The Fall of a Sparrow (FanFiction): Cate Alexander

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The Fall of a Sparrow (FanFiction): Cate Alexander

Post by Zardoz » Tue Jun 16, 2009 3:08 am

The office is mostly what you would expect for a Vice President of the Irvine Company, a major Southern California land development company. One wall is floor to ceiling glass. The view stretches about a mile southwest to Newport Beach, easily visible from the tenth floor. Adjacent to that wall is one with the obligatory set of bookshelves, perched above a low cabinet made of mahogany, stretching the full length on either side of the door into the office. At the end of the room opposite the door is a desk, a simple slab of yet more glass, supported by four nickel-finished posts. In front of the desk are three wood frame, leather seated chairs, while on the wall behind the desk hang a set of beautiful nature photographs. Seated at the desk is the Vice President herself, finishing the telephone conversation she promised would last only a few minutes more.

The fourth wall has the normal trophies of executive life: a M.B.A. certificate from the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin; the 2003 Distinguished Alumnus Award, University of Texas at Austin; a Certificate of Appreciation from Mayor Robert Forrest of Carlsbad, New Mexico; a plaque for Business Woman of the Year from the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce; and so forth. But interspersed among these are pictures of people wearing dirty coveralls and helmets with headlamps, the flash of the camera illuminating their mud-caked faces. In each picture, the woman behind the desk is featured, alone or with others, always smiling. And most unusual of all are the two items squarely in the center of the wall: a Masters of Arts in Evolutionary Biology certificate from the University of Texas at Austin, and the framed title page of the thesis that earned that degree: "Arrhopalites (Collembola: Arrhopalitidae) in Texas caves with the description of seven new species." Not what you would expect from your typical corporate Vice President. But Cate Alexander is not your typical corporate Vice President.

Cate Alexander was born with a silver spoon in her mouth, and she immediately used it to dig holes in the ground. "I remember when I was six or seven," she told me, "I rounded up as many kids as I could, and got them to help me with my plan to dig an underground fortress. I think we got three or four feet down, before my mother put a stop to that!" Alexander grew up in Austin, Texas, a few miles from the Balcones Canyonlands, a network of intertwined geological fractures that runs along a rough north-south line more than a hundred miles long. Cut up and eroded by wind and water, the canyonlands have become a jumble of canyons whose rippling walls reminded early Spanish visitors of the tiered balconies of their own cities; hence the name, Balcones.

The geology of the Balcones Canyonlands, itself a part of the broader area known as the Edwards Plateau, helped fuel Alexander's interest in the subterranean. The whole plateau is described as a karst landscape - composed mostly of limestone, which is easily soluble by groundwater. Circulating through fissures, the groundwater wears away networks of small openings in the rock, which eventually turn into spaces large enough to be called caves. Like the hot springs further west in the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona, each cave becomes an island of biological diversity, as critters make their homes and evolve in isolation from one another.

Alexander fondly remembers all the time as a child she spent searching for and exploring those caves. Her father was an early developer in the area, buying up huge tracks around Lake Travis to the west of Austin in the 1960s. The family grew wealthy and transformed some of that land into a summer estate just to the north of the lake. She had hundreds of acres of limestone hills and spring fed canyons to explore. Her favorite places were the small cracks that led to slightly larger underground openings, sometimes just a space with a bare dirt floor and cragged stone walls. Still, everyone expected Cate, the eldest child, to follow in her father's footsteps. After her sophomore year at Princeton, however, she was ready for something different. "I was moving along this pre-programmed path, from Princeton to Wharton to Dad's business. When what I really wanted to do was get down in the dirt." Her parent's gave their blessing to a summer's respite.

"That one's my favorite," she says, smiling, after joining me by the wall, her conversation finished. She points to a picture with a younger version of herself and a man, each with the requisite caving helmets and head lamps. "That's James Reddell, my graduate advisor. Man, does he know cave bugs." Reddell is a biospeleologist - a cave biologist - and curator of the Texas Natural History Invertebrate Zoology collection at the University of Texas, Austin. Alexander spent the summer after her sophomore year helping Reddell conduct biological inventories of the karst landscape in Bexar County, to the south of Austin. In other words, she spent that summer looking for cave bugs.

