[Written for and performed as part of “Light,” a production of Thought Theatre in Pioneertown, CA that ran for three nights in December 2017.]

The sun has been down for hours, though it’s only 8:00 pm. I grab the leash; the dog races to meet me at the door. We go outside. 

The moon is old. It will not rise until just before dawn. Until then, it is dark. At the foot of my driveway, away from the bit of light leaking through my windows, I can just make out the dog six feet away. I cannot see the road at all.  

But we have come this way hundreds of times before, and tonight it is too cold for snakes.   

I like walking in the dark anyway. Carry a flashlight, and your world contracts to the pale ellipse it illuminates; the brighter your light is, the darker all the world outside becomes. Turn off the light and wait, and within a few seconds the night world will reveal itself. 

We walk into the necrotic glare of a streetlight. Swooping bats chase the insects gathered there, in that cone of unnatural yellow. And then we walk out the other side. I am blinded for a moment, but the stars come back one by one. Our sodium vapor shadows lengthen. A mile down the dark dirt road they are gone. 

Ten miles west, Yucca Valley’s pallid smear obscures the horizon, a band of pale, hazy light soiling the sky and washing out the stars behind it. Out here, the Milky Way is bright and colorful above my head. The visual taint the town leaves on the western sky is an annoyance, but it is not bright enough to cast shadows. Orion hangs low to the east. Above him, the Seven Sisters – the Pleiades – shine in a tight cluster. 

As I watch, the cluster winks out, almost as if someone had drawn a curtain across it. The stars are gone for half a second, and then come back just as suddenly. I spot a bit of dark motion just left of the cluster: an owl, visible only in silhouette against the Milky Way, settling in atop a power pole a hundred feet away. 

I can’t see it well enough to figure what kind of owl it is, but then it speaks: “Who-who! Who. Who.” A great-horned owl then, and one with an important question. 

Skies are dark here, but I once lived in a place where they were darker still. Fifty miles south of the outskirts of Las Vegas, with a mountain range between The Strip and me, I would venture out in the cool of the summer sunset, the temperature plummeting to a mere 101 Fahrenheit, and watch the shadow of Clark Mountain cut across the Ivanpah Valley like a dagger. The red in the western sky would fade to indigo, then violet, then black. To the west, a string of white diamonds draped itself along the slope down from Mountain Pass; headlights on Interstate 15, ten miles west. 

And then the brightest stars in the eastern sky, Vega and Deneb and Altair, visible as the sun set, would be joined by dozens of their kin. Then hundreds. Then thousands. The sky was sable, a raven’s pelt with a hundred thousand fiery glints scattered all upon it. I would leave my house and walk away from the few feeble lights of the tiny town I was living in, and watch the sky grow darker still as my eyes relaxed into night.  

Walk a few hours with only starlight to show your way, and a few things change in you.  

The moon casts bright light from one direction, and the objects beneath it throw a shadow heading the other way. The moonlit world thus retains the relief of day, the shapes and contours of the land limned in patches of relative light and dark.  But a sky full of stars sheds light from all directions, and thus deprives you of most shadow. All but the largest hills and holes in your path are concealed. You learn to walk more tentatively: at any time, the Earth may be a few inches away from where you expect it. 

Without a single, sharp shadow to remind you of your discrete and opaque identity, you might forget to assume that you are separate from what surrounds you. You might start to feel more like a single small particle of stuff enmeshed in night, different from but no more important than the cholla, the rock, the nighthawk swooping languid parabolas above you, the insects the nighthawk is chasing, the owl posing tough questions from atop its power pole perch. 

Who? Who? 

On one night in the Ivanpah Valley when that precise question vexed me, a divorce in progress and with no sense of what my future held, I walked out into the moonless night. My eyes grew accustomed to the dark. The stars shone with what seemed unusual brilliance. They illuminated the veins of each Datura leaf, the spines on each cholla, the wrinkles on the backs of my hands. I walked to the railroad tracks near my house: the starlit rails were black lines converging endlessly into blackness.  

The road was miles of arrow-straight through a preposterously broad valley.  To my left it passed the Nevada state line and headed for the Colorado River. In the other direction lay an ocean of black. At the shoulder, the usual narrow strip of white paint shone as bright as any set of airport landing lights. I began to run atop the stripe, heading for that ocean of oblivion. My breath came a little harder. I took the night’s desert breezes into me. I became suffused with light and dark. The desert held me up as I ran. The starlight told me where to go.     

