Monthly Archives: March 2005

Shikataganai? No-No!

A hero has passed.

And though history has vindicated Fred Korematsu, there are still heinous little amoral opportunists who, in the pursuit of their own career goals, would have us walk down that path again.

I would quote Tom Robinson — “pretty soon there’s gonna be no room for sitting on the fence” — except that Tom wrote those words more than a quarter century ago, and even then they seemed over-optimistic. Now there is no room on that fence. If you aren’t speaking out against this country’s increasing violation of basic human rights, then you are supporting it. There is no middle ground.

History is judging you now, reader. How will you measure up?

Update: It seems this post has drawn the ire of the one and only Michelle Maklin. I don’t know whether to be outraged or to revise my answer to the first question in this post.

Walker Pass, Halloween 1997

[Another fragment of desert writing. This one overlaps the last in a spot or two. What can I say; I’m working on getting the Journal to the printer this week. No time to write until tomorrow.]

At Walker Pass in October, the sky is full of constellations and ravens. A few clouds do leak over the pass from the Tulare Basin, and in a good pinyon year, like this one, the Clark’s nutcrackers and Steller’s jays get a bit more conspicuous. But ravens reign over the air of the Canebrake Creek drainage, flying in desultory pairs past the dusty slopes of pinyon peak, past the trucks groaning over the divide on the Bakersfield-Ridgecrest run, over to the barren south face of Morris Peak and then, inexplicably, back again. And only a few hours’ worth of return flights bring the sunset, and the long night, and the march of the mythopoetic Greek stick figures across the sky.

It’s perhaps a natural conclusion to reach, when camping in this part of the world, that there should be a constellation to honor the raven, though honoring the raven might not nowadays be a popular suggestion hereabouts. Ravens have done well these past few decades, eating garbage and imported exotic insects and the younger generation of endangered desert tortoises, and making themselves some probably deserved enemies. I’ve the bleeding heart’s usual sympathy for the maligned, and find in the raven a compelling model for something or other. It’s a useful animal to adopt as a totem. Anytime you want advice from your spirit guide, just look up, and there’s one to instruct you. If you don’t mind seeking counsel from a guru who’s eating week-old grease from a styrofoam clamshell. 

Tonight, I watch the stars as they wheel, looking for a likely group to rename in honor of Corvus corax. The Pleiades rise up out of the orange glow over Ridgecrest, and I consider them, but they’re too gregarious a constellation. More like cedar waxwings or finches. Then the bull chases the seven sisters higher into the sky, its “V” presenting likely possibilities, but again I pass. Too deep a cleft in Taurus. Orion rises sometime later, the hunter chasing the bull, but I don’t even bother. It’s just as I drift off to sleep that Sirius crests the line of pinyons between our campsite and the pass, and epiphany comes. It’s one star, but it’s perfect; bright, seemingly shifting color, the light and hue of a front-lit raven’s beak. Sirius the crow star.

A foot in my stomach, courtesy the dog, and I realize I’m dreaming. I’d gone to sleep long before Orion rose. Now it’s late in the morning — almost 5:45 — and at least fifty degrees out, and it’s time to unzip the tent and bang away at the two-burner gas camping stove until it lights and the neighbors are awake, so that I can have coffee ready before I fall back asleep at 6:15. I poke my head out of the tent.

To a barrage of cursing from the top of the Joshua trees next to our campsite. A raven — perhaps the sensory stimulus that prompted my subconscious to dream of crow stars — is berating me in a passable imitation of a Midtown Manhattan accent. “Hey! I’m perchin heah!” It flies away as I snap the latch open on the stove, to start the day’s circuits of the Canebrake Creek drainage.

It surprised me, at first, to find Joshua trees at the crest of the Sierra Nevada. Admittedly, Walker Pass is a low point of the crest, at just a little over 5000 feet, just within the altitudinal range of the tree. And I knew that there was a thick forest of the trees on the east slope of the pass, less than a half hour’s walk from where I sit fiddling with the stove’s air pump. But I’d somehow, unconsciously, ruled out the possibility of the trees growing this far up the slope.

