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How Coal Saved the Grid in January

The 2017-18 Bomb Cyclone

The twelve days between Dec. 27, 2017, and Jan. 8 this year saw one of the longest and most intense deep freezes ever recorded for the East Coast. Snow, ice and frigid temperatures plunged much of the United States into winter misery for a seemingly endless period.

The so-called “bomb cyclone” also put the East Coast electric grid under intense stress. The period of Jan. 4-6 accounted for three of the top ten winter demand days in the history of PJM Interconnection, the regional transmission organization of which Virginia is a part. Electricity consumption and output surged 21% over average daily loads.

Were it not for the ability to fire up old coal and oil power plants, many of which are scheduled for phasing out, the regional grid would have been overloaded and the system would have been hit with widespread blackouts, concludes a report, “Reliability, Resilience and Oncoming Wave of Retiring Baseload Units,” issued last month by the National Energy Technology Laboratory.

The Lab’s analysis of the PJM system found that coal generation surged from 20 gigawatts to 51 gigawatts of supplied capacity during the bomb cyclone. By contrast, nuclear power, which typically runs all out with little variability throughout the year, provided no surge capacity.

Natural gas generation averaged about 25 gigawatts, but its surge capacity was limited by pipeline constraints and the necessity of competing with gas as a home-heating fuel during the freeze. As a percentage of total output, gas actually fell. Emphasizes the report: “It was coal, and secondarily fuel oil, fired primarily in fuel switching natural gas units, that provided the electricity crucial for keeping natural gas-fired residential furnace fans operating during the extreme cold of the BC.”

And renewables? Renewable output declined. That’s what happens when clouds and snow blot out solar output. As it happened, wind power declined as well. “Intermittent generating sources experienced a significant decline nearly inverse to growth in demand,” states the report. “As the storm settled over the Mid-Atlantic area, PJM saw decreased output from solar and wind resources.”

Coal, the fuel that everyone loves to hate, saved the day. Had the coal capacity not been available, the report stated, “a 9-18 GW shortfall would have developed, depending on assumed imports and generation outages, leading to system collapse.”

Let that sink in: “Leading to system collapse.”

Should I repeat that for you?

The study authors fear for the future. They write:

The 30 GW of coal that ramped up to meet the surge in PJM load includes the units most likely to retire due to insufficient market support, given those units were not running at baseload levels before the event. As more of these units retire, the ability of the system to respond to extreme events with reliance, let alone economically, deteriorates. To maintain the resilience seen in this event, any retiring units that were dispatched during the event would have to be replaced with other resilient generation sources and their associated infrastructure (e.g. pipelines, transmission).

Bacon’s bottom line: Let me spell out what this means for energy policy in Virginia. Current regulatory policy is hostile to coal-generated electric power, and could become even more hostile if Virginia joins the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Powerful environmental and activist groups backed by out-of-state money want to phase out nuclear power by blocking the bid of Dominion Energy Virginia to re-license four nuclear units in the years ahead, and they want to halt the construction of any more gas-fired units. And, although it appears to be too late to do so, they opposed construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline. In effect, they want to build a grid in which in gains from energy efficiency plus increases in intermittent wind and solar power replace all coal and nuclear and account for any incremental increase in demand growth.

If we assume advances in the economics of battery storage, a renewables-heavy grid can be made to work just fine under routine circumstances. In theory, massive banks of batteries can store excess solar wind power to shift electric loads to times of the day when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. Building all those batteries would be expensive, but it could be done. But it’s one thing to store enough electric power to handle daily load shifts. It’s another to build enough batteries to provide power for a 12-day storm system. It can’t be done. And when the electricity runs out, not only do the 40% of households who rely upon electricity to heat their homes start freezing, so do the households that use natural gas because there’s no electricity to run the fans and blowers.

Massive storm systems like the bomb cyclone and the Polar Vortex of several years ago occur only once every few years. But occur they do. And the energy mix of our electric grid must be built around that reality. Far from increasing resilience — the buzzword of the day — we could be laying the groundwork for self-inflicted disaster.

The Mystery of the Empty Tomb

The burial of Jesus, image taken from the Chapel of Saint Joseph of Arimathea at the Washington Cathedral.