More Amazing Facts About Coyotes

Coyotes orbit the sun once a year along a roughly elliptical path.

Coyotes are related to Komodo dragons, though not particularly closely.

Two coyotes approaching each other at the same speed will always meet at the midpoint of the path between their original locations.

A 44-pound coyote would weigh less than eight pounds on the moon.

A coyote that falls off a slickrock precipice will accelerate toward the earth at approximately 32 feet per second per second. If the cliff is very tall, the coyote will eventually reach a velocity where the air pressure beneath it keeps it from accelerating further. But it would have to be a really, really tall cliff.

You can tell approximately how far away a coyote is, in miles, by noting when its mouth moves, counting the number of seconds that elapse until you hear its yip, and dividing by five.

Due to quantum mechanics, two coyotes cannot occupy precisely the same location at precisely the same time.

As humans age, we often secrete little bits of calcified stuff in our pineal glands and elsewhere in our brains. Scientists call these secretions corpora arenacea, or “brain sand.” They are composed of the  same constituents as coyote bones. Scientists aren’t sure what function, if any, corpora arenacea may have. The same, however, cannot be said of coyote skeletons.

If three coyotes are hunting in a meadow, they will almost always form a triangle.

A coyote at rest will tend to remain at rest, and a coyote in motion will tend to remain in motion, unless ether coyote is acted on by an outside force.

The force acting to hold up a swimming coyote is equal to the mass of water the coyote displaces.

Amboy Crater

There are clouds thin as sage smoke over the Bristol Mountains. The lava rock is comfortable against my back. A zebra tail, the twelfth today, regards us sidelong.

A dozen years ago, just up the road a couple dozen miles, I felt at home here unexpectedly. Today is the same, but inside out. I am surprised at the memory that I ever felt at home anywhere else.  Surely I have been here forever, at least since the crater a mile south did spume my backrest. Twelve years or twelve thousand? A gnat’s wingspan. A flea’s eyelash.

An hour of good conversation with an old friend, sitting here at the BLM Amboy Crater National Scenic Area parking lot, and that followed two hours of good conversation with a dozen new friends, and that on the heels of yet another hour of conversation I’d had in the truck with myself, Shadows lengthen in the Bristols, the Marbles.

How many turns of the wheel to bring me here? It doesn’t matter. A normal, pleasant afternoon, and all my life conspired to bring me here.

Turkey vultures

In a dead eucalyptus tree two blocks from my house this morning, ten turkey vultures. Some of them folded in tight upon themselves, others held their wings spread toward the warming breeze.

They do not live here year-round, but migrate through the Mojave in autumn on their way from coastal California to Colombia, or perhaps farther. And then back again in spring. The dog and I walked beneath them — a risky move, but we did not linger — and they regarded us placidly and with little interest, as a cook might regard thoroughly unripe fruit. They perched on branches that seemed far too thin to bear their massive dark bodies. But they are mostly feather, of course, with a little sinew and hollow bone, plus the weight of their sanitary responsibilities and mortal symbolism.

On the return part of our dogwalk, I saw they were still there. And so were another dozen I had not noticed earlier in the tree across the road from them. I had spent five minutes with my back to them, their presence never registering.

In the wash

Desert lifts up; desert washes down. A small quake this week beneath our town served as a reminder of why the mountains half a mile from my house are there. Two inches of rain on my neighborhood last weekend? A reminder of why those mountains aren’t taller.

We plat out the desert, grid it with our sections and townships, and each day the desert rises up to shake off those imaginary lines like rotten fishnet off a leviathan. Here the roads are arrow-straight where we could make them that way, running due north-south or east-west, but the desert’s blueprints are all French curve, no straight-edge even on the flattest playas.

The dog can walk more than a mile now, and we have been taking in the patterns of recent desert flooding along a long straight dirt road. Accumulating rain pools in the low spots until the sodden berm collapses; four inches of breach quickly becomes a foot, a meter. The road sprouts gouges, dendritic and nearly fractal, to sprain the ankles of unwary moon-light runners. Downstream the gouge continues, broadens, follows the laziest path toward the bottom.

