Laci M. Gerhart Barley

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2019 Popsugar Reading Challenge Complete!

There are few things in life that Laci loves more than books and lists (and completing things well ahead of schedule), so you can imagine my excitement when I discovered the 2019 Popsugar Reading Challenge. The Challenge has been around for five years now, but I’m just now joining the club.

The really awesome thing about the Challenge is that the reading list is not a list of books, it’s a list of prompts for which a wide variety of books could be selected. To help you choose, there’s a Goodreads Group with over 23,000 members contributing to discussion boards relating to each prompt. It’s a fantastic way to branch into new genres, or play it safer with your old favorites.

The Challenge has two parts, the ‘regular’ list of 40 prompts, and an ‘advanced’ list with 10 additional prompts that are a little more difficult or specific. Being an overachiever and an avid reader, I of course did the full 50. Here, I’ll list out what I picked and link to each book’s Goodreads page for descriptions and reader reviews. You can also see my ratings for each book on my Popsugar Shelf and see how I’m progressing on my 2019 reading goal of 100 books.

The Regular List

Both Natalie Parker and Tessa Gratton are close friends of mine, and I had gotten shamefully behind on their latest books – the Challenge gave me the perfect excuse to catch up!

I chose several books from Lit Hub’s 30 Dystopian Novels By and About Women list, including The Core of the Sun, which begins “I lift my skirt, pull aside the waistband of my underpants, and push my index finger in to test the sample.”

Now that’s an opening line.

  • A book about family
    The Home Place by J. Drew Lanham
  • A book written by an author from Asia, Africa, or South America
    Unbowed by Wangari Maathai
  • A book with a zodiac sign or astrology term in the title
    The Pisces by Melissa Broder
  • A book that includes a wedding
    Our Kind of Cruelty by Araminta Hall
  • A book by an author whose first and last names start with the same letter
    Circe by Madeline Miller
  • A ghost story
    Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • A book with a two-word title
    Find Me by Laura van den Berg
  • A novel based on a true story
    The Girl Next Door by Willow Rose (based on the BTK Killer)
  • A book revolving around a puzzle or game
    The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell
  • Your favorite prompt from a past Popsugar Reading Challenge
    There were SO MANY good options, but in the end I chose “A book you got from a used book sale” from the 2017 Challenge. For which I read The Fifth Season by NK Jemison

For Black History Month in February, I decided to read only books by African or African American authors. Not all of them counted for the Popsugar Challenge; they included

The Advanced List

Overall, I really enjoyed the Challenge – it got me to read some things I’d been meaning to get around to for a long time (Agatha Christie, Gabriel García Márquez, etc) and some things I probably never would have considered reading (Tupac’s poetry). I’m already looking forward to next year’s prompts!

Wild Davis Observations: East Regional Pond at Dusk

As we near the end of the quarter, my Wild Davis students are completing their final timed observations. At the start of the quarter, they chose an urban location to sit at for 45 minutes at dawn, and later at mid-day. This week, they went to the same location for 45 minutes around dusk. For my observations, I’ve been visiting the East Regional Pond in Woodland, just north of Davis.

The East Regional Pond at dusk

After the mid-day observation, I made the Pond a formal Place in iNaturalist so I could easily track what wildlife has been found there. Consequently, I arrive at the Pond about 7:30 on Monday evening with a couple goals: 1) bypass Greg Ira (Cal Nat program coordinator) as the top observer at the pond and 2) observe a river otter, which have been documented in the Pond by both Greg and iNat user natewl. I casually inquired with some colleagues and Greg is totally unaware of our ‘competition’ at the Pond, which makes meeting Goal 1 more likely. Both of the otter observations already posted were made around dusk in the spring, which makes Goal 2 seem likely, though I am well aware of how elusive otters can be.

When I arrive at the Pond, I follow the same pattern I have on the other observations, starting at the east-facing deck with the plan to rotate between the three observation decks throughout the observation. In my past visits, the north-facing deck has the most activity, so I intend to spend the bulk of my observation there. The first thing I notice from the east-facing deck is that the water level is higher than it has been in my previous visits – the central ‘island’ is nearly submerged in water, and only a small rise of muddy sand rises above the water level.

I am absolutely ecstatic that there are no Canada geese and so, though the beginning of my observations is full of bird song, particularly an amorous cacophony from the male grackles chasing after the two ladies, there is not a single sonorous nasal honk to be heard. That is, until about 8:15 when the entire family comes swimming home from wherever. They are as annoyingly loud as ever, but do make an adorable little train on their way in. I enjoy how you can tell even from a distance the adults, the juveniles, and the little chicks. I notice the chicks are up front, protected on either end by adults, and the juveniles come next with an adult in the middle and one bringing up the rear. I wonder if this order is intentional, to protect and guide the young geese.


