The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Jun 2010

Starling Flocks Fly like Avalanches?

New research suggests that the flight pattern of a starling flock reaches beyond the usual rules of biology, Wired News reports. Mathematical analysis of starling flocks show that it does not matter how far away one bird is from another, or how large the flock is, the birds always react as if connected to the same network.

This phenomenon is known as scale-free correlation, and the closest known fit to this pattern comes from crystal formation or avalanches--systems which are capable of near instantaneous reformation.  

These amazing flock patterns are most likely evidence of a starling's ability to react to predator attacks. But according to researchers, the "most surprising and exotic feature" of the flocks was their near instantaneous signal processing speed. "How starlings achieve such a strong correlation remains a mystery to us," they wrote.  

Above, check out the mesmerizing video of a starling flock under attack by a Peregrine falcon.

--Shauna Sweeney

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Fordlandia: Mis-Adventures in the Amazon

Fordlandia_300dpi Greg Grandin's Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City, a Pulitzer-Prize finalist, is a 20th-century tale of industrial ambition, mismanagement, and failure. The head of the whole thing was Henry Ford, who, by 1927, was at the top of his entrepreneurial game. Threatened by the possibility of a British latex cartel, the automobile-mogul set his sights on the jungles of Brazil with the goal of raising a rubber plantation. But it wasn't just about rubber; he wanted to Americanize the locals, too. All this was a huge challenge--one that proved insurmountable in the end. Outside spoke with Grandin about Ford, his grand experiment in Brazil, and the costly mistakes that made for one helluva mis-adventure in the Amazon.

What prompted you to write this book?
I kept seeing mention of Fordlandia in different places--mostly books on the Amazon. The late Warren Dean, for instance, a pioneer in environmental history, dedicated a chapter to Fordlandia in his wonderful, Brazil and the Struggle for Rubber. The story of Ford's bid to transplant Americana to Amazona was usually folded into a well-known list of quixotic attempts to conquer the Amazon, from El Dorado to the making of Fitzcarraldo. But I was struck that there wasn't a full-length history of it. There is the novel Fordlandia, written by Eduardo Sguiglia, an Argentine author. I read somewhere that Sguiglia had set out to write a non-fiction account, but the evocative nature of the tale led him to fictionalize the story. It's a great novel, but I thought perhaps this was one of those cases where history could be stranger than fiction.

There was still plenty of unexplored territory in the world during Ford's time. What do you think his motivation was for trying to set up a colony in the Amazon: exploration/adventure, industrial progress, social evolution, capitalism, or something else entirely?
That's the million-dollar question--or rather the quarter-billion-dollar question, which is how much Ford spent on Fordlandia, adjusted for inflation. The initial reason for obtaining a tract of land the size of a small American state in the middle of the Amazon was to grow rubber to bypass a proposed British latex cartel. But by the time the project got underway, the economic logic had changed. The price of latex had collapsed. Yet Ford ignored advice and went forward anyway. And the more the project failed, the more he plowed more and more money into it.

Ford was less motivated on laying control over yet another raw material as he was by a restless dissatisfaction with the way things were going at home. Ford, the man who unleashed the power of industrial capitalism by perfecting the assembly line, spent most of his life trying to put the genie back in the bottle, to tame the forces he set loose. He tried doing this by founding a number of so-called "village industries" in the U.S., small factories powered by hydroelectricity manned by "mechanic-farmers." But through the rolling 1920s and depressed 1930s, Ford found himself frustrated on one front after another, as well as implicated in many of the vices he condemned. So he turned to the Amazon.

Ford made a lot of mistakes in setting up this colony, ignorance being a major one. Do you think Forlandia was doomed from the get-go? Was its failure inevitable, or did the whole thing collapse because of a series of bad decisions? Was there any way for Fordlandia to have been successful?
It didn't help that Ford refused to seek out expert advice--from a botanist, agronomist, plant pathologist, or anyone who might have had some knowledge of Amazon rubber and its threats, much less someone versed in the complexities of Brazilian politics and society. In retrospect, it is hard to see how it could have succeeded, though perhaps failure would have been a little less spectacular had Ford consulted individuals with experience.

There were two great waves of failure at Fordlandia. The first was social: Ford's attempt to raise an American town and impose his brand of Puritanism on Brazilian workers--making them eat whole-wheat bread and brown rice, for example, or enforcing prohibition--led to a series of revolts and riots. Rather than Our Town, the early years of Fordlandia seemed more like Deadwood, in terms of the brothels, gambling halls, and bars set up around its periphery. After a while, the company managed to establish control, but then nature rebelled. By ignoring expert advice and planting rubber trees close together--as a way of replicating industrial mass production in the jungle--Ford effectively created an enormous incubator as bugs and fungi reproduced like wildfire to lay waste to the plantation repeatedly.

