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Your grandchildren will ask

Your grandchildren will ask
how we could possibly have been so blind.

Your grandchildren will ask
what it must have been like
to live in a world with tigers,
sea turtles, to live in a world
where the tide line wrack
was made of wood and kelp.

Your grandchildren will ask
what the hell we were all thinking.

Your grandchildren will ask
why we didn’t just shut
the coal plants down,
what we were doing
with all that electricity
we bought with their future.

Your grandchildren will ask
why we put potatoes and oranges
in plastic bags.

Your grandchildren will ask
what it was like
to walk into a wild landscape
and not see the other side.

Your grandchildren will ask
what the fuck was wrong with us.

Your grandchildren will ask
how we could possibly have thought
it was ever a good idea
to bring their parents into the world.

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Crossing the San Gabriel River

All this is temporary.
The slick-slant concrete walls
will fail to flood control
in three days, or three hundred years.

The mountains grow four inches in a century.
We drive atop their alluvial fans,
a layer of debris two miles thick
a hundred wide.

It had to get here somehow.

One flood or the next
and this algae-slicked seep
will jump its banks,
add all these lives to its sediment

The restaurants and rocking chairs,
tires and transmission poles
freeway slabs and fire hydrants
surface streets and swimming pools

The signs of nail salons and the signs of urgent care facilities
curbs cars and concrete,
territory contested by feral dogs
and adolescent men,
county lines and area codes

all of it entombed in silt and sand;
from buried asphaltum it came, and unto
buried asphaltum it will return,

and the ghosts of dire wolves will stalk the surface.

 

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Some folks may have the luxury

Some folks may have the luxury
to remember what Kissinger did.
Some folks may have the luxury
to be too far removed
from some othered authenticity
to forget the artists rounded up into the stadium,
the young women thrown out
of helicopter doors above the ocean,
their newborns newly adopted by junta families.

Some folks may have the luxury
of the barrier of maquila shanties,
heat waves fetid off the border creeks
to block their vision of the value in the Imperfect Now.

Some folks may have the luxury
of empathy.

Some folks may have the luxury
to be consigned to extinction
by Saudi princes, Honduran generals
for declaring
that they are hurting right now.

Some folks may have the luxury
of Workfare.

Some folks may have the luxury
of historical memory.

Some folks may have the luxury
of sight.

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Planting the saguaro

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I planted a saguaro cactus in the front yard today, with a little help, or at least companionship, from my dog Heart. I don’t remember how long I’ve had the cactus. It’s been at least 10 years since I bought it in a fancy cactus nursery in Berkeley, though it might’ve been 12 years.

That’s a long time to spend in a small terra-cotta pot, I’ve been thinking for the last couple weeks, especially for a plant that has the capability of growing 40 feet tall and weighing several tons.

So I planted it today, or we did, and now it can stretch its roots out into the soil 10 feet from the front door of my house. It’s far enough away from where people walk, with no overhanging eaves or overhead power lines to make it unhappy in 40 or 50 years.

I don’t own the place, so I can’t be sure I’ll see it grow for even one tenth that time. I’m not sure that really matters. All I can think of is those cramped roots now free to delve the Mojave soil.

I anthropomorphize. I shall continue. 10 years in a 10 inch terra-cotta pot seems like a Geneva Convention violation. When I bought the thing I had imagined planting it in my Bay Area yard, but it only took a moment for my better self to disabuse me of that idea. A cold winter full of rain and soggy clay soil, and that saguaro would’ve been dead nine years ago. Or maybe 11.

My yard is out of the saguaro’s native range, but they do just fine hereabouts. They’ll probably do better here in 50 years than they do now. If this little baby saguaro, 20 years old at most, makes it through the next couple of years and starts growing, and enjoys a century of life, maybe the last decade of confinement will seem worth it.

Of course, whatever story the saguaro tells in the course of its life will have nothing to do with me. It endured the confinement, and now it’s no longer confined, and my feelings about the whole thing matter not at all. The saguaro has more important things to do than reassure me that it looks back with fondness on its time in the too-small clay pot.

