If there is a phenomenon more dehumanizing, more destructive than hate, it is this: hopelessness.

That’s been driven home to me with a vengeance the last few days, but it’s something I’ve thought about for decades. Hatred can ebb. It can burn itself out. People can be educated out of their hatred. I have seen it happen, seen the former Klansman realize his world view had been broken, seen the fervent patriot come to realize the Enemy isn’t all that different.

But that stylish sentiment that nothing we do can ever change the world, that feeling strongly about issues is embarrassing and sincerity is not to be trusted, that world-weary and separate cynicism is, I think, far more pernicious, far less amenable to cure.

Hatred is fueled by fear, and fear has a half-life. Unless stoked, it eventually goes cold. Cynical hopelessness is self-healing. In other realms, other contexts, it would be called “learned helplessness”: the conviction that trying to improve your lot will only make you feel worse in the long run.

Cynicism is a form of depression. It is scar tissue covering that part of the soul that would dare to hope, if it had a little fresh air on it. I have spent time in the last years describing radical feminism to angry misogynists in Mojave Desert bars, and deep green environmentalism to off-road vehicle riders, and getting somewhere with each group. I cannot recall the last time I persuaded a cynic of anything: the very attempt to persuade is seen as selling something.

In his 1999 book Soul of A Citizen, Paul Rogat Loeb wrote:

Cynicism salves the pain of unrealized hope. If we convince ourselves that nothing can change, we don’t have to risk acting on our dreams. But the more we accept this, the more we deny core parts of ourselves. We deny even the possibility that our choices can matter…
Cultivated or crude, cynicism is treacherous. It converts the sense of not wanting to be lied to into bitter protection against dashed hopes: if we never begin to fight for our dreams, there’s no risk that we will fail.

Loeb quotes Lewis Hyde describing cynicism as “the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage,” and observes — in a passage that predated most social media by more than a decade but which rings ever truer with each updated Facebook feed:

[T]oo many activists almost delight in rolling around in the bad news, like dogs in rancid fish. If that’s all we do, we’ll reinforce the belief that efforts to change things are doomed. We’ll foster resignation and despair.

I hear him. My job for the last 25 years has been finding and sharing that bad news. I’ve fought that resignation, that despair, sometimes less successfully than others.

And I look back at my life over those last 25 years and find ways in which the world would be worse, at least marginally, had I not done the work.

I might as well quote Loeb again. (Really, you should read the whole thing.)

As an alternative to this impotent realism, I’d like to propose a clear-eyed idealism, which recognizes that these are bad times for many people, but refuses to accept that the bad times are inevitable.

That clear-eyed idealism is a difficult path: it requires you take a fair number of jabs to your soul right where that scar tissue might once have cushioned the blow. Walking the line between blithe and jaded isn’t easy.

But it is the best, most fulfilling way to live.


Comments off

My apologies for this, but commenting is no longer enabled on new posts on Coyote Crossing. Over the past month or so I’ve had to clear out more than 500 off-topic, occasionally personally abusive comments weighing in on a controversy having to do with a blog network I was once part of. Dealing with those comments was starting to become a serious intrusion on my time, and getting in the way of the actual work I’m doing in the real world.

So I’ve turned comments off on new posts, and will be turning them off on older ones as time permits.

This is not a move I make without regret: due to my increasingly stringent moderation here and the overall cleverness and joy among the commenters I allowed to stay, we had some good conversations at this joint over the last 12 years.

But the vandals and the people trying to drag fights here just make it no longer worth seem my time and energy. File under “why we can’t have nice things,” I guess.


Some reasons I have been called a radical environmentalist

I often express approval of landscapes that show no specific evidence of human activity.

I find your profits over the next fiscal year way less important than the existence of the species your company threatens.

I think the stories told by species’ distributional ranges are way more compelling than your favorite multivolume fantasy epic.

I have wondered aloud whether running for elective office should be a privilege granted only to those who achieve a 4 on the Biology AP.