In fact, we hadn’t intended to come here at all: it took a disaster to bring us here. We’d planned to meet at Red Rock Canyon State Park. a perpetually windy spot north of Mojave. I was to drive from the East Mojave, and my wife Becky, with the dog, from Oakland. We’d meet at the campground there and — after catching up on the week we’d spent apart — relax for a windy four-day weekend walking the dog and watching Joshua trees while I took copious notes.

When I got to the place where we were to meet, though, it wasn’t there anymore. A couple of feet of rain the previous month, of which neither of us had heard, undid that plan: The campground at the park had been washed out by a flash flood, and the road was closed. After a moment of panic in which I realized we had no way to get in touch about an alternate plan, Becky and Zeke pulled up behind my truck at the roadside. A BLM ranger suggested Walker Pass as an alternate, and we headed for the hills.

I’d swallowed a bit of regret at the thought of leaving Joshua tree country for the weekend, unnecessarily as it turned out. Driving up Freeman Canyon toward the pass, through that swale’s incredibly thick forest of Joshuas, I eyed the band of conifers at the crest and waited for the yuccas to thin and fade into pinyon and juniper. And thin and fade they did, but before they vanished altogether, there came the notch in the crest and Walker Pass and still, at the road’s summit, there were joshua trees two hundred feet upslope. And winding down the first switchback on the west slope of the pass, just before the entrance to the BLM campground, a clump of Joshuas appeared just at the Caltrans sign announcing 5000 feet of elevation. Joshua trees living at 5000 feet on the west slope of the Sierra Nevada was not a thing I had ever expected to see.

Here in my morning perch at 5100 feet, I’ve almost gotten used to the presence of the Joshuas. The clump in our campsite is not too spectacular by the standards that might apply a mile east. It’s not more than five feet across, and the tallest trunk is maybe seven feet high. There are half a dozen trees in the clump, not counting a half dozen rhizome sprouts poking through the campsite duff The felted dead leaves are worn off the windward sides of the trunks. If they were junipers rather than Joshua trees, and we had another 4000 feet of relief here on the Sierran crest, I’d call this clump krummholz, the twisted timber of timberline with its distinctive gray and contorted build. Structurally, this clump of Joshua trees owes more to the whitebark pine a hundred miles north than it does to the monstrously large Joshua trees just minutes east of here.

Further west, there are even more clumps, sprinkled through the stray open spaces as the land slants down toward the south fork of the Kern. They look like advance scouts from the westward-marching army camped in Freeman Canyon. They may well be. Who knows? Perhaps given time and a dry climatic cycle, Yucca brevifolia could march down the Kern River to populate the slopes above the San Joaquin Valley.

Joshua trees are far from being the most abundant tree here at Walker Pass. At best, they’re a dramatic yet insignificant component of a grand forest of single-leaf pinyon. This is emphatically a Sierra Nevada scene, and the Joshua tree is a bit player, a Barrymore with a brief, uncredited cameo.

The campground here is maintained by the BLM for the convenience of hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches from Mexico to Canada. By backpackers’ standards, it’s somewhat luxurious. Running, potable water in season (which this is not), spacious and relatively level campsites, an outhouse that provides the user with a natural history lesson in the aggressive behavior of late-season wasps, the comforting sound of east-and west-bound diesel engines winding upgrade and down.

But today, on Halloween, backpackers are scarce. Most of the slow stream of people visiting the campground are after pine nuts; they spend an hour or so in the hills and return with quart bags full, talking about the bumper harvest. They’re competing with the pinyon jays, who cache pine nuts for the Sierran winter, but the birds don’t seem unduly protective of their turf this weekend. In a year like this, there’s plenty for everyone, including the insect larvae and fungal hyphae. There are Steller’s jays roaming the forest as well, and as much as I’ve enjoyed being in the desert the past few weeks, their cries are a welcome reminder of my coastal California home.

Red Rock Raven

[Another from the archives; wrote it about five years ago. This is one of the few pieces I’ve ever pulled from an editor due to lack of editorial skill.]

As you head east from Tehachapi toward the unglamorous railroad town of Mojave, the first windmills come into view with the first Joshua trees, at Sand Canyon Road. Farther along, there are more: white, wispy battalions astride the Garlock Fault. If you’ve ever stepped out of your car in Mojave, you know why the windmills were put here. There is no wind as strong, as constant, as the western Mojave wind. If your hat goes aloft, it will be in Barstow within the hour.

