Archive for December, 2012

My Birthday

Wednesday, December 26th, 2012

I think I’d like to be a big thing
Let the news sound out let the bells ring
And give me as much attention as you can possibly bring
On my birthday

If we want my birthday to really make it large
We’d better put it where it’ll always be in charge
At the year’s far-end, where there’s no holidays to barge
Into its face, and hog time from my birthday

My birthday will be the world’s biggest deal
You will gather and discuss my long-lasting appeal
And when it comes the shopping will get totally real
On my birthday

See, my birthday will mandate buying loads of stuff
And working long hours to save up will get rough
But when it’s all done you’ll feel totally buff
(Never done, because you’ve never finished buying enough)
For my birthday

Of course there’s more to my birthday than money can say
If you want the keys to hearts going homemade can pay
Off big, but we aren’t all craftsmen these days
Sucks to unwrap a half-baked mug, on my birthday

My birthday will be the end-all be-all of it
And you’ll end up with a huge mound of presents that won’t fit
In your house, but that’s fine ‘cause most of them will be shit
You can always give them away, on my next birthday

My birthday goes great with peace and love
We’ll stuff you with it until you’re about to shit out doves
But when it comes to strangers all that crap can get shoved
Up a mistletoe’s ass, on my birthday

And my birthday will let you sit down and kick back
All day you will feast and all night you will snack
Too bad you’re hungry where food don’t mean jack
On my birthday

My birthday will bring in family from yonder and hither
To bring season’s cheer, make your heart light as a feather
(Okay, it’s more like a boulder, but you can suck it up and bicker)
You’ll smile and you’ll nod and then they’re gone forever
And you’re alone again, on my birthday

Clean-up after my birthday feels far too long
Pass the time by listening to all of my birthday songs
It’s the new year soon – watch the clock, ring the gong
And hope you’ll have a better time, on my next birthday

On Community Service.

Monday, December 17th, 2012

(The contents of this post are harder to find images for than my lazy soul can stand – instead, listen to this while you read because it sounds pretty)

 

You didn’t think we’d be getting away from ecology THAT easily, did you?  Man, I have enough notes from that course to choke a rhino.  A rhino with two sets of esophagi.  And a scuba tank.  There’s a new bit of terminology every two inches and a new concept every three feet.  Luckily, most of it is devoted to over-explaining simple, easy-to-grasp concepts.  So that’s nice!

Welcome to our what the hell is this thing again?
Our first simple, easy-to-grasp concept that will be overexplained is the community.  Ecological communities differ from yours: they never ask you to help participate in a clean-up-the-streets initiative, they don’t take hours of your service in exchange for minor and obnoxious crimes, and very few of them mandate human participation in any way.  Instead, they can best be defined as something like this: a bunch of populations of different species in the same spot, interacting in some way (predating, fleeing, flirting, rummaging, bartering, raconteuring, outright ignoring, etc).  A bit vague, but serviceable.  Just not serviceable enough for some people, which is why we had two big honkin’ concepts of what an ecological community was clashing against each other for a few whiles.

First up to bat, we had Fred Clements, who described the community as a superorganism, an organized and discrete unit whose contents interact with one another in specific ways to produce specific outcomes.  Each species only makes sense in terms of how they fit into the whole system – you can’t understand a tiger without understanding sambar without understanding small woody shrubs without understanding soil quality without blur de blar de blah.  This is known as the holistic concept.
Second but making up for it in enthusiasm (and in large part as a deliberate, pointed, not-far-short-of-’screw-you’ response to Clements) we had Hank (Henry) Gleason, who basically summed up communities as “a big old pile of bullshit and luck.”  Well, not in quite those words – though he did describe a plant association as “not an organism, scarcely even a vegetational unit, but merely a coincidence.”  Lifeforms get thrown together all willy-nilly and hurly-burly by the tangled and cruel winds of fate, and what works together stays together.  There’s no real organization above species level in this, which is why it’s termed the individualistic concept.
Of course, history being what it is, we’ve since decided that they were both totally wrong – but it sounds more polite to say that we’ve ‘integrated their premises’ and they’re therefore both right. We’ve taken onboard Gleason’s notion that communities don’t have firm boundaries since if there’s one thing species love it’s to encroach on each others private business, and we’ve accepted Clement’s idea that species interaction plays a huge part on how the community ends up working because if stuff doesn’t poke the stuff around it nothing interesting happens and it all ends up extinct.
They’d both probably be livid.

Open and Shut
Two fun ways communities can work out geographically are open and closed.  In a closed community, the species that make up the community share a closely overlapped distribution that is firmly separate from others species, forming a segregated, quasi-racist lump.  Y’know, sort like a human gated community.  You can spot their boundaries  quite easily – they’re the places where the environment changes sharply, like going from a British Columbian temperate rainforest to the seashore.  Those borders are called ecotones, and the places where they’re sharpest are usually where big physical changes happen, like going from land to water, or the soil completely changing, or switching from one side of a mountain to the other.  Like tracking a floor’s texture going from a carpet to hardwood boards to that one spot underneath the stove that hasn’t seen the light of day since the house was built that could be made out of precambrian rock for all you know.
Open communities, by contrast, have no natural boundaries and the species that make them up can end up all over the place, falling into more than one community grouping themselves.  Because of this, they don’t really have ecotones.  Too laid-back.  Species distribution in these communities follows underlying gradients in the environment – rain levels, altitude, blah blah blah – and thus the communities never quite become homogenous enough to be given clear boundaries where area A ends and area B begins.  This sort of distribution ends up being called the continuum concept, and has no sharp-edged ecotones, just a varying pattern.  Like a big patchwork quilt gone all wrong.