The following passage is excerpted from my unpublished novel, “The Mystery of the Empty Tomb.” The novel purports to be an annotated version of a long-lost manuscript written by Nicolaus of Caesarea, aide to Pontius Pilate, who was assigned to investigate the disappearance of Jesus’s body from the tomb. In chapters preceding this excerpt, Nicolaus describes the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem during the Passover festival, Pilate’s enmity with the high priests of the temple, the trial of Jesus, and his crucifixion.

The novel won the runner up award in the 2017 Best Unpublished Novel of Richmond award, but I have been unable to find a publisher interested in taking on the project. I am thinking of self-publishing. I would appreciate feedback from readers as to whether such a venture might be worth the effort.

The Sabbath day passed uneventfully. The laws of the Jews, which required them to observe a day of rest, precluded any activity but the observance of their holy Passover rites. Then, when the Sabbath ended at sunset, pilgrims prepared for the journey home. With the festival winding down, and with it any threat of disorder, Pilate and the Caesarea cohort readied for the march back to the coast. Having had my fill of Jerusalem, I yearned to return to my abode in Caesarea and to see my wife and children. Around the second hour,[1] my servant Menander had loaded my belongings onto a mule when a commotion occurred at the front gate to Herod’s Palace.

Joseph of Arimathea was loudly demanding an audience with Pilate. The prefect, preoccupied with preparations for the march, was not available. Then Joseph sought me out. “Jesus is gone,” said he. “He is missing from the tomb!”

“How come you by this information?” asked I.

“The followers of Jesus visited the tomb this very morning. They found that the rock seal had been rolled aside. When they entered the tomb, they saw his linen garments strewn about. But he was gone and is nowhere to be found!”

Without question, the situation warranted Pilate’s attention. Grave robbery was a crime under Roman law. Indeed, it was so common in Galilee that Herod Antipas had posted an inscription in Sepphoris for all to see.[2] The offense was known to occur in Judea and Samaria as well. Most often, thieves sought the jewelry and ornamental items buried with the dead. But it was not unknown for grave robbers to steal the body itself, usually for necromantic purposes.

I interrupted Pilate’s deliberations with the primus pilus.[3]Dominus, I beg a moment.”

“I am occupied,” Pilate said sharply. “Mind your place.”

Pilate was not moved easily to anger but when his wrath was kindled, no man would wish to stand before him. Yet he had not engaged me to act his toady. At the risk of public rebuke, I persisted: “It is Jesus of Nazareth, Dominus. His body is gone!”

The words had the same effect as if I had slapped his face. Pilate wheeled his horse around and faced me. “Get on with it, then.”

I repeated what Joseph had told me.

“Summon the priest immediately,” said the prefect. “I would hear this from his own mouth.”

Pilate held his audience while mounted upon his war horse. Even at his age, he made a formidable and warlike figure. Bowing, the councilor repeated the story he had told me. Pilate cut to the heart of the matter. “Who has done this?”

“I know not, eminence,” said Joseph.

“Whom do you suspect?”

“I have no grounds to single out any party,” said Joseph. “I can only speculate.”

“Then give me the benefit of your conjecture,” ordered Pilate.

“We angered the high priests when we laid Jesus in the tomb,” said Joseph. “Perhaps they wished to see his body desecrated and defiled. Perhaps they removed it so the tomb would not become a shrine.”

“What think you, Nicolaus?”

“That explanation is as plausible as any,” said I. “But we know so little that I cannot say with certainty.”

“We cannot let this crime go unpunished,” said Pilate. “Jesus is too well known. Word will blow through Judea like a sirocco. I cannot tolerate such an insult to Roman law. Furthermore, if there is any chance that Caiaphas was behind this criminal act, I will know of it.”

Pilate did not need to elaborate. I could read his thoughts as clearly as if he had carved them into a stele. If we could implicate Caiaphas and Annas in the robbery of Jesus’ tomb, the priests would have no more hold over him. Grave robbery was punishable by death throughout the empire by the order of Tiberius himself. Pilate could dangle the threat of arrest and execution over the priests like the sword of Dionysius.[4] They would never dare challenge him now by sending a letter to Rome.

Pilate continued: “I want you to get to the bottom of this. Conduct an inquiry. Question whomever you must. Do not rest until you have uncovered the culprits.”