At the base of the Sierra Nevada twenty-six miles north of Mojave, the wind is even stronger. At my campsite in Red Rock Canyon State Park, it’s hard to open the windward door of my truck. The box of crackers I place on the picnic table falls over, then slides off the table, then rolls into a copse of Joshua trees.

I open the box, put it on the table with the open end downwind, then put a five pound rock on top of it. The box moves somewhat more slowly. Just outside my campsite, a raven searches for crumbs.

I come to this place fairly often, a day’s drive from the Bay Area. Aside from the wind, it’s pleasant enough. Eerie cliffs of Pleistocene lakebed sediment watch over the far side of the campground. A shallow box canyon into the cliffs shelters a handful of favored campsites, always full by the time I arrive. Just as well. I don’t have to talk to anyone unless I choose to. And my fire, now sending horizontal sparks forty feet downwind over the sparse mineral soil, won’t burn holes in anyone’s styrofoam coolers.

The raven hops onto the table, eyeing the crackers. I wave a hand: he croaks a low protest and glides to the ground.

I’ve put it off long enough. I close the cracker box, pull the logs apart to quell the flames for a moment, and walk down to the ranger station to call my wife. There’s no phone at the ranger station, just a faded sign: “Closest telephone at Jawbone Canyon Store, seven miles south on Route 14.” Halfway back to the campsite, I see the wind has stoked my fire. Horizontal orange tongues lick the soil six feet from the metal grill, just reaching my camping gear. I move the gear box upwind.

If I’m going to drive to Jawbone Canyon, I’ll need to put the fire out or find someone to keep an eye on it. Putting it out would mean relighting it later, and it took me fifteen minutes to light in the first place, in daylight. By the time I get back from the store, there won’t be any twilight left. But who’ll watch the fire for me? I steel my nerve to ask the folks in the RVs across the way.

The raven hops back up onto the picnic table. He looks at me, neck feathers ruffling in the wind. “Grraw,” he observes.

“Yeah, I should have made the call before I lit it,” I reply.

The bird preens, then walks over to the crackers. He extracts a cracker, then flutters over to the fire, perching on the gear box. “Grraw,” he says around the cracker in his beak. “Grraw.”

“Thanks!” I reply, and grab the keys to the truck.

I consider myself a hardheaded rationalist. I do sometimes talk to trees and rocks and beasts of the field, but I don’t usually think of them as answering. I still find it hard to explain my momentary lapse. All I can say is that I got to the Jawbone Canyon Store, called Becky, and realized mid-conversation that I’d left a campfire under the supervision of a goddamn bird. I must have hit 120 heading back to the park, hoping my fire hadn’t blackened too large a swath of the desert.

Ravens don’t like to be pigeonholed. They’re songbirds that should be raptors. They’re a native bird species that native bird advocates will sometimes shoot on sight. They’re irretrievably wild animals that do just fine in cities. They’re scavengers who are finicky about what they eat. They’re amoral reproductive opportunists who mate for life and mourn when widowed. They’re more like humans than we sometimes care to admit.

This unpredictability is generally taken as a sign of intelligence, and ravens are in fact considered the most intelligent species in an intelligent family, the corvids. Jays, magpies, jackdaws and crows have been known to perform prodigious feats of thinking. One California corvid, the Clark’s nutcracker, lives on pine nuts, available only for a few weeks each year. A Clark’s nutcracker will cache hundreds, if not thousands of pine nuts, remembering the location of each cache for more than a year. And this is one of the raven’s slower cousins.

Unsurprisingly, clever Raven has earned a place in mythologies all around the world. My favorites are from the Pacific Northwest, where Raven plays the Trickster pretty much the way Coyote does in the Southwest. Some translators stress the “just-so” aspects of the tales, presumably for audiences raised on Aesop’s fables. Others recount those stories as plot points in a longer narrative, which may or may not have a moral. One Tlingit Raven story resembles a Michener novel as rewritten by Günter Grass. The tricks Raven plays are almost beside the point: the narrative is the important thing. If you possess the right cultural cues, you’ll recognize sub-rosa homilies about proper behavior. If you’re an outsider, it’s just literature.