Succession
This is how both royalty and ecology transition from one (head of) state to another.  In both cases, violence is usually the cause – your old ruler/community is dead/disturbed, better initiate succession and get him/it replaced/reinvigorated.
There are two broad types of ecological succession – primary and secondary.  Primary succession kicks in when a place has been scrubbed bare of life – a glacier scraped it all off, or a volcano buried it, or a landslide smothered it, or or or or or you get the idea.  There’s not usually a lot of soil left.  Primary succession begins where everything has ended, and puts down something new.
Secondary succession occurs where a community’s been disturbed but not annihilated – though the degree of damage is pretty flexible.  A few trees fall over, that’s secondary succession.  A wildfire scorches out hundreds of acres, crisps the soil, and flash-fries a majestic chunk of the flora?  Also secondary succession, since it’s still a repair job rather than a make-something-out-of-nothing.  Obviously, it’s a lot more common than primary succession, and it takes a lot less time.  Not that succession is a particularly hasty process in any case – grasslands in North America are a two-to-four-decade wait on secondary succession, and they’re pretty fast about it.  Imagine how long it takes to wait for trees to grow back.
And now, a hypothetical succession.

Let’s say we clear-cut a little strip of a North American deciduous forest.  Just for the giggles.
The first stuff on the scene will be the little quick-growing buggers that were being stifled by the shade of the big trees, the annuals and such.  Soon enough (relatively speaking) shrubs will come in and show their appreciation for the renewed soil and shade by crowding out most of them and bumping ‘em off.  After that come the pines, which bump off the shrubs, and then WOAH OOPS it turns out that all this recolonization just left the perfect environment for the deciduous trees to step in and retake their old ground back, grinding the proletariat under their merciless leafy regime for all eternity.

In the above example, we’ve got three things.
First, obviously, we’ve got secondary succession.  The forest is down but all life isn’t out, it’s a rebuilding job rather than a ‘well, guess we’d better start weathering this bedrock into soil’ project.  A fixer-upper.
Second, we’ve got a new term, something that can be applied to each of the stages our succession went through from annuals-shrubs-evergreens-deciduous: sere.  Annoying to pronounce, but useful to remember, a sere is any of the ‘steps’ in an ecological succession.  Each sere alters the conditions of the habitat and sets the stage for the next one – encouraging some species through facilitation succession (annuals helpfully rebuilding and shading up the soil for their shrub overlords) and denying others the opportunity through inhibition succession (the pines don’t exactly leave the annuals room to get re-established).
Third, we’ve got the climax.  Notice how nothing came in after the deciduous forest staked its claim?  It’s the final sere, the last word, the buck-stops-here-er, the head honcho, the king of the hill, the enormous brie the gargantuan cheddar AND the massive mozzarella.  The climax community is the be-all end-all stage of a particular succession sequence.

…Although they vary substantially within themselves due to environmental gradients, and are thus much less homogenous than I just described.

…And if the habitat’s unstable it can just be a transient climax, because the environmental conditions are going to change like crazy and make an entirely new climax the popular favorite for ‘most likely to survive flash floods followed by prolonged submersion’ or something.

…And if it’s a cyclic climax, predominance of one species in a climax will just cause another climax species to naturally rise up and eclipse the first one and vice versa in an endless see-saw where dominance of one merely leads to its inevitable downfall ad nauseum.

….Oh, and if there’s a lot of herbivores that really like to eat the climax vegetation (I mean REALLY LIKE, like elephants really like), then they can force it into a different climax through delicious, hunger-based attrition.

Look, it’s all VERY COMPLICATED, all right?  This is always what happens when you try and explain simple, easy-to-grasp concepts.

On Your Power Levels.

Tuesday, December 11th, 2012

Two apologies must be made.  First: the title is a lie, I’m sorry.  There are no power levels in this little essay because there’s no power.  Not enough power to fuel a toaster oven.  There WILL, however, be energy, power’s close cousin, and we will be organizing it into levels.  Trophic levels.
Second: this is going to be a bit short because I’ve got a final and then work and then another final over the next couple, so I’m a tad pressed for time at the moment.
Okay.  Energy!  Energy as pertaining to life on earth, more specifically.  It has to come from somewhere, because energy doesn’t exactly create itself.  Where’d your energy come from?  Well, the last thing you ate, which got it from…uh, let’s start at the other end of the scale.  Go through this from bottom to top.  We’ll start where the energy comes from, and wing it from there.
I: The Sun

This is your star. There are many like it, but this one is yours and also slightly below-average in all significant respects.

