Monthly Archives: December 2006

December 31, 2006, PM

Last hike of 2006 I literally spent the last daylight hours of the year hiking. I had a spot in mind with a broad view of Mount Diablo, and catching the last rays of red 2006 sun as they lit it up in alpenglow, and I left too late. Two months ago I could have hiked three miles and 1400 feet of climb in half an hour, but not today. I gave up two-thirds of the way there, took a small single-track path I’d never hiked before into the darkening woods.

My life started here in these V-shaped cañons clothed in oak and resinous bay, rotting logs like bridges over the seasonal streams. 2007 marks 25 years since I started walking in the California Coast Ranges, the two decades and change I spent before that mere prologue. Coyote brush and miners lettuce and milk thistle sprout from soil so aerated, so full of humus it gives six inches beneath my feet.

This year saw me harden. I am an order of magnitude more misanthropic than I was a year ago, more persuaded that despite our art and cleverness we are an investment the planet should not have made. It is too late now, of course, for second-guessing that gamble. It is too late for a lot of things: for the baiji and the black rhino, for Lohachara Island and the Ellesmere ice shelf, and our victories consist of slowing the rate of devastation a trifle, of finding occasional lone and hopeless survivors of species declared extinct a bit too soon. We read of the devastation and cluck in shame to ourselves and have another 200,000 babies each day. Children are our future. Each and every one of them the future. A bleak future indeed for all but rats and pigeons.

And for the coyotes. The coyotes will survive almost anything we might do to this world: that is solace. They sang to me tonight as I walked downhill in darkness. This was a good year: among the swelling billions of pestilential humans are a few dozen cherished friends. This year saw me soften: I am a little more hopeful than I was a year ago, more persuaded that some of us might see past the petty bickerings among minor subgroups within one species in five million, might rise past our superficial, transitory divisions to stop the damage to the planet we depend on. It is a long shot still.

Ecology is a science that can wreak inner transformations on the scientist: it demands sensitivity to variable conditions, and one learns that adherence to ideology in the face of contravening facts is the mother of unintended consequences. Patriots, or Christians, or radical feminists, Marxists or Theorists or Libertarians or misanthropes, racists or progressives, we determine our opinions by whether they fit the labels we apply to ourselves, but there are more people now who turn that on its head. Some of us are listening for the coyotes. Some of us look to learn what is instead of determining what must be. We are in a small minority, but we are more than we were. Night-walking the forest, one places each foot with deliberation. Counting on the rhythm of your stride will pitch you off the edge.

New Year's Eve Moon And now and then a break in the canopy offers up some light.

Welcome to el Norte, kids.

This is old news, but it just now came to my attention thanks to nezua at The Unapologetic Mexican and Brownfemipower.

Staff at a privatized prison in Taylor, Texas have, presumably under orders of management, been fingerprinting the babies of detained immigrants.

Is this at the behest of the Department of Homeland Security? Troubling. Or is it a corporate program, with the fingerprints going into a private database? Just as troubling.

Of course if it’s a private initiative, the Libertarians won’t have a problem with it. As long as the Invisible Hand doesn’t get fingerprinted.

More fascinating information about me me me

I’ve got about a sixth of my book collection catalogued at LibraryThing, so if you’re at all interested in the precise nature of the clutter Becky has to contend with, go take a look. I’ll be entering the rest of the library as time permits. And with the CueCat, I don’t even have to let the NSA know what I’m reading: the machine takes care of that for me. So convenient!

On the front-page sidebar, I’ve got a link to a random ten books from my library which will stay there until I get annoyed with it. If you happen to buy one of the books after clicking on the cover graphic, I get a minor kickback. For what it’s worth.

Thought, learned, and/or experienced in the course of today’s climb to the summit of Mount Diablo

-A good pair of leather hiking boots requires some time to break in. The fact that you wore them on a painful hike to the summit in August and on several dog walks and shopping trips since will not guarantee a pain-free hike if you wear them to climb Diablo, at least not in the final eight miles of the hike.

– On a winter day after a rain, you might be able to recognize Half Dome from the summit of Mount Diablo without binoculars, despite its location more than 130 miles away.