My previous observations had been curiously devoid of humans. The Pond is near to town, beautiful and calming, and full of good bird observing, which made me surprised that there were not other people here taking a relaxing turn around the observation decks. When I first arrive this time, a young man is skateboarding along the trail away from the east-facing deck and I don’t pay enough to attention to notice where he goes; that is, until I make my way to the north-facing deck and find him seated on his skateboard with headphones in, watching the water. I consider leaving, but the north-facing deck has the best views, and the deck is certainly large enough for two people to look out and not overtly bother one another. I worry I’ll startle him if he’s playing music through his headphones, so I make a point to come around into his view as far to the side as possible so as not to creep up on him. I start to say hello and realize he is sobbing quietly to himself and I feel instantly awful for disturbing him. I apologize for the disruption and ask if he’s ok, which is stupid since he is obviously not ok. He hesitates, then nods awkwardly, and I leave awkwardly.

On my way back from the north-facing deck, I notice two kittens, scurrying under the chain-link fence that surrounds the Pond. They are in the exact same location in which I saw an adult cat on my mid-day observation and I’m not exactly pleased that the stray cat has reproduced. Feral cats are incredibly destructive, especially to wild birds and an increasing population of cats here is not promising for the birds’ safety.

When I make it back around to the east-facing desk, there are two cars in the lot (in addition to my Jeep) and two teenage women walking down the path with a pre-teen boy gamboling after them. I continue on to the south-facing deck, where I can just see them stumble upon the young man as I did and also awkwardly return to the east-facing deck. I feel even worse for the poor guy, being repeatedly interrupted when he clearly came here for solitude.

The south-facing deck has been the least interesting on my previous visits and tonight is no different; with one exception – while scanning through my camera, using the long lens like binoculars, I notice a napping duck tucked away in the foliage of little island in the middle of the pond. I snap some photos and confirm later that it is a cinnamon teal! I had very much wanted to find one of these, since they are beautiful and one of the species that Greg had found that I had not 🙂

Cinnamon teal!

I make my way back to the east-facing deck for the last 15 minutes of my observation. I am keeping an eye out for otters, when the whole Pond goes silent just for a moment. There must be a gap in the traffic because I didn’t even notice I could hear the cars on Road 102 behind me until they now pause. The numerous birds all also pause for just a moment in their song, and all I hear is the soft sound of the light breeze over the water. It is a calming moment, and beautiful, and I wonder if it was entirely by chance, or if the birds all sensed something that I didn’t.

one last quiet moment

After posting my observations to iNaturalist when I get back, I review my goals. Goal 2 is a wash – I found no otters, though I will keep an eye out if I find myself in that area around dusk again. Goal 1 is met in letter, if not in spirit. I managed to tie Greg with 58 observations at the Pond; however, EVE professor Jonathan Eisen has ousted both of us with 63 observations! Jonathan was the top contributor to the Sacramento Region City Nature Challenge and since then has gotten really into iNat and has been uploading a large number of photos from previous wildlife-viewing trips. Consequently, many of his observations are newly posted, but not newly taken – he’s been ahead of Greg and I for some time, we just didn’t know it! Amusingly, I am also tied for second place in number of species identified. I am still 7 species behind Greg and tied with Jonathan at 27 species.

My time at the Pond is technically over, though I would like to continue visiting. It is an odd place, simultaneously serving municipal needs (stormwater drainage), ecological needs (waterfowl habitat), and social needs (privacy and seclusion for Woodland residents). It feels more isolated and ‘wild’ than it truly is, which is perhaps why both the birds and the teenagers enjoy it so. I will have to keep an eye out, still, for otters, and hope to pass Greg and Jonathan in observations and species numbers in the near future 🙂

Wild Davis Observations: East Regional Pond at Dawn

It’s spring! Which means my Wild Davis students will be out and about all quarter gathering data for citizen science projects, developing capstone projects for local environmental organizations, and doing urban ecology field observations. The field observations are done on their own, outside of class time and involve three 45-minute observation periods throughout the quarter. In solidarity, as an example for the students, and just because I love this kind of work, I do the observation assignments as well. Last year, I observed the Wildhorse Agricultural Buffer in hopes of seeing burrowing owls. I did not find any burrowing owls, but I did find a lot of other cool stuff.

Screen Shot 2019-04-12 at 11.23.00 AM

Interpretive signage at East Regional Pond providing a map of the habitat and the importance of the Pond for stormwater management, wildlife and habitat restoration, and urban greenspace.

