Temple Grandin, animals and neurodiversity

Harrison riding Nibbles at Adam's Camp in June.

There was a “Wide Load” approaching, and the truck traveling ahead in our lane hit the brakes. I in turn hit my brakes, and that’s when Harrison lost his lunch.

I pulled over to the first pullout along the Arkansas River on U.S. 50 to assess the damage. We had no change of clothes, no wipes, and precious little time before Temple Grandin was to begin her lecture, “Autism, Animals and Visual Thinking,” at the Buena Vista High School gym.

The first thought was to just turn around and go home. But then I realized the Salida Wal-Mart was closer than home at this point. At least we could get a change of clothes, a cheap towel to fashion a makeshift booster chair cover, and something to clean up Harrison and the car. A pit stop there, and some food from Amica’s to go, and we found ourselves in a packed gym well before Temple took to the stage. It was amazing how many longtime friends were in the audience, and luckily a couple of them had saved seats for us.

Who is Temple Grandin? Many do not seem to know of her, and if you don’t I recommend the movie “Temple Grandin,” which won five Emmy Awards in 2010. She also has written several fine books, including “Animals in Translation,” “Animals Make Us Human,” and “Thinking in Pictures.”

If you are the parent of a child with autism, perhaps Temple Grandin personifies hope – she’s autistic but is a university professor and has designed many livestock handling facilities in the U.S. If you work with animals, Temple Grandin offers a picture of how animals see things. And if you are someone who may be on the “neurodiversity” spectrum, Temple Grandin helps provide meaningful insight.

So for me, her talk was valuable on several levels. And actually, her entertaining sense of humor caught me totally by surprise.

For example she described the autism spectrum as including a wide range of people from those who are non-verbal to Einstein — “and half of Silicon Valley.” Later she described “geeks, nerds and aspergers” as being the same thing, and referred to diagnosing autism as “behavioral profiling.”

She expressed disgust at the wholesale use of drugs to treat autism, and suggested instead that parents consider dietary adjustments and more exercise to help their children.

Grandin stressed the need for more participatory learning opportunities, as opposed to theoretical, to give those with different minds an opportunity to learn. She said it’s disappointing schools have stopped offering classes in subjects like sewing, autoshop, welding, and other educational programs where students actually learn to make or do something. She thinks this has carried over into society at large and it concerns her that our work force is becoming less and less capable of making and fixing things. I agree.

In reading Grandin’s books I realized that I had already arrived at many of the same conclusions and techniques in my dealings with animals, though I had never really put words to any of them as she has. A person who learns to see things the way animals do develops a manner of approaching them, and also starts to look ahead for things that may spook them, like a flapping flag or a glint of light — animals notice these things as part of the overall picture, while most people only see a “generalized image.”

There was a point during the lecture when my son ran out onto the gymnasium court where Grandin was speaking. She turned and looked at him and then took a few moments to collect her thoughts. I wondered if she could tell or if she wondered if he was autistic.

A few moments later she was discussing different sensory issues, and mentioned something she called “slow attention shifting.” She used the interruption caused by Harrison as an example to demonstrate how when her train of thought is disturbed it takes a while for her to get it back on track.

Ironic as it was that my son provided the example, I realized as soon as she said it that I too have this issue. When I get interrupted while talking, working or even doing the dishes, it’s difficult for me to regain my focus. Or, more specifically, it takes me much longer than most people to get back to the task.

Grandin’s latest book, “The Way I See It” is largely about visual thinking. She see things in pictures. As an example she offered Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” (one of my favorite paintings) as a visual thinker’s interpretation of some rather complex mathematical equations. Verbal communication, she says, tends to cloud some ways of thinking.

It’s not often that we get the chance to hear someone of Temple Grandin’s caliber speak here in Central Colorado. In what I thought was her best quote of the night, she said: “When you’re weird you have to sell yourself.” The statement brought cheers from the crowd, and I thought how so many of us have our quirks, not excluding the choice to live in this particular geographic region.

That little token of wisdom made the entire drive, vomit and all, worthwhile.

