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January 2006

U.S. Government Names Garbanzo "Dylan"


This morning, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service sent out a press release announcing that it has developed a new variety of chickpea. Like your ex-girlfriend's clubby little brother, the pea will be named "Dylan." I think they should name the chickpea "Zimmerman" and let the chickpea name itself Dylan.

In any case, the press release says:

Dylan grows to about 15 inches high, forms fern-like leaves, and reaches maturity around 106 days after planting, depending on climactic conditions.
I never thought of it that way before, but now that you mention it ...


Redwood Trees and Chia Pets


My wife Jenny and I were mentioned in the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday.

See, on Christmas morning we were in a Walgreens in San Francisco near Union Square. Jenny was in some aisle looking for certain personal items, and to pass the time I strolled into the toy aisle. Not having had any coffee to speak of, I stared blankly at the Chia Pets and I let my mind wander.

We were about to drive across the Golden Gate Bridge to see the Muir Woods with its towering redwoods. So staring at the Chia Pets, I began to think about redwoods and an astonishing article I'd read last February in the New Yorker. In it, Richard Preston wrote about a biologist named Steve Sillett who climbs and studies the titanic redwoods of Northern California:

In 1995, Sillett ... began to explore the old-growth redwood canopy ... The general opinion among biologists at the time was that the redwood canopy was a so-called "redwood desert" that contained not much more than the branches of redwood trees. Instead, Sillett discovered a lost world above Northern California.

... There are hanging gardens of ferns, in masses that Sillett calls fern mats. The fern mats can weigh tons when they are saturated with rainwater ... Layers of earth, called canopy soil, accumulate over the centuries on wide limbs ... and support a variety of animal and plant life. In the crown of a giant redwood named Fangorn, Sillett found a layer of canopy soil that is three feet deep ...

Old redwood trees are infested with thickets of huckleberry bushes. In the fall, Sillett and his colleagues stop and rest inside huckleberry thickets, hundreds of feet above the ground, and gorge on the berries. He and his students have also taken censuses of other shrubs growing in the redwood canopy: currant bushes, elderberry bushes, and salmonberry bushes, which occasionally put out fruit, too. Sillett has discovered small trees - wild bonsai - in the canopy. The species include California bay laurel trees, western hemlocks, Douglas firs, and tan oaks. Sillett once found an eight-foot Sitka spruce growing on the limb of a giant redwood.
So, staring at the Chia Pets, I thought about plants growing in soil, but not in the ground. Redwoods are like Chia Pets, I thought. I vaguely wondered how that soil got up there in the canopy of the redwoods, until I remembered that soil is basically broken-down plants — if you have living things up in the canopy, why not dead things, and therefore soil?

Just then, somebody interrupted my train of thought with an "Excuse me." It was Steve Rubenstein, a staff writer for the Chronicle. He explained that he was doing a story on something like last-minute Christmas shoppers, and he wondered if he could ask me what I was doing in the toy aisle of Walgreens on Christmas morning.

I couldn't very well tell him about the redwoods and the Sitka spruce tree growing 35 stories above the ground. So I told him I was sorry — that I wished I was doing last-minute Christmas shopping so he could get his story, but the fact was that I was "literally just staring." When I said I was waiting for my wife, he got really interested, hoping that maybe she was doing last-minute Christmas shopping.

Just then, Jenny appeared, looking for me, with those personal items in hand. This was one of her occasional bad dreams and it had actually come true. Here she is at Walgreens buying personal items and she's confronted by a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle — and he really wants to know exactly what she's doing at Walgreens!

Anyway, here's how our part of the story appeared, on page B3 of the San Francisco Chronicle for Monday 26 December 2005:

A few places were doggedly open for business, including most Walgreens drugstores, where hardly anyone was buying drugs and where Christmas stuff was already half off, and Christmas day still had most of Christmas still to run.

Kurt Gegenhuber, a visitor from Minneapolis, had his eye on a Chia pet — the pottery that turns into an animal-shaped shrub that people seem to buy at Christmas and no other time. He gazed fondly at a Chia elephant until his wife, Jennifer, wandered along and common sense returned. The elephant went back on the shelf.

"He already got his Christmas gift — a CD player and some discs,'' Jennifer said.
It's amusing that, as we spoke to the reporter, we slightly misrepresented what we were doing in the Walgreens. He, in turn, considerably simplified what we told him in order to make it fit the story. And I suppose there may be some minor details that I'm leaving out of the present account, just to make a better blog post. That's journalism, kid.