For many Pacific Northwest people, Raven is Prometheus, who taught humans how to use fire. Or who dropped a firebrand onto the rocks, so that now all we need do to warm ourselves is strike rocks together and shelter the resulting spark in kindling. Or who stole the sun and placed it in the center of the sky, a fire to warm the world. Though trickster figures are generally mistrusted, a wide vein of gratitude runs through the Raven stories. Some people routinely left food on the beach for Raven’s local representatives, without making much of it — as if a whole culture agreed that publicly thanking a trickster is risky business. A private gesture repays the debt without the risk of feeding Raven’s ego.

When I get back to the campground, I see no firetrucks sending angry rotating light into the sky. No helicopters disgorge water onto the countryside, no television crews report bravely on the conflagration. I don’t see so much as a ranger with a citation book and a fire extinguisher. My stupidity has gone unpunished. I even still have a campfire, blazing merrily and horizontally in the dark. Pulling in, I see a raven dancing around the fire. I have no way of knowing whether it’s the same one. It flies off over the cliffs as I get out of the truck. A few hours later, I rouse myself long enough to see a bright comet smeared across the northeastern sky.

I suppose, eating breakfast as the sun comes up over the El Paso Range, that I should get down on my knees and thank the lords of sheer luck and random chance that last night’s fire will never make the news. Of all the stupid things I’ve done, this is certainly the most recent. One of these days, my lack of attention and my hubris will gang up on me and teach me a lesson, and I’ll flip my truck on the freeway or break the heart of someone I love or get a job selling insurance.

I pack the truck, roll up the sleeping bag, tighten the camp stove valves, put the shovel away.

There are a few crackers left. The rest have been broken into crumbs, scattered with last night’s ashes. I pick up one of the larger pieces. It’s moist around the edges. I collect what crumbs I can and toss them into the trash, grumbling aloud. “I’ll have to get some more now, dammit, drag myself into that supermarket in Ridgecrest. I think I ate two crackers out of this box, and how many are left? Six? Damn bird.”

That should be enough griping. I leave the rest of the crackers in a small pile at the base of the Joshua trees, and then I drive away.

I get letters, #3

One of the perks of my job editing Earth Island Journal is that my predecessor had — shall we say — a high tolerance for wackjob theories. And thus there are a lot of people out there who see the Journal as a potential venue for their blather, from the essentially benign — like the very nice man who proposes ramped runways as a way of saving lots of jet fuel — to the certifiably insane, who I will not single out because they are insane and thus potentially dangerous.

Somewhere in between, I get a lot of email encouraging me to expose the government’s coverup of Cold Fusion research, or the Revolutionary Compressed-Air-Powered Car, or the Chemtrails issue (in which Some Nefarious Person is adding toxic chemicals to jet contrails as a way of achieving some aim or other, described variously as climate control or thought control or genocidal chemical sterilization or just Being Mean.)

But I don’t think I’ve gotten anything before claiming that Science and Government are conspiring to hide a giant source of non-polluting energy which could usher in a new age of sustainable global affluence, and that the entire structure of modern cosmogony is a ruse to keep the people down. So I’m psyched about getting the below-appended: it’s going in the kill jar and into my collection.

I think the misspelling of Nicola Tesla’s first name is a nice touch, don’t you? Likewise the invocation of Galileo and the reference to the Velikovsky Assassination. It just doesn’t get any better than this.

HISTORIC DEBATE ABOUT VELIKOVSKY AND THE FLAWED ASSUMPTIONS   OF SCIENCE

Jim McCanney versus Dr. David Morrison, NASA scientist, Ames Research Lab

Date: March 30, 2005
Place: COAST TO COAST AM talk Radio, The George Noory Show
Time: 11 pm Pacific time

by Mark Gaffney

As we stare down the barrel of peak oil, now just over the horizon and bearing down on us harder every day, the likelihood increases of a world economic meltdown. Indeed, as the drama unfolds across the world stage the US colossus seems hell-bent to hasten and deepen the crisis by intervening militarily to protect America’s privileged access to and sacrosanct control over the oil markets.