The great high-altitude apple experiment

Possibly against my better judgment I decided to attempt growing apple trees. Never mind that I’ve lived here at about 8,700 feet in the Wet Mountains 20 years now and know very well the schizophrenic nature of the climate and ecology.

After doing some research on varieties I decided upon a Harelred, which is rated to 9,000 feet, and a Honey Crisp, rated to 8,000 feet. The former was developed by the University of Minnesota for cold climates. Obviously we’re over the limit with the latter, but then rattlesnakes are not supposed to exist above 8,000 feet either and we’ve got plenty of them here. In fact my neighbor found one in her garage yesterday.

Both apple trees were purchased locally at Native Woods in Westcliffe and are about 5 feet tall. The Haralred actually has four small apples on it. While in a grocery the other day my son Harrison suggested we buy more apples for the trees, and that might not be a bad idea.

After choosing a location based on full sun exposure, I dug the holes wide and deep, then filled back in with topsoil, planting the trees so that the graft knot was just above the surface. I then constructed a four-foot-high circular fence around each tree to keep rabbits and especially deer from eating them.

And then the wind began to blow at gale force for more than 24 hours. I finally parked my truck and stock trailer alongside the trees as a sort of temporary windbreak.

In the process of researching and planting these American variety trees I also by happenstance located some Kazkhstan apple seedlings. It is believed the apple we know today originated in Kazakhstan, and these apples are closest to a wild variety. My geography meets the criteria as a test location for these apples and I hope to be planting one of these trees later this week.

Good News

Good news today that Santa Bill Lee, who was run over by his own truck last week, is now able to breathe on his own without a respirator. With continued improvement he may be out of the ICU in a week and a half. One nurse rated his crushed chest as one of the worst ever seen at St. Anthony’s.

Photo by Miles F. Porter IV

Bill’s accident has brought a flurry of attention. Check out the spot on Denver’s 9News, and also a column by my mentor in journalism, Miles F. Porter IV in the Summit Daily with quotes from yours truly.

While Bill’s condition improves, his ranch and animals need your help. Please send a donation — even $5 will be a great help — to: Carol Lee, Laughing Valley Ranch, P. O. Box 1810, Idaho Springs, CO 80452.

On another topic, my friend Phil Maffetone has released his new music video, “Barefoot in America,” along with an article about improving the health of your feet. Take your shoes off and give it a read.

Santa needs your help

Santa Claus (Bill Lee) and Frisco Mayor Bill Pelham. Photo by Miles F. Porter IV.

My friend and fellow pack-burro racer Bill Lee had a bad accident Friday and is in intensive care in Denver. Please send positive vibes and prayers for his recovery. Also, his wife Carol is in great need of help with their ranch animals — burros, reindeer, horses, llamas, goats, cows.

If you can help out with any funds for feed, please send a check to Carol Lee, Laughing Valley Ranch, P. O. Box 1810, Idaho Springs, CO 80452.

It’s important to make the check out to Carol as Bill cannot endorse a check at this time.

A gift of just $5 from each Hardscrabble Times reader would buy many bales of hay for the animals at Bill and Carol’s Laughing Valley Ranch.

If you can board an animal please contact me through comments.

Bill is the Denver Mall “Santa Claus” each holiday season and he’s also president of the Western Pack-Burro Association. Many also know Bill as “Redtail the Mountain Man.”

I bought Spike from Bill back in the mid-90s and won four World Championship Pack-Burro Races at Fairplay and several other races with this burro.

From what I understand, Bill was taking a horse to the vet. His truck started rolling. In trying to stop the truck he was caught under a wheel and his chest was crushed.

New year odds and ends

And so another year is coming to a close. I’ve taken some time away from Hardscrabble Times over the holidays, mainly because I haven’t had much to say.

I suppose given the previous entries it should be noted the Food Safety and Modernization Act was passed by Congress and soon will be signed into law. There’s not much else to be said on the subject. Now we can only wait and see how it affects local farms and farmers markets. I’m alarmed by any possibility this new law will negatively impact these businesses.

