Do you suffer from Anthropocentric Personality Disorder?

Antisocial personality disorder is generally defined as a condition in which the sufferer exhibits a repeated pattern of disregard for the rights, feelings, and well-being of others. Tell me that isn’t how most people regard the non-human world.

(Originally published June 4, 2014 on Beacon Reader) 

White Mountains from North Shore of Mono Lake

Mono Lake is drying up again. The unprecedented drought that’s settled in over the state of California has dried out the snowmelt that usually feeds the picturesque, unearthly lake east of Yosemite.

Because the lake has no outlet other than evaporation, its water gets saltier as the lake shrinks: there’s no way of flushing out the dissolved minerals. In the best of times, when the lake is at its ideal level with the water surface at or above 6,400 feet above sea level, Mono Lake is twice as salty as the ocean. Right now the lake’s surface stands at 6,380 feet and an inch or two, and its water is closer to three times as salty. That increased salinity threatens to undo the lake’s ecology, killing off the algae and brine flies that form the base of a food chain supporting millions of migratory birds.

As the result of decades of bitter court battles against the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which diverts fresh water from the streams that feed the lake, 6,380 feet is a threshold level for the lake. With the lake above 6,380 feet, LADWP is allowed to take 16,000 acre-feet from Mono’s tributaries each year. (An acre-foot is the amount of water that would cover an acre to a depth of a foot; 16,000 acre-feet per year is enough water to fill Pasadena’s Rose Bowl to the brim every six days.)

Once the lake drops below 6380 feet, which it likely will by the end of June or July, LADWP’s exports are cut to 4,500 acre-feet per year. That’s still a significant amount of water to be removing from a lake in the desert, but it’s a steep cut nonetheless. And as a result, Los Angeles residents eager to make sure they help preserve the amazing ecosystem at Mono Lake have drastically cut down on the amount of water they use.

Wait, no, they haven’t.

Don’t get me wrong: ecologically conscious Angelenos exist by the tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands. That’s a lot of green-leaning people. But in a city of ten million, a hundred thousand people putting buckets under leaky taps to catch the water for reuse amount to a… well,  you know.

It’s not just Mono Lake, of course. The whole west is going dry, with California hardest hit. Los Angeles infamously gets water from the Owens Valley. It also gets a fair amount in typical years from the Colorado River and from Northern California, via the California Aqueduct. In other words, the city of Los Angeles has straws stuck into just about every major stream and a bunch of minor ones across the southwest, all of which are exceptionally dry this year.

I visit LA about twice a month, and here’s what I see when I go:

That’s a photo from 2006, but trust me: it’s easy to find it happening this week. After a year of increasingly urgent warnings from local water districts, the state’s governor, and federal scientists that there’s not enough water to go around.

Oh, people are doing their part in other ways. You’ll see little signs in restaurants saying that the servers will only bring a glass of water to people who ask for it. That does make a difference. If all of Los Angeles’ 10 million residents refused an eight-ounce glass of water each, the water saved would add up to 1.9 acre-feet. That’s something.

I’m picking on Los Angeles because it’s the largest city in the drought-stricken West, but people aren’t any better elsewhere in California. Even in the supposedly eco-conscious San Francisco Bay Area, the culture of the sodden lawn still reigns, and water use cutbacks are “voluntary” and mainly going unheeded. In less liberal environs like the state’s Central Valley, thought leaders — if I may use that term loosely — are actually calling for wildlife species to be allowed to go extinct so that industry can continue to use the state’s water.

If you knew someone who treated his family and friends the way Californians treat the ecosystems that give them water, you’d likely give that guy a wide berth. Taking resources from someone for your own benefit, and not changing your ways even as they languish and decline? On a personal level, that is generally considered the mark of a monster.

On the political or corporate management levels it’s standard operating procedure, and as a result the makers of the 2003 film The Corporation proposed that we regard corporations the way we’d regard individuals who acted the same way: as sociopaths. That term has been deprecated of late in favor of phrases like antisocial personality disorder, but the basics remain:

  • a pattern of behavior that fails to take the welfare of others into account or even deliberately disregards that welfare;
  • •a lack of either empathy for those affected by one’s actions or remorse for those effects;
  •  poor impulse control and failure to properly assess the risks of the impulsive behavior.

Treating people the way we treat the planet is considered a profound personality disorder.