On the map, the dry washes here are rendered as dashed blue lines, as though each were an uncomplicated watercourse suffering a temporary embarrassment. It occurred to me this morning that that isn’t quite right. Washes aren’t streams, but floodplains with multiple channels, now diverging, now braiding. This morning, in a small wash, I traced three tiny dried streams four inches across, their paths discernable mainly as flattened grasses, that diverged and conjoined at least four times before the dog lost interest in walking upstream. Downhill she chose a new wash, which arced in a gentle swoop down toward the highway though it was carved in a few violent minutes.


You need to fence new trees away from rats and rabbits here, and the antelope squirrels that will strip bark off all but the most unsavory plant. I was a little slow in getting one tree wrapped in chicken wire, and the wildlife girdled it. By the time I got the tree protected, wildlife had eaten bark all the way around it, consigning the foliage above to a slow death by thirst.

The victim: a mesquite, planted with a twin a few yards downhill from the house’s graywater outflow, fed by the washing machine.

It wasn’t a big financial loss: I got the tree and its twin from Cactus Mart in Morongo Valley in exchange for teaching a class there last year. Picture the Lorax on a streetcorner, holding a sign that reads “Will Speak For Trees.”

But it was an emotional loss, at least until I was pulling a weedy annual grass away from the enchickenwired trunk last night to find several sturdy shoots coming out of the trunk below the injury, and from the roots as well. In all likelihood they will be taller than the uninjured tree up the hill in five years. Between the mesquites and the palo verde a few yards to the east, and the smoketrees I asked Nicole to order for me at Cactus Mart, there will be a bosque here yet.

Side note: pulling weedy introduced grasses is twice as much fun when you know there’s a cholla hidden in there somewhere. An excellent exercise in mindfulness.

Vanessa (Cynthia)

A painted lady butterfly lay struggling in the road. The dog finds insects interesting, aside from the Eleodes beetles which satisfied her curiosity early on in the relationship. She went to look.

Painted ladies live about a year, the vast majority of that time spent as egg and then caterpillar. They do not live long as adults. This one was tattered, unable to lift itself from the pavement.

Heart sniffed gently at the butterfly, reluctant to cause it harm. The insect raised one tattered wing to caress the side of her nose, as if seeking one last moment of kindness before the end.

Moon run

It’s always been easier for me to run at night. A quick little 12 minutes, most of a mile down a moonlit desert dirt road, and then the walk back.

Great horned owl atop a transmission pole, its call like a heart asking what hearts always ask. Who-who? Who-who?

And then answered by another great horned a half mile toward the mountains.

Moon was coy, now hiding a cloud, now showing half its full face peeking out from behind.An odd feeling, this being not-depressed. I could get used to it.The local coyotes broke a short song over the rocks, one soloist letting fly with a sustained and soulful tremolo.

And then back to the house, grab the leash and head back out again with company.

Sky blue

There is the smoke from California’s frightening fires to consider, and the dust kicked up by winds off the tropical storm front, and the contrast provided by incongruous ranks of rain clouds. Illusion may play a role.

But something happens to the blue in the desert sky this late in summer.

In June and July, the sky here fairly pulses indigo. But something fades that depth by September. Perhaps it’s the endless baking heat, irradiance desaturating the sky as though it was a plastic wading pool left to soak up a year’s ultraviolet.

Where once it was lapis and sapphire, the late summer sky fades to Kingman turquoise. Tinges of celadon, of rose and khaki.

Day 999

Labor Day weekend ends, and soon the days will cool enough that people will consider coming out to the desert for their retreats and their fashion shoots and their self-finding. Selfie-finding.

For now, we still have the place mainly to ourselves, me and my neighbors and the dog and the quail and jackrabbits, the cactus wrens and ladderbacks and desert iguanas. Louise says the sheep are back again. She has seen them on the ridge outside her bedroom window, drawn out of the National Park by the attractive force exerted by a nearby swimming pool. May the chlorine protect them all against pneumonia.

Tomorrow it is 1,000 days since this dog has had me, and this evening she celebrated by eating a rawhide chew and then taking me for a walk. Every day is a celebration around here, what with all the walks and rawhides. She recovers quickly from her surgery three weeks ago; a mile of walking and I have to haul her back home unwilling.

Yesterday morning, an overcast cooling the Mojave for a few minutes, we stepped out to see a coyote gliding across the road, regarding us sidelong and a trifle annoyed.