-When said visit to summit coincides, within a margin of error of 400 feet, with your marking 100,000 feet climbed during hikes in 2006, that fact and the soreness of your feet from the not-yet-broken-in boots combine with the view of gray Half Dome 130 miles east to produce a feeling of contentment that is really rather pleasant.

-On at least one occasion, a flock of more than 150 robins has flown twelve feet above a hiker resting supine alongside the Juniper Trail on Diablo’s west summit ridge.

-The Trader Joe’s trail mix that contains pineapples and cranberries mixed with nuts claims to provide 150 calories per serving, according to the nutritional information on the small bag of trail mix you’ve brought along.

-That same nutritional information panel tells you that the small bag contains 15 servings. You are suddenly no longer hungry.

-When you rest on your way up Mitchell Canyon, you will eventually notice that the manzanita across the road from you is blooming prettily. When you stop to air out your throbbing feet in Mitchell Canyon on your way down, you will eventually notice that the red-flowering currant across the road from you is blooming prettily. You reflect on how rarely you have stopped along this trail without finding some nearby thing worth looking at for some minutes. You dismiss the notion that the trail is replete with interesting things, deciding instead that you possess a secret super-power.

-On your way into the canyon at the beginning of your hike you eat your first miner’s lettuce leaf of the season. You reflect that you can do so safely because dogs are not allowed on the trail. The same reflection flits through your tired mind later when you assume the little dog prints in the mud belong ot the local coyote.

-Your hike marks 410 miles hiked in 2006, a record. It is your 14th successful summit attempt on Diablo in 2006, the 18th in your life. It is the 22nd time in 2006 you have at least made it to Deer Flat.

-There are two more hiking days left in 2006.

Caring and sharing

The best part of having an aging, disabled dog has to be the random expressions of kindness and concern from passing strangers.

This morning, for instance, as Becky and I were walking with Zeke down San Pablo Avenue in downtown Pinole, an older blonde woman who was driving down the street in a light blue American-made sedan took the trouble to pull over to the curb, roll down her passenger-side window and wait for us to come abreast of her. This showed some patience on her part: it took a few minutes for us to get that far. (Zeke walks slowly on the best day, and his back legs were a little achy this morning before he’d worked out the kinks.) When we got up to where the woman was idling, she started talking to us in a German-accented voice full of concern. I was frankly taken aback by the overflowing compassion in her voice as she screamed at us that we needed to take Zeke to a doctor.

In partial repayment of her kindness, I attempted to assuage her concerns by telling her that Zeke sees the vet a couple times a month. Her response, overwhelming in its caritas and agape and just flat out bonhomie, was to interrupt me in mid-sentence to tell me that our not having put Zeke to sleep might indicate some serious moral defect on our parts of which we might not be aware. I attempted to thank her sincerely for her concern for our inner well-being and for her instantaneous drive-by veterinary consultation, but the fervor of her caring was so great that she interrupted me mid-sentence again, and yet again after that.

Touched to my core, I responded to her graciousness by trying to bond with her. After considering her apparent Teutonic heritage, as inferred from her accent, I spoke one or two heartfelt Anglo-Saxon words and turned away, trying to get Zeke back into the park. Becky continued to speak with the woman in a boisterous tone, explaining Zeke’s history and current medical care regimen and the magnitude of our veterinary bills, tears of joyful fellowship streaming down her face. The raw emotion was more than I could bear, so I appproached the woman’s car again. I expressed the profound degree to which I was touched by her affecting my wife so deeply, and asked whether she might not enjoy being rewarded for her caring by my affecting her in like fashion. But other obligations callled, and with a final sentence of concern over our moral states she sped off.

This is the third time I have had such a conversation regarding Zeke’s well-being, though it is the first Becky has been privileged to witness. Really, I don’t think I can withstand more of this kindness without breaking down altogether. I am privileged to live in a town that possesses so much raw talent at veterinary diagnosis, to the degree that people can contravene the diagnoses and recommendations of Zeke’s regular vet without even checking his pulse. To think we could have saved all that money spent on bloodwork and pain control and chicken breast strips with glucosamine! I’ve been at a loss for a proper way to respond to such kindness.