This is where energy comes from.  Well, that was easy to explain.
Unfortunately, most of the sun’s energy gets shot out into the blank and unfriendly void of space where it fizzles out and does jack for us.  A bunch of old libertarian novelist nerds in the 70s had very strong opinions about building a big sphere around the sun to fix this wastefulness, but unfortunately that’ll have to wait until we’ve got the tech to disassemble most of the solar system for raw materials, by which point we’re probably smart enough that we’ve broken the laws of thermodynamics over our knees and no longer give a hoot.
Anyways.  An infinitesimally small chunk of sunlight reaches earth.  A bit of it – the wavelengths that aren’t too short, that aren’t too long – gets through the atmosphere.  And then most of it splatters on a rock somewhere (or more likely, a wave) and does nothing.
About 1-2% of it impacts a plant.
That’s the important part for almost all life on earth.

II: The Primary Producer – the Autotrophs

And just think: before this little guy's ancestors took over, that sky was probably vomit-orange.

The plant, of course, being living, does what any of us would would with a windfall: it squanders that shit.  The plant blows anywhere between 15-70% of its solar energy sweepstakes on personal maintenance (paying the biological bills so its cell walls don’t disintegrate and its DNA doesn’t unzip every time it respires in a northerly wind) and tucks the leftovers into production: making energy into more plant.  It’s a classic libertarian feel-good story of a plucky individual succeeding against all odds by almost no merit of its own but for dumb luck.  That’s what makes plants the producers: the transformers of your solar energy into organic matter.  You can also call them autotrophs; automatic-nourishing little buggers, the first trophic level of the trophic pyramid and by far its widest and most populous level (you can also call them photoautotrophs if you wish to be fancy: light-automatic-nourishing)  They harvest what’s floating free in the air and turn it into nice shit to call their own.
Unfortunately, the first fact of having nice shit is that other people notice.  And many of them will be bigger than you.

III: The Primary Consumers – the Heterotrophs

Ayn Rand would denounce this kangaroo as a parasite upon the ecosystem's creators.

That 1-2% of sunlight producers tap into is a tiny, tiny trickle of what’s available, and they use up most of its energy just to stay alive.  But 85-30% of 1-2% of the energy of all sunlight impacting the earth is still a pretty honkin’ good chunk of energy.  And it’s all sitting there inside those producers, and sooner or later SOMEbody’s going to take a crack at it.  And by somebody I mean herbivores.  Your white-tailed deers, your grasshoppers, your chipmunks.  All the guys that love their greens (and browns, and greys, and…well, different plants and different plant bits come in different colours, is what I’m saying).  These guys can’t make their own energy, they have to consume it, stripping it straight from the delicious producer. That explains primary consumer, and as for heterotroph, well, apply a little knowledge.  “Different-nourishment.”  They don’t automatically nourish themselves, they get their energy differently.  By ripping it off the primary producer.
Only 5-20% of the energy stored up in the primary producers makes it through the digestion process and gets used to produce more primary consumer – breaking down plant tissue isn’t easy, and it isn’t efficient.  But what’s left is more than enough to keep a reasonably decent population of plant-eating, leaf-scarfing, twig-munching leeches alive, forming a smaller but still sizable second trophic level on the trophic pyramid.  The bastards.
There is another fact: there will always be a bigger bastard.

III: The Secondary Consumers – also the Heterotrophs

Like most omnivores, surprisingly adorable until it overpopulates and eats everything and runs the planet into a mass extinction event because it won't stop burning carbon. Still cute though.

The bigger bastard in this case is the one that eats the one that eats plants.  The consumer of the consumers.  The secondary consumer, if you will.  Unfortunately it doesn’t get a special ‘troph’ name because heterotroph sort of covers everything that isn’t an autotroph, so it has to share.  Them’s the breaks.  Secondary consumers also includes most omnivores, the greedy bastards that can’t make up their minds and want to exploit both the producers AND consumers at the same time.  It’s worth noting that yet AGAIN, despite all a digestive system can do (even including the fact that meat’s much easier to digest than vegetable matter, being in a sort of pre-processed format, like a microwaveable dinner), only 5-20% of the energy from the previous trophic level (the primary consumers) makes it to this one, with the bulk of it getting used up to keep the primary consumer running smoothly.  This means that the secondary consumers make up a substantially smaller trophic level on the pyramid than their food items.  Deja vu.
Remember that last fact I told you?  Repeat it.

IV: The Tertiary Consumers – also, also the Heterotrophs

And yet if it was eating a fish we'd all think it was cute, especially if it got a belly rub out of it.

The biggest bastard’s problem usually isn’t that someone else will eat him – at least, not once it’s fully-grown.  No, usually the tertiary consumer‘s biggest cause of death is starving because it can’t eat enough OTHER people.  These are the orcas, the sperm whales, the polar bears, the Siberian tigers, the predacious diving beetles, the golden eagles, the Tyrannosaurus rexes.  Sure, they’ve got the tiniest amount of energy to deal with since their energy’s passed through a minimum of two separate sieves before it gets anywhere near their plates, but they look good on t-shirts.  From their miniscule-sized trophic level they look down the rest of the trophic pyramid and survey its contents like kings, secure in the knowledge that the energy buck stops at their desks and in their guts.