The quail are many, last winter’s rains apparently abundant enough that few of last spring’s chicks starved. It was a bumper crop of wildflower seeds and insects both. I expect the gopher snakes are benefitting in turn, and the roadrunners.

This morning I got up early, startled by a dream that I had lost the dog. I awoke to find her staring at me. We went out just after sunrise, red light filtering through thick clouds left over from a tropical storm off Baja. The scent of creosote and ambrosia. The weft of big galleta grass in clumps, ridiculously succulent after all this year’s rain. The lazy parabolas of antisocial jackrabbits. The clatter of jake brakes on the highway a half mile north.

The Desert is Not Your Blank Canvas

First published April 19, 2015, at

When street artist André Saraiva got the notion to tag a parking lot boulder in Joshua Tree National Park, a few miles from where I live, he probably didn’t expect the roof to fall in on him a few short hours later. Saraiva whose work has appeared on blank walls and in galleries around the world, was in the area visiting a family member, and blithely documented his visit on Instagram. That was his mistake.

One of Saraiva’s Instagram followers took offense at his signature “Mr. A.” tag being applied to a boulder with a millennia-old patina of desert varnish. Said follower alerted Casey Schreiner of the website Modern Hiker, who posted the image. Schreiner’s readers quickly identified the boulder as one in the parking lot of the National Park’s Contact Mine trailhead, and the outrage flew.

Here’s the original image as posted to Saraiva’s Instagram feed, which he made private within hours of Schreiner’s post:

Photo by André Saraiva, reprinted here under Fair Use provisions of U.S. copyright law relating to public discussion of an artwork.

Saraiva’s response to the furor was to deny the rock was in the National Park, then to threaten Schreiner with legal retaliation. Then, perhaps realizing that his attorneys’ letter to Schreiner contained an admission that he had in fact vandalized a rock inside the National Park, Saraiva paid a fine to the National Park Service for the act of vandalism. The case is presumably closed.

Shortly after Saraiva tagged the boulder, I visited the parking lot. Someone had gone to some trouble to cover over the surface with a layer of something like mud and plaster. Here’s my household’s leading street art critic inspecting the work:

Not impressed.

Some weeks afterward, the boulder was flipped so that its painted side now faces the center of the earth.

In the week in which the news broke of Saraiva paying his fine, a remarkably similar act of vandalism was reported in the Nevada desert. Like Saraiva’s tag, the Nevada vandalism was an ill-considered defacement of a natural desert surface intended to boost the creators’ commercial prominence. Like Saraiva’s tag, the Nevada vandalism was reported to the world by its creators, who were apparently under the impression that they had done something admirable.

But unlike Saraiva’s tag, the vandalism in Nevada was larger than New York’s Central Park. Five and a half square kilometers of Delamar Dry Lake, near the Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada, now bears a heavy-handed attempt at viral marketing by the Hyundai Corporation. It’s a “feel-good” campaign in which a 13-year-old girl’s message to her astronaut father was carved into the lakebed in January by 11 synchronized Hyundai sedans fitted with special spiked tires that gouged the girl’s message into the desert.

Photo: Hyundai

In the expensively produced video on Hyundai’s campaign site, we see Stephanie’s astronaut dad — unidentified by Hyundai, but likely current International Space Station mission chief Terry Virts, who has a daughter with that name — photographing the dry lake with a long lens. And the crowd cheers.

It’s an undeniably sweet message; a young girl missing her dad, of whom she is proud, and wanting to tell him she loves him in a spectacular way. And in an ideal world, she’d have had grownups around to congratulate her on her initiative, explain to her that even a message as important as this one didn’t justify scarring two square miles of public lands in the desert of southern Nevada, and suggest a less destructive manner to get that message across.

But instead of grownups, she had the Hyundai Motor Corporation, which saw an opportunity to scrawl a bit of feel-good advertising into those public lands. And it’s paid off: glowing praise of the stunt has appeared in venues from Forbes to the Huffington Post to ABC news, with none of the  coverage mentioning any environmental cost.

What environmental cost? It’s a dry lake, after all. Won’t the next big flood smooth out the playa soil, erase Steph’s ❤ as if it were on a Central Park-sized Etch-A-Sketch? Maybe. The next big summer monsoon flood to fill Delamar Dry Lake with water could come four months from now. Or four decades.

