeatedly journeyed into the heart of the Amazon in an attempt to discover a rumored, ancient civilization now succumb to the relentless onslaught of what Fawcett described as the green hell.

Far be it from me to summarize the chapters of this book in any manner as to even come close to its effect on the reader, for it is, in a single word–riveting.

Grann captures the essence of the mindset and determination of that era of explorer. The Royal Geographic Society was then filled with men (and later women) of this caliber, people capable of enduring hardship in overland exploration that give the modern day outdoors enthusiast cause to shudder, if not turn away from the thought alone for the onset of nausea.

The journals of Fawcett and his small crew describe pressing through a jungle so thick that a full day’s effort, at times, saw the gain of just 100 yards. The were attacked by mosquitoes without remorse, vampire bats while they slept, bees that nested in the liquid of their pupils, and maggots that infested their open wounds, occasionally pushing through the surrounding skin, as though to come up for air before diving back in. Despite swollen limbs, muscles far too lean to carry the packs on their backs, and the dark brood of malaria, they continued. They built rafts which they pulled up-stream, wading in waters infested with piranha and candiru, the famous “dick fish” of the Amazon river (which I have since learned, is not at all capable nor even interested in swimming into the male reproductive organs (http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20160104-does-the-candiru-fish-really-eat-human-penises)).

I have not cringed so many times in reading a book as I have in these several hours as we drove from Powell’s book seller in Portland to Redding California. I have not so many times been reminded of how much our relationship to the world outside of the land we occupy as cities has changed.

For centuries Europeans dominated the natural and discovered world through a system of brutal oppression and control. This was accompanied by a determination that anything and anyone outside of the geographic regions described by the Christian bible were automatically uncivilized, heathen, even inhuman. Grann recounts this paradigm in his retelling of some of the Spanish entries into the Amazon with not a handful of men, but hundreds in full metal uniform and thousands of natives forced to accompany as slaves.

We have in the twenty first century entered the age of data collection. Mountains that were once held as impassible, sacred, or simply unnecessary to conquer are now scaled as a matter of recreation. Treks across inhospitable terrains in temperatures that never climb above freezing required years of preparation, massive ships to safeguard rations, and a risk to all who were encumbered.

The same trek across the South Pole are now conducted by individuals with a faction the gear, in far less time. The Pacific Crest Trail is walked, Mexico to Canada, 2600 miles without ever checking a compass, a topographical map, or the stars overhead. Our digital devices can tell us exactly where we are, at any given second, and yet we have no clue as to where we reside.

Colleen and I journeyed forty miles over the source of four days and three nights in the Washington Cascades, carrying packs roughly half the weight of those shouldered by Fawcett and his men. We hiked on trails so well worn that without a map, without compass or GPS we could cross the entire Glacier Peak Wilderness and not lose our bearing. Yet in those four days we were reminded how it feels to carry one’s own weight, to have all that we needed, to “discover” land in which many have gone before us, but they remain preserved enough that we felt as though we could be the first to set foot on those boulders, mountain shoulders, and snow fields.

In Fawcett’s two decades of exploration he adapted, evolved, and improved. He traveled lighter with each entry into the midnight canopy, and learned from the wisdom of the natives. He was perhaps one of the first ethnobotanists, replacing the brutal English attempts at curing wounds with heated irons to using local plant leaves, roots, and applications that for thousands of years had allowed the South Americans to survive, even prosper.

As my own gear has become lighter over three decades of excursions into the wilderness (clearly, a very different wilderness than that of the Amazon), I have moved from 65 pound packs to roughly 20 on most occasions. Now, I am motivated to take this farther, to learn what plants are available along the trail of the Sonoran Southwest, the Colorado Rockies, and the Washington Cascades and Olympic Peninsula such that my pack is even lighter, and I am able to travel longer without resupply.

Yet in comparison to the journeys of Fawcett, Shackleton, and Livingston, I recognize that I will never push my body as they once did. No one does. We have, I am certain, lost that kind of adventure.

By |2018-08-31T16:31:21-04:00August 31st, 2018|From the Road|Comments Off on The Lost City of Z

Where the world makes sense

Children
This place makes sense to me. It’s the way the world is suppose to be. This is a village without locked doors, without restricted areas, without rules other than those that in and of their intent describe their purpose.

“Do you know where your children are?” is almost always met with a matter of fact, “No.” And it doesn’t matter. They are either testing personal boundaries with the deer on the village green, learning to weave or throw a clay pot, or exploring the creekside trail despite the daily movement of black bear. As humans once embraced a much larger family than biological children and direct relations, here it is the village that raises the child.