Until now. I think it’d be nice, when greeted by the next passerby who engages in such fervent freelance veterinary practice, to offer likewise to provide them with a little stochastic orthodontia. I think it’s the least I can do.

End of year

It all gets stripped away in time. Layer after layer peeled off, one skin and then another, until what is left?

The moon shining like gauze on San Pablo Bay.

Another year, and I have likely seen more than I have yet to spend. Doors unopened and trails not trod, promises left lingering on bare coffeehouse tables, and what is left?

The bay gleams pale silver under the oblique moon.

They are asleep and I have walked out. Some nights like this I have lain on the ground blanketed in stars, the cold a comfort. In the outback it is all home, every square inch, and I am just another small, flickering light against a dark sky.

In town it is not so simple. I will walk away from the dark in a while, back through the streets to the house where they sleep, and the chill that would have lulled me to sleep in the Mojave will be a cramp in my leg.

We wait these days. We wait. He is healthy enough, merely disabled. He cannot be left alone for more than two or three hours. In eleven days Becky’s job resumes, and I must make a decision. We wait.

I can smell the creosote off the railroad ties tonight. I smelled them on cold air the night before I first came home, sleeping in a Wyoming ditch when the rides stopped. Two books and a rock in my pack, and what do I have now after a quarter century? Becky, and Zeke, and aside from them nothing but things.

The next day in Wyoming I rode a bus.  It was in the middle of an oil boom. A roughneck a few years older say next to me for a couple hundred miles, describing life on the rigs, warning me away from drinking in Evanston bars. The sun slid down into the Great Basin and we followed, the walls of Parley’s Canyon flashing past, and I began my life on the Pacific Slope that night.

Aside from Becky and Zeke, I have gained nothing but things since that night. In the wind and moonlight I am the same, as the lights shimmer in Sonoma and Marin I am the same, as the New Year’s Flood rolls down Pinole Creek to meet the brine and the pole tilts slightly toward the sun, white gravel along the path in tonight’s shadow becomes twice-melted snow of a childhood February, the Dog Star reflects in brimming creek and I fold my collar up against the wind blown down my neck I am the same, the same vague man who peered out at midnight salt flats wondering when his life would start.

Last night’s wind storm took down a few of the acacia trees along the levee. In the moonlight I could see the splintered heart, stress fractures in the still-living wood. It will be some days before the branches realize they are dead.

A Gerald Ford story you won’t read in the obits

A little bit of Bay Area history on Oliver Sipple, who risked his life to prevent Sara Jane Moore from shooting President Ford in September 1975:

A despairing Sipple told reporters: “I want you to know that my mother told me today she can’t walk out of her front door because of the press stories.” He insisted: “My sexual orientation has nothing to do with saving the President’s life.” Apparently President Ford thought it did. There was no invitation to the White House for Sipple, not even a commendation. Milk made a fuss about that. Finally, weeks later, Sipple received a brief note of thanks.

Exposure was too much for Sipple. Already listless, he drifted into alcoholism and drug dependency, finally taking his own life.

[Update: in comments, Nicholas Whyte rebuts this story persuasively.

Also in comments, first-time CRN commenter Brian Mackey whines that it has taken me several hours to update this post to reflect Nick’s comments. I apologize for spending time offline with Zeke and Becky during Becky’s winter break, enjoying what are likely the last few days we all have together without obligation before Zeke isn’t around any more, rather than updating this post immediately so that people who are uninclined to read comment threads may have come away misinformed about a minor facet of a dead president’s administration.

I further apologize for the fact that I’m now going back to that family time-spending thing. Brian, if you could do me a favor and tell yourself to bite me, I’d greatly appreciate it, you know, from a time management perspective. Thanks in advance.]

Who said Compassionate Conservatives don’t exist?

When I read about the poor deluded guy in Bakersfield who tried to burn himself to death as a political protest, my first thought was gratitude that he suffered only first-degree burns, and that he was at least more likely to get some help as a result of his actions.