Fox News quotes BLM spokesperson Chris Hanafeld as saying the message is fading “quickly.” One hopes that’s true. More likely, though, that fading is as the result of the newly exposed soil drying out, becoming the same color as the original crust.  The damage to the playa would still be there; just less visible.

Delamar Dry Lake isn’t a wilderness: it’s been an occasional airstrip since World War 2, and is the site of activities like amateur rocket launches.  But so far as I can determine, it’s never been the site of a project that deliberately gouged the playa soil a couple inches down over several thousand acres with the sole intention of making some of that soil a different color for an ad campaign.

Playas such as Delamar Dry Lake aren’t lifeless. They contain unique ecosystems with unique organisms: fairy shrimp, tadpole shrimp and clam shrimp, spadefoot toads, algae, halobacteria, and unknown other odd life forms adapted to prolonged desiccation.  Their soils are fragile, and once the surface crust is broken random winds can carry particulate matter far away and into people’s lungs, increasing locals’ risk of valley fever… and considering Delamar Valley’s proximity to 20th Century atmospheric nuclear weapons testing sites, perhaps maladies far worse than valley fever.

It’s worth comparing Delamar Dry Lake to another playa that periodically gets a lot of vehicle traffic. Here’s a satellite photo of that other playa in the off-season:

Google Maps screencap

Marked changes in the playa surface just leap out at you there, and that’s without special studded tires making marks: just regular car and truck tires, bicycle tires, flip flops and ill-advised bare feet.

In fact, in Black Rock City shown above, occupied by people during Burning Man and at almost no other time, the powers that be take special pains to limit their damage to the playa floor. They require that campfires be kept on metal sheets. They ban digging. They urge volunteers to pick up and pack out every last stray discarded pistachio shell.

And yet there’s seemingly permanent damage done to the playa at Black Rock City, or permanent enough that traces will likely still be visible when today’s 20-something burners are boring their grandkids with stories of how the playa used to be cool.

All that said, it’s possible that the direct ecological damage done by Hyundai to the Delamar Dry Lake was indeed minimal, at least by comparison to previously existing damage.

It’s hard to tell at this point. The federal government does have a means by which it’s supposed to gauge the impact of projects as big as Hyundai’s on public lands, and it would have been nice if the BLM had put that to work. It’s called the National Environmental Policy Act, the law that has brought us all those fancy Environmental Impact Statements. True, if BLM had opted for a full Environmental Impact Statement process to evaluate Steph’s note to her dad, that note might not have been delivered until she started college. There’s a short-cut in the process called a negative declaration, in which an agency can determine that a project doesn’t have significant potential effect on the environment. That short-cut can still sometimes take a year.

Yes, that would have interfered with Hyundai’s ability to get those playa-scraping precision drivers out on the dry lake in a timely fashion. That’s a feature, not a bug. The National Environmental Policy Act is one of those mechanisms by which the federal government, when it cares to, can be a grownup when neither private nor corporate citizens are willing to take on that responsibility, a massive “let’s think this through” written into federal law.

At any rate: assume the Hyundai project did not in fact cause significant damage to the desert environment. That doesn’t matter. André Saraiva’s spraypainted tag in Joshua Tree National Park didn’t cause significant damage to the environment either. His black spray paint damaged less than a square foot of the desert varnish ecosystem on one boulder. The old guy I met in the Park three weeks ago heading the wrong way up a dirt road, who politely pulled off to the side onto what had been untrammeled desert soil, did immeasurably more damage to the Mojave Desert ecosystem than did Saraiva.

People were furious at Saraiva. And rightly so. His tagging was an insensitive, self-absorbed act. I have appreciated Saraiva’s work in other venues, but let’s be clear: his endlessly repeated “Mr. A” character has been, since the late 1980s, as much personal brand as artistic expression. Saraiva’s tag on the rock at the Contact Mine trailhead was a billboard advertising the rest of his work, at least to that circle of artistic insiders familiar with Saraiva’s brand. His decision to leave that brand on a rock inside a national park was a decision to usurp public property for his own (admittedly somewhat intangible) personal gain.

Until that rock was flipped, there was no way members of the public could use the Contact Mine trailhead without being subjected to Saraiva’s tag. It was a high-handed, narcissistic act. Anyone at that trailhead is likely there out of a desire to experience the Mojave Desert in a somewhat untrammeled form. Saraiva decided that the wishes of those Park visitors were less important than his desire to have his artwork seen.