In the first days parents are heard yelling the usual, “I told you to get down!” or “Don’t go too far!” but by the third or fourth day, the parents realize their children are safe and let go or altogether cut the reigns. This gives the children more freedom to explore, to make their own decisions, to make mistakes and recover. Children grow at Holden Village in a way that our always-on, always connected world does not afford.

Of a village
Most everything you do is known. As in a small town, this can be both welcomed and unwanted. Your actions directly affect at least one other, if not the entire village. Failure to complete your assigned tasks means that someone you know (and will see at the next meal) will have to carry your load. Complete your tasks and you will have served all who serve you in turn. Even if praise is not directly given, it is not difficult to enjoy the results of your labor. A repaired handrail catches someone’s fall. A stone reset in a pathway no longer poses a potential fall. There is a sense of belonging, to the village and the community too. It isn’t difficult to find your place, for there is always more work to do.

Spider Gap
At the top of Spider Gap, a high elevation saddle that leads from the Upper Lyman lake and Lyman glacier to a permanent snow field on the northwest to a glacier on the southeast. I enjoyed a rapid ascent from base to top, and a splendid view of the other side. While I was resting on an distant outcrop of rock, a couple in their early sixties had turned back from the descent and return to the saddle. When I came upon them they were resting, drinking, eating some snacks before the descent of Spider glacier to their campsite.

We had chatted briefly a half hour earlier. I reengaged, “Ah! I see you decided to head back.” Their daughter and son-in-law had continued down into the Upper Lyman basin.

“Yes, yes. This is only our second real backpacking trip, so we thought we’d better not push it too hard.”

“Wait. This is your second backpacking trip and you are climbing glaciers?”

They laughed, “Well. Our daughter got us out on 13 mile trip a few weeks ago as a warm-up. I guess it worked!”

I was impressed. Climbing snow is never easy. Foot over foot, punching foot holds with boot toes all the way up. It’s a relentless means to gain a higher elevation as there are no switch backs, no resting spots other than those you make by digging into the crust and stomping out a flat spot.

We chatted for a few minutes more before the subject of GPS tracking came up. Their daughter and son had on them a device that enabled remote tracking of their location, anywhere in the world. The father bragged that the unit he first bought for them enabled text messaging and continuous tracking, every point on the trail marked.

I quickly responded, “Are you ok with a relative stranger debating this subject?” They agreed, and I continued, “I would refuse to enter the wilderness with such a device. It destroys the entire reason to be out here.” The father laughed and said his son-in-law said the same thing. They compromised on a simpler device with a GPS marker but no text messaging, the unit they had on them now.

“It is my experience that it is not the children, but the parents who demand such things.”

“Yes, this is true. We just … we want to know they are ok.”

“Maybe they are … maybe they aren’t. But that’s the whole point. This is not an amusement park with safety built-in. This is the wilderness, intentionally wild and without constraints. I’d rather die out here than in a car wreck or a hospital bed. Wouldn’t you?

“Now that our daughter has gotten us into these places, yes, I am beginning to agree. Once you are out here, you don’t want to carry anything that connects you to the rest of the world.”

We continued to discuss the matter. I proposed that in our modern world the mobile phone itself is a kind of digital leash. Giving a phone to a child or teenager takes away from their sense of responsibility. It takes away from their capacity to make their own decisions and reduces maturation.

I concluded, “My first true sense of confidence was gained by backpacking solo in the Superstition Wilderness at age 17 or 18. I had completed a two day trip with my father and simply was not ready to come back out. My mother and father departed the pickup spot and I hiked back in for another two days and one night. That was my first time sleeping alone on the trail. It set in motion a lifetime of solo ventures in the wilderness, and an increase in my confidence that even today requires upkeep.”

We parted company and I glissaded back down the face of the snow field to a mid-way landing, each step a meter and a half or more. It felt as though I was flying—nearly an hour in ascent covered in just a few minutes return. While resting on the landing, a crack resounded above me. In a flurry of sound, stone fragments, and the dust of rapidly falling debris, the snow field to my left was littered with freshly fallen material. This was a reminder that nothing is stable in the high mountain passes, not even the mountains themselves. Bit by bit, stone by stone, they too are affected by the relentless pull of gravity until worn smooth and low. I continued my descent, even more rapid than before, arriving to the bowl where large boulders marked my exit to the open waterfalls, flowers, and trail back to valley below.

By |2018-11-25T12:59:57-04:00August 20th, 2018|From the Road|Comments Off on Where the world makes sense