V: BUT WAIT! – the detrital food chain

There's always somebody who eats what nobody will.

You probably recognized the above as a good ol’ fashioned food chain with fancy words like ‘troph’ slapped willy-nilly.  And it is!  And you probably realize that in real life food chains are complex, and most trophic levels interact with a bunch of others below them, not just their immediate neighbours.  They do!
What you DIDN’T know was that this is but one of two types of food chain!  AHA!  I bet you didn’t see that coming, eh?
(Important note: if you did see this coming feel free to assume the position of delivering the above sentence to everyone around you)
The standard/grazing food chain, which we just sort of went over, is everywhere we look in nature.  What lurks behind it at every corner is its shadowy evil twin: the detrital food chain!
It’s actually really simple and stupid: basically, the entire grazing food chain (relatively biggest animals, based upon plant bits) gets consumed at every single trophic level by the relatively small and often microscopic denizens of the detrital food chain.  Primary producers and tertiary consumers, shed leaves and sperm whales, it all ends up getting chewed into a pulp and spat out sooner or later.  Mostly later, once something else has finished spitting it out first.

SHOCKING SURPRISE TWIST CONCLUSION!: There’s another path to energy!

Life without light: slightly odd, but still garish.

So.  Energy comes from the sun, right?  The only way to get organic matter made is to milk that good ol’ fashioned sunlight, right?  All hail the life-birthing sun and pass the obsidian knife, let’s build us some (trophic) pyramids?
That was an okay point of view to hold up until the 70s, at which point people found out about hydrothermal vents.
The long and the short of it: little hot spots in the earth’s crust located undersea where tectonic plates meet create upwellings of dissolved, searingly-hot minerals that billow out from vents in black and white clouds at impossibly huge depths of the ocean – black and white smokers.  Some of the ridiculously nasty chemicals that come out of those vents are chock full of tasty, gut-wrenching minerals that contain too much sulfur to be reasonable.
But of course, where there is something gross, there is always something that will eat it.  Specifically, chemotrophic bacteria.  Even more specifically, chemoautotrophic bacteria.  Screw the sun, these little bold-as-balls bastards are making organic matter out of pulverized continental crust waste products at the bottom of the ocean in absolute darkness.  And where there’s nice shit – life – there is also that which would take it from you: bastards.  Where there are producers (chemoautotroph or phototroph), there will be consumers.  And secondary consumers.  Nests of tube worms, terrifying scuttling clabs, big ol’ shellfish.  Life without light, living on a tiny tether that can snap with just a bit of shifting rock or a clogged vent, leaving them all to starve to death.  Comfy and reassuring, but very wonderful.  Remember: there is no rock so nasty that something won’t fight and die for the chance to live under it.
And just think.  This is probably the energy source that your ultimate grandmother was raised on.

Picture Credits:
The Sun: Public domain image from Wikipedia.
Tilia Leaf: Public domain image from Wikipedia.
Red Kangaroo: Public image domain from Wikipedia.
Raccoon Kit: Public domain from image Wikipedia.
Fiddler Crab: Public public image from Wikipedia.
Tube Worms: Imagepedia publiWikic dofromain.

Storytime: Clambake.

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

I am beset by doldrums of implacable size.
Colonel Thomas P. Fiddlegate stared at the sentence he had just scribbled, and found that it was so apt that he had no energy to press onwards. His eyelids felt like lead, his limbs iron, his mind a stone. Also, he was over seventy. That was probably the worst bit.
“Pinfat, my friend,” he somberly addressed his servant, as he tossed his journal to his desk, “I am altogether through. Finished. What is there left in life for me?”
“Lunch, sir,” said his servant. “And my name is not Pinfat, it is Paul. Pinfat is your cat, who is presently occupying your lap.”
“What greater purpose, Pinfat?” continued the Colonel, ignoring the noises of the underclass with Victorian ease as he stroked his cat. He eyed the majestic, weather-beaten globe atop his desk with grim displeasure. “What prime mover that shall shape my life and fortunes? I have done all that there is to be done, have I not? Have I not also seen all that I might see? I am rudderless!”
“It was just a little clam, sir. Hardly the end of the world.”
Colonel Fiddlegate’s moustache made the best effort at bristling that it could, though frightfully undernourished. “Just a clam?” he muttered in disbelief at the gall of servants. “JUST? Pinfat, that clam was the last of its family in all of Africa I had not hunted, and with that, the last of all clams in Africa I had not pursued, and with that, the last of all clams in all the world that I have not laid bare claim to! Pinfat, I am FINISHED! I am DONE! I am altogether THROUGH with clams now!” He stomped his foot firmly on the floor, causing Pinfat to bite him toothlessly in protest. “Only one clam left in all the world unseen by these faded old eyes, and that one a myth, I made sure of it!”
“Congratulations, sir.”
Fiddlegate slumped. “I am pointless without clams, Pinfat! Whatever will I do? What can I do?”
“Look to your peers for example, sir. Perhaps your brothers.”
“I’m intolerably poor at cards, Pinfat. And gambling is an acid of the soul.”
“The scotch, then.”
“No, I’d drain the bottle. I’ll take my misery in sober silence, thank you very much.”
Paul left the bottle. After about an hour, he came back and retrieved it for the garbage, leaving an extremely battered and cat-furred blanket to keep his master’s scrawny kneecaps warm against the cold. And so went the evening of Colonel Fiddlegate, who had killed all of one man during his glorious forty-year career (inadvertently: he could’ve sworn that the oyster he’d offered his sergeant was a good one, and nobody had ever argued differently).
Evening wore on, grew threadbare, and dissolved into night.
And in that night, came the dreams. Most were nonsensical. Some were anecdotal. And one, one was inspirational.