At this command, I was dismayed. I had important affairs to settle with the steward of my estate back in Caesarea, and I longed to see my wife and children. Some men could happily march on long campaigns or voyage to far-off seas but I was not one of them. The luxurious apartments of Herod’s palace were no substitute for my own hearth, and no tumble with a tavern whore was as satisfying as the embrace of my loving Hestia. But I saw the sense in staying in Jerusalem to sniff out the hoodlums who absconded with Jesus’ body before the scent went cold.

“I shall do as you order, Dominus,” said I.

“Find those responsible and I will reward you well,” said Pilate. “Connect the crime to Caiaphas, and I shall make you a rich man.”


Joseph guided me to Jesus’ sepulcher. We arrived to find some curiosity seekers loitering near the doorway, too timid to enter. Pilate had granted me an eight-man detachment[5] from Longinus’s centuria – the same men who had escorted Joseph’s burial party to the sepulcher – and I put the guard to good use. The decanus, an energetic young man by the name of Sextus, chased away the onlookers before they had a chance to pilfer anything, and set a guard at the tomb so I could investigate the scene without distraction.

The sepulcher was set in a cliff of fractured, crumbling rock from which patches of brush sprouted like the hair of a mangy dog. The entrance lacked ornamentation of any kind – no columns, no entablature, not even a door — just a hole cut into the cliff and a heavy, disk-shaped stone that could be rolled aside to provide admittance. The entrance was low, requiring visitors to stoop in order to step inside.[6]

“Hardly fit for the king of the Jews,” said I.

“It was the closest sepulcher at hand,” said Joseph. “A funerary guild dug it for Jerusalemites whose families own no sepulcher of their own. We had no time to look for a more suitable place.”[7]

“How far did you progress in your burial preparations?” I asked.

“We cleansed Jesus of blood and grime and we swaddled him a burial shroud. Then, for lack of time, we left,” said Joseph.

Ducking as I entered the tomb, I stepped into a gloomy chamber where I was immediately assaulted by a stench of dust, decay and sickly sweetness. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I discerned nothing but shadows. Although reason told me that spirits did not exist, there was no knowing such a thing for certain. If lost souls did linger upon the face of the earth, it would be in a place like this manor of the dead. For a moment, a sense of such dread seeped into me that I thought of stepping back into the light. I understood why those addicted to superstition –  fearing demons and vengeful spirits –  would hesitate to enter. Or, once they had entered, why they would rush to leave.

Gradually, my anxiety lifted and my sight improved. On either side of the room, ledges were cut into the walls, forming shallow, waist-high alcoves with arched ceilings where bodies could be placed and attended to. Upon one such bench lay a burial shroud, rumpled as if it had been haphazardly deposited there, while a smaller linen lay on the floor. [8] Those were Jesus’ burial linens, I expected, and I would examine them momentarily, but first I determined to take a quick tour of the tomb. On the far side, the chamber opened onto a passageway from which radiated several dozen shafts. Some were empty; others were closed with tight-fitting limestone seals. Inside each closed compartment was a decaying body. Deeper into the sepulcher where light barely penetrated, I dimly perceived shelves lining the passageway, upon which patrons had stored several ossuaries of wood and stone. It was the practice of the Jews, once the bodies in the shafts had fully decomposed, to shift the remains to space-saving bone boxes. Only a few such ossuaries were in evidence, and I saw no sign of recent activity.

I pondered a moment how some Jews believed in an afterlife while others did not. The aristocratic Sadducees had a saying, identical to what we Epicureans believe: “From dust to dust, ashes to ashes” – just as there was nothingness before life, there was nothingness after. There was no reason to fear death, for there would be no more pain than we felt before we were born. But the mass of the people, who suffered much during their lives and yearned for something better, deluded themselves that their souls would survive the disintegration of their bodies and upon the resurrection would ascend into heaven and live in the house of their lord, Yahweh, with all manner of angels, heavenly hosts and long-passed friends and family members. They believed this with no evidence whatsoever. No one had visited this place and returned to tell others of what they had seen. It existed only in peoples’ imaginations. Such was the power of men to believe what they wanted to believe.