And rightly so. Who’d want to be on the receiving end of the kind of treatment the non-human world gets dished out to it? Even just suggesting that the non-human world might be due a bit of concern and compassion can get you ridiculed in print, as witness the New York Times’ report on a recent controversy over negligient harm done to baby heron chicks in Oakland, California. Reporter Carol Pogash couldn’t just write about the heron chicks: she had make to unsubstantiated allegations that Oaklanders who cared about the birds didn’t care about homeless people. She did this not once but twice.

The inability to take part in a discussion without shifting everyone’s focus to one’s self is diagnostic of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. What do we call Pogash’s apparent inability to allow a discussion to proceed without making it focus on her species?

It’s a bigger issue than just individuals’ feelings about conserving water or helping urban wildlife. The conservation movement, which has always been opposed by those whose short-term profits might suffer if they can’t trample the natural world to their hearts’ content, is now being challenged by people calling themselves “new environmentalists,” who proclaim that conservation’s goal should be “Take Care Of People First.”

In other words, there’s a massive campaign to rewrite the goals of conservation away from protecting wildlife and their habitat, and in favor of terraforming the planet for humans’ maximum long-term comfort.

We should call out this point of view for what it is: a widespread personality disorder in which the sufferer is unable to empathize with the 99.9 percent of species in the world that aren’t human, feels wholly justified in any actions that benefit humans no matter the cost to those other species, is unlikely to feel remorse for the deleterious consequences of human actions on other species, and thus does not adequately assess the real-world risks of those actions.

Anthropocentric personality disorder hurts the planet. It hurts people who care about the planet. And it hurts the people who have it.

But there is help. If you think you might have anthropocentric personality disorder, just go outside and start paying attention.

Wild Eyes at La Contenta

[I read this this weekend at Desert Stories X.]

At 8:15 pm on May 18, 2016, the sky was darkening over Joshua Tree. I was driving across La Contenta Road heading eastbound on Route 62, doing about five under the limit.

And then I died.

At least I think it was me. I do lose track of these things.

You need to understand this: in my entire life, spanning more than half a century spent in the company of a staggeringly diverse cast of people, I have, as far as I am aware, had precisely one nickname: Coyote. Except, pronounced the correct way, the Mexican way: “Coyóte.” The name was bestowed on me by my co-workers in the Berkeley café where I worked in 1983. I asked my boss Beto why he started calling me that. “Because, Coyóte, you shut up about them never.”

“Oh,” I said. “Never,” said Beto. “I see,” I said. “Jamas Nunca,” said Beto.

I couldn’t argue. Still can’t. I am not always happy with this human skin I wear. Coyóte has long seemed a salubrious alternative.

Where I live there are always at least three or four coyotes within a quarter mile, drifting though the creosote and yucca as silent as they wish to be. On occasion they allow me a moment or two of their time. They stand a ways off, eyeing me as though I am preposterous and likely to do something dangerous and stupid at any time, and then once they have had their fill of me they look sidelong at one another and vanish as if due to some prearranged signal.

This is precisely the relationship I have with my birth family, and so it makes me feel right at home.

Though it also makes me less certain of the precise boundary between Homo sapiens and Canis latrans. I hear coyote song and I strain to make out the words. Disoriented in the desert a decade ago I found a fresh set of coyote tracks and cursed, certain that they were mine and I had been walking in circles.

You get the picture. When my species dysphoria kicks in, when the manyfold flaws of the human race begin to rankle, there is a deep part of me that longs to run out into the desert, to chase down cottontails and sleep curled up beneath the cholla. I see one of my coyote neighbors and for a moment, a part of me becomes him. Or at least it wants to. I want to fit into the land as seamlessly as they do, to drift through the creosote and yucca with them as heedless of bank accounts or Twitter handles. There is a part of me that longs to be that grizzled fur coat camouflaged against the varnished rock and alluvium, that longs to be just a pair of wild eyes surveying the Mojave, the desert grown conscious of itself.

I long to be in the landscape, not on it.

And certainly not driving across it, dog and bags of groceries shifting in the back seat, the panel truck to my left seeming to have trouble deciding which lane it wants to occupy. I decide to slow and give him room. When we get to the east side of La Contenta he’s pulled about halfway past me, his front bumper about ten feet farther east than mine.

Coyóte

darts out from in front of the truck, avoiding it by a hair’s breadth. He is making for the Joshua tree forest across the way. His eyes are bright with glee. And then his expression changes. He didn’t expect me there in the right hand lane.


Sometimes I think that in order to really belong to a place you have to have your heart broken there, to have your smug certainty stripped away and your sentiments shattered, brought to that state where every detail of the moment in that place is seared into you, each roadside can and broken Joshua tree branded on your soul forever.

The look of surprise and terror in those wild eyes stakes your heart to the ground.