My second thought was to remember my recent viewing of the film The Fog Of War, in particular the part where former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara recalls the suicide by immolation of Norman Morrison, outside McNamara’s office, to protest the war in Vietnam. McNamara was quite palpably affected by Morrison’s act. Even a generation later he could not discuss Morrison, even with preparation and in front of Errol Morris’ camera, without weeping.

I have reviled McNamara my whole life as the embodiment of Arendtian banality, and his internal torment as displayed in the film — much as he might have brought it on himself, and much as it pales before the suffering he caused in life — still touched me.

Still. If you’d told me ten years ago that some soulless reactionaries would eventually make Robert McNamara look like a bleeding-heart liberal, I would have thought you were nuts.

How can people actually say such things in public?


I’m writing this on 12/24, and you’re almost certainly reading it on or after the morning of the 25th. Happy holidays! For those of you who received your first internet as a gift this morning, and have just now fired it up and come to see what this Creek Running North thing is you’ve heard so much about in the supermarket checkout lines, welcome! I think you will find the online world as rewarding a time-suck as the rest of us have. Gabba gabba!

One of the first things you should look at is Wampum, home of (in addition to some top-notch reporting on Native issues, autism, and politics in general) the Koufax Awards. The Koufaxes are an open-source, user-generated celebration of the best the left blog world has to offer, and nominations are opening very shortly at the new Koufax Awards site

Mary Beth Williams and Eric Brunner-Williams and Dwight Meredith run the Koufaxes each year for free. And by “for free” I mean they spend money to do so. It’s a net loss to them. Once in a while they ask for help to defray particular expenses. One such particular expense happened a couple months ago: they decided it would be nice to have a better generator to run the Koufax servers off the grid. (MB and Eric host the servers in their house, which‘s house has wheels on it and four kids in it.) [Note update/correction quoted a couple paras down.] I mentioned that Creek Running North readers who value the Koufax Awards might consider donating to the generator fund. That suggestion was buried all the way down at the bottom of this post, and yet CRN readers sent in, according to MB, enough to buy the generator. Which eventually started working the way they expected it to. (Long story.)

Few things have touched me lately the way CRN readers’ response to that generator ask did.

If Wampum wasn’t hosting the Koufaxes, they’d be a perennial finalist in the “Deserving of Wider Recognition” category. Each year the left blogworld descends on Wampum en masse for the Koufaxes, and then after we all win (because we all do!) their readership drops again. Surges in readership are mixed blessings, as I found out this year when the entire internet decided to download a four meg PDF graphic novel I’d put together to make Michael and Amanda chuckle. When that many people check your website a few times an hour, with many of them trying to vote for people by leaving comments, it can strain the web servers something fierce. The cheaters, and they do exist, make it worse.

And thus, MB has been asking politely for the funds to replace two of their servers’ hard drives, which they suspect are not quite up to handling the predicted traffic. (There were certainly times during last year’s Koufaxen when speed at their site was akin to molasses in Bangor in February.) MB and Eric and Dwight have committed to running the Koufaxes even if they have to use their old drives, even if they start smoking like overheated Tesla Coils. (The servers. Not the bloggers. Although it is a lot of work.)

[Update: Eric, in comments, offers a clarification, 95 percent of which I understand. I quote it here for your convenience:

One minor correction. The servers are in Bangor ( and Portland ( Maine, and their electrical needs are met, as are their bandwidth needs, in the colo space Steve Gilbert is gracious enough to provide (in return for some technical assistance I provide him).

We provision the servers with “content” (the gorp I write, MB’s work) and manage the blog-and-drupal and their respective servers from an off-grid point in space, presently proximal to Vandenberg AFB, about 50’ from the mean high tide line, where a generator has been a blessing.

The disks will allow me to switch on three more servers, and seperate the sql from the http, and be a _lot_ calmer about playing mix-n-match with two-or-more mutually incompatible configuration requirements, on two-or-fewer actual platforms.