She came back to Austin the next summer, again working with Reddell. After graduating from Princeton, she then really surprised her parents - "Shocked, stunned, severely tested, choose your own words," she said with a smile - by enrolling in the Graduate Program in Ecology, Evolution and Behavior at the University of Texas, Austin. Working under Reddell's tutelage, she raced through the program to get a masters degree, her thesis a simple exercise of writing up her summer work. She brought her parents relief by finally enrolling in the University's McCombs School of Business, where she graduated third in her class. "I think that saved Dad from a heart attack," she said.

From the time they spent working together, Reddell remembers Alexander as a "good worker bee." Given her career path, he rejected the idea that her masters was something of a lark - "It was solid, a top notch contribution," he said - but he could see from the beginning that her talents and energies lay elsewhere. "Before we were done that first summer," he recalled, "she was raising money to start a cave protection foundation." The result was the Texas Cave Management Association, founded in 1986 with donations from the Alexander family fortune. "That's the way she was," Reddell said. "Passionate about caves and their wonders, but always looking at the practical side of how to protect them. I guess that's how she got into that New Mexico thing."

That "New Mexico thing" was D'ni. Alexander had started her own firm, Underground Ventures, in 1992, before she had even finished her M.B.A.. The purpose was to make cave preservation self-supporting. Her firm helped the National Park Service overhaul the management of several parks that featured caves, strengthening their ability to protect them by securing a better flow of funding. Alexander was approached by the DRC in 2004, after previous sources of funding for their work had dried up. "Dr. Watson made the presentation with his usual organizational skills," she said. "I was ready to toss him out until he finally started showing me some of the pictures. I was stunned. And excited. And boy, did they ever need me."

She set off looking for more funding and found an interested party in the Turner Broadcasting System. Her pitch was to create a long run cash flow from technology transfers, where the DRC would license rights to some of their discoveries, and even from value created by bioprospecting efforts, similar to what pharmaceutical companies were getting from tropical forests. For the short run, she pitched a most unusual source of revenue, but one the Turner people could see had value: sales of computer games that gave people the opportunity to experience the cavern digitally. Her firm had supported Larry Fish, the developer of the COMPASS cave mapping software, helping him port the program to Windows. She had seen how that program had spread like wildfire through the caving community, and so she understood the attraction of even a digital experience.

What she never understood was, as she put it, "the DRC's schizophrenic attitude toward money." "They understood Ventures and Turner were not charities," she said, "but they acted as if the responsibilities were all one-sided - write the checks and get out of the way." In her view, the DRC members acted like academics, each with their own fiefdom, but without anyone in charge of the whole. She reluctantly stepped into that role, as her firm and Turner poured money into the effort. "They thanked me by continually putting me forward as the spokesman, while they each focused on their own work. And then there were those other people, like Nick White and Douglas Sharper (employees of the DRC). Good grief - all that funding at risk and you've got employees running around, totally out of control!" Alexander lobbied hard for expanding the DRC to include other scientific disciplines, but was constantly frustrated.

One incident stands out in her mind. The D'ni cavern's lake exhibits unique biological properties, dominated, or so it seems, by a single species of some unknown organism. The DRC informed Alexander that the organism was "algae" and was currently in a "dormant" state. She received this news with incredulity. "Algae? In an environment with no sunlight?" she recalled replying. "It wouldn't be dormant, it would be dead." She suggested bringing in some of the people she knew in the biospeleology community but was turned down. How about at least consulting some limnologists - biologists who study lakes and other freshwater systems? No, thanks, they replied. Approach a big pharmaceutical firm about investigating the medicinal properties of the "algae"? No. Instead, Victor Laxman announced a new effort to bring the lake to life by enlisting the growing legions of real world visitors to the cavern in "feeding the lake," as he called it. "Vic is a great guy," she said, "but what does he know about state changes in lake ecosystems?"