Returning to the front of the tomb to inspect the two pieces of burial apparel, I conceived of two theories to explain the placement of the garments. The first was that Jesus had recovered from seemingly mortal wounds and removed the linens himself. But I had no explanation of how he might have budged the stone that sealed the door  – an impossibility from inside the tomb, especially for a man who had been close to death –  nor why, had he contrived to escape, he would have left the linens behind rather than use them to conceal his nakedness. The second possibility, which I found far more plausible, is that someone else moved the stone, entered the tomb and found a shroud-covered body lying on a bench. Wanting to ascertain that the corpse was that of Jesus, the intruders first removed the napkin wrapped around his head and dropped it upon the floor, for they had no further use of it, and then they pulled back the shroud to look upon the body and face to confirm Jesus’ identity.

I thought it curious that the burglars, whoever they were, had left the shroud behind. The linen cloth was finely woven and a thing of value. Had the visitors been reverent disciples of Jesus intent upon relocating his body to a more worthy location, surely they would have taken the time to wrap him in the shroud and wind the cloth around his head, as Joseph and Nicodemus had done. But instead, the interlopers abandoned the linens. That suggested to me that the removal of Jesus’ body was an act of theft. If the robbers had been as discomfited as I was upon entering the tomb, perhaps fearing retribution from Yahweh, demons or the spirits of the dead, they would have fled with Jesus’ body as soon as they could, not caring if they left the linens behind.

I summoned Joseph into the tomb. “Just to confirm,” I asked, “are these the shroud and napkin that you placed on Jesus?”

“Yes,” said he.

“What about the perfumes and spices?” I asked. “Did you leave them here in the tomb?”

“No, Nicodemus gave them to the Galilean women outside the sepulcher on the day of the crucifixion,” said Joseph. “It was their intention to return this morning and finish the burial preparations that we could not complete.”

I was astonished that Nicodemus would hand over such a treasure to someone he did not know. “What assurance did he have that the women would not abscond with the spices?”

“You will have to ask him about that,” said Joseph. “As for myself, I did not consider the possibility. One of the women was Jesus’ mother. The others were obviously devoted to him and they were mourning. It seemed appropriate that those who loved Jesus complete the ablutions.”[9]

“What is your conclusion from seeing the burial linens lying about in this manner?” I asked.

“We did not leave them this way,” said he. “Whoever took the body of Jesus must have stripped them from his corpse and laid them aside.”

“The linens are expensive, are they not?” said I.

“Indeed, I would think so,” said he, “although only Nicodemus could tell you what he paid for them.”

“Whoever took Jesus’ body was not a friend,” said I. “If the intruders revered Jesus and were intent upon moving him to another tomb, surely they would have taken his burial garments as well. And surely they would have informed those who buried them of their actions.”

“That stands to reason,” said Joseph. “I have heard nothing in that regard.”

“If the culprits did not take Jesus for a reverent purpose,” said I, “then it follows that they removed him for a malign purpose. We are dealing with grave robbery here.”

“I cannot fault your logic,” said Joseph, “although I desperately hope that you are wrong.”


I could think of little else that could be accomplished at the sepulcher. Determined to have the linens left precisely where the grave robbers had placed them, should I need to revisit the scene, I resolved to close the tomb to snoops and relic hunters. I ordered Sextus, commander of my escort, to seal the sepulcher and post a two-man guard to watch the tomb around the clock. Then I resolved to question the Galilean women as soon as I could.

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Vive L’Appropriation Culturelle!

 Sacre bleu cheese! From French fries to French burgers.

Heh! Heh! From the Associated Press:

Figures released this week revealed that sales of the jambon-beurre – the ham and butter baguette sandwich, a classic of French snacking – have been surpassed by sales of American-style burgers.

The study by restaurant consultants Gira Conseil showed that about 1.2 billion ham and butter sandwiches were sold in 2017, while 1.4 billion burgers were eaten over the same period.

I love it! Good thing the French don’t have laws against cultural appropriation!

Appropriate away! I would love to see what the French can do with the  hamburger. I’ll bet they take a great thing and make it even better!

The Northam Administration’s Top Budget Priorities: Medicaid, Rainy Day Fund

Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne

The biggest obstacle to enacting a state budget is the disagreement between the Senate and the House of Delegates over Medicaid expansion. But even if legislators could resolve their Medicaid differences tomorrow, Finance Secretary Aubrey Layne said earlier today, they still would have to resolve a $400 million gap over other programs.