It was an act that a trained, professional psychologist might well describe in technical terms as a “douchebag move.” And the reaction to Saraiva’s act was almost immediate, and fairly intense.

Why then the difference in public reactions to Saraiva’s tag, which covered about five square feet of rock surface, and Hyundai’s 59.7-million-square-foot tag on Delamar Dry Lake? If anything, Saraiva’s tag was a more honest act than Hyundai’s, which cynically capitalized on a young girl’s love for her father to get people on the Internet to share a long video showing Hyundai’s products driving across the desert with a waltz soundtrack. Is it that Delamar Dry Lake isn’t part of a national park? Is it the sentiment? Is it the social esteem granted astronauts, which is generally significantly greater than that bestowed on poseur douchebags? I suspect that question could fuel weeks’ worth of late-night beery arguments.

I see more commonalities than differences between Saraiva and Hyundai. Aside from the incomprehensibly larger scale of Hyundai’s act, that is.

Saraiva’s tagging was clearly illegal, and given the apparent lack of NEPA analysis, a good lawyer could make the argument that Hyundai’s was as well.

Saraiva used social media to publicize his tag, adding fuel to the social-media-driven epidemic of vandalism at Joshua Tree National Park. Hyundai is doing the same. That facet of both acts may well turn out to be the most damaging, as they inspire others to vandalize the desert landscape in ways that are far more ecologically destructive.

As if to underscore the potential for copycatism, Hyundai’s campaign site offers visitors the opportunity to scrawl their own messages on the virtual floor of Delamar Dry Lake, like so:

Couldn’t help myself.

But the most central similarity of the two acts of vandalism is in the attitude each act conveys about the value of the desert’s living, non-human landscape.

For the plainest, clearest symbol of that attitude, let us once more consider the Burning Man festival.

Every last Monday in August since 1990, celebrants have gathered on the Black Rock Desert’s playa for what has been described (as for example in Wikipedia) as “an experiment in community, art, radical self-expression, and radical self-reliance.”

There is much to admire about the sentiment behind Burning Man, and much to admire about both the creativity and good cheer of many participants, and the organizers’ commitment to reducing their impact on the Playa. But at its literal core, Burning Man is a manifest symbol of the sickness in our relationship with the desert, the sickness that drove both Saraiva’s and Hyundai’s vandalism.

Every late summer, Black Rock City swells with celebrants. Since 1999, when the crowds had grown too large for random campsites to be either feasible or safe, the city springs up on a arcuate grid, concentric two-thirds circles with radial avenues intersecting the arcs.

When Black Rock City is dormant, the desert is omnipresent. A few miles to the east is Old Razorback Mountain, also called Boiling Butte, with a diverse vegetation of shrubs native to the Great Basin Desert. Westward, the taller Granite Range is even more diverse, with seeps and hot springs supporting perennial wetlands choked with bulrush. I have visited the foothills of the Granite Range, and if there is a prettier small mountain chain in the United States I do not know it.

And between the ranges, opening up to the north and stretching 100 miles from Black Rock City, is The Playa, the Black Rock Desert, so perfectly geometrically flat, in that non-Euclidean sense to which we are confined by our occupying the surface of a sphere, that the mountain ranges at the far end are obscured only by the curvature of the Earth.

Your mind will struggle to make sense of scale on the playa. It will fail. Without a frame of reference other than flat, flat soil, flat, flat sky, and mountain ranges that seem as inaccessible as Jupiter, the question of your place in the universe becomes more than an idle, philosophical rumination. The question becomes visceral. You see an object out on the playa, its details heat-shimmer obscured. Is it a house-sized boulder or a tin can? You don’t know whether you’re much bigger than it, or much smaller. Your proprioception shifts. You start to feel very small, properly insignificant, and then the sun sets and the Milky Way appears and erases any lingering sense you might have had of your importance in the grand and indifferent scheme of things.

And then late August rolls around, and Black Rock City, LLC builds itself with its back to the emptiness, a city of clustered rings with a figure at their center. The figure? Not the sun, which would seem an appropriate object of veneration and respect in the alienating desert. Not a coyote, nor a raven. Not a tree to represent those in the fringing ranges. Not an abstract figure of geometry to symbolize the abstract geometrical perfection of the surround.