If we go over on the disk ask (be still my heart!) I need a terminal server to I can (finally, again) have console access to the quarter-rack, and turn one into a border router (so I can null-route all the ips the spam-bots come in on, and de-spam upstream of the http and sql servers.

being ./’d by the A list nominees and (due to the elevated link count) being targeted by the drone armies of spam-bot is a lot easier to cope with/defend against with more than two operational nodes.



pro forma close brackets thingie. Resume original post:

And no one’s really stepping up to toss cash their way this time, perhaps because MB is embarrassed to bleg too hard. So I’m blegging here. I know a lot of you were very generous when it was time to pony up for the generator. I know there are lots of demands on your attention these days, not to mention your bank balance.

But here’s the thing: the hard drives Eric’s got his eye on cost less than half what the generator cost. I’d rather not ask again myself, but the thought of having basically no one respond to a call for funds for those hard drives, while we all know full well that people will give the Wampum folks a serious hard time if the servers go out during the nominations and voting, well… I’d like to help try to make their good deeds go unpunished this year. They could just throw up their hands and say the lack of funding signifies a lack of interest. But we all know better than that.

So thank you once again, those of you who did CRN proud by stepping up to the plate to meet that last Koufax pitch. (Yes. I did. Sorry.) If you can toss a little more cash MB’s way, or if you missed the last go ‘round, and you like the Koufax awards — if you plan to nominate a blog or a post for an award, or if you expect someone will nominate you — go to MB’s Amazon honor system page and divest yourself of a few dollars. There’s a PayPal option too, with a link from Wampum’s front page. Though some people have had problems with PayPal of late.

And if you’re tapped out but you want to help somehow and you have a blog, you might mention this there. Feel free to cut and paste.

I said this a couple months ago, and I still mean it.  More than any other single online event, the Koufax Awards builds a remarkable unity and camaraderie across the left-progressive-feminist blog world. MB and Eric and Dwight have enough things to sink their cash into, and there isn’t as much positivity on our side as there ought to be. They do important work for very little recognition. Let’s help them out.

Compost turning

You who think of gardens as tranquil refugia from death’s entropic gaze, you who think of delving the soil as a peaceful pursuit, you likely have clean fingernails. There may be more individual suffering represented in a loaf of whole wheat bread than in a leather jacket, as anyone will tell you who has plowed under winter stubble.

The compost was alive this morning when I lifted the lid from the bin.  The top foot of it, mainly rabbit manure and hay with a few egg shells mixed in, was powdery gray and crawling with ants. Beneath them, hiding from the dim winter sun a quarter inch below the surface, were sowbugs. The compost was loose, friable. Really, it was ready to put in the garden beds, and I turned it into the new bin instead mainly out of duty: I had not turned this pile all year. The stuff was fine and dry. It fell through my pitchfork tines. Once I’d taken a few forksful the old bin was in turmoil, disturbed out of its December drowse. Ants hurried to carry eggs to safety. Sowbugs tumbled over and under flakes of hay like polar bears on floes too small to support them. I kept shoveling.

The bin is beneath a coast live oak, prime salamander habitat, and so I do not stab randomly at the pile with the fork. I have blunted the tines, and I slide them gently beneath the compost and lift. I speculate that this will give slippery amphibians a better chance of escaping my delving without injury, and it is easier on my back besides. A third of the way through the pile today I saw a small hole open up, about half an inch across, and something moving hurriedly away from the light. I put the fork down, expecting an arboreal salamander or an Ensatina to emerge, perhaps a slender salamander, and then the thing poked its head out of the hole again, regarded me anxiously with its black bead eyes, long whiskers quivering against dark brown fur.

It leapt out of the hole and scampered toward the back corner of the pile, where the bin backs up against the fence, and squeezed down between them.

We had lots of mice in our compost pile in Richmond, to the point where Zeke would wag his tail furiously and jump with excitement when he saw me grab the pitchfork. It was doggie Whack-A-Mole time, and he’d shove his face between the tines and the pile, grabbing as many mice as he could. I didn’t really mind the interference. It slowed me down. On one day without Zeke, a fork thrust into the compost emerged with a little mouse impaled, speared through the abdomen and shoved about four inches along a center tine, wriggling. I pulled it off with a gloved hand, as gently as I could, intending to put it out of its misery. It bit at my glove — can’t say I blame it — and ran away to die in some dark corner of the garden. I spent half an hour that afternoon dulling the tines with a four-way file.