The second largest funding disagreement revolves around higher education, Layne told members of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia at a monthly meeting at Christopher Newport University.

According to data SCHEV distributed at the council meeting, the House Appropriations Committee has budgeted $218.8 million in additional dollars for education over the biennial budget between 2018 and 2020, while the Senate Finance Committee has allocated only $94.7 million in new dollars. Most of the gap can be traced to differences in three areas: funding for the Cyber X cyber-security education initiative, faculty pay raises, and financial aid.

Layne voiced no preference for either the House or Senate higher-ed budgets, but did say that Governor Ralph Northam’s two top priorities are funding the Medicaid expansion and setting aside reserves to bolster Virginia’s precarious AAA bond rating.

While the budget outlook for the current fiscal year, 2017-18, is improving, Layne said he is not willing to bridge the funding gap by assuming stronger revenues for 2018-19. Year-to-date personal income tax revenues are up about 6% this year, considerably ahead of the forecast 3.5%. The federal tax cuts appear to be having a stimulative effect on income. December saw a $200 million revenue jump, but he doesn’t know if that reflects a surge in income or a burst of early payments to take advantage of the state-and-local tax deduction before the new tax law eliminates it.

Other signs are favorable — revenue from the sales tax is up, as is the recordation tax on home sales — but Northam wants to dedicate any surplus funds to building up the state’s rainy-day fund.

The Standard & Poor’s rating agency has given Virginia a negative outlook on its AAA bond rating. “They don’t like to see one-time revenues pay for ongoing expenses,” said Layne. Also, he said, “they like to see bigger financial reserves” — 3% to 8% of revenues. The budget introduced by former Governor Terry McAuliffe put an additional $270 million into the reserve for a more than $100 billion two-year budget. The House budget would do less; the Senate budget would do more than the House’s.

Bottom line: However the economy performs for the rest of the fiscal year, there won’t be any loose purse strings to paper over the differences between the House and Senate versions of the budget.

In other remarks, Layne opined on his philosophical approach to the budget. A big concept in the private sector is “fiduciary responsibility,” said Layne, who had been president of Virginia Beach-based Great Atlantic Management before joining the McAuliffe administration four years ago as secretary of transportation. If he violated the highest standards of care for a client, he could get sued or fired. He applies the concept of fiduciary to his job working for state government. His duty is to the citizens of Virginia.

Virginia citizens are paying federal taxes to pay for the Medicaid expansion enabled by the Affordable Care Act. To live up to his fiduciary responsibility and get that money back, Layne supports expanding Medicaid as allowed by the law. One argument he’s heard against expansion is that the federal government can’t afford the program, it’s going bankrupt. To the contrary, said Layne, the federal share of Medicaid expansion is paid by taxes enacted by the Affordable Care Act. It’s not deficit spending. A second argument he’s heard is that the feds can’t be trusted not to renege on its payments. But that possibility is covered by a codicil in the budget that says if the feds back out, the state can back out of the Medicaid expansion, too.

Layne suggested that there is a serious mismatch between Virginia’s tax base and its spending priorities.

Drawing upon his experience as transportation secretary, he noted that the Commonwealth collects roughly $2.5 billion a year in revenue for transportation. Of that sum, only 20% or so pays for new construction; the rest goes to maintenance and operations. The reliance upon the gasoline tax has eroded the transportation revenue stream. As cars get better gas mileage — and as electric vehicles phase out the internal combustion engines — gasoline consumption and revenues decline. In theory, Virginia could switch to a Vehicle Miles Traveled tax, a true user fee. But that creates privacy concerns. To raise revenue, the state has resorted instead to increasing tolls. Nobody likes tolls, but they are a user fee, and they do expose the true costs of transportation.

Once upon a time, transportation funding did not compete with General Fund priorities. said Layne. Now transportation gets a share of the state sales tax, which puts pressure on priorities like education and health care, both of which are funded through General Fund revenues like the sales and income taxes.

What’s the answer? Update the tax structure, which is based upon an 20th-century industrial economy, to one that is based upon a 21st-century knowledge economy. Internet sales are not taxed — although that may change, depending upon an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Services are not taxed. Perhaps they should be.