Today, the economies of India and especially China are expanding rapidly, ballooning world-wide demand for oil, demand that now threatens to overtake production. Oil producers are already pumping full-out. Very little excess capacity remains in the system. Nor is it likely that new supplies can be found and brought on-line in sufficient quantity and in time to avert the coming crunch. New oil discoveries have been declining for many years. At some point, production will fail to keep pace and will begin to lag behind.

On the slippery down side of the supply curve demand will intensify exponentially. So will competition. The likelihood of regional and even world (nuclear?) war(s) fought over oil will increase to the point of near certainty. This grim prospect now looks to be inevitable, unless we can somehow save ourselves by rapidly moving from here to there, that is, away from the petroleum economy to a clean and abundant energy alternative. This is the most urgent issue of our time.

The good news is that such an alternative energy path does exist. In fact, our world came astonishingly close to realizing this alternative future a century ago in the person of Nicolai Tesla. Incredibly, very few people even know it happened.

That brief window of opportunity closed, however, unfortunately for us, and the present reality is that we won’t succeed in making such an energy transition today without an attendant paradigm-shift in science: This in addition to overcoming the bureaucratic barriers and the powerful vested oil interests, not to mention the purblind politicians.

But make no mistake, the answer in the form of superabundant clean electrical energy is all around us. Supplied free and constantly replenished by the sun, it girdles the earth and is there for the taking. But we will never find it if we are not savvy enough to ask the appropriate questions. Success in that case will elude us. The Holy Grail will slip through our fingers a second time, and the result will be the same as if the solution never existed.

As recently as the the era of Galileo in the 17th century, the dominant human institution was the Roman Catholic Church. Today, 400 years later, the world has changed greatly, yet we humans are very much the same. Human nature has changed little, if at all. The contemporary Church, of course, is a dead or dying echo of its former self. The dominant institution today is the scientific stablishment: now manned by an elite priesthood of technocrats, most of them specialists who know more and more about less and less. World class maverick astronomer Halton Arp, who spent a career studying emerging galaxies in the deep ranges of space, compares the lot of them to the medieval Church. Arp has it exactly right. Oh ecce homo: The more things change…

What, then, is holding scientists back from realizing the dream of abundant clean energy?

The answer is a raft of erroneous fundamental assumptions about the natural order, assumptions that are comparable to the religious doctrines of the medieval Church. Today, the public is generally unaware of these assumptions. Indeed, they are so much a part of the fabric of science itself as to be all but invisible to most scientists! This is especially true of the creme de la creme, the Big Bang astronomers and the high-powered physicists, most of whom are so full of their own mathematical hubris and grand theories of all and everything that they wouldn’t know how to interpret raw observational data if it slapped them cold in the face. It’s one thing to examine a world of data and arrive at a hypothesis that explains the data. It’s another to treat assumptions as if they were conclusions, meanwhile, tossing out as junk all of the anomalous material that didn’t know it was supposed to fit the dominant theory. Sad to say, this is the condition of much of modern science, today.

Fortunately, there are a few mavericks around who refuse to give up the fight over the interpretation of the data. Halton Arp is one of these. Jim McCanney, another, has identified several of the erroneous assumptions that are preventing the science community, now locked into the current paradigm, from correctly understanding what the data stream is telling us.

The erroneous assumptions identified by McCanney are, as follows:

1. All of the planets are the same age, having been created together at the birth of the solar system. WRONG!
2. Space is electrically neutral. WRONG!
3. Comets are dirty snowballs. WRONG!
4. The red shift, discovered by Edwin Hubble, is a measure of the expanding universe. WRONG!

None of these assumptions is unblemished. Each is associated with numerous anomalies that the current paradigm cannot explain. Typically, these are simply dismissed out of hand, swept under the carpet. End of story. The hidden assumptions are symptomatic of our current scientific malaise. The dominant paradigm has thus arrived at an impasse. It is simply unable to deliver the urgently needed clean and abundant energy alternative. And our state of emergency underscores the need to get on with the next scientific revolution.

The good news is that such a paradigm shift has been in the works for at least the last quarter century, thanks to the work of Jim McCanney, the originator of a radically new model of our sun, comets, and the solar system.

On March 30 McCanney will present this new perspective in a historic debate with Dr. David Morrison, a chief NASA scientist from the Ames Research Lab.

The debate will occur on COAST TO COAST AM live talk radio (starting at 11 pm., pacific time), hosted by George Noory.