If there is a single species that sparks most often my internal conflict between compassion and reality, it… well, it would be human beings, of course. But after that, definitely mice. There are people who harbor fears of vermin, who shudder viscerally at the naked tail and dirty-colored fur and stealthiness and turds in the silverware drawer. I am not one of those people. True, my image of mice has been tainted by close association with Norway rats, who — though confused with mice in many minds — are orders of magnitude friendlier, more loyal and affectionate and intelligent than mice. That said, I have to admit that mice are, to a first approximation, the definition of cute.  And my usual interaction with them consists of killing them. I’ve lost track of my body count. It’s in the three figures, about half of that lifetime accumulation of bad karma having been earned in four years in that house in Richmond.

Some people can’t bring themselves to kill them. You can buy little live traps in which you catch the mice, take them to “the wild” and release them, the theme song from “Born Free” playing in your head. Despite the sentimentality, this is not a good idea. They die prompt and usually agonizing deaths outside their natural habitat. House mice, members of species Mus musculus, have coevolved with Homo sapiens  for the last several millennia. Their natural habitat is not the woods. It’s your house. Or your garden and compost pile.

Or your cultivated field, for that matter, where they thrive in the landscape most disturbed, if not devastated, by human activity. (Even a parking lot is not plowed twice a year.) They eat weed seeds and insects, a boon to farmers, and fruit and grain, for which they are often reviled. They burrow in the loose cultivated soil, and many are thus killed when the field is plowed, hence the remark above about suffering in your whole wheat bread. (Figure a pound of wheat per loaf, thus sixty loaves per bushel, thus about 3,000 loaves from a fertile acre, and while mouse population densities greater than 3,000 per acre are high enough that the farmer would likely be frantically emailing her Extension Agent to send over a tractor-trailer full of little plastic humane traps so that she could release them all in downtown Bakersfield, they are not, strictly speaking, unheard of. Even 3,000 per acre is a paltry number compared to some years. In 1926 and 1927, mouse densities on Central Vallley farms exceeded 80,000 per acre. No typo: eighty thousand per acre.

My compost pile this morning had a mouse population not even a quarter that dense: just 19,360 per acre. Which given that my compost bin has a three by three footprint works out to four mice. The second one, another gray adult, jumped out of the bin with my next careful forkful. It sat atop the pile cleaning its face blearily for a moment, and ran off toward the brush pile. “Good luck with the cats,” I thought. “Stay out of the house, or else Becky will make me kill you.” (Becky isn’t fearful of mice, only of hantavirus.) The third was smaller and black, an adolescent, and it clambered down the plastic side of the bin and hid beneath the pallet on which the bin sits. I didn’t set out to evict a family when I started this chore, I thought, and then the youngest sibling emerged.

It had charcoal fur, a body smaller than a table grape, and eyes that were somehow bright and black at the same time. It walked toward me, sniffed at me from the edge of the pile. I laid my gloved hand behind her, palm up. She stepped on calmly. (I decided without checking that she was female.) She was beautiful; clean-looking, well-proportioned, clearly still growing. I lifted my hand. She began, rather calmly for a wild mouse who has just been caught by someone who kills mice, to wash her face. I reached up slowly with my other hand, stroked her head and spine slowly, gently with a gloved fingertip. She did not flinch. After a moment I lowered her toward the leaf litter beneath the oak. She didn’t want to go, clambering up my wrist and almost down into the glove. But then she changed her mind, dropped down onto the leaves, walked into the brush pile.

I can always finish turning that pile tomorrow.

Harquahala Chapter Eight

The most recent, long-awaited-by-three-or-four-people chapter in my sporadic fiction blog Harquahala is up now. Probably needs editing. (God knows the first chapter does. If you haven’t read the story so far, it gets better after chapter one, I promise.)