At a broader level, Layne said that Virginia needs to adopt a rigorous approach to formulating the state budget. What kind of services do we need?  What money do we need to fund those services? And where does that money come from? “That’s the kind of analysis that not just us, but the country, will have to go through.”

Howler Monkey Spotting

Finally – a howler monkey spotting!

It took some doing. We rode by skiff to Monkey River Village, a Belizean village down the coast where the population made its living fishing, lobstering, and escorting tourists up the Monkey River to see the howler monkeys. There, we picked up a guide, Brian, who took us upstream a couple of miles. The whole trip, he treated us to an entertaining account in barely understandable English about the flora and fauna of the rain forest and how his grandparents used the palm fronds, and bark and what-not to build their dwellings and cure their ailments. Brian belongs to one of Belize’s more colorful ethnic groups, the Garifuna, descendants of native Indians and castaway African slaves who have their own distinctive culture and language.

At length, thanks to Brian’s sharp eye, we spotted some monkeys. There they were, feeding off the leaves of a tree by the river, hanging by their prehensile tails, uttering the occasional bark (but no full-throated howls) and otherwise loafing around. It’s not a hard business being a howler monkey. Predators can’t get you high up in the trees. You don’t have to worry about humans — you’re a protected species, and an entire village of 350 or so souls makes its livelihood showing you to people. Even the tourists are no bother. They’re stuck on boats in the middle of a crocodile-infested river. For howler monkeys, life is sweet.

The Tax Cuts Are Working

by Jack Hubbard

We’re barely three months into 2018 yet, and Virginia is already off to an incredible start.

The passage of the Republican tax plan in late 2017 has allowed Virginia’s more than 700,000 small businesses to breathe a sigh of financial relief.

Prior to the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the majority of small businesses (95%) were taxed at nearly 40% by the federal government. After state and local taxes were added in, that number often reached 50%. This astronomically high tax burden diverted valuable resources from job growth to government coffers. President Trump and Congress knew something had to be done.

Under the new tax code, small businesses whose income is less than $315,000 can now claim a 20% tax deduction, leaving more resources for investment and job creation. In Virginia, that increased deduction applies to nearly all of Virginia businesses. And these businesses now can take these tax savings, reinvest them, and expand their enterprises.

What happens when businesses expand? New hiring follows, putting more Virginians on the career ladder. And more Virginians working leads to greater investment in the Old Dominion.

Additionally, the tax plan’s lower tax rates and increased deductions have empowered businesses throughout the country to pass on tax savings and to their employees. So far, more than four million Americans have received a pay increase or bonus from their employer since the tax bill was passed. Larger companies such as Walmart, BB&T Bank, and Capital One have all increased starter wages.

Here in Virginia, the Bank of James in Lynchburg has raised starting wages to $15, added vacation days, and increased its charitable giving plans.

The list of beneficiaries of the tax bill continues to grow. Even many public utilities have announced that they will be cutting rates on their customers. Residents in nearby Washington, D.C., will see their electric rates cut after Pepco announced lower rates during the first quarter of 2018, and I can only hope that Virginia companies follow suit. These cuts are occurring only because President Trump and Congress did their jobs, and people are seeing real  money in their pockets.

Media reports notwithstanding, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act has proven itself time and again in only one month since its passage.

While Democrats may call tax savings “crumbs,” the real-world benefits of tax cuts suggest otherwise. Job creators—and the people they serve—are more optimistic than ever. Imagine what the rest of 2018 will have to offer.

Jack Hubbard owns the The HomeMade Gin Kit in Alexandria.

Amazing Vines

If I have good karma and come back as an elevated life form, I hope to return as an evolutionary biologist. Upon ascending to something close to Buddhahood, I would like to be E.O. Wilson (whose most recent book I mentioned in my previous post). As it is, I am who I am, and I’m endowed with far more curiosity than knowledge.

That curiosity was sparked two days ago by my visit to Barton’s Cave in Belize, a cave used by the ancient Maya for ceremonial religious purposes including human sacrifice. Steep limestone cliffs flank the entrance, and from those cliffs hang remarkable vines related to the ficus family.