This year, I decide to hone my ornithological identification skills at the Woodland East Regional Pond. The Pond is a combination stormwater retention, wetland habitat restoration, and Pacific Flyway migratory waterfowl habitat at the southern edge of Woodland, CA just north of Davis. The Pond is 148 acres with a 0.75-mile walking trail and three observation decks overlooking the central pond and sandbar. The Pond also abuts the northern edge of the Alkali Grassland Preserve, a 180-acre seasonal grassland/wetland set aside for protection in 2005 as part of a biological mitigation package for development activities in Woodland.

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The morning observations are to occur near dawn, between 6:00 and 8:00 am. I get to the East Regional Pond a little before 6:30 am, only a few minutes before sunrise. The Pond has a parking lot and a gated entrance with signage indicating the park is only open from dawn till dusk and when I arrive an official-looking, but unmarked truck is parked in the lot and a uniformed man is checking the trashcans and fencing. I worry at first that he will tell me the park is not open yet and that I should leave, but he ignores me entirely and drives out soon after I arrive.

I begin my observation on the primary east-facing observation deck. Behind me is the parking lot, which separates the Pond area from Road 102 (aka Pole Line Road in Davis). On the other side of the road is a large housing development. To my right (south) is the Alkali Grassland Preserve and further south, a hodgepodge of orchards and ag fields stretching all the way to Davis. To my left (north) is the town of Woodland, most closely a box-store strip mall including Costco, Target, Michael’s, and Best Buy. The Pond, therefore, and its neighbor the Alkali Grassland Preserve, form the boundary between agricultural and urban landscapes.

Before I even reach the deck, I am bombarded by the cacophony of birds in the Pond. Two crows perch on the interpretive signage in the observation deck and squawk at me as I approach before flapping loudly away. Flocks of songbirds wheel and dive above the water and several pairs of loudly honking Canada geese mill about the waters and the sandbar. Immediately, I hear four or five distinct bird calls only two of which I can identify (Canada geese and red-winged blackbirds).

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It has been warm the last few days and the morning is not that chilly though it is rather windy. I struggle to keep my notebook pages and my hair (for which I forgot any sort of tie) from whipping about as I take my initial notes. The Pond feels less urban than I anticipated, despite its closeness to major roads, housing, and shopping centers. Countless cars, trucks, semis, and even some farm equipment pass behind me during my observation, but they are not as distracting as I would have expected. Four planes fly somewhat overhead during my observation, though not close enough that I hear their engines.

The main observation deck faces east, which means that as the sun rises, it shines directly into my eyeballs, so I relocate around the Pond to the north-facing observation deck. A short gravel trail connects the two and, I presume, the south-facing observation deck. The edges of the pond are planted with native grasses and cottonwoods, and a short muddy section of the trail shows numerous shoeprints and bike ruts, though the signage indicates biking is not allowed on the trail.

From the north-facing observation deck, the Alkali Preserve is behind me and blackbirds, phoebes, doves, and swallows (I think?) sail back and forth between the two for my entire observation. I told my students not to spend the entire observation trying to photograph things, since a major point of this exercise is to experience the area without technology. I break my own rule, since I require the zoom lens on my SLR to have any chance of identifying the birds I’m seeing. In the low light, and mostly backlit by the rising sun, the best I can do with the naked eye is ‘waterfowl’ or ‘raptor’ or ‘songbird’.

One of the reasons I chose this spot is to practice both my bird photography and identification. I dabble a bit in wildlife photography, and have had mostly poor luck with birds. They move rather quickly, so I end up with a lot of blurry butt-ends of things.


Example: blurry egret butt

From the north-facing observation deck, I can see a little cluster of coots pecking away at the soil of the sandbar in the middle of the Pond. They were hidden from the east-facing observation deck by the small stand of trees on the sandbar, but now I get a few pictures of their funny faces as they mill about with a killdeer.


I’m attempting to get a good look or a decent photo of the small birds whipping back and forth between the Alkali Preserve and the Pond (I think they’re barn swallows) when a hawk comes barreling into the Pond from the south. It carries either a snake or something’s entrails in its beak and lands heavily in the trees in the center of the Pond where I lose sight of it amongst the leaves. I wonder if it has a nest in there and I wonder if it is the same hawk I saw on the drive in. As I drove up Pole Line Road a similar hawk swooped down from the power lines to grapple with something on the ground. Given the tall weeds by the roadside, I couldn’t determine what it grabbed. Later, on my drive home, I see the hawk again, this time carrying a swatch of grass stalks in its talons, so perhaps it is building its nest in the Pond. I’ll have to keep an eye out for it on my mid-day observation in a few weeks.


breakfast of hawk champions

I head back to the east-facing observation deck for the last ~15 minutes of my observation window, stopping along the trail to photograph a phoebe and some red winged blackbirds across the fence in the Alkali preserve. The open space and the bright light make for better photographs in this spot than in the long shadows and oddly reflecting water of the Pond. These photos will make good iNaturalist posts, though I’ll upload the blurry butt-shots, too.