The topic will be: IMMANUEL VELIKOVSKY, PRO AND CON.

The name Velikovsky is ground zero among many other points of contention. Dr Morrison was a former colleague of the late Carl Sagan, and participated in the public assassination of Velikovsky in the 1970s.  (See Dr. Morrison’s chapter in the book Scientists Confront Velikovsky, 1977)

Tune in and discover why Velikovsky matters, today, more than ever. The discussion is certain to be lively, and will cover a range of issues. The evening debate will afford a rare look and comparison of two paradigms that could not be in sharper conflict. Morrison will represent the current paradigm, still dominant. Challenger McCanney will represent the next paradigm: what he refers to as the Solar Capacitor Model. McCanney has been an outsider since he was fired from the math and astronomy faculty at Cornell circa 1981. He is to the scientific establishment what Noam Chomsky is to the political establishment.

Tune in and find out what Venus, comets, Tesla, the dust storms of Mars, Jupiter’s big red spot, and earth’s weather all have in common. It is certain to be a head-on clash of irreconcilable world views. One cannot move incrementally from one paradigm to the next. The differences are simply too great. Just as you can’t see both foreground and background of a gestalt, at the same moment. The eye must leap. And so must we…

COAST TO COAST AM is carried on more than 500 radio stations nationwide. For information about listening in your area go to http://www.coasttocoastam.com/

Happy plain old Sunday!

An Easter message from the House Rabbit Society:

“Contrary to Eastertime hype, rabbits and small children aren’t a good match. The exuberance of even the gentlest toddler is stressful for the sensitive rabbit.
“Children like a companion they can hold, and cuddle. That’s why stuffed animals are so popular. Rabbits are not passive and cuddly. They are ground-loving creatures who feel frightened and insecure when held and restrained. The result: the child loses interest, and the rabbit ends up neglected or abandoned.
“Easter bunnies soon grow large and reach adolecence. If left unneutered they will chew, spray or dig. Many end up neglected or abandoned. The result? Humane organizations such as House Rabbit Society see a huge increase in the number of abandoned rabbits after Easter. Help us stop this yearly cycle by educating yourself and others!
“Rabbits are not low-maintenance pets, and are a poor choice as a pet for children.
“They have a lifespan of 10 years and require as much work as a dog or cat.
“Your home must be bunny-proofed, or Thumper will chew cords and furniture.
“Rabbits must be neutered or they will mark your house with feces and urine.
“They should live indoors, as members of the family.
“Clearly, rabbits aren’t for everyone. Are you a gentle adult living in a quiet household? If you think you’re someone who would enjoy sharing life with a rabbit, please visit your local rabbit-rescue group.”

Friday branching glass sponge blogging!

About forty years ago, my uncle was plowing a field in the Finger Lakes region of New York when he found the fossil pictured here (photo taken by Craig). It was an oddity, and he brought it to his mother-in-law — my grandmother — for display on her patio. We kids always called it “the meteor” — that was probably my fault, in my role as oldest grandchild and science geek.

My aunt owns the rock now; it’s achieved “family heirloom” status. And it’s a very old heirloom indeed: it’s a 375 million year old glass sponge, one of a large number still to be found in the area around Interlaken, NY. In 1999 one of my Grandmother’s neighbors found a bunch of them, one of which made its way to the possession of a Cornell University paleontologist. A particularly slow news day got the find some national press.

I called my grandmother when I read the stories, and said “Hey Grandma, you ought to call that guy Dr. Chiment over to Cornell; I think he’d want to take a look at your ‘meteor.’” She said something like “that’s nice” and we talked about something else. Probably just as well: Chiment might have been a bit busy at the time unearthing the Chemung mastodon.

Glass sponges are strange, immobile animals with siliceous exoskeletons. Unlike other sponges, glass sponges (Hexactinellida) cannot contract in response to external stimuli, but they are far from passive organisms. They have what one could call a nervous system: different parts of the sponge communicate with one another by way of electrical impulses.

In recent years huge polar reefs of glass sponges have been found, in one notable instance when researchers attached cameras to Weddell Seals which then went about their business diving beneath Antarctic ice. How odd to be reminded, reading a book on a dangerous research expedition to an deadly ocean canyon beneath the most inhospitable climate on earth, of my uncle in shirtsleeves puzzling over a basketball-sized rock wedged against the moldboard.