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Catching Up With Melissa Arnot

Outside in Aspen: Catching Up With Melissa Arnot from Outside Magazine on Vimeo.

Climber Melissa Arnot recently became the first American woman to summit Everest three times. (She's bagged Mount Rainier 73 times.) We caught up with her at Outside in Aspen Weekend, when filmmaker Allison Otto talked to her about climbing Everest without supplemental oxygen, 13-year-old climber Jordan Romero, and what's up next.

Check out the video above for the interview and the video below for Melissa in action on Everest.

--Joe Spring

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K2: Here We Come

Fredrik Ericsson Laila Peak 2010

8:30 a.m. The pit, in and of itself, was inconclusive. When pressured with the kind of force that would represent a skier executing a silky smooth jump turn, a layer did, in fact, release, but it wasn’t the kind of sheer that shrinks your cojones and sends you tiptoeing for the nearest safety zone. The summit was literally straight above us; just a few more hard hours and we’d be there. On the other hand, the northwest aspect of Laila is a massive, flat and featureless 45-50-degree tabletop, and it was easy to imagine that any kind of fracture would release the entire face. It’s times like these that I find it useful to pause for a moment to reflect on my priorities in life.

After a refreshing alpine start, we’d been climbing for five hours, traversing, really, once we’d rappelled over the ‘shrund, found a semi-stable snowbridge to cross the crevasse that blocked access to the face, then traversed to the base of the rock band that guards the climber’s right. That’s when we started gunning up the central snowfield for the summit. We were making good time, thanks in no small part to the evil-looking cornice that threatened the traverse for a good couple of hours. But the higher we climbed the deeper the snow became until it was waist-deep. It felt stable, but that much snow at that angle and everything telling us there was more snow above us made those gut instincts kick in. That’s when we dug the pit to check the snow stability.

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Get Your Fly On

David Doerr one The fly-fishing season is upon us. If you've been entertaining the notion of getting to a river to partake, we're all for that. And if you're a newbie who has no clue where to begin, we've got you covered. Here are five pieces of essential advice for beginner fly-fishermen (and women!) from David Doerr, director of fly-fishing for The Little Nell in Aspen:

Appreciate your environment--Fly-fishing is about experiencing nature at its finest. Standing in a stream or beside a clear alpine lake, gracefully casting a fly to a beautiful, brightly colored rising trout is the quintessential mountain experience. When I take beginners or experienced fly-fishers on an outing, I try to always remind them to stop and look around and appreciate their surroundings. Most fly-fishing settings are in some of the most beautiful settings you can imagine. Enjoy the experience and you will sometimes find yourself feeling that catching fish is secondary to being part of the natural world around you.

Learn to cast reasonably well--In order to really enjoy your fishing, you should take the time to learn to cast adequately. Rarely when fishing fresh water do I find it necessary to cast more than 30 feet. Distance is not important, so practice your basic cast until you are comfortable and fairly accurate. Get in the habit of watching your back cast until you feel your rod load and see the line straighten behind you. I find most students instinctively pick up on the timing if they watch their back cast. Also learn the basic roll cast; it will save you many flies. As for beginners’ equipment, a great set up would be Hardy's 9-foot 5-weight Demon Rod ($349) and Swift MK II 900 reel ($275). This set up is a great value and the reel has a modern, multi-disk drag system.

David Doerr two Learn the basic entomology of your fishing waters--Learn to identify the larval and adult stages of mayflies, stoneflies, and caddis species in your waters. A fine mesh nylon screen is a great tool on the stream. Turn over some submerged rocks and the stream will begin to reveal its secrets. Pay attention to the ants, beetles, and grasshoppers you see along the stream.

Learn to read the water and think like a fish--Most wild things seek to conserve energy and find their food using the least amount of energy. On faster water, you will find fish in eddies and behind rocks as well as on the slower side of a current seam. I cannot tell you how many fish I’ve caught by plopping a grasshopper pattern in the middle of a foam-covered eddy. When you lean how to read the waters and fish new water, you find you can simply walk the stream, read currents, and know where the fish will be.

Stay open-minded and ask questions--I find most fly-fishers are eager to share their knowledge and help beginners. I don’t believe there is such a thing as a master fly-fisher; you should always be observing and learning every time you are on the water. Exercise good etiquette on the water. Approach other fishermen with caution and respect. If you decide to pass them on the stream, give them a wide berth. Respect the waters others are fishing and will be fishing. Sometimes, when fishing new water, I have approached a pool and found it occupied by another fisherman. I quietly sit down and observe that person fishing and his techniques. Eventually, he notices me and usually initiates a conversation. More often than not, I leave with a wealth of new knowledge, a new fishing friend, and, sometimes, some new fly patterns without ever wetting a line.

For more on fly-fishing, see Outside's June issue.

--Aileen Torres

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