Monthly Archives: November 2007

The Blogging Thing versus the Book-Writing Thing

A year ago Friday I brought a month-long hiatus in this blog to an end. It was all really rather melodramatic. Some loser tried to get my goat by leaving a comment threatening Zeke. My goat was got. This joint got taken off-line for a few days while I sorted things out — resulting in more traffic than CRN had ever had before, or has had since. (This was, I will confess, a source of some rueful inner joking about readers responding when one gives them what they want.) And then I came back for a few days, realized I liked my time with Zeke better with the blog turned off, and went fishing for a month.

This had kind of an unexpected, delayed effect. One of the ways in which I have (dealt with my grief/tortured myself) about Zeke has been to read blog entries for the year before, committing what I could to deeper, long-term memory, chuckling over anecdotes I’d forgotten and such. And then November, and no anecdotes: a hole in the historical record.

And suddenly my blog got a whole lot less interesting to me. I started remembering that there were things called books, some of which were waiting for me to write them, and even more waiting vainly for me just to read them.

Then the trolls hit after CRN won that awards thing (a brief video of said awards victory can be seen here.)

So by the time our pal The Theriomorph announced her new and restricted publication schedule, I was primed to pay attention. Beth had already posted something thoughtful and provocative on the frequency of blogging issue, and I had been rolling it around in my mind. (Beth has posted another good one on the topic this week, too.)

I have an application for grant funding for the Joshua tree book due in a couple weeks, and I need to spend time looking for other ways to cover the expenses involved in finishing the book.  A lot of finishing involves just sitting in a chair and frowning at the keyboard for a few days, and that’s cheap. But there are places I need to go in the desert, and even camping is getting more expensive these days what with four-dollar-a-gallon gas. There’s a dissertation I’d really like to read for a small but important detail in one chapter I’m revising right now. No local libraries have it for copying, but I can score a copy for forty bucks if I order it from my desk at UCSF. Part of the research yet undone involves poring over Mormon pioneer diaries, which will likely mean a couple weeks of staying in Salt Lake City. There are important places I ought to visit that my 2-wheel drive pickup can’t quite handle: renting a 4WD for a couple days would make things easier. Interviewing Native elders often — if you want them to get the idea that you take them seriously and respect them —  involves the giving of gifts. I’ve got some fundraising to do, in short.

This work is going undone. I’ve been blogging instead.

I was talking with the e-faun last weekend about her decision. She told me about having done a kind of cost-benefit breakdown of her blogging, finding that it was, in effect, a distinctly poorly paid full-time job. And then she said “and I can’t even imagine how much time you spend on CRN, Chris.”

It was an interesting point. I kinda let the blog sit for a few days this week while I mulled it over.

Cost: I am putting essentially a full-time-plus work week into this blog, most weeks. This is probably why I flip out twice a year and take a break from blogging forever. (!!!1!) And between that and trying to earn some cash to pay the internet bill so that I can continue to blog, I haven’t been leaving myself much time or energy to write them books.

Benefit: The community, first and foremost, in ways both tangible and intangible, mainly having to do with emotional support in a sucky year, and with pleasant distraction in a sucky year. And occasional baked goods. There are other intangibles: immediate feedback on writing, a gift most writers in history have not enjoyed, illuminating discussions, and catharsis-by-troll-stomping. Unintangibles are somewhat more limited. A few folks have offered donations through the Amazon tip jar, and more have sent me gift books, and I’m moved deeply when that happens.

Mostly tangibles going out. Mostly intangibles coming back. It’s how hobbies work. No big deal. But once this becomes more than a hobby, The Theriomorph’s talk about abundance and scarcity starts to ring in especially profound tones.

As this conversation spreads slowly throughout our corner of the blog world, people are grappling with the prospect of scaling back their blog writing, sometimes markedly, in order to focus on those parts of life that provide more tangible returns, whether that’s writing books, or focusing on one’s day job, or whatever. And each person will have a different balance that seems right to them. And I’ve been spending the last week considering whether I ought to mothball the blog, at least for a few months. I love writing here, and my writing has gotten better writing here, and you people are one of the chief joys of my life. But well, one must sleep, and one must earn a living, and 30, 40 hours of blog maintenance atop that is draining in the best circumstances.

But I wonder if there isn’t a third way at least potentially available here, a way to take the Theriomorphic abundance model and make it work in this situation, to tap into the abundance generated by this community of people so that I can balance the book writing and the blogging without either one suffering.

It’s worked before, after all. About a year ago I asked people to chip in for a generator for the Wampum folks, and asked other people with blogs to add the appeal to their sites. I understand we covered the cost of the generator in a few hours. The year before that CRN spearheaded a multi-blog campaign to send Lauren to the BlogHer conference. We had airfare, hotel room, and Lauren’s lost wages paid for in 18 hours.

I have little problem asking people for money on others’ behalf. It’s much harder — mortifying, in fact — to rattle the tip jar for my own work. But I’m going to suck it up here and do just that.