The knowing that you cannot stop in time.

The knowing that you cannot stop time.

I will grant you the kindness Fortune denied me, and spare you most of the details. But here is the worst of them: it was… subtle. Imagine the Roman soldiers’ nails sliding through Christ’s wrists as if He was made of seafoam.

Coyote dies all the time in the stories, I know, and his friends roll their eyes and set to reviving him. Or he jumps over his body three times to bring himself back from the dead. Death is a momentary inconvenience for a demigod.

I have tried to imagine this since as a comfort. It hasn’t worked.

Because in that endlessly extended second, Coyote’s eyes riveted on me in surprise and terror, I recognized that look wholeheartedly.

My eyes were the same on him.

Our hearts broke the same in that place, just ten feet from the Joshua trees and safety.

Our eyes.

Our hearts.

We are the same.

We are the same.

2017

Arthur D. Clarke and unspecified grandchild, 1960

My grandfather comes to me in pieces; The angle of a plywood sign nailed to a tree, my worn work boots on my porch in Richmond. I never call him up deliberately. This week marked 50 years since I saw him last.

If I make it through the next few months, I will be older than he was when he died.

 

I spend the end of the year alone these days. I don’t drink; alternatives are few in the Mojave. Thoughts chase tails. My grandfather was an oak tree; a rock face. He was incomprehensibly old, wrinkles forming on his forehead, hair completely white in a stiff brush cut, work pants and calluses. He wet his thumb to turn pages. A workshop shelf; salvaged bolts and screws sorted into applesauce jars.

Winter stars struggle to be seen; a storm off the Pacific. I have his reticence and his forehead. He would recognize the impatience, the recoiling and the longing. He would think my politics insane. He would pat his lap, invite my dog to join him in the recliner. He would know how to fix the hole through which the mice get in without dismantling the water heater in front of it. New Year’s Eve rain pelts the window. I have a low table he built me out of things he had on hand. No two of its screws match.

Today the dog, off-leash, flushed the back porch rabbit from behind the washing machine. Placidly staying at my heel, she watched the rabbit regain its composure under a creosote a few yards away. Rabbit folded his left ear down to wash it with both forepaws; dog flicked her left ear in turn.

Ten years after he died, I stood at six a.m. beneath a sodden eastern hemlock. The rides had run out in Western Pennsylvania. I watched a farmhouse through the rain, shaking to the bone. A white-haired man in green work pants pried open the hood of a pickup older than me, bent over it with a trouble light. I fought the urge to go to him, certain of disappointment at a stranger’s face. How different my life might have been had I gone to hand him tools.

A taxonomy of heartbreak

Not all hearts break at the end of a fist. Not all wounds bleed. Some hearts erode a bit at a time. Skin grows calluses with each insult. These hearts grow thin. These hearts weaken a bit with each minor insult, each microaggression or microinsensitivity, each unhappy parting, each conversation postponed and postponed again. Then they crumble at the smallest-seeming jolt. A bump in the road, a promise blown off, a disappointment not otherwise worth noting, and all is lost.

Hide a heart in a futile attempt to shelter it from harm, and it grows brittle. It ossifies. The calcification grows worse with time and lack of use. Eventually all hope is lost: the heart is too shot through with bony crystal. It will never throb with longing, will never beat faster at the sight of a beloved one returning.

Some hearts, broken early, are agaves; tough skin, fierce spines. These hearts open only to reveal that the protected layers inside have spines of their own, each layer in turn bearing scars from the spines that once protected it.

A healthy heart, exposed to air and sunlight and worn without armor, is the worst of all. It will break repeatedly then rage back strong to break again, its owner fated to suffer beauty without end, a Promethean cycle for those who would grace the world with fire.

Agave deserti at Cactus Mart

Agave deserti at Cactus Mart

Cold solace

Science tells us that the fallen tree
makes a sound.

It doesn’t matter if we’re there.
It doesn’t.

The branches’ sudden arcuate course
through whistled air,

the sharp crack of limb against limb,
the sickly pop of rotted roots

and then the final sodden thud
trunk on duff-strewn ground

all loose air pressure wave upon
propagating wave

whether any reaches a human ear
doesn’t enter into it.

The birds will hear,
and the mice.

The worms and the earless snakes
will hear the impact whole-bodied.

And anyway, were a human there
he might not notice.

Beauty quietly goes about its business
though our backs are turned,

waves at sea swell sublime
with no ship within a hundred miles

brilliant, complicated crystals
grow a mile beneath our feet.

It comforts me, our
irrelevance to beauty.