These vines originally took root in the nooks and crannies of the rock formation, extracting whatever water and nutrients they could from their barren perch. Nothing terribly unusual about that. All manner of scrubby plants find precarious rocky footholds. But these vines do something more — they grow a vine-like root that, over the process of years — our guide said decades — descends twenty-five to thirty feet until they reach the water below. Just think about that — for years those useless appendages dangle to little effect. But eventually they reach the water, and there they become transformed.

The vines sprout roots in the water. And over time, the roots trap sediment from the current, creating their own ball of nutrient-bearing soil. Over time, the vines grow thicker and stronger, yet they descend no deeper than a than a few inches. They have what they need, and they go no farther. I have seen tropical vines in other locales drop from trees and implant roots into the ground, but never have I spotted such a thing as this. I find it astonishing.

If Charles Darwin and E.O. Wilson were the godheads in the great chain of being, I would rank somewhere between a fruit fly and an anopheles mosquito. I have traveled relatively little, and what I have seen I have viewed through an ignorant eye. But I do look at the world of nature with a sense of wonder, and that is its own reward.

Demon Ants from Hell

Ant superhighway

This morning I was taking a standard tourista photo of some exotic rain forest foliage when I absent-mindedly planted my foot on a plot of sand about a foot in diameter. It looked harmless enough, and I paid it no mind as I aimed and clicked my camera. Suddenly, I felt a sensation as if a stinging nettle were wrapping itself around my right foot. I looked down and found a dozen tiny red ants roaming over my toes and metatarsal. The bitty bastards were attacking me!

I moved away and shook them loose. I could see that the sand was swarming with the little varmints.

I’ve never encountered the likes of this in Virginia.

In his latest book, “The Meaning of Human Existence,” E.O. Wilson wrote briefly out the highly structured social lives of ants. The leafcutter variants of ants, he observed, shared the distinction with humans as being the only creatures on the planet that cultivated another species for food. Workers chew off pieces of leaf from a particular plant (the identify of which eludes me) and carry them back to their colony. Underground, the leaf fuels the growth of a fungus that the ants eat. As it turns out, the ants that bit me were that kind of ant. These ants have evolved highly sophisticated social behavior.

Before: nothing much to see here, just a patch of sand.

The Belizean leafcutters I encountered had blazed pathways the width of a bicycle tire track from their colony to nearby trees.  These trails are like ant highways. Interstate 95, you ain’t seen nothing! If you get down on your hands and knees for a close inspection, you can see the little demons racing in both directions, many of them bearing bits of leaf 20 or 30 times their size. I don’t think they even pay taxes.

After: Poke the colony with a stick, and the swarm will take out your foot in the blink of an eye.

Such ant colonies are found all over in Belize. In addition to being far more ilndustrious than our fat, lazy American ants – they surely would surely perform work in the United States that our ants wouldn’t want to do — Belizean ants are furious warriors. Try swiping a stick across the placid top of an ant colony, and see what happens. Instantaneously, a swarm of hundreds of ants will boil out of the ground to defend the homeland.

I don’t know if my metaphor is anatomically correct, but I do feel safe in saying that Belizean ants kick American ant ass. If we want to make America great again, we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.

Still Searching for Howler Monkeys

View from my hammock at the Blancaneaux Lodge in Belize.

We’re having a fine time at the Blancaneaux Lodge here in Belize. Got in some great hiking yesterday, and took a canoe trip this morning into a cave where the ancient Mayans once performed human sacrifices. Have learned many things, both mundane and astonishing.  If I have time, I will report back on the industriousness of the local ants, the remarkable properties of the vines hanging from limestone cliffs, the old-order Mennonite settlers, and the political economy of Belize.

Still no howler monkeys, though.

Where in the World Is Jim Bacon?

The Bacon family is heading off for its semi-annual vacation today. I will consider the trip a success if we spot howling monkeys like these in the wild. Any guesses at to which country we’re visiting?

I’m taking my laptop and I hope to blog sporadically. But the wife and I hope to pack in lots of nature hiking and pool-side reading, so there are no guarantees.

Second clue: The Amazon Prime series “Mad Dogs” was set in this country and prominently featured tapirs (the national mammal) and Mennonites (a bona fide minority ethnic group), although the filming actually took place in Puerto Rico.