“AUSTRALIA!” bellowed Colonel Fiddlegate, starting upright in a fit and causing Pinfat to cling to his legs with the agility of a squirrel. “Ow,” he added, and hastily scooped up the paralyzed cat. “Australia!” he whispered to its surly face. “There! That’s where I’ll find it! I never looked for it there!” His eyes turned to the globe on his desk again, this time filled with hungry fire. “Australia!”
“You hollered, sir?” asked Paul. “It’s nigh-on five in the morning.”
“Fudge to the hour Peter, fetch me my bags!” ordered the Colonel, leaping to one foot and then with some difficulty to the other. “We’re off to terra incognita! The lost continent! The land of the kangaroo and the emu-bird! The Last Clam, the Myth-That-Burrows, the Hidden Pearl – it’s got to be there! I’m sure of it! The one place I never looked! Australia!”
“That is a most strenuous voyage to make at your age,” opined Paul. “And my name is not Peter, sir, it is Paul. Peter is your brother-in-law who passed away three springs ago, god rest his soul.”
“Bah, the devil himself would’ve been hard-pressed to squeeze a drop out of him. He’ll be fine! And Peter, don’t worry your head about me. I’ve made worse voyages and longer treks in my time, in my time with you, and with all the other years between! Remind me to tell you a few of those stories.”
“Were there clams involved?”
“Indisputably,” mused the Colonel, as he patted down his sides for his notebook. “Indisputably.”

The air was as fresh as the waves were salt. Gulls cried out in greeting to the ship, surprised once again to see such a large, wooden gull that sat so firmly upon the ocean. They were just gulls; it was hard to blame them for believing that sort of nonsense, especially when it was doing such a lively job of regurgitation, presumably to feed its young.
“It is indisputable,” Paul noted, “that you are ill.”
“Just a bit under the weather, that’s all,” mumbled the Colonel through a mouthful of unspeakable fluids never meant to touch human lips. He coughed damply. “This boat moves far too quickly up and down and not nearly fast enough forwards. How long have we been out here at sea? No, wait! Don’t tell me! Oh lord I wish to walk the land once again, to find the Hidden Pearl’s soulful-smooth shell beneath my fingers. There’s barely any details on it, you know – just whispers on the wind, between errant lips. They speak of what it is, but not WHERE, never where. Oh lord, I must walk!”
“Courage, the shore’s in sight. Australia awaits, much to the displeasure of your cat. I believe he has grown used to feeding upon the rats of the hold.”
“Thank the lord and every single one of his guppies,” whispered the Colonel. “Let Pinfat moan as he will; I feel better already. Haven’t felt wind of an illness like that since I went after the Coughing-Clam of Peru. Did I tell you about that one?”
“No, sir. You were busy vomiting.”
“Ah. So I was.”
“About this clam, sir?”
“Yes! The Coughing-Clam! That was a tricky one. Very easy to find, you see – when it coughs, it spits up a great big trail of bubbles. You can track them through any streambed with naught but your wits and a magnifying-glass, and in a pinch a keen eye substitutes for free!”
“Impressive.”
“Of course, I didn’t have a keen eye, but after I dropped my glass into the stream I learned to make do.” The Colonel broke into a shuddering dry heave, but more out of habit than anything else. “But anyways, Peabody, the hard bit wasn’t the finding. No, no, no. The hard bit was the CATCHING.”
“How so? And my name is not Peabody, sir, it is Paul. Peabody was your nurse as a child, who once tanned your hide near to the bone for playing in the chimney and getting soot all over the carpet.”
“The catching, you see, it’s the catching,” the Colonel continued. “Oh, it looks easy at first – just any old clam, eh? Grab ahold, yank ‘er up. Except it turns out the Coughing Clam can holler with such force underwater, Peabody, that it can numb the fingers and paralyze fine muscles. Trying to pick one up with tongs is no great shakes either; the force transmits up the tines, you see. I nearly shook my hands to pieces seizing one. Finally had to kick the damned thing free and onto the shore – no easy work, that, given how firmly they wedge themselves into the mountain streambeds – and even in the open air it made my hairs stand on end just having the thing wrapped in canvas in my backpack. My left pinky never did stop shaking, Peabody – not to this very day! Not now, even – see?”
Paul saw. “That’s just from the stress of vomiting, sir,” he opined.
“Possibly,” admitted the Colonel. “Excuse me a moment, one more for the road.” And he doubled over the railing again.

