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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Tonight, Tonight, I Have Much More To Write...

I have a new post up at Dr M's. It's about free speech in universities, and the latest proof that University of Wisconsin-Madison doesn't understand the concept.

Gina also has a post up there about a boy who has emerged from PVS after 22 months. The family and the church (LDS) never gave up, and I guess he didn't either. But on the other hand, is that so surprising? After all, his last words before going down were to tell his mother to take care of his brother.

I am trying to finish off a big project, but I was seduced away briefly by this news about the giant prehistoric Syrian camels. Camels are fascinating creatures:
During catastrophic droughts, herdsmen may lose all of their cattle, sheep, and goats, while 80 percent of the camels will survive, owing to the camel's ability to conserve water and tolerate dehydration. In severe heat a camel survives four to seven days without drinking, but it can go 10 months without drinking at all if it is not working and the forage contains enough moisture. Even salty water can be tolerated, and between drinks it forages far from oases to find food unavailable to other livestock. The body rehydrates within minutes of a long drink, absorbing over 100 litres (25 gallons) in 5–10 minutes. Cattle could not tolerate such a sudden dilution of the blood because their red blood cells would burst under the osmotic stress; camel erythrocyte membranes are viscous, which permits swelling.
The story about the camel fossils implied that no wild stock exists. It does. This unwittingly funny description of an expedition to examine wild camels is a good read. The author used to be a colonial administrator, and it starts out with today's requisite breathy environmentalism:
The wild camels' last best hope is in the Chinese Gobi, where the government has just authorized the establishment of the Lop Nur Nature Sanctuary. This 60,000-square-mile preserve includes the dry lake bed of Lop Nur (now cut off by irrigation channels from its former water supply) and the highly restricted zone where China conducted nuclear testing until 1996. The sanctuary project must be quickly translated into reality, and we hope to gather information on the number of animals and their condition, and whatever else we can glean about their lives.
The conventional statement of extreme peril in a laconic fashion:
In Hongliugou a black sandstorm ("black" because of the very low visibility) scatters our hired camels in all directions. I am reminded that two years earlier we had a close call when, deep in the desert, all but two of our sixteen camels disappeared in a nighttime sandstorm. We were 175 miles from our base camp, and the last water source we had passed was a three days' walk away. On the basis of our water supply, we calculated that we had only six days to find our camels before we would be forced to head back on foot.
A note of stoic displeasure creeps in as the author quickly reverts to type, after having missed his first clear shot at the Bactrian wild camel. Granted, it was a camera shot, but now it is clear that this is a very old-fashioned British travelogue. By page 2 the dedicated environmentalists fire an oasis to get rid of reeds so that they can reach the spring, and the discovery of wolf cubs they have just orphaned or isolated is quickly brushed off. The insect life gets the coverage:
...we'd just as soon not stay long at Wutong: it is plagued with huge, aggressive ticks that, responding to vibrations caused by our motion, scurry up our legs to seek out warm, moist recesses.
Proceeding onwards to Many Rat Hole Valley, the insects get top billing again:
The formidable mosquitoes that inhabit Many Rat Hole Valley deserve to have it rechristened in their name. After we have camped there an extra day while the Professor seeks a possible vehicular route to another valley along our itinerary, my swollen hands resemble those of a prizefighter and my left eye is almost closed.
It is clear that this journey is becoming trying, and we hear relatively little more about the wild camels, although a few sightings are described:
The size of the dunes and the nature of the surface are unpredictable. Relying on maps, a Global Positioning System receiver, and our gut instincts, we plunge ahead toward what looks like the least formidable dune.

Soon we are struggling, the camels laboring painfully upward and soft sand filling the boots of those of us who choose to walk. I shed my boots for a while, and the hot sand burns the soles of my feet as I clamber over dune after endless dune. Whipped up by the wind into fragile knife-edged pinnacles, the dune summits are particularly taxing; I manage to get across them only by scrambling on all fours.
As always in these stories, the native bearers play a large part. It is a well-recognized convention that they must be named and described, whereas the principals will be referred to by sobriquet, or at most the last name. One does not blow one's own horn:
...we camp in a hollow in one of the dunes, supremely thankful that a sandstorm has not blown up. I forget my burned feet and swollen hands when Li Weidong finds the energy to serve up handmade noodles with salt mutton. Zhao Ziyun burps with satisfaction as he scrapes the battered cooking pot with his chopsticks. "It's better than eating camels," he says. Happy and replete, knowing we are camped where no one else has set foot in recent history, I fall asleep watching countless satellites winking their way around the globe.
Yup, we knew it. Camels are only the excuse for the journey, and are not very tasty anyway. We do hear more about insects, and we end on the traditional note:
A short, intense evening sandstorm scatters our banquet and forces us prematurely into flapping, sand-filled tents. The violent wind turns to rain, then to hail, and finally to snow. Overnight the desert turns white. Those of us who have crossed the sand dunes realize how truly lucky we have been. Had the weather behaved differently, we might have been stranded long enough to run out of water, and we might not have lived to keep our rendezvous with the Professor.
Classic. A pure classic.


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