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The north-facing observation deck is obscured from the parking lot, so while I was there, I didn’t notice a sports car pull up carrying two young men. They are still sitting in the car when I come around the curve of the trail and stay in it, facing the Pond, for the rest of my observation. On other observations I have felt out of place compared to the other people in the area, but here, I look less odd than they do. With my long-lens camera, at dawn, in a migratory bird habitat, it is fairly obvious what I’m doing. It becomes more obvious what they are doing when I finish my observation and head back to the parking lot where I can see they’re getting high. This is odd to me, at 7 am on a weekday, but to each either own, I suppose. This, and the beer bottlecaps on the north-facing deck make me wonder what sorts of human behavior I’ll find on the evening observation.

In the whole observation I saw no animals except birds. The majority of plants in the Pond (and the nearby Alkali Preserve) are grasses and some cottonwood trees, all of which are wind-pollinated, so the chances of good pollinator diversity in my afternoon observation is low. I wonder if there are fish in the pond; if there are, they will be easier to see in the mid-day observation when the sun is high. I’m also hoping for some herpetofauna in the warmer mid-day and evening observations; there surely are fence lizards around here somewhere and perhaps some frogs to chorus in the evening.

On Wednesday, the students will share their morning observations and I look forward to hearing about the places they chose and the interesting things they observed. With over 30 students this quarter, I expect a lot of diversity in locations and hopefully some really exciting and unexpected observations.

NPR’s Top 100 Sci Fi & Fantasy List: COMPLETED!


I *may* have gotten a little carried away at the library

Reading has always been one of my favorite activities. I honestly think the ability to read might be the skill I value most, even though it’s (fortunately) a super common skill.  As a little girl growing up in Kansas, I loved how books could transport me anywhere, and anywhen. Nowhere is that more true than in the sci fi and fantasy genres, where you can push beyond even the limits of the laws of physics and the space-time continuum.

In the summer of 2014, as I was cranking into my post-doctoral position at Kansas State University, I stumbled across NPR’s Top 100 List of Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels. I was new to both genres – a couple years prior, I had made it most of the way through George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire (better known as Game of Thrones) and by the fourth book had given up on the life expectancy of any character whose story arc I enjoyed. I lamented my dissatisfaction with the series to a number of my friends who read fantasy regularly – what I wanted wasn’t Martin’s medieval war story with a side of dragon (#sorrynotsorry), I wanted something with more *actual* fantasy. Every person had the same response: then you should read the Wheel of Time. I spent the last year of my doctoral program wallowing through Jordan’s 14-book, ~12,000-page series, which was actually a nice mental break from the 5-chapter, 215-page hellscape that was my dissertation.

Regardless, once I found the list, it perfectly fit the combination of my voracious reading habit and my anal retentive love of crossing things off lists.

In the time I’ve been working on the list, a lot of people has asked me the following questions:

How was the list compiled?

All of NPR’s Top 100 lists are compiled in roughly the same way. For this list, NPR readers nominated over 5,000 titles, which were then reviewed by a panel of experts and culled to a finalist list, which was then opened to an online poll that received over 60,000 votes. The 100 books receiving the most votes made the final list. The books are ranked in order of most to least votes; from J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy (receiving 29,701 votes) to C.S. Lewis’ Space trilogy (receiving 1,452 votes).

Before you freak out that your favorite book or series isn’t on the list, it’s worth noting that this list intentionally excluded young adult and horror/thriller novels, both of which now have their own Top 100 Lists.

Since this is essentially a popularity contests, there are a number of criticisms that can be levied, the most frustrating (in my opinion) being the dearth of diversity in authorship. The list is overwhelmingly white male, which is also true of both genres generally. The top ranked book by a woman is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at #20, and while many male authors have multiple entries on the list (including Tolkein, Asimov, Heinlein, Bradbury, Stephenson, Gaiman, Vonnegut, King, Orwell, Sanderson, Clarke, Pratchett, Wells, Niven, and Verne), only one female author appears more than once (LeGuin).

Seriously? A HUNDRED books? Did you actually read them all?


My cat even read some of them with me.

Yes, and no. Many of the books on the list are actually a series, so the list totals ~320 individual books.

