Kai Staats: writing

From the Road

/From the Road/

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

The senses of wilderness, a photo essay

Copper Basin, Washington Cascades, by Colleen Cooley

Field of Green, Washington Cascades, by Kai Staats Sound
In the wilderness, all sounds are welcomed. The wind provides clues to its direction and magnitude; thunder direct indication of an approaching storm. The breaking of branches notifies us of an approaching deer. The shrill call of a marmot—an alert of our own approach or that of a bear. Even the buzz of the mosquito and fly are warnings of their impending bite. All sounds are welcomed. Not a single one do we filter or hope that it will subside. Every night camped with the backdrop of a creek is a night spent in deep sleep.

Returned to the world of human creation, my senses are overwhelmed. Moving over concrete and pavement when my body aches for the sensation of the trail beneath my feet. No longer do I adjust my center of gravity for each footfall, a kind of walking dance with an earthen partner. Rather, I simply fall forward, step by step in an disengaged slumber. I am reminded how the world we occupy was forged in an effort to reduce the effort required to conduct even the most basic of tasks.

Berry, Washington Cascades by Kai Staats Taste
Soft, warm huckleberries suspended within reach of passing hikers. More than anyone could count let alone consume. Bright blue Oregon grapes at foot provide a bitter balance to the consistently sweet thimble berries whose textured red cap is readily transported from stalk to lips with but a pinch. Elderberries are prevalent but desire to be consumed as wine, not in raw form. Salmon berries. Raspberries. Clusters of bright orange fruit suspended from thin fingers of mountain ash.

Crystal clear, crisp streams continue the downward fall from cloud to snowfield and glacier to kettle pond and river. With and without filtration, these molecules have flavor, a reminder that water in and of itself can be enjoyed.

Raman noodles, rice, and rehydrated vegetables are cherished as though served by a world renowned chef in a top ranked restaurant. Even the simplest of flavors come to life when days are measured not by hours on a watch, but by miles on the trail and having reached once distant peaks.

Colleen and Kai, Washington Cascades by Kai Staats Physical
It is a mistake to say that “touch” is a sense, for it is not what we reach out and grab, rather what reaches out and grabs us that brings us into the physical world. When we remove the comfort of our climate controlled home and step out into the unsafe domain beyond, it is only the metabolic processes of our cellular respiration that keeps us from freezing, overheating, or succumbing to the temptation of a storm.

Strip off our clothes, remove our steel shanked boots, unfurl the locks of unkept hair and dip into the cool, silky water of glacial run-off, turquoise as seen from afar. In shallow, still pools it is warmed by the sun. The slick mud moves between toes with so little friction that one is likely to slide from bank to center of pond, having no choice but to fully immerse and swim back to shore, grabbing grasses and shrubs by their roots to rise up and place bare bottom back on land.

This is the physical engagement, the realization that we are nothing without our gear. We are just another naked animal enjoying the movement of ice over stone, melt over land, and sun over water.

Deer, Washington Cascades, by Colleen Cooley Sight
My eyes that find burden in seeing just a meter to my front after days peering at a computer screen once again find a more dynamic range of motion and visual depth. Colors well beyond the range of 16-bit overwhelm my senses and remind me that our experience of this world will never be matched by a digital facsimile.

Mists at dawn linger over dark forest cover. Whales mingle in shallow waters close to shore. Water falls from high nooks, cascading into perpetually turbulent pools. Eagles rest on bare branches back from tidal shores, patient for the next time the water recedes and food is exposed. Mountain ridge after ridge recede into the distance, each a shade of gray and purple combined. Growing flames of Cascade fires cover the valley floor with what could at first be mistaken for ladened clouds lying too low.

Our breath is caught in that place where emotion is held, pulling at a sense of longing, a blend of pain and joy expressed as tears. The complex dance of photons upon retina invokes memories carried from long before our childhood.

Smoke filled valley, Washington Cascades, by Kai Staats Smell
Pine needles both dry and moist carry a distinctive aroma immediately recognized as one marches up trail. From sun baked, earthen footpaths covered in crumbled remains of the pine’s lost luster to shaded, packed layers of fallen debris so thick as to invoke the sensation that the earth itself is a trampoline. And with a gust of wind chemical compounds are released, wafting up into the currents and eddies only to be inhaled as a memory of another times when I explored, rested, or made love beneath pine trees.