The narcissistic city centers on a man, and that man is lit aflame at the city’s climax. The firelight drives that impersonal galaxy back where it can be safely ignored. It makes eyeshine in the animals outside the fence, who regard us in yet another demonstration of the exclusive esteem in which we hold ourselves.


The Desert is Not About You

A piece that appeared in issue number 2 of Luna Arcana, Joshua Tree’s local arts and culture print journal, published in June.

There is a new gold rush in the Mojave Desert, a new ore being mined from the landscape. The mines are everywhere, but they concentrate here in the Morongo Basin. Unlike the first Gold Rush, this “gold rush” isn’t chasing gold. The New Miners aren’t after silver or uranium or borax. Unlike their predecessors in recent decades, they’re not even after the desert’s scant water or ubiquitous solar energy.

Some of them are after enlightenment on demand, the people who come to the desert for a three-day weekend to find more meaning in their lives, then declare to themselves they have found it whether their lives change afterward or not.

Some are after a self-declared authenticity, a reputation as the kind of person that hangs out in the desert instead of, say, the beach or the mall.

Some are chasing style points. Their pick and shovel a selfie stick and a smartphone, they fan out across the desert, a good day’s haul a few artfully framed shots of themselves in front of desert plants they cannot name.

Some are after a sense of the edge, a fulfilled longing for post-apocalyptic lawlessness with a rust-colored motif, the Wild West updated to the 21st Century.

They come. They delve the Mojave. They prospect for their intangible prizes. And then they leave, thinking they have gotten something of value.

Is this assessment too harsh? The Mojave has seen far more than its share of mining, some of it catastrophically destructive of the actual desert. The New Miners generally do not slick ephemeral streams with mercury or cyanide, nor do they leave radioactive tailings piles a thousand feet tall behind them. They do sometimes leave behind tire tracks on previously undisturbed desert soils, a moment’s carelessness that will take centuries to heal. They sometimes set fires, or leave behind spray-painted tags on rocks or old houses or Joshua trees. They sometimes assemble in large groups for events that could far more easily have taken place in a stadium in Covina, save for the fact that Covina isn’t cool.

Still. Each individual New Miner is generally a fine person with lofty personal ideals, a fine sense of responsibility for her actions, and a willingness to listen and learn. Few of them actually want to damage the desert.

I certainly didn’t want to when I first came here. But I did, in a dozen small and stupid ways, born out of ignorance of what the desert actually is. In thirty years of seeking my own self-proclaimed desert authenticity, of stripmining the landscape for meaning and inspiration, I have just begun to learn a few things.

The biggest of those things I’ve learned: the desert— shockingly! — does not primarily organize itself around providing you with maximum comfort.  Things that have lived here long enough have had the sense to grow thick skins, stout spines, chemical weapons and the ability to just… wait. The desert works just fine for them.

The desert is not about you.

It’s not a stylish backdrop for your music festival. It’s not your post-apocalyptic theme park. It’s not a monastery or a boot camp. (There are monasteries and boot camps here, but outsiders brought them.)

The desert is a tough, sensitive, harsh, forgiving environment. It is barren and lush, dangerous and nurturing, hard and soft.

A while ago, well out in the outback, I laid my sleeping pad down on a flat expanse of black-varnished gravel, desert pavement. I laid my sleeping bag atop the pad, crawled into the bag and laid there for a few hours, mostly sleeping. I awoke in the same position I’d fallen asleep in, my mummy bag too tight for thrashing. Packing up I found that my pad had left its mark in the black gravel, which was actually a layer just one stone thick. Beneath was a pale, invasive dust that began to billow from the scars I’d made in the gravel cap.

Black varnish develops slowly, over millennia. That gravel layer was very black. It had lain there for thousands of years, withstanding storms and howling wind and time and parching sun, and I broke it with a sleeping pad in a few hours.

We can take desert pavement as a symbol of the desert itself. The threat comes when we do not see it for what it actually is. When you see a continuously evolving, sensitive and responsive, nearly organic surface as just a pile of gravel, you will do damage.

But when you toss your preconceptions about the desert out with your empty IPA and kombucha bottles, when you start to see what the desert actually is, that right there is the beginning of hope.

It is not too late for you. Just put down the miners’ tools.

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.