I had previously read ~10 of them (including two of the heftier series Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire and Jordan’s Wheel of Time) and I did not reread those. Two of the list are graphic novels (Moore’s The Watchmen and Gaiman’s Sandman series) which I skipped because I don’t care for graphic novels. I also let myself out of a series if I truly hated it and had read a significant portion of it to give it a fair chance. I did not complete Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire for the aforementioned reasons. I also did not finish Piers Anthony’s Xanth series because it is literally 40 books long; I read the first dozen or so and then could not stand any more terrible puns or juvenile plot lines based around gender stereotypes and I simply could not bring myself to interlibrary loan a book titled The Color of Her Panties.

Other than those few exceptions, I read everything on the list. Totaling over 250 books.

Geez, how long did it take?

Almost exactly four years. I did also intersperse some books that weren’t from the list, but not many.

I’m interested in sci fi and fantasy, but I don’t want to read the whole list. What do you recommend?


Winter break 2014: a few books from the list, a couple extras on Hawaiian history, and a little kir royale on the side

This is hard, because it depends so much on preference, and because my opinions of the books are probably influenced by the order in which I read them since I had read so little sci fi and fantasy prior. But with those caveats, here are my personal top 10, in the order in which they appear on the list:

(I promise there are no spoilers in these descriptions, everything I discuss here are either general themes/topics or plot info you learn in the first couple chapters)

8) Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy: just read everything by Asimov. Foundation is great, I, Robot is greatthe robot novels (of which only Caves of Steel is on the list) are all great. Just really, read everything he ever wrote. They are fantastic on their own, and also frequently referenced throughout other sci fi works.

20) Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: If you went to high school in America, it is highly unlikely that you have not read this book. If you haven’t read it, read it. If you haven’t read it since high school, read it again. Shelley’s monster is a far cry from the green-skinned, knob-necked zombie of pop culture and her portrayal of the monster’s ostracism by society and Frankenstein’s guilt over his creation are powerful and timeless. The story behind her own life and the writing of the book just make it all the more fascinating.

23) Stephen King’s Dark Tower Series: I’m a little conflicted with Stephen King. He’s a fantastic character writer and I often feel like the fantasy and horror aspects of his novels detract from the quality of his character development. The Dark Tower is no exception – you have a fabulous blending of four characters who are so different that you would never expect them to work well together (and yet they are the perfect ka-tet), but shit gets weird fast. It’s a long series, and if you make it through Song of Susannah, you’ll be wondering what brain trauma King went through as a child that would account for his plot lines, but at least read through Wizard and Glass because Roland is a fabulous story teller.

27) Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles: this book is halfway between a collection of short stories and an actual novel. Each chapter is a separate time slice in human colonization of Mars, and as the reader you kind of ‘play God’ by knowing all the back history of previous chapters that current characters don’t know. I was hard-pressed to pick only one of Bradbury’s several entries on the list, but this is the one that sticks with me the most. The Illustrated Man (another collection of short stories) is also good, and Something Wicked This Way Comes has some of the most poetic writing I’ve read.

43) Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy: one of the frustrations I frequently ran into with fantasy series were that there was little internal logic to how the magic worked (it seemed anyone, no matter their ability, could always just dig deeper in a time of real need and do just about anything). In Mistborn, not only is Sanderson’s storytelling fantastic, but the structure of the magic is really specific and clearly defined, and the cleverness comes in how it is used. The storyline is also far less predictable than a lot of the fantasy series on the list. I felt like most of them were protagonist (frequently an orphan) finds magical ability, then maybe love, fights evil, rides off into the sunset, blah blah blah. This is one of the few series where I found the ending surprising without just being a contrived last-minute plot twist.

54) Max Brooks’ World War Z: I haven’t seen the movie, but I can’t imagine it does the book justice. The book is split into a bunch of small sections following numerous individuals’ experiences with the zombie outbreak – regular people, government officials, doctors and scientists trying to understand the ‘infection’, etc etc. I was struck by the realistic feeling to most of the stories – like, I’m pretty sure this is what would actually happen if a zombie outbreak occurred.

77) Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy Series: Ok, full disclosure, this series has some rather graphic S&M scenes. And, I don’t mean 50-Shades-Of-Gray-my-inner-goddess-is-moaning kind of crap, I mean real violence. The up side is it’s all 100% consensual, since this society takes the religious precept “Love as thou wilt” remarkably literally. I really enjoyed following a strong female protagonist navigating her own sexuality and trust issues, and the series’ discussions of morality in love, sex, and loyalty/betrayal and how these interweave with religious and societal norms.