Finally, an answer

Over the years, as I’ve traveled the wide world and met all kinds of people, in many different cities and towns along life’s byways, people have long asked me a question — a compelling, wistful question — for which I had no ready answer.

Those days are, thankfully, at an end.

The next time I meet someone in a crowded Wyoming bar, or a Sedona ashram, or out wandering the sterile slopes of the Mojave Desert, and they ask, as has happened so many times before:

“Is there a web page where I can learn more about Paul Tomblin’s personal beliefs and/or principles?”

… I can now clap them on their back and say “Why, yes, in fact, there is!

(Now that I’ve had my little fun at Paul’s expense, go read the page. It’s great.)

Life and death

One morning twenty years ago this month, I opened the front section of the Washington Post and read that my friend Stephen Peter Morin had been executed by the state of Texas for capital murder.

There are two reasons that that sentence, while accurate, felt awkward to write.

First reason: it has been a long time since I thought of Morin as a friend. He was a twisted, manipulative and malevolent person, and if I hate anyone in the world or out of it I hate him.

Second reason: I knew him as Ray Constantine.

But Morin was his real name, and for a number of months in 1981 I spent just about every day with him, generally enjoying his company.

“Ray Constantine” rode up to the front porch of my mother’s house on his bicycle one day to ask whether she knew of apartments he could rent. Her current partner is one of my favorite people in the world, but my mother had phenomenally, staggeringly bad judgment in men in those days: by that evening or the next, it seemed, he had moved in with her.

“Ray” was a smooth talker, and closer to my age than to my mother’s. My mother had had a string of failed relationships with a string of increasingly sleazy men, the previous one ending just a week or two before. Full of the self-righteousness only a twenty-one-year-old boy with a disintegrating mother truly knows, I exploded at her in mortified fury, telling her that she was being incredibly stupid and allowing herself to be set up for another romantic disaster.

She said he’d be moving in and that I’d better get used to the idea. So I did. “Ray” decided to work his way into my good graces by getting me a job — always in short supply in 1981 Buffalo. He lied his way onto a union painting crew and then vouched for me. I joined the union and worked with him all summer.

Three things about that summer stand out in my mind, aside from the monotony of paint, hauling kegs of tar to roofs, and a story about a ladder that will come a bit later.

The first was heading to DC to the giant march in support of the striking air traffic controllers.

The second was finding out that my mother had ordered a copy of my birth certificate to give to Ray so that he could get ID with a different name on it. I intercepted it in what was likely the luckiest moment of my life.

The third was just before Ray and my mother left for their trip across country in her van. I wandered by her house one humid night — I’d moved out to my own place, what with my union paycheck — and found Ray sweating, attaching carpet to the walls and ceiling of the van. He was struggling to hold the carpet up as he put rivets into metal; I stepped up and helped him.

My mother and Ray went from town to town, San Francisco, Denver, Las Vegas, and into Texas. In each town Ray would disappear for a day or two and then show up again, a worried look in his eyes, insisting they leave town right away. The third or fourth time it happened, she realized she’d heard news in each town of a local woman disappearing and then found murdered.

There was an uncomfortable period in Texas in December after he found out she’d turned him in to the police, and before they caught him. And then they did catch him, and he went to trial and pled guilty to capital murder and asked for the death penalty. On March 13 1985, after the executioner probed veins for 45 minutes looking for one that wasn’t collapsed — raising the ire of the ACLU for a time after — Stephen Peter Morin was put to death by the state of Texas for the murder of Carrie Marie Scott, whom he was attempting to rob.

There’s a way in which Scott was lucky: he did not rape and torture her the way he did some of his other victims, some of them in the van I helped him soundproof.

In the van I helped him soundproof.

Morin’s last words, as reported by the state of Texas, are a marvel of manipulative sociopathy:

Heavenly Father, I give thanks for this time, for the time that we have been together, the fellowship in your world, the Christian family presented to me [He called the names of the personal witnesses]. Allow your holy spirit to flow as I know your love as been showered upon me. Forgive them for they know not what they do, as I know that you have forgiven me, as I have forgiven them. Lord Jesus, I commit my soul to you, I praise you, and I thank you.