By |2018-12-01T11:56:18-04:00August 17th, 2018|From the Road|Comments Off on The senses of wilderness, a photo essay

The return

How does one return from a place that feels right, to a world in which so little makes sense?

How does one move from the lichens and moss underfoot to the lifeless barrier of concrete?

How does one block, filter, and shut-out the city when the sounds of the wilderness are all wanting to be heard?

This transition, this return to the complex, human-crafted world is not easy when the one at the end of the lake and up, into the mountains is what feels natural and life giving.

By |2018-08-28T11:54:25-04:00August 17th, 2018|From the Road|Comments Off on The return

Styx: The Mission

Styx: The Mission I am of that generation that yet cherishes the physical representation of music in vinyl and CD form. I listen to albums, not songs, enjoying the story as it was designed to unfold. As long as I was visiting, I walked the CD isle at Best Buy to see if there was anything new of interest.

I noted an album by Styx called The Mission. I didn’t even read the back—I just grabbed it, as I had not seen a new album by this, one of greatest rock bands of all time, in many years. When I got home, I read the booklet and was blown away, realizing this is not a compilation or digital re-sampling of old songs, but a totally new album written specifically for this, the second era of space exploration. I ripped the CD, copied it to my phone and listened on my car stereo as I drove north to Flagstaff.

The Mission is the sixteenth studio album by the band Styx, released on June 16, 2017. It is the band’s first studio album since 2005’s Big Bang Theory, their first album of original material since 2003’s Cyclorama, and their highest-charting studio album in the United States since 1983’s Kilroy Was Here, reaching #45 on the Billboard 200. A concept album, it tells the story of a mission to the planet Mars in the year 2033. The album’s story was written by Tommy Shaw and Will Evankovich —Wikipedia

It is difficult to express the impact this album had on me—a visceral response that included goosebumps, adrenaline, sweating as I moved to the beat, and most of all—a reminder of what music, real music used to be.

The Mission is not just a voyage to a distant planet, but a voyage through rhythm designed to match the unfolding story, intelligent lyrics (“Time may bend, but it hasn’t bent enough for me.”), and engaging melody. These songs contain a deep understanding of instrumentation, dynamic control of the human voice, and the telling of a complete story much as a movie carries the audience through a full range of emotion. It may be that each generation says the same thing of the prior, but there is nothing being produced by modern bands that matches the rich offering of Styx and the era in which they were born.

On the way out, the guys behind the counter asked if I thought CDs would be around much longer (clearly, they were asking “the old guy” this question). I said I was not sure, but referred to the fact that more LPs are being manufactured today than at any time in history. Clearly, muzak and random play lists are not cutting it any longer. I encouraged them to set aside just one hour, just once, and do nothing but listen to an album, start to finish, to hear the story as intended by the musicians. They admitted they had never done this before … but I am not certain I convinced them to put down their mobile phone for such an eternity.

By |2018-12-01T12:19:41-04:00July 25th, 2018|The Written|Comments Off on Styx: The Mission

New Socks

I have decided that a new pair of socks may be one of the best things one can experience.

A snug fit, the kind that provides a sense of security, yet soft, fluffy, and warm. Hiking socks are the best, for they are full bodied, like a good beer, totally enveloping your foot with or without the boot. New running socks give new life to old running shoes.

Yet, if you purchase a half dozen new socks that are of the same model as the old, you run the risk of not immediately telling them apart once through the wash. Yes, under the right light it is possible to see which is faded, for black is truly a dark, dark blue in the world of cloth and dyed materials. Sometimes you are able to pinch the wall, rubbing thumb and forefinger together to determine which is thicker. But sometimes you just have to try them on, determining which is the thicker. The thinner is removed, and another tested until you have a match.

This can be a time consuming process, and anxiety producing if you are late to get going in the morning. I am considering some kind of marker, a tag or tiny bleach spot, perhaps an ID tag for the various degrees of age.