83) Iain M. Banks’ Culture Series: This was probably my favorite entry on the whole list. It’s a 10-book series that follows The Culture, a society of numerous intelligent and sentient species (humanoid and non) and artificial intelligences that interact with other ‘less advanced’ societies. Each of the books follows different characters and occurs on different planets and in different time periods, which means they need not be read in any particular order and most can be read as a stand-alone book. I really enjoyed the theme throughout the series of the impact of ‘benevolent’ manipulation by The Culture on other societies and on individual agents of The Culture. Also, the AIs that control spaceships are so advanced that they have individual personalities, which means that the ships are plot-driving characters and have their own social interactions/norms. Not all the books have quite the same tone, which makes it not feel as repetitive as other long series, and many of them are written with a wittiness that makes even the longer novels easy to read. If you’re not ready to commit to the full series, I recommend starting with Consider Phlebas (which occurs during the Culture-Idiran war) followed by Look to Windward, which discusses the impacts of that war 800 years later.

92) Robin McKinley’s Sunshine: this is McKinley’s only entry on the list, as much of her work is young adult or children’s fiction. I really enjoyed Sunshine, though if I’m being totally honest, I’m including her in my top 10 more for body of work as a whole and not just this novel. You should also read The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown and Dragonhaven and Pegasus.

3) Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game series and 100) C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy: really, what I loved in these two were the second and third books in Card’s series (Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide) and the first of Lewis’ trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet). These deal with the behavior of human individuals and societies when faced with newly discovered intelligent, sentient species and the danger of cultural misunderstandings, especially in the face of xenophobia. Card’s series also delves into inter-planetary ecology. Discovering intelligent life was a common theme in the sci fi entries, but I thought these two addressed it best.

An aside for books about war

Many novels in both genres focus on war, to the point that I am now really sick of reading about war, especially in fantasy where it’s mostly hand-to-hand combat with lots of beheading and disembowelment… There were some noteworthy ones, however, which didn’t quite rise to my top 10, but were still thought-provoking.

56) Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War and 74) John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War: I accidentally read these two back-to-back and found them to have interesting similarity, even though they’re rather different. Both follow an individual soldier throughout his career and both focus on how war and general life in the military separate soldiers from the civilians they protect. The Forever War focuses on social and temporal separation as the protagonist accrues time dilation while traveling to battles throughout the galaxy. Old Man’s War focuses on biological separation through the development of genetically engineered super-soldiers and trends more towards the question of what it means to be human.

81) Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen Series: this is another hefty series – 10 books at 1000+ pages each. It actually has a lot in common with Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire – countless characters that you cannot possibly keep track of, numerous political factions all fighting over the same area for different reasons, and no one’s safe from death (but even dead, they might not really be gone). It’s better than Game of Thrones in my opinion, though because the characters are a lot more diverse and the cultures they represent are more richly developed and there’s a thread of humor woven through that keeps it from being too terribly depressing.

So…. what are you going to read now?

Oh, so many things! There’s The Guardian’s dystopian novels that reflect today’s socio-political climate, there’s The Guardian’s five best climate change novels, there’s NPR’s  novels for understanding Trump’s election, there’s every book Obama recommended during his eight years in office, and there’s Emma Watson’s Our Shared Shelf list of feminist writings. That sentence maybe came off more political than I intended, but I’ve been stuck in sci fi and fantasy for four years now, and I feel like I need to reconnect with the real world. I also have plans to slog through James Joyce’s Ulysses with a friend with whom I previously slogged through David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, so maybe I should just round out the Top 10 Most Difficult Novels.

I just love books. And lists.


The final four! Small Gods was the official last book.

UHWO Biology Students Propagate Native Hawaiian Plants for Habitat Restoration

As part of our ongoing service learning and habitat restoration component of the introductory biology courses at UHWO, my class recently started propagating cuttings of native Hawaiian plants. The students will care for their plants throughout the semester and then plant the cuttings at Piliokahe Beach as part of our dune ecosystem restoration project.

Bruce Koebele, our resident service learning coordinator and expert on Hawaiian plant propagation, visited the class to get the students started on caring for their own little keiki plant.

Step One: Prepare the Media


Top to bottom: peat moss, perlite, black cinder

Our first step was to prepare a suitable potting media. We used a 1:1:1 mix of peat moss, perlite, and black cinder. This mix combines the water retention capabilities of the peat moss with the physical integrity (ie lack of decomposition) and aeration/drainage capabilities of the perlite. The black cinder provides the local ‘flavor’ of volcanic rock. Though it is not totally clear why, endemic Hawaiian plants seem to propagate better with the inclusion of cinder in the potting media.