Covering up amoral, murderous violence with a coat of Jesus? Too bad for poor Ray. A little later, with better PR, he could have risen rather high in the Texas GOP.

I find myself unwilling to grant the possibility that the sick fuck said a single truthful thing in his miserable life. He sent me a letter from death row, calling me the closest thing he’d had to a brother. I destroyed it after one reading. Who tries to get ID with his “brother’s” name on it to use on his murder spree? He told his attorney he didn’t remember killing anyone. Why the fake IDs, the soundproofing of vans, the sudden desires to leave town? He wanted to manipulate the cloying, puling conservative Christians in the Texas penal system: what better method than ostentatiously coming to Jesus?

If ever there was a person who deserved the death penalty — and still I do not believe there ever was — Stephen Peter Morin was that person. The world is far better off without him, and I find some consolation in the fact that his putative hopes of forgiveness in the hereafter dissolved into the permanent blackness of non-existence. I only wish he had died before he could have killed Janna Bruce, Sheila Whalen, Carrie Scott, and as many as thirty or more other young women. Twenty years later, and his memory still brings me to a shaking rage.

And yet.

A wooden forty-foot ladder is a heavy thing. Set it against a house on ground saturated by a week of summer rain, and it will tend to slide. Climb that ladder with a two-gallon bucket of paint, and if the ladder is leaning against freshly-primed clapboard three stories up, it will tend to slide quickly. A quarter-century of exploring the precipitous landscapes of the West has thoroughly blunted my acrophobia, but that morning, thirty-five feet up a heavy ladder that was sliding rightward at about half an inch a second, I froze. And watched myself slide.

And “Ray” saw, and got from the yard to the third-floor window in about five seconds. Speaking calmly while he hung out the window, he persuaded me that I was unafraid. His words filled me with an odd strength. He persuaded me that I could take the ends of the ladder I was on — which I could barely lift in the best of conditions — and jump it back to the left and verticality.

And I did it: I pulled back violently on the ladder and slammed it back into place. In reach of the window now, I helped Ray tie the ladder securely to the window frame as I sobbed in relief, then descended on increasingly shaky legs. Ray met me as I reached the bottom, grabbed me in a bear hug, kept me from slumping to the ground.

A beeeyoutiful blog!

Niches is a blog run at sparkleberrysprings.com, which is a native plant seed company in Athens, Georgia. It’s a lovely, lovely blog. The photography alone is worth checking out: spring has come to the southeast!

And I’m glad to see that Iraq War Cost tally: apparently I’m not the only nature blogger who’s been seduced into poliblogging.

(Hey, it’s spring, and all the poliblogs in the swamp are growing legs.)

Well, this is weird.

So yesterday I get a call from a chipper young thing at CNN’s Atlanta headquarters. And I think “OK, some dolphin has died somewhere and they want a quote, or someone has slammed my employer and CNN wants a response. This won’t take long.”

But no, it’s nothing like that. CNN, it turns out, has put together a documentary on climate change, and they want to set me up with interviews of the talking heads, CNN science person Miles O’Brien, and anyone else I want to talk to in an effort to get me to cover the fact that they’re airing this documentary this weekend. (Sunday, 3/27 if you’re interested, 8 pm, I presume that means EST.)

I pull the phone handset away from my head and stare at it quizzically for a second, as if to reassure myself I’m not imagining the whole thing. “Um, well, we’re a quarterly, and we don’t have an issue coming out before this weekend. Besides if I interviewed Miles O’Brien, I think I’d annoy him with all the Star Trek questions.”

“Well, we were hoping you could mention it on your website, to help us get the word out about the show. Can I express mail you a DVD copy of it?”

“I suppose, but I should tell you that if I think you guys did a bad job, we’ll be mentioning that on our website too.”

“Well of course! I’ll pop that right into the mail right now.”

Got the DVD this afternoon. It’s blank. I’m sure that was an oversight.

Anyway, let me get this straight. CNN needs Earth Island Journal’s help publicizing a show that’s going to air on CNN? I understand why buying an ad might be out of the question, now that the Turner money is gone, but couldn’t they, I dunno… mention it on the air, thus reaching in three seconds the number of people I reach in a year?