NO DOT – new
ONE DOT – previous generation
TWO DOTS – two generations old, likely ready to be come rags

By |2018-07-12T13:11:22-04:00July 12th, 2018|The Written|Comments Off on New Socks

Lemmon Aid

It had been twenty some years since I ventured to the top of Mt. Lemmon, just to the North of Tucson, Arizona. Not a difficult venture at all, but one that has been too far off my path of travel to make worth while. As I was at the Biosphere yesterday afternoon with my colleague Don Boonstra, and the thought of returning to the heat of Phoenix too much to bear, I drove up Catalina Canyon, just as the sun set, and turned into a campground whose name I now forget.

I didn’t have any cash, and as such could not complete the self-registration form for a site. Instead, I drove to the farthest end of the campground, the sites numbered over 60. There I found a parking lot at the trail head to a lake. It was empty other than an SUV which parked long enough for the drive and passenger to venture to the lake for a skinny dip (or so I presumed, given the laughter and breathless giggles as they returned … of course, there are other things they could have done, but they weren’t gone very long.)

I pulled in backward so as to orient my car to slope from head to foot, with me laying in the back. I left the windows part way down and enjoyed the cold, pine ladened night air. Only for the image of waking to a bear tugging on the bottom of my blanket (and toes) did I not leave the back of my Subaru Forester open.

I set the alarm for 5 am so as to leave the park without being asked to pay. I know, not a good standard, but it has been many years, more than a decade since I slept-n-ran at a National Forest campground. And given that my phone had died, the time slewed, and my 5 am alarm woke me at what I later realized was 3:30 am, I didn’t feel too bad. (Yes, it occurred to me that the sun should have been up, not a star in the sky, yet I didn’t put all the pieces together until later …)

I enjoyed four, maybe four and a half hours of sleep before driving the last half hour to the top of the mountain. I drove through Summitville, and explored a trail head on the far side. Back to a turn-out that looked over the Eastern side of Mt. Lemmon and the Oracle Control Road.

Wrapped in a blanket, the calming sound of pine trees moved by a constant breeze, I intentionally missed the sunrise by my eyes, but enjoyed its warm greeting on my face.

Despite the early rise, shuffle, and sleep spent in two beds, by 7:30 am I had slept better than I had in weeks. I woke to a breakfast of yogurt and a bagel, then went to use the National Park Service restroom. To my surprise, a bird was flitting from one side to the other while I was inside, just over my head. It was unable to get out while the door was shut. I opened the door, and it immediately departed.

Then something caught my eye. Its nest was made on the corner of the interior window sill. As an NPR story I had listened to the day before shared the results of researchers moving bird nests to see if they would be discovered again resulted in a positive pattern, I thought it would be best to move the nest just outside the door, less than a meter away.

However, upon carefully lowering the nest into the palm of my hand, I discovered four sleeping chicks, incredibly small, fuzzy, and not even disturbed by the motion. Only when I made too abrupt a move did they stir, lift their heads, and open their beaks. I photographed them, then returned the next to its original location.

I returned to my car to make a sign to hang on the wall, to ask patrons of this facility to NOT close the door so that the mother can come and go. Upon re-entering the restroom, the mother bird had returned to the nest. That’s good.

I attempted to make my way down the backside of Mt. Lemmon, on Old Mt. Lemmon Road. While I had done so easily in a low-clearance Subaru hatchback many years before, my Forester struggled to find angles of approach that did not expose its underbelly to sharp rocks and small boulders that now stood out in this clearly unmaintained road.

With a conference call looming, I had no choice but to turn around and head back up the seemingly one-way road, back onto the pavement, and home.

By |2018-11-24T00:47:03-04:00July 1st, 2018|From the Road|Comments Off on Lemmon Aid

Where should the words go?

I haven’t had much to say lately. Neither here nor on social media (which I seldom use, anyway). My words are no longer at home outside of my head. Where do they go? What value to they carry? To whom do they intend?

I’ve been hyper-focused on my research project and team at ASU, building a mathematical model of an off-world habitat and community. My work at LIGO has slowed, but remains in motion. Mostly guiding, in a supporting role. With the help of my high school physics prof Dan Heim, we are preparing the Cave-Cassegrain telescope to ship to Tanzania, the one I drove from Wisconsin back to Arizona a few weeks ago.

I am settling into some semblance of a routine, now that Colleen and I share a house in Flagstaff. Runs every-other-morning from here around Buffalo Park and back. Home made fruit smoothies, fresh eggs from Nikki’s chickens on the east side of town, then work from my shed-office, a tiny tin-roofed structure built from lumber recycled from two generations earlier. Interior sideboard are covered with newspapers from the 1800s. When I need a break, I walk around the space (4 paces long, 2 paces wide) and journey back in time.