The stars will still wheel overhead
without us,

the sunrise clouds as vermilion,
rivers still in lazy swoops across the flats,

a tease of verdin yellow
against the creosote

flash floods carve deep hieroglyphs
into the living rock.

Blue Rodeo

I-40 Eastbound, Park Moabi Road

In 1989 you reached Barstow by driving the two-lane past worn out alfalfa fields, rotten barbed wire seining plastic bags from the desert wind, fences of decaying schoolbuses. At 45 per in the ancient veedub it was an agonizing slog. Overnight in the Boron rest area. An eternity of Hinkley. Breakfast in a Barstow bowling alley.

The old road was all there was, curling around the north end toward the dry riverbed, the derelict train depot.

Daggett by eleven, and Ludlow, past the incongruous green of the Springs of Newberry. The old split-pane windshield topped out an inch below my eyes. No gas gauge. I had to slouch to see more than a quarter mile of road.

Truck tires on asphalt gamelan, a decade-old tape deck on the passenger side seat, a tinny recording of Canadian country-rock  on endless repeat. My housemate in Berkeley had just bought the LP. An endless expanse of creosote and barrel cacti, and then gas in Needles.

Napping in the belly of the king

This piece was first published August 27, 2015 at Beacon Reader.

“They’re goddamn invasive plants.”

Biologist Tim Shields had an odd look as he observed a mid-sized shrub in my yard in Joshua Tree, California on an evening late in March. “They’re not native. They’re from South America. They got here somehow and then they colonized the whole desert, taking over thousands of square miles and making an ecosystem that never existed before.”

And then he laughed. He was pointing at a creosote bush, Larrea tridentata, likely the most common woody plant in the California deserts. You won’t find creosote on any list of desert invasive plants. Most plant species move their ranges, and none of the plants currently considered native to the desert have been living here forever. Their ancestors dispersed their seeds here from somewhere else. Or their ancestors grew here, but were of a different species, and their descendants evolved in response to changing conditions. But generally, a species is considered native to the  North American deserts is if was here before the deserts were opened to global trade.

Call the cutoff date 1492; that’s close enough for government work. And the shrub Shields was regarding may have been in the desert almost that long. 300 or 400 years, easy.

backyard-ring

Creosote clonal ring | Chris Clarke photo

It’s all about perspective. Shields was taking the long view, abandoning our usual human-scaled frame of reference for something a little slower. Or would that be faster? Rewind the record of life in the North American deserts back about 15,000 years, play it back again a couple hundred thousand times faster than it happened the first time, and Shields has a point. Though it’s thought there may have been creosotes growing in Central Mexico as early as 8 million years ago, the species probably didn’t show up in the present-day North American Deserts — the Chihuahuan, Sonoran, and Mojave — until  maybe 13,000 years ago or so.

Play that tape, and creosotes will seem to explode across the Chihuahuan Desert, perhaps with a few false starts as unstable Ice Age climates bring especially cold winters every 500 years or so. A reproductive fluke happened as the plants moved into the Sonoran Desert, perhaps an error in a single seed’s development: Sonoran Desert plants have two pairs of each chromosome compared to the Chihuahuan plants’ single pair. That doubling of chromosome pairs is known technically as tetraploidy, “tetra” referring to the four copies of each chromosome. Botanists who’ve looked into the creosote genome suspect that the tetraploid creosotes may have been better able to survive in the greater aridity of the Sonoran Desert. Moving from the Sonoran into the Mojave, it happened again: some creosote made a mistake in the chromosome copying and collating process. Creosotes in the Mojave have three pairs of chromosomes: they are hexaploid.

So tetraploid creosotes exploded across the Sonoran Desert, and then hexaploid creosotes rampaged across the Mojave, each covering broad swathes of new territory in a seeming eyeblink — at least on our sped-up, Shieldsian timescale. It’s not hard to imagine creosotes spreading rapidly, given the right conditions. The shrubs produce prodigious amounts of fruit, white fuzz-covered capsules with five seeds that are avidly gathered by ants, birds, and other wildlife. The fruit collects in drifts in washes and alongside the raised soil mounds beneath creosote clumps. They are so numerous that a local species of wasp known as “velvet ants” find it evolutionarily advantageous to camouflage themselves as little puffs of white fuzz the size of a creosote fruit. When the desert is awash in creosote seeds, predators specializing in velvet ants would probably prefer looking for needles in haystacks.