It is ironic to note the Centers for Disease Control recently downgraded the estimated number of deaths from food-borne illness from 5,000 to 3,000 annually. Not to make light of those deaths, but more than a million people die each year from cancer and heart disease combined, but we see no efforts to do anything about highly refined and processed foods — many of them produced by backers of the food safety bill — that contribute to so many of these deaths.

Enough on that. Look for my column on the subject in the January issue of Colorado Central magazine.

Also recently I’ve been focusing on a couple of other writing projects, including a feature story about the cleanup of the Terrible Mine. Perhaps the most striking revelation in my research was learning that more people lived in this area in the years between 1880 and 1907 than live here now. Heck, they even had three saloons, a general store and post office just down the road in Ilse and we don’t have any of those things now.

You can read my story in The Wet Mountain Tribune and The Pueblo Chieftain.

Meanwhile my book, “Wild Burro Tales —Thirty Years of Haulin’ Ass” was reviewed by Teresa Cutler-Broyles in Mules and More Magazine.

Twenty-ten was, well, 2010, with some disappointments and some successes.

It was incredibly sad to finish 2010 by attending the funeral for Dr. Tony Oreskovich Sr. He and son Tony have been our dentists for many years, and he’s also the father of our friends Mary Oreskovich, who with husband Richard Warner owns Hopscotch Bakery and Bingo Burger, and Mark Oreskovich, who manages Bingo Burger.

Tony Sr. was a super dentist and an even finer person. Always so sincere and funny. I last saw him in Bingo Burger a couple weeks ago. He walked up to me, said hello, shook hands. It’s difficult to believe he’s gone. He’ll be greatly missed.

It seemed odd to attend a funeral in Pueblo in the morning, and then a New Year’s party with friends in Wetmore in the evening. But that’s how life is. The darkest days of 2010 are behind and the 2011 brings with it a new light. I wish everyone all the best in the new year.

Getting the lead out

Semi-trailer rigs have been rumbling back and forth along nearby Custer County Road 271, hauling rock to the EPA’s emergency response cleanup project at the Terrible Mine. The ASARCO mining company is paying about $1.4 million for the cleanup, according to the EPA.

My house is located a couple miles from the mine as the raven flies. However, since the county once used the mine’s tailings to surface miles of local roads, lead from this mine could be found just about anywhere in this area.

Tests conducted by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and released in 1998 revealed stretches of two main thoroughfares near my house — county roads 271 and 265 — had lead-carbonate concentrations ranging from 3,000 to 4,000 ppm. By comparison, the EPA’s action level for lead in soil in residential areas of the California Gulch Superfund site near Leadville was 3,500 ppm.

Tailings right at the Terrible Mine contain lead at levels up to 25,000 ppm.

Last summer a test of water from my well — taken during a period of heavy summer rainfall — found lead at levels at nearly double those considered acceptable by the EPA for drinking water. A subsequent test weeks later during a dry spell found no detectable levels of lead in our water.

These tests on our water sparked my High Country News/Writers on the Range essay called “Something in the water.” The piece has been picked up by a number of Colorado newspapers, as well as papers in Wyoming, Oregon and Montana. You can read it on the Summit Daily’s site: Click here.

I’m left wondering whether there’s any connection between the lead apparently passing through my well water and tailings from the nearby mine that were used on local roads. Is it possible lead carbonate in tailings spread on the roadways could have washed off the roads, leached into the ground and made its way into the fractured-rock aquifers that feed my well?

Meanwhile, despite the contractor’s efforts with a water truck, the semi-trailers raise great clouds of dust on the road every day.

Where there’s smoke

It’s fire season in the Rockies. I could smell smoke this morning and even put off plans for a long workout. Then the wind shifted and the air cleared here. But down south at Medano Pass, it only made things worse. According to reliable sources (one of the guys I buy hay from) this fire has been burning in the Wilderness Area for about a week, and then flared up today. This photo was taken south of Westcliffe.