I am experimenting with crabapple pies. Colleen continues to cook incredible meals, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. She is a natural with food. We eat incredibly healthy, yet both crave garden-fresh food knowing we have succumb to store-bought produce that always fails in comparison.

This was my summer to begin construction of a home on my land outside of Moab. But recent alterations to the C&Rs have raised confusion and tension. My ideal, modest mountain cabin may not be accepted, for it does not uphold the neighborhood that is leaning toward half million dollar homes. Legal language has been employed instead of neighborly consideration, despite my best attempts at personal communication. While the land remains astounding, I question if this is where I want to live, to raise a family. I should not have to seek legal approval to build a greenhouse or children’s playground when the nearest neighbor is a quarter mile away. I cannot help but see parallels between our small microcosm of the larger, over-developed world. Houses are sized not according to personal need nor their impact on the environment, but by the need to increase the value of the investment. This establishes a contest between frequently opposing forces. Development almost always wins.

The issues on the border are crushing to me. I fight back tears as I listen to the news. Having worked on the border with No More Deaths (https://www.kaistaats.com/blog/2010/06/no-more-deaths) I feel the pain of the situation deep inside. I contemplate forgoing a vacation and instead learning if my organizational and computer skills could somehow be applied, a database and image recognition algorithms to help reunite children with their parents.

Today, I must remain focused. Three calls with ASU research team members (ignoring that it is a Sunday), editing a film proposal, and the final submission of my book proposal for MIT Press.

By |2018-06-24T14:34:47-04:00June 24th, 2018|The Written|Comments Off on Where should the words go?

True or False … stay tuned

There was a period in my life, from 2012-2015 when I was adept at producing a regular series of essays. I was weekly sharing stories of my travels, adventures, meetings, and interactions with the world in so many ways. I felt, at that time, that my life was rich, dynamic, and impossibly full. Yet, now, I am working more hours each day, more full days each week than in the past decade and the richness of my engagements is equally fulfilling, even if in a different way. Yet, the stories are internalized, always on hold, for the process is each day unfolding.

When a day in Palestine, Tanzania, or South Africa is a day worth describing, a day working on Python coding leaves one wanting to get away from the keyboard, not closing the day with more typing. What’s more, there is a fear of ridicule for sharing the process if the process is one already tested and proved true or false, for in research the goal is not to rediscover, but to discover anew.

To share the process is to share potential success or potential failure in the making. And that is hard to do.

By |2018-05-17T00:46:49-04:00May 17th, 2018|Ramblings of a Researcher|Comments Off on True or False … stay tuned

When Stars Collide

A few paragraphs from my book, “When Stars Collide” (working title)

This is the realm of multimessenger astronomy, the amalgamation of instruments each designed to witness a cosmic event though a unique point of view. Not unlike seeing the human body from the outside, optical light refracting from clothing and skin, an x-ray image looks past the superficial to the inside. Add ultrasound, CAT, and fMRI and we have a multimessenger means to probe the interior as we do the vast exterior of the cosmos with telescopes.

[snip]

What makes astronomy so exciting is that while you anticipate one thing, you are often met by another. It is not that the laws of physics are being broken, rather that our understanding of the laws is being challenged and expanded. What we did not expect catches us off guard, keeps us humble, and reinforces a childlike sense of the mystery and magic of the incredibly vast universe in which we reside.

[snip]

Franco was annoyed that I had not kept up with the LIGO email lists, that we could not reflect on this together. I realized my mistake, for I had missed the live unfolding of something extraordinary. But what we didn’t know then was that just three days later there would be another detection event, this one a total game changer.

[snip]

This confirmed that the signal was real. It could be seen with an unaided human eye above the background noise in the data from both Hanford and Livingston. At that point, all skepticism disappeared and a chant erupted in the telecon chat: “Send the alert!” “Send the alert!” “Send the alert!”

The alert went out to hundreds of astronomical observatories around the world, partners who had for years waited for just such an opportunity. This started it all. This was the birth of multimessenger astronomy.

By |2018-05-17T00:11:11-04:00May 17th, 2018|The Written|Comments Off on When Stars Collide