I mistrust people who assume human comfort is sufficient excuse for hurting wildlife.

I kinda thought that proposal to preserve half the planet as wildlife habitat was a weak compromise with The Man.

I’d rather listen to silence on the playa than techno.

I think people who wear earbuds while hiking need a couple weeks in a reeducation camp.

I would support Americans going without power for two hours every day as a more reasonable approach to limiting climate change than paving another square mile of desert with solar panels. (Hospitals and nursing homes could be exempt.)

I consider all writing that mentions the non-human world solely as scenery to be part of a minor literary genre.

I am unconvinced that human beings are more important than all other species combined.




And this is his sofa, is it?

Water flat as glass. I dip the left blade of my paddle into it. It makes no sound. The right blade makes no sound. Then the left.

The sun has not yet risen. Caspian terns regard us sidelong, dive with abandon. Cormorants stand on the low tide banks. They air their wings in solemn, funereal circles. Judgments of cormorants.

We skitter along the surface, water striders in sit-on-top kayaks. Anchovies leap like tossed pebbles, and she grins, and then so do I. We pivot and veer, compass needles in search of true north. We drift on the sea’s slow breathtaking.

Pink sky, then gray, then blue and pink again. White pelicans on the far shore. An early morning siren howls from a firetruck on the road along the slough; coyotes call back to it like yard dogs.

A slow pull on the paddle, blade slicing the water silently. It leaves deep vortices in its wake, one for each edge of the blade. They spin for a very long time. I have made my intentions known to the water: more than two hundred pounds of jetsam wants to go that way. I skate forward, a fractal rosary of whirlpools for my Newtonian reciprocal.

Have I ever been quite this happy? Spirals in spirals. The whirlpools off our paddle blades and our boats’ long languid arcs. The tide swelling slow and the sun finally cresting that eastward ridge. Terns circling, diving. The dark galactic sky we watched last night, the night before. Our long, deliberate circling of a common north star.


2015-06-22 11.18.57

Let ‘Er Drift

2015-06-22 11.18.57

How long has it been since my life truly began, since I saw this stretch of road for the first time? I crane my neck for a better view down the canyon. 70 per and the slabs of concrete sing. The Yuba shines in the mid-afternoon, and I almost wake her by mentioning it.

“Let ‘Er Drift,” the Caltrans sign reminds the truckers on the downgrade. Foot off the pedal. Take ‘er easy. Let the planet do the work, that inexorable pull downward and toward the west.

How long has it been since I first felt that pull? Since that first breath of sun-warmed pine, that first dazzle of glacier-slicked granite?

Thirty-three years since that Greyhound door opened in Truckee. A lifetime since. It seemed impossibly long ago when half my current age, I stood on High Sierra glaciers now melted away, hiked across the earth with friends now under it, and I smelled pine and sunlight and I marveled at the turning of the years.

No need to push that pedal. Life is a juggernaut. One cannot escape forward motion, no matter how our fingertips feel blindly for the fingertips of those behind us on the trail.

A lifetime since. And yet each time is as the first, and my chest swells at the prospect of a life once more remade, my destination somewhere unknowable and remote, and the Yuba shining as I remember to let ‘er drift.

On Cima Dome. Photo copyright 2009 by me.

Louis Sahagun makes it into the Joshua Tree book

… for vectoring two pieces of folklore:

“The species scientists know as Yucca brevifolia isn’t actually a tree; it’s a succulent. ”


“They were named for the biblical figure Joshua by members of a band of Mormons traveling through the Cajon Pass back to Utah in 1857. They imagined the trees as shaggy prophets, their outstretched limbs pointing the way to their promised land.”

Why are these wrong? Answers lie below the photo of the succulent trees which probably did not get their common name from migrating Mormons.

On Cima Dome. Photo copyright 2009 by me.

On Cima Dome. Photo copyright 2009 by me.

Answer number one:

“Tree” is a job description, “succulent” is a water conservation strategy. You can be both a tree and a succulent. There are plenty of trees that are succulents, from aloes and dracaenas to the ones in the Mojave Desert with a National Park named after them.