Step Two: Prepare the Plant

Bruce brought three plants for us this semester: ‘ākulikuli (Sesuvium portulacastrum), pohuehue (Ipomea pes-caprae subsp. brasiliensis), and pohinahina (Vivax rotundifolia). All three of these plants are native to Hawai’i and are common in coastal habitats, making them ideal for planting at the Piliokahe Beach dune ecosystem.

Preventing disease in new cuttings is important. Even relatively resilient plants are more susceptible to disease when you’ve cut them open for a while. Consequently, our potting media was pasteurized and sterilized, and the cuttings themselves were washed before being planted. Once everything was all clean, the students trimmed leaves from the stem to provide underground support and cut the stem at a node. The fresh-cut stem was then dipped in a rooting hormone to encourage the cuttings to develop roots.

Step Three: Planting and Data Collection

Plants were then planted in the media-filled pots, and placed in a large plastic tub with a little water in the bottom. The tub protects the plant from desiccation until it is able to develop enough of a root system to support its water needs.

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My little pohuehue

Since we are scientists, we will also be tracking the growth of the plants from now until we plant them at Piliokahe Beach. This semester, I’m propagating a pohuehue, shown at right, which is currently approximately 14 centimeters tall, and proudly sports 7 leaves. At this point, we can be certain there is no root growth. In the future, the presence of new stem growth and new leaves will indicate sufficient root growth to support new above-ground growth; however, we obviously will not uproot the plant to measure root growth.

Step Four: Future Care

The plants will live in the UHWO Biology Lab for a few weeks until they are stable enough to move home with the students. Each student will then care for their plant at home, until we bring them back to campus in October for the Piliokahe planting. Each week, the students and I will re-photograph our plants and document any changes in height or leaf number and any other notes on the health of our plants. I have full confidence that we will experience 100% survivorship and that all our little ‘ākulikuli, pohuehue, and pohinahina will soon get to start their new lives on a dune at Piliokahe Beach.

Monster Quest 2016

For the past decade, a group of herpetologists from across the country have gotten together every summer to hunt herps in an event colloquially termed ‘Herp Quest.’ The exact location and quested herp varies from year to year, though generally focusing on rare herps in the desert southwest. For the past several years, Herp Quest has been held in the Kingston Mountains of the Mojave Desert in California in search of a California Gila Monster. Gila monsters are found in northwestern Mexico, Arizona, and southern Nevada, and although their range extends a bit into southeastern California, they are only rarely found there. The difficulty in finding a gila monster is compounded by the fact that they spend the vast majority of their lives in underground burrows, only occasionally coming to the surface to feed and mate. This is perhaps why the group has not yet been successful…


from left: Becky Chong, Bob Thomson, Levi Gray, Brittney White, Amber Wright, Kyle Edwards, Anthony Barley, me, Ian Wang

In addition to hunting monsters, there is also an ongoing research project between Bob Thomson and Amber Wright at UH-Mānoa and Greg Pauly at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. Folks associated with this project are spending ~2 weeks  traversing a handful of sampling locations throughout the Mojave collecting various lizards and surveying lizard populations. Consequently, this year’s Monster Quest was held near Kingston Peak, just north of the Mojave National Preserve, which is the one of the team’s sampling locations.


View from our campsite near Kingston Peak

Monster Quest, then, is a conglomeration of actual scientific research, ‘freestyle monstering’ (which sounds like a mash-up of the Monster Mash and the Thriller dances, but is actually just wandering around looking for gila monsters), general herping (same as ‘monstering’ but just looking for any herp), and campfire camaraderie fueled by bourbon.

We found all sorts of awesome animals. Some of the ones pictured below were formally collected (killed and preserved for current research and long-term museum collections), others were tissue-sampled (a small clip of the tail is taken and preserved), and others were just admired, photographed, and released.

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For me, not being a herpetologist and never having been to a herp quest, there were a lot of new experiences. I’ve done my share of field collecting, but it functions in a fundamentally different way when you’re collecting plants. Most of these animals were caught with a noose (a short loop of string on a telescoping fishing pole), or (for the larger ones) simply grabbed by hand. I am terrible at both of these methods. I hesitate, my hand-eye-coordination is poor, and I feel bad for molesting the animals. Consequently, I relegated myself mostly to photographing 😀

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Becky (left) and Levi (right) coordinate on noose-ing a whiptail

The good news is, I had a fabulous time getting comfortable holding the animals. If you’ve ever worked with live animals, you know there are right ways and wrong ways to hold living things that don’t really want to be held. You want to make sure they are stabilized and safe without injuring them or yourself. You also want to take a cheesing photo with them because they are so cute and adorable.

