Kai Staats: writing

From the Road

/From the Road/

Counting raindrops in Meru

The Meru Simba Lodge dining area is unusually occupied at 22:40 this evening. Two men to my back and side speak quietly in Swahili. One told me he cannot go home at this time, as the elephants are on the road, having crossed out of the Arusha National Park earlier in the evening. We both heard what sounded like a half dozen gun shots, he further explained these were locals, not shooting at them, but scaring them back into the park. No one walks at night unless they must for the elephants are far more a threat than the cheetah, here, at the base of 4000 meter Mt. Meru.

This is my twelfth day in Tanzania, each rich, full, and fully engaged as I work with my colleagues, ambassadors to astronomy for this Telescopes to Tanzania and Astronomers Without Borders project. But tonight it is raining for the first time since my arrival. Light at first, the tempo and volume has increased and the wonderful aroma of cleanly washed atmosphere.

The temperature has dropped, a light breeze brings a subtle chill, the aroma of wet forest and the banter of the drops on the thatched roof remind me of the need to breathe it all in.

By |2019-08-02T16:24:43-04:00August 2nd, 2019|2019, Out of Africa|Comments Off on Counting raindrops in Meru

LightSail 2 is away!

LightSail2, launch - by Kai Staats

LightSail2, Skyscape - by Kai Staats There is nothing quite like a rocket launch. The anticipation builds with the first arrivals, waiting in line from late afternoon into the evening, sun scorching, humidity suffocating. Hundreds, eventually more than 2500 people came from across the United States, from around the world to witness a dance between technology, gravity, and the stars. The possibility of catastrophe and success feel equally balanced, a tug-o-war that no one can fully predict. Only after the vehicle and one-of-a-kind payloads are far away from the launch pad, is there a sense of growing comfort to override the lingering fear.

LightSail2, spectators - by Kai Staats In a time when the news is too often confusing, saddening, even heart wrenching, I am reminded of the ways in which we successfully come together to design, build, and delight in exploration of the unknown. This spacecraft started it’s journey four decades ago, with Carl Sagan, Louis Friedman, and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory director Bruce Murray … and my childhood mentor Carl Berglund and his team at JPL. He was the lead engineer on the original SolarSail, as described by Jason Davis for the Planetary Society in Old documents shine new light on NASA’s plan to send a solar sail to Halley’s Comet

The Planetary Society is now successful in launching not one, but two LightSails, demonstration that we live in a NewSpace era, no longer bound to the encumbered government organizations. In one week, LightSail2 will disembark from its carrier vessel and demonstrate the capacity for a spacecraft to maneuver, even alter its orbit around a strong gravitational body using electromagnetic impulses, reaction wheels, and the pressure of light from the sun.

LightSail2, second stage - by Kai Staats This was my full circle, a return to ages 6 and 7 through my early teens when repeat visits to NASA JPL helped shape my passion for space exploration. Thank you Carl, Dan Heim, Jim Bell and the School of Earth & Space Exploration at ASU, my associates at LIGO and ISU, and many more who have in the past decade brought me back into the space sciences and a foundational sense of hope for what we can do.

LightSail2, spectators - by Kai Staats LightSail2, countdown - by Kai Staats LightSail2, booster return - by Kai Staats LightSail2, booster landing - by Kai Staats

By |2019-07-01T15:48:05-04:00June 25th, 2019|Looking up!|Comments Off on LightSail 2 is away!

Cascabel, a photo essay

Sunset over the San Pedro river valley - by Kai Staats

Birds at water hole - by Kai Staats Male turkey - by Kai Staats Female turkey - by Kai Staats Turkey with chicks - by Kai Staats

Sunset over the San Pedro river valley - by Kai Staats

My first two months living in the San Pedro river valley a has been an extraordinary, daily adventure in temperature extremes, welcomed sun rises and stunning sun sets; no less than a dozen species of birds just outside my door, and the daily visit of four deer to my watering hole. I have been surprised by the rapid taming of an otherwise wild turkey who decided of her own accord to tap on the glass of my glass door, to tell me when she is hungry. She then follows me around the house to the spot (at a safe distance) to where I feed her. Her sister (I assume) has a family of a dozen poults that follow her across the yard once every three days or so.

The humming birds discovered two new feeders in less than forty five minutes, the seed feeder however hung in disuse for nearly a week before being discovered. Hawks with four foot wingspans, ravens, doves, and an incredible diversity of lizards occupy this land. Myriad spiders, moths, scorpions, and flies find their way into my home, ultimately trapped on sticky boards.