“Enjoying the road, sir?” asked Paul.
“Oh, damnably hot,” replied the Colonel, squinting at the nearer of the three horizons he could see, “but otherwise, yes, quite pleasant. I can almost see the shell of the Myth-That-Burrows before my eyes, even in this hellish heat-haze. It’s as if Helen of Troy herself stood before me – well, if she were a mollusk. Tell me, do you think you could ask one of those three fetching young ladies over there how much farther it is to Alice Springs? I feel quite light-headed, and a cool shade-nurtured drink would give me quite a rousing turnabout, I think.”
“There is only one lady, sir.”
“Oh?”
“Yes. And she is a camel.”
“Oh,” said the Colonel with a frown. He swayed a bit in his saddle, waking up Pinfat, who perched atop his shoulder. “Oh dear. I’m mad with the heat again, aren’t I, Paul?”
“Yes sir. Although you did just get my name right. Thank you.”
“Oh. Think nothing of it! Are you sure she’s a camel?”
“Yes. And technically sir, a he.”
“Oh. Oh my. Well then, nothing to be done for it but wait. We ARE close, are we not?”
“Within the hour.”
The Colonel slapped his hands together. “Time enough for a story then! Paul, did I ever tell you how I wrestled the Dread Anklecrusher of the Phillipines?”
“Not once, no,” admitted Paul. A faint spark of intrigue glimmered in his eye.
“A deficiency in your education!” proclaimed the Colonel. “This was all, you know, quite some time ago. Now that I think on it, probably before you were born.”
“Most of your stories are that way.”
“True, true. Anyways! This one was earlier in my career, you understand. I was still full of enough piss and vinegar that I thought nothing of haring off into the wide unknown on a rumor and a whisper of a clam to test my mettle!”
“As opposed to now, sir?”
“Precisely! So there I was, on the tiniest, least hospitable reef ever to host a human body. Sharks at every turn! Barracuda at my heels! Jagged, razor-edged coral lurking at every stroke! I’ve still got the scars, you know. My left buttock will never again resemble its youthful shape, alas.”
Paul coughed in that way that has nothing at all to do with clearing the speaker’s throat.
“Right, so I was on the reef. And I knew I was looking for a clam there in the shallows, but I didn’t know what kind it was. I estimated it was going to be about shin-high at best. You know, for crushing ankles and so on and so forth.”
“A logical assumption.”
“I thought so too. Unfortunately, it transpired that the Dread Anklecrusher starts at your ankles and works its way up to your neck.”
“Its rough dimensions, sir?”
The Colonel frowned and thumped his right ear, causing Pinfat to gum his neck in protest. “Can’t quite remember. I was awfully short of breath when those nice fishermen dragged me out of the sea, and I can’t really recall anything I did that year without it looking as though someone’d draped gauze over my eyes. But I was still clutching a fistful of the beasty’s innards in my right hand, and they said it’d probably expire within the week. So, hunt successful!”
“I’d always speculated on what was in that musty jar you keep at your bedside.”
“Well, yes. I figured it was probably good luck, you know? Tell me, have we reached Alice Springs yet?”
“We have indeed, sir.”
“Good, good. Ask that nice man for a drink, would you?”
“That’s the bar, sir. You’d best have a lay-down on the double.”
“Quite right, quite right. We’ll head to the springs tomorrow.”