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I wouldn’t say I was ever afraid of snakes, per se; however, I am definitely not super comfortable around them. And (prior to this trip) I would have said I could never hold a snake without my holding its head so I’m sure to not to be bit. That, however, was before I met the sweetest and most snuggly gopher snake (photos above). I held that snake for over an hour, and she curled up in my arms, laid her head on my shoulder, curled around my neck, and even gave me little snake kisses (which I maintain was not ‘testing my tastiness’ as others suggested :-D). I absolutely fell in love with her and named her Snakey McSlithers. Gopher snakes are not part of the research project, so she fortunately was released back to her home after our snuggles. A couple of the herpers on the trip, Adam Clause and his undergraduate student Ben Thesing, set up some professional shots of many of our animals (complete with lighting set-up and arranged backgrounds – it was impressive), and I plan to get in touch with them to get myself a quality photo of Miss McSlithers.

Don’t worry, we didn’t *only* see herps. Despite its reputation as a desolate wasteland, the desert ecosystem is very much alive. We saw a variety of desert birds, mammals, insects, and plants. The packrats were a bit annoying considering they ate all our tents (not a joke – one ate a hole in a tent and then camped out there until the tent’s owner returned to sleep).  I really wanted a good picture of a jackrabbit. I had a desert ecosystem pop-up book as a little girl, and I loved the page about jackrabbits (yes, I was a nerd even then). Jackrabbits are, however, quite difficult to photograph, unless you prefer your shots blurry and of mostly back legs. Ian also found a tarantula hawk wasp, which are beautiful and super cool – gravid females sting and paralyze a tarantula, then lay an egg on it and bury it in a burrow; the wasp larva then feeds on the (still living) tarantula until it pupates into an adult and burrows out of the spider’s abdomen. Remarkably vicious, considering adult tarantula hawks eat nectar.

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While I was playing with snakes and photographing flora and fauna and having a refreshing Bud Light Lime after freestyle monstering, the actual science was happening. Greg Pauly led the crew to prepare the samples we collected during the day. Prepping involves recording all the data on the animals (species, sex, weight, length, collection location, etc), humanely euthanizing the animal (in the same way the veterinarian does for a pet), surgically removing the liver (for DNA analysis), and injecting formalin to ‘set’ the animal into a hardened pose for long-term curation. The photos below show the collected animals at various stages of this process.

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In addition, Bob, Amber, Greg, and Anthony performed transect surveys of lizard populations. At each of their sampling locations in the Mojave, the group performs three transects. A transect is just a straight line across the landscape along which you take data. Often, this is just counting the numbers of different organisms or species you see. In the photos below, you can see the four align themselves along a particular direction, spread out, and walk some distance (I don’t remember how far), documenting the herps they see along the way. This is the least invasive data collection, and provides population estimates across space and (when repeated every year) through time. Each of the researchers carries a GPS unit while walking the transect – Amber uses these to make really cool color-coded maps of all the transects performed each year.

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On Sunday, we drove back to Las Vegas. The research team will continue on to the other field locations, but the rest of us flew back home for our own jobs 🙂 On the way, we stopped to see a unique rock art installation, called Seven Magic Mountains. Kyle gets full credit for bringing this little bit of culture to Herp Quest.

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You can see the full photo collection of the trip at the Thomson Lap Flickr Stream.

Neucastle Tamalegeddon 2016


Making masa

To celebrate the end of the semester, and Emilie’s successful Master’s defense, the Wright and Thomson Labs (collectively called the Neucastle Lab) got together for the first annual 2016 Tamalegeddon*! I’m assuming this is going to become an annual event because it was delicious and tons of fun.

There are a lot of steps to the tamale-making progress:

1) Find all the ingredients. This is harder than you think in Hawai’i. After some searching, we did find masa at one of the grocery chains, and corn husks at Mercado de la Raza.

2) Make the filling. Bob braised some pork shoulder for carnitas on his own, so this was a super easy step for the rest of us.

3) Make the tamale dough. I thought this was going to be harder than it was. Bob and I made two batches – one with lard and carnitas broth, and the other with shortening and veggie broth. We have a variety of dietary restrictions in the Neucastle Lab, so we covered all the bases.

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Bob provides a tutorial on tamale assemblage

4) Assemble tamales! It helps if you have a small army of minions for this part, which we did. Our tamales were comprised of carnitas, soyrizo, queso fresco, and roasted serrano and jalapeño peppers.

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5) Cook the tamales. With separate steaming pans for the veggie and meat tamales, we managed to get our whole batch cooking at once! While waiting, enjoy a mango margarita or three.

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6) Eat the tamales! Obviously the best part. I always enjoy a big group of friends gathered around a table eating and drinking and being merry 🙂


* Note: Bob gets full credit for the cool name.