I asked her about Michael Engberg's daughter, Wheelie. She was not comfortable talking about it, she replied. "There's so much we still don't know about that strange place. All the emphasis on technology, I suppose that was my fault, I just didn't push hard enough to understand the biological elements. We still have no idea where those horrible creatures come from. Sorry, I just can't say more."

She did say the incident produced fissures within the DRC, and she tried to hold it together by taking a stronger role. Doing so sealed her fate, she said, an odd thing for a funder to say about the group being funded. "They just wanted me to keep the money flowing and announce new discoveries and restoration work. I had been meeting with the folks at Turner regularly, and they were telling me the numbers were just not panning out." She wasn't surprised, she had started to question her own desire to fund such a dysfunctional group. In November 2007, Alexander announced she was leaving; Turner followed a few months later. She folded her Underground Ventures and accepted a position with the Irvine Company, a major real estate developer in Orange County, California, as Vice President for Conservation. Incorporated in 1894, the Irvine Company grew out of the Irvine Ranch, created with Mexican and Spanish land grants and sprawling over 185 square miles from Newport Beach inland to Anaheim. In the 1960s, Irvine decided to develop some of its land holdings using a master plan for the entire area, retaining large portions as open space and natural areas. Alexander's duties include overseeing the Ranch's network of wildlands and parks.

Later that day, we drove out to Limestone Canyon, one of those wildlands. Bordering the Cleveland National Forest, the area is covered with coastal sage scrub, chaparral, and native grasses. Part of the canyon is known as the "Sinks," a huge, steep-walled ravine that resembles a mini-Grand Canyon. "It reminds me of home, the Balcones," she says, as we hike through the area. Bobcats, red-tailed hawks, mule deer, meadowlarks, California gnatcatchers, coastal cactus wrens, all can be found in this and other nearby parts of the Ranch. It's staggering to think that natural beauty so wild can be found just a few dozen miles from some of the most expensive residential real estate on the planet. But that's what brought Cate Alexander here - the challenge of saving that natural beauty, and maybe more. "I started a survey last year for any caves that might be on the Ranch," she says. "Nothing significant yet, but the geology's right, we'll find something."

I ask her how this compares to her last job. She smiles. "I wear more sunblock, and the people I work with listen to me." Would she go back to D'ni if the DRC asked her? "In a heartbeat," she says. Her smile disappears. "But I don't think they'll ask."
Aargh!! Me Pony sez, Aaaarrrghhh!!!

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Re: The Fall of a Sparrow (FanFiction): Cate Alexander

Post by Zardoz » Tue Jun 16, 2009 4:23 pm

Cate Alexander

Canonical Facts
Mystlore: Cate Alexander is a member of the D'ni Restoration Council. Her first appearance in the cavern was on January 3, 2007. She played a key role since 2005, by getting Turner to fund the restoration effort. Her job was to make sure this effort succeeds in a timely fashion, and she put pressure on the DRC to open up new areas more frequently. She was elected to replace Michael Engberg after his departure. It was later revealed that she now had two votes on the council, something Marie Sutherland has stated she wasn't comfortable with. She left the cavern on November 1, 2007, saying it was a business decision.

DRC website: Miss Alexander started her own Venture Cap company, Underground Ventures in June of 1992. Since then, she has established, and provided resources for, several business start-ups and other unique projects around the world.

Zardozian Facts
Studied at University of Austin under James Reddell, Texas Natural Science Center

Reddell, J.R. 1993. The status and range of endemic arthropods from caves in Bexar County, Texas. A report on a study for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Biospeleology is the study of cave biology and its many aspects, such as ecology, taxonomy, biogeography, genetics, evolution, behavior, microbiology, environmental studies, and others.
Aargh!! Me Pony sez, Aaaarrrghhh!!!

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