The Colonel inspected the flat sand in front of him with faint suspicion. “Perdue? Where are my glasses?”
“At home on your desk, which we both lamented greatly over the day we set sail from England. And my name is not Perdue, sir, it is Paul. Perdue was your closest colleague in elementary school.”
“So he was, so he was,” agreed the Colonel. He frowned at his feet, which Pinfat was sitting on, having disdained the dirt as a bed. “Blast it. You’ll have to verify my eyes then: isn’t this supposed to be, well, the springs?”
“Alice Springs has no springs, sir. This is the Todd River.”
“Ah. But it has no water.”
“Astutely noted. The Todd River is dry almost entirely year-round, save for when heavy rainfall sends it trickling along its bed. The flood is quite sludgy, and can usually be outpaced at a reasonably brisk walk.”
“A brisk walk?”
“A walk might be overstating it. Perhaps a nimble amble.”
The Colonel sighed with displeasure. He half-heartedly booted Pinfat off his toes and onto the dirt, where the cat resigned himself to examining twigs and meowling crankily.
“Don’t fear, sir. The weather’s been poorly lately; perhaps the rains will come before we leave.”
“Before we leave?” The Colonel smiled sadly. “Perdue, how old am I again?”
“Modesty precludes my mentioning it, sir.”
“Speak up, man! Give me credit for a little temperance!”
“Ninety-three and one-half, sir.”
“Nearer to a century than to seventy-five. That’s not the sort of age one makes trips of this kind at, Perdue. Do you suppose I’ll survive another voyage on that… death-bucket?”
Paul didn’t say anything. Instead he provided a small flask of whiskey, which the Colonel drank.
“Thank you,” he said. “So! We wait. How long can we afford to wait? How long can I afford to wait? I’m not young anymore, Perdue. I can’t spend eight months here in the desert, like I did when I hunted the Mad Lurker of Morocco!”
“How exactly was this clam ‘mad’, sir? Surely clams behave in much the same manner, living or dead?”
“Oh-ho, not this one!” chuckled the Colonel. “Had the tale not passed to you? Surely I mentioned it?”
“Not in the slightest.”
“I shall remedy this then, if only to distract me from our present troubles. ‘Twas all back in the old days, when I was young – I think forty? Yes – and the world was new to me. Clams were but a word for something I ate as part of a seafood feast. I was barbarous, but I claim youth and ignorance as my defense.”
“Now, at the time I was in Morocco for… some reason or another. I can’t recall, wasn’t important. And I had, at the time, acquired an enormous ball of hashish through some sort of accident.”
“Accident?”
“Yes, I can’t quite recall, but I think it involved a few dogs, a game of cards, and someone having to leave in a hurry before their wife caught them. So here I was stuck with this MASSIVE ball of hashish. The question was what on earth to do with the damned thing. I couldn’t throw it away or someone would notice, I couldn’t turn it in to the authorities without raising awkward questions, and I couldn’t just hide it. Someone would be bound to find it, probably Parkinson. Your predecessor thrice removed, I believe, though much shorter than you.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“It’s just the truth, no need for formality. Nice man, Parkinson, but he could no more keep a secret than he could reach the top shelf of my whiskey cabinet. Anyways, the only thing to do was to ingest it. Which I rather foolishly did all at once, at night, on the shoreline.”
“I see.”
“So as not to be disturbed.”
“Indeed.”
“Now, my memory is difficult to sort out from my imagination hereafter –“
“Can’t imagine why.”
“-don’t interrupt, it’s terribly rude, you know. But yes, everything is a bit of a blur. I think I waded out into the waves at first to see if I could catch them, and then after about half an hour of THAT I decided I’d seen something shining on the seabed and decided to see if I could pick it up.”
“Oh?”
“Oh indeed. Indeed. And I had! Addled though I was, my eyes were keen back then. I reached down to that glimmering red-and-gold shape and plucked it up and it bit me, bit me hard and deep into my left index finger. Such a nasty shock! See here, you can see the mark – where the veins blacken.”
“Gruesome.”
“Oh yes. And that’s after fifty years; back then I believe it went bright purple and green very quickly. Now of course I grew very angry at this little nipping thing after that, so I did what any sensible person would’ve done.”
“Which was?”
“I stomped upon it. Wait, did I say sensible?”
“You did.”
“Scratch that from the record: I meant to say ‘damned stupid.’ It’s the reason I’ve had to wear extra-thick socks on my right foot at night the last fifteen years. I think something got into the bone down there, and it’s been eating away at it for decades now. Pretty fierce stuff in that clam. For that’s what it was! The Mad Lurker of Morocco – a shining little star in the sand that will nip you and fill you up to the brim with loony-juice if you dare touch it. Quite fatal, of course. Eventually. You run around like absolute bonkers for at least an hour before expiring.”
“And yet you sit before me living and breathing, sir.”
“With difficulty, yes,” admitted the Colonel. “This air is too thick with heat. But your point is made; I went quite mad, of course. Howling at the moon like a dog, barking like a seal, ran the streets like a bull… I even tried to eat the front door of my quarters. Lost a tooth doing that, which is why my smile is so golden these days. But I made it through the night, and the five-day hangover after that, and when I finally stumbled out of my bed and changed my clothing, what did I find in my pockets but the Mad Lurker of Morocco! Gave me a start, and made me glad I’d been out so long – a few days earlier and it might’ve still had enough fight in it to give me a second nip. And THAT would’ve put an end to me, for as everyone told me afterwards, all that saved my life was that hashish. It did something quite queer to that poison, and saved my life, albeit in one of the most miserably sickening ways I’ve ever experienced. If I close my eyes on a bad night, Perdue, I can still taste the fire and dirt on the back of my tongue.”
The air was quiet for an instant or three. Pinfat bristled his fur at some imaginary cat-nemesis and scuttled to his master’s shoulderblade with supple ease, ears twitching.
“And that was what made you decide to hunt clams?” asked Paul, breaking the silence.
“Hmmm?” replied the Colonel, dragged back half a century at once. “Oh, yes. All that pain and distress all caused by one tiny creature, and yet saved by such a slight sampling of the Lord’s favour. It was a sign, I thought, and all my life I’ve strived to live up to it. And that’s how it was. There, wasn’t that a pleasant distraction from the vast and groaning weight of my failures, Perdue?”
Paul stared at a fixed point on the horizon, and said nothing, though his hands twitched.
“Oh, blast it, I suppose it wasn’t. It feels heavier than ever! I am finished, Perdue! Absolutely done! Demolished! All the work and all the adventures and all the hunting and scraping and harm a body can stand, and all for naught – all for naught! A man can end happy knowing he’s collected every clam, but what can a man who claims all-but-one say for himself? It’s worse than having never started at all!”
“Sir,” managed Paul. “Sir. Would you care to look upwards, sir? To the north?
The Colonel slumped dejectedly. “Oh fudge to it, Perdue. You know I can’t see worth a half-pence without my glasses. Why, the clam itself could pop up right under my toes and I wouldn’t see worth spit.”
“Sir! The river!”
“Eh?”
“It’s coming!”