So, lots of seeds waiting for the right conditions to germinate. Those right conditions may not come as often as they did back in the Pleistocene. Creosote seeds germinate readily, but then succumb to desert heat unless the next three to five years are unusually cool and moist. That means that many of the creosotes in a typical desert valley full of creosote likely grew in pulses, decades when conditions were right for survival of germinated seeds.

kingclone

In Johnson Valley | Chris Clarke photo

Four months later, sweating out a July day in a broad valley north of my home, I think about Shields’ assessment of creosote’s invasive potential. Toss a fluffy creosote fruit onto the desert soil, and ensure five years of cool wet summers, and you get a seedling with bright waxy green leaves. In a mere decade that seedling may have raced toward the sky, reaching a full foot in height. In just a century or so, its single trunk will grow a shoot from its base, perhaps two or three. They will grow into mature plants and shade out, crowd out their parent stem. It will die back, leaving a hole in the creosote donut. Those stems will grow their own clonal stems, which will grow their own in turn, ripples expanding outward from the seed thrown into the ocean of desert.

The ripple I’m napping in is 45 feet across, more or less. In the late 1970s biologist Frank Vasek and his colleagues at UC Riverside calculated that it had been growing here in the Johnson Valley area for a very long time.

I once heard a joke about a family visiting Chicago’s Field Museum and marveling at a fossilized hadrosaur. “That’s 80 million and 27 years old,” said a nearby custodian. “That seems unusually precise,” said the mom. “Well, they told me when I started working here that it was 80 million years old, and I’ve been here since 1988,” said the worker.

In that spirit, I think of this creosote ring, which Vasek dubbed King Clone in 1980, as 11,735 years old. Give or take.

I’m here with my hiking buddy Monica, who is a biologist, and my dog Heart, an olfactory forensics researcher. We got here with a set of somewhat vague directions, which I improved upon using technology approximately 1/2340 as old as the creosote clonal ring: I fired up my smartphone’s mapping app and we walked until the blue dot was next to the biggest ring of creosote on the map.

Now that we’re here, Heart wastes no time providing the oldest known creosote with a bit of nitrogen, then she wisely retreats into the thin sliver of shade cast by Monica, who has found a place to sit near the edge of the ring.

monicaheart

Heart and Monica | Chris Clarke photo

I intend more contemplation than socializing, so I move twenty feet away to the approximate center of the clonal ring. I lie on my back. I look at the pale, sunburnt sky. I imagine a slow tide of invasive creosote wreaking dilatory havoc across the landscape in a mere geologic eyeblink.

When you start paying attention to very long-lived plants, 11,700 years becomes less impressive. King Clone probably isn’t even the oldest creosote clonal ring: it’s just the one we know about. So much of the desert remains unexplored, unexamined. In the last decade botanists decided a shrub oak about an hour’s drive from here is likely around 13,000 years old. A four-hour drive in the opposite direction, there’s a clonal forest of cottonwood trees thought to have germinated from a single seed 80,000 years ago.

Ancientness lurks everywhere you look in the desert. Vasek estimated the lateral growth rate of creosote clonal rings at about .7 millimeters per year. It’s not at all hard to find creosote clonal rings five feet across. Five feet divided by .7 millimeters is about 2,177 years and seven weeks. Give or take.

I’m something like 11,645 years younger than King Clone, and yet at the rate years seem to be speeding up as they pass me I expect these days that I will catch up in no time. My age is growing steadily and well, mulched thickly with calendar pages. I have shirts not yet threadbare that are older than some of the people I work with. There are urgent tasks I have been reminding myself to finish for 15 years, unfinished conversations fresh in my mind with loved ones long dead.

This past year took about 20 minutes to elapse. It has brought remarkable changes in that short time. A year ago I was resigned to settling for consistent but somewhat manageable unhappiness. I am now happy. A year ago I dreaded the future mildly: I now look forward to it. From hopeless disappointment to occasionally elated optimism is a remarkable change, even more so given the year’s racing past. I have been a bit breathless. Time and change have come at a staggering clip, and despite those changes’ positivity I have wanted a bit of slow.

Slow is here, in abundance. It is layered over with fast, of course: the frisking dog, the flies’ inexorable wingbeats, the plunge of the sun toward the mountains to the west. My shadow grows in length, and yet it is far more permanent to me than I can ever be to King Clone. I am a passing shade to King Clone, a flicker on the far margins of his sleeping consciousness, and if I had had children their great grandchildren might well have come here in their ninth decades of life to find King Clone essentially unchanged, not remembering the afternoon when I was a fly alighting briefly on his shoulder.

My shadow in King Clone | Chris Clarke photo

My shadow in King Clone | Chris Clarke photo