You sometimes hear this as “Often called a tree,Yucca brevifolia is actually a member of the lily family.” That’s even more wrong than Sahagun’s version: partly because “tree” is a job description and “lily family” is a pedigree — it’s like saying “often considered a dentist, Dr. Bob Goldstein is actually a German.”

What’s more, Joshua trees aren’t in the lily family any more. They were removed from the lily family (Liliaceae) some years back and placed in the Agave family (Agavaceae). Then the Agave family was demoted to a subfamily of the Asparagaceae, whose common name you can probably puzzle out. So good on Sahagun for sidestepping that version of the folklore.

Answer number two:

It’s complicated, but while Mormon settlers seem to have originated an early version of the name, it probably wasn’t on the trail so much as after settling in southwestern Utah. I go into detail in this piece at KCET.


“Moon’s up.”

“I said, Moon’s up.”

Her voice filtered into the house from out back. A familiar tone. Pretending at impatience.

“Sorry! Coming.” He closed the screen, flicked off the row of switches, briefly checked the level on the bank of batteries. Good. Enough charge there to finish his chapter tomorrow even if the sun never came up. He pushed his chair in, slipped his huaraches on, wandered out back to find her.

“Over here.” There was no way he’d have missed her, red rising moon shining off her shock of white hair, but he thanked her anyway.

“How’d it go?”
“I’ll be done tomorrow, looks like. Out the door on deadline.”
“Congratulations!” Never taking her eyes off the moon, she took his hand, squeezed.
“Thanks,” he said. “Glad to have it finished. I’ve been sitting way too much this last month.” She squeezed his hand again.

Two miles east, silhouettes of tall Jeffrey pines pierced the moon’s disk. He’d walked there with her a month earlier, as the last of the melting snows swelled the creek, and they grinned to each other at the new-spring needles. The fire hadn’t gotten all of the trees: a full three-quarters of them were showing new green. The rest would be homes for spotted owls, for black-backed woodpeckers. The forest would be healthier than before. It had been a relief.

She shivered a little in the breeze off the high country. It brought him back to the moment. “How was class?”

“Delightful!” Her eyes glinted red moonglow. “We’re definitely getting somewhere, this class. I love watching them learn how to move.”
Showing them how, you mean. Hip didn’t bother you?”
“It always bothers me. But i didn’t let that bother me.”
“I wonder if we should slow down, you know? Both of us busting our asses all day, lifting trees, hauling water, and then the side jobs. You know?”
“I’ve been thinking about that too,” she smiled. “I think we should make a 20-year retirement plan. I have some charts I drew up.”
“Twenty years, huh?” He stroked his beard. “How old will I be again?”
“You’ll be the oldest guy in town.”

That had already been true for some time. Then again, it wasn’t that big a town.

The moon was higher now, and he could see the grove of orchard trees they’d planted, green apples on an ancient drip line. How long ago had they put those apples in? 35 years ago? 38. The whole west reeling from drought, and yet they’d found a piece of land with a slow yet reliable artesian drip, just enough water coming from it that they’d stayed put when the local water company first went dry and then went under.

A gallon per minute didn’t seem like much back then, but it turned out to be plenty. It watered apples, vegetables, a small nursery full of bunchgrasses and trees. After a few years they started hauling the nursery plants out into what had once been the National Forest, though there wasn’t much forest by then and even less nation. At first they worked on nights like this, hauling one-gallon pots out by wagon, easing the plants into the pumice soil by moonlight. Then they realized no one would stop them, and they started planting in the light of day. Then people started showing up to help. Ranchers without cattle, rangers without agencies, off-roaders without gasoline. The planting spoke to them all.

She was right there in his brain with him, as usual. “Our forest,” she said.

He squeezed her hand. His turn to shiver in the night breeze.

She started. “Oh, look!” A barn owl, flying over their heads out of the Orion Nebula.