It took the Colonel some ten minutes to make out what was going on. This was good, because that was how long it took for the slow, sludge-driven, mud-choked Todd River’s currents to ooze their way to their feet, driven onwards by the relentless pressure of rainfall and gravity against a mouthful of grit and muck that would’ve throttled a less determined river dead in its cradle.
“My word,” said the Colonel. “I’ve never seen such a stream.”
“Very silty indeed, sir,” observed Paul.
“Ah, needs must! We’ll manage just fine – here, help me search the streambed, and mind your toes. I doubt crocodiles have had time to move in, but all the same, let’s be wary fellows and sing out if something grabs ahold of your legs, eh?”
“At once, sir,” said Paul. He gently removed Pinfat from the Colonel’s shoulders and placed the unresisting cat on the riverside. “One question: what exactly am I searching for?”
“I haven’t the faintest. Anything clam-like will do. Now scoot!”
The water was warm, despite its recent fall from the sky; the Australian soil was nearly half its bulk now, and had lent a sun-baked heat to it in addition to a chocolaty thickness. If Paul squinted his eyes just right, held his head at the right angle against the sun, and blinked rapidly, he could just barely see nothing at all.
“Go by feel, man!” called out the Colonel. He was bent double in the stream, groping about with fingers and toes. “Go by feel! We can’t be wasting time now!”
Paul did so, though he paused to roll up his sleeves first. “Sir, what do clams feel like?”
“Ridged!” shouted the Colonel, raising his voice over the rumble of the waters. “Patterned! Anything that’s too regular to be a stone! Look for-”
At the exact moment the Colonel’s voice subsided, Paul realized that the waters shouldn’t be rumbling when they were moving at a nimble amble. He looked up in alarm, and it was because of this that he managed to be standing upright when the entire Todd River tackled him in the midsection in a very slow, ambling, muddy way that drove him several hundred yards downstream and deposited him on a high bank, plastered with enough sediment to start an orchard.
Paul stared at the sky for a moment, reflecting dreamily that he now knew the meaning of Brown. His vision was Brown. His mouth was filled with Brown. His body was Brown. The entire world and everything in it made a little more sense now that he’d been through that. At least the bits of it that were brown.
He blinked, flicking mud from his eyelashes as he did so. There was something important. He needed to do something. For someone. Who. Whatever it was, he had the feeling it wasn’t Brown, and therefore was going to be difficult to cope with.
Pinfat came into his view, then sat on his head.
“COLONEL!” yelled Paul – with difficulty, emitting a good deal of Brownness from his lungs as he did so. He coughed viciously and bolted upright, fell over, then picked up the alarmed Pinfat and lurched desperately along the riverbank, legs dripping with Brown. “COLONEL!”

The Colonel was nearly a mile downstream. He was a much smaller man than Paul, and the flash flood had buoyed his bird-light bones along on the foaming crest of its waves, almost tenderly.
It was still too much, of course. Too much.
“Oh,” sighed the Colonel. “It’s you. Good.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” said Paul. He leaned down to pick the old man up, then stopped himself when he saw him wince. “Can you move?”
“Move. Uhm. Hmm. No, no I don’t think so. Maybe in a few minutes, but not right now. There’s something… rather… I think important. It needs doing, but I fear I can’t seem to move my hands. Coughing Clam seems to have caught up to them at last – or was it the Mad Lurker?” He coughed. “Bit stupid name for a clam, really. Not sure it was the right one at all.”
“Sir?” asked Paul. “What do you need?”
“Could you – would you mind – if you could just – grab my hand there, and pull it over. No, not over there. A bit up. Right. My right. Thank you. Now close my fingers.”
The Colonel’s eyes were hard to see under the mud, but the wrinkling of his face showed they’d just closed in satisfaction. Then they creaked opened again, with renewed purpose.
“Yes, that’s right. That’s right. Now please, can you please, would you please hold up my hand? A bit close, good fellow – my eyes, they aren’t what they were, I think. I can’t seem to see much now.” He peered closely. “That’s strange. It’s… browner than I expected.”
Paul leaned over and wiped the Colonel’s eyes clear with his pinky, as carefully as he could.
“Ah. Oh. My,” he said, and the drying mud cracked around his mouth as it spread into a smile, breaking free his shabby little moustache. “There it is.”

The shell was a mottled sort of brown-and-grey, where the greater Brown had not overcome it. It was just a bit smaller than the Colonel’s palm, and little bubbles were leaking from one end as the clam breathed.
“Now tell me, Paul,” said the Colonel, as his eyelids began to droop again, slowly but implacably, “have you ever seen a more beautiful thing?”