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Return to Ivanpah

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I hadn’t been back since they built it, since they denuded six square miles of old-growth desert, shredded ancient cacti and yuccas for a project with an expected functional lifespan shorter than my own remaining life expectancy.

I hadn’t been back. I’d been monitoring the plant’s construction, and then its operation, about as closely as anyone not in the employ of a government agency or energy company. But I couldn’t bring myself to go look.

The valley saved my life not long ago, less than a decade ago, reminded me in the midst of grief and dislocation that there was still beauty to be found among the head-high creosotes and the swooping nighthawks, and then I failed to return the favor. Instead, I heard from people who told me the sacrifice wasn’t all that big. The valley was worthless, they said, or at best a place it was a necessary shame to lose. And I didn’t go back. I didn’t force myself to go back.

And then, yesterday, in the pursuit of a walk and photography session in what will very likely become the Castle Mountains National Monument, I went back. I was well prepared: I took a pit bull. And some coffee, and a friend who likely feels the loss of those six square miles even more keenly than I do, whom circumstances have forced to drive past the fucking thing at frequent intervals.

After a ceremonial first glimpse of the lair of Sauron The Renewable, we went across the valley to Nipton, where I lived for much of 2008, and we ate burritos we’d imported from Barstow and the dog snoozed in the shade of a eucalyptus and we spoke to a long-time resident who hadn’t seen the place yet when I lived there. It was much as I’d left it, except that the restaurant was closed and the town was for sale and my little house looked slightly more inclined toward the ground.

And then, after I walked Heart through what had been my backyard, the three of us headed up the road toward Nevada and over the shoulder of Crescent Peak. The power plant is till intrusive as hell from that remove, and I fought the dangerous impulse to stare into it, blinding even from 15 miles distant.

I yield to no one in my regret that the thing was built, and when I sift through the ruins of the site in 2050 for shards of mirror to build solar cookers I will feel the same way, because I knew the land before the machines came.

But I can report that no matter how egregious, profit-driven and soulless the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System might be, no matter how bereft of clear vision its planners and admirers, no matter how visibly jury-rigged, insensitive and inappropriate the technology, no matter how it slashes the face of the valley like a hit man hired by the urban power companies, no matter how ugly and evil the power plant is, it turns out its power is insufficient to overwhelm the gut-punching beauty of the valley. I belong there, it turns out.

I will be back soon.

At that first glimpse, pulled on the little extension of Nipton Road at that road’s westernmost end, where the Interstate takes a deep breath and plummets headlong toward the state line, I swallowed hard and grabbed my camera, stepped out of the rented F-150. I took a few steps, raised the camera, took the shot above and a few others.

David and Heart sat in the truck, waiting for me to finish so that we could hie for Nipton and eat cold burritos. I tried to think of something sonorous and weighty to say to mark the occasion to the yuccas and the air, but no words came. Instead, I set the camera gently on the ground a few steps behind me, returned to my vantage point, unzipped, and then pissed in the power plant’s direction. It seemed appropriate.

As it happened I was pissing into the wind, which also seemed appropriate.

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Grief

The realization came this morning. It was not the first time. I busy myself with small crisis after small crisis to stave it off most days, most years.

Today it persisted through noon,  through an afternoon of rain, through a moonlit walk under fresh-washed stars with a joyous dog.

We are losing. We have always been losing, the desert tortoises and the coho salmon and the Lane’s milk-vetch and the few humans who care to think about them. The losses come day by day, and I have taken the short view, fought for one desert valley or one small species at a time.

It is a form of triage, a way to focus one’s effectiveness, but it is also a palliative. A way of focusing on a discrete, winnable battle while the war is lost all around us.

It’s not just the one desert valley you choose to defend, its birds and herps and undocumented wildflowers written off as a sacrifice somehow more acceptable than unplugging your game console. Worlds of unknown species, unknown relationships among species, paved before the scientists get to them because we need those phone chargers ready to go while our phones are in our pockets somewhere else.