While I am an avid hiker, backpacker, and wilderness explorer, I have to admit to being somewhat challenged in the transition to a home in this desert biome. I am daily reminded how cities filled with concrete, pavement, invasive species, and manicured lawns have nearly completely eliminated the original, native species. I have not seen a black widow spider in Phoenix since the first year my parents and brother moved there in 1986, and never saw a scorpion. Yet here, in Cascabel, both are daily visitors to both the inside and outside of this abode. I may be a member of the species that can dominate with tools, vehicles, and weapons on the environment, but when it is just me, my hands and feet and nothing more, I am the one who is vulnerable in this complex ecosystem. Far from the lush water way of the 1800s, the San Pedro river valley remains a reminder of a world that was … and we hope, will continue to be.

Deer in the mesquite bosque - by Kai Staats Deer in the mesquite bosque - by Kai Staats Cottonwood in the San Pedro river valley - by Kai Staats Mesquite bosque - by Kai Staats

Sunset over the San Pedro river valley - by Kai Staats North Cascabel Road - by Kai Staats Mesquite bosque - by Kai Staats Serendipity at Cascabel - by Kai Staats

By |2019-06-11T00:37:16-04:00June 10th, 2019|At Home in the Southwest|Comments Off on Cascabel, a photo essay

No instead of Yes

When I feel safe,
I open my arms
and welcome you wide.

When I am insecure,
I shut down,
run and hide.

When anyone but you
confronts me,
I deal with it fine.

But just one word,
“no” instead of “yes”
or an uncertainty that leaves me to guess
and my heart is left in pieces,
my maturity replaced.

Once again, I am a mess.

By |2019-05-29T02:54:21-04:00May 29th, 2019|The Written|Comments Off on No instead of Yes

An unfortunate capture

Bat caught in a bug trap, photo by Kai Staats Last night was met with a very sad event. I fear my bug (glue) traps are a bit overzealous, having trapped a bat. Following advise by my neighbor Gilbert from a few weeks ago, I applied olive oil as an anti-goo agent. I was able to free this inadvertent visitor to my home by applying light pressure to each of his limbs using a ceramic chop stick. It took about 45 minutes in all. He (or she) was exhausted once free, and fell to sleep in the palm of my gloved hand.

Bat caught in a bug trap, photo by Kai Staats Following instructions I found on-line, I fabricated an enclosure from a cardboard box, with a warm water bottle in one corner and cloth to line the interior and sides.

She was reluctant to release my glove, but I coaxed her into the corner of the box where she wrapped her body around the bottle and fell to sleep. He woke to preen himself of the goo and oil, and was eager to drink from the water-milk-sugar-salt solution I prepared delivered in the fibers of an artist’s paintbrush. I could see and hear this tongue lapping the solution, like a very small dog. Four full brushes, and he was no longer interested.

Roughly two hours later, at 12:30 pm, she crawled out of a hole in the box I thought too small, and rested on the outside of the box, next to my bed. I lifted the box, he flopped around on the floor and then quickly took flight. I opened the door and out she went!

Bat rescue from a glue trap, photo by Kai Staats Bat rescue from a glue trap, photo by Kai Staats Bat rescue from a glue trap, photo by Kai Staats Bat rescue from a glue trap, photo by Kai Staats

By |2019-06-13T11:11:27-04:00April 17th, 2019|At Home in the Southwest|Comments Off on An unfortunate capture

Trimming trees at 2:30 AM

I am reunited with home ownership, in a most robust manner.

The french drain attached to the clothes washing machine was totally clogged, causing most of the water in the washer to shoot out of the connection for what was likely an under-sink garbage disposal. We learned the gas range and stove were never converted to propane, long yellow flames and black soot on the bottom of all pots and pans tell-tail signs of something not quite right. And tonight, our third in this new home, the winds drove the branches of the mesquite trees against the galvanized steel roof, scratching and screeching until I realized neither Colleen nor I would ever sleep. At 2:30 AM I pulled on my work pants, shirt, and boots and grabbed a tree saw from the tool bin. I carefully leaned the extension ladder against the large wood perimeter of the otherwise all steel frame and for an hour trimmed the trees that line the house on three sides.

The joy of owning a house again.

By |2019-04-10T06:42:54-04:00April 10th, 2019|At Home in the Southwest|Comments Off on Trimming trees at 2:30 AM

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?


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