It’s not just the one valley. It’s the forested ridge above, ancient fire-scarred trees cut down to fuel biomass power plants, trees turned to pallets to ship cubic miles of consumer crap to the big box stores where the vernal pools used to be. It’s hundreds of miles of river, once wild and flooding in spring, now slack behind concrete plugs, bereft of fish and watering rich men’s investment export crops. Mountain passes once choked with eagles now industrial landscapes of whirling blades.

We have warmed the deep valleys beneath six miles of sea. We have bred monstrous storms, put plastic in every drop of ocean, thinned the glaciers and slicked the seas. The planet is heating up, and the damage done by deniers is rivaled only by the damage done by those who would remake the world because they fear climate disaster — but not enough to change the way they live.

I live too comfortably myself: I have power and running water 24 hours a day, a lifestyle that is likely unsustainable, a lifestyle that will soon be reserved for the very rich. I would haul my own water on my back if it meant I could see desert tortoises on my 75th birthday. I will not, and that birthday is less than 20 years away.

They are losing, the wild things. They are taking a hit for a team they never joined. We see the damage we’ve done by burning coal to feed our habits, and contrite, we propose to scour forest and desert to feed those habits instead.

And all the while the best and brightest concerned young progressives argue about themselves in comfortable chairs.

Last night, under a quarter moon, the dog and I stood not 50 feet from a trio of coyotes as they sang a counterpoint to the sirens on Route 62. They were mainly unconcerned by our presence, as if they knew we would not be here much longer.

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Certainty is death

I told a writerly friend, a couple decades ago, that the only thing interesting enough to write about is doubt.

She asked me if I was sure.

I have been certain about so many different things over the years. Each certainty has in turn fallen away. What was frightening at first has become exhilarating.

Certainty is a shell that surrounds your world view, like a layer of plaster smeared onto a balloon and allowed to dry. It provides an illusory sense of security. It also constricts and confines. It prevents movement and expansion.

And it’s self-healing, once you apply it. The wonks say that the more certain a person is about something — a political conspiracy or a religious tenet or the surpassing danger of genetically modified food or the complete safety of genetically modified food — the more likely that person is to dismiss evidence to the contrary.

No philosophical tendency is immune to this. Which might be why I’ve been accused of being a shill for coal companies and extreme green groups by people responding to the same article.

Any bit of nuance is a threat to certainty. Certainty requires a clean, uncomplicated surface: no speckles of data that don’t quite fit, no tiny fractal eddies of facts that seem to contradict one another. I call it “poikilophobia,” the fear of complexity, from the Greek ποικίλος, meaning “diverse.” Fear of philosophical messiness, of nuance.

A friend sent me a link yesterday to a video about vulnerability. It’s good and you should watch it. And I began to think about how in the common American parlance, the word “vulnerability” has come to mean something along the lines of “feeling bad if people are mean to you.” Same goes for “sensitivity.”

But I think we miss a lot when we cast vulnerability only in that sense of requiring others to tiptoe around your important feelings. We miss out if we are not vulnerable to new information, sensitive to contrary bits of data.

Certain certainties are a necessary baseline for living in the world. I am certain that all people deserve to be treated kindly. I am certain that we as a species are not more important than all the other species in the world combined. I am certain that I wish to limit the harm I cause and I am certain that I wish to be loved. I am certain that all of us furred finned fanged fungal or foliaged multicellular organisms are kin. I am certain that if I drop my phone in the bath I will need a new one.

I am certain that I will rethink some of my certainties before long.

Breaking that shell of plaster lets the light in. How wonderful to feel the breeze on the back of your neck again, to shed a layer of outmoded certainty like a snake its old skin. What dreadful confinement to have everything figured out so tidily, to fit each mindblowing wonder into its little box and to discard those wonders too ungainly to fit.