I’m asking for your help in meeting the expenses involved in my finishing the Joshua tree book.

The budget is open-ended, because the project is open-ended. Twenty bucks would pay for half a tank of gas. Fifty would cover duplication expenses and postage for a relevant dissertation. Two hundred would cover living expenses for three weeks of field observation, or a few days’ room and board while I interview land managers in the USGS Las Vegas office.

You can donate at my Amazon tip jar with your major credit card. If you don’t like Amazon, you can email me for a mailing address.

If you’re a blogger and you think your readers might be interested in helping support writing of what will be the only mass-market book on the Joshua tree’s natural and economic history, its ecology and biology and ethnology, please consider mentioning this appeal to them on your blog.

If you’re unfamiliar with the kind of writing I do on desert issues, you can look in the “desert” category and browse around. Of recent posts, this one on piñon-juniper forests, or this one on a bit of eccentric desert lore, or this first-person narrative provide good examples of my related writing.

If you provide me with your name when you donate, I’ll be happy to mention you in the acknowledgments to the book.

The donation page is here.

Thank you.

jmartin has a question

Buried down in the comments on the previous post, jmartin posed a question to CRNians that I thought deserved more prominent display:

The short version: how can one bond children with nature and their environment, so that they will clutch at the treasures imperiled by climate change?

The long version: I run a nfp that brings new books and pleasure-reading to low-income kids in Chicago-area after-school programs. At our pilot site, we’ve built and staff a reading room (1000 books and growing), which operates as a free book store, and locus for book clubs and read-alouds.

Kids at the site are entirely unplugged from nature, the environment, or the science of either. Their town is imploded industrial; its empty lots, long abandoned factories, and swathes of train trestles generate a certain (toxic) sense of expansiveness.

Mediated experiences, like zoos and arboretums, don’t seem to have sparked any sustained interest. Kids page through some of our glossier animal encyclopedias and Earth From Above, but still don’t examine the world before them. Suggestions that we use field guides to find the area’s plants and animals: meh. I point out cloud formations, and the luxuriant rooster scratching in a dirt lot amid a sparrow flock. They shrug.

So: any ideas—from your own or another’s childhood— as to how to forge some connections? What rang your chimes, from ages 6 to 16?  If you can suggest experiences to be paired with print, that would be aces.

These kids are starving for beauty and wonder. (Not the wonder of “who else will climb in my window” that causes fourth grade girls to keep knives under their beds.) They need to track a dragonfly (oddly abundant this year), and examine a roadside sunflower, and even to love the possum—with his thousands of ineffectual teeth.

I answer, as briefly as possible, below the fold. Add your answer, at whatever length you like, in comments.

Continue reading


Rabbitbrush guards the entrance. There is ice on the wind, and yet my shirt is soaked through in front. The blinding cold sun does not enter the cleft but I do, pushing through a wall of scratching stems. Burrs coat my clothes and I am through.

The path is black, basalt sand sloping softly down into the fissure. The walls are three feet apart, thirty high. Then fifty. Then eighty. The walls at length seem to close over my head.

It is cold here under the earth.

I once walked down into the earth, chamber beneath deep chamber, until the path I was following disappeared beneath a cold, black pool. There was no light, no way of knowing how deep beneath the water the path continued, and almost certainly no air at the end of it. I felt reluctant to turn back nonetheless, momentarily ashamed at how easily I gave up.

It is cold here under the earth, and the fissure’s sloping floor surprisingly devoid of life. No animal sign, few plants. Seventy feet above me spiders have built desultory webs across the opening, silk strong as bridge cables, and one of the webs has caught a clump of feathers: a quail, perhaps, or a grouse caught by a hawk, and striped feathers tumble across the desert before the wind in the aftermath.

The walls are smooth, embedded fist-sized clumps of basalt, improbable granites. I round a twist: before me the way is blocked, twenty feet of sheer boulder to climb were I to continue.  A side path dwindles to a four-inch cleft, less than a hand’s breadth wide running fifty feet to the surface. I consider making myself small enough to pass, or — even better — wedging myself in tight, embedded in the earth for good. The feeling passes.

On the surface I jump across a narrow ditch, 18 inches at its widest, and turn back, suddenly curious. The ditch has no bottom. I find a small rock, toss it in. It makes no noise.

Thanksgiving over years

Earthquake come…. NOW

We got Zeke in 1991. That was the year we first cooked a Thanksgiving dinner, had a couple friends over. The next year the three of us were in a larger apartment, and we had about 20 people over on Thanksgiving — B’s relatives, mine, friends and coworkers with no other plans. We did it every year for a long time.

It might have been Zeke’s favorite time of year: a stretch of four days with neither of us going to work, two dozen or more of his friends coming over to visit, pounds of surreptitious treats snuck to him under the table. After a few years, I managed to train him to beg only from B and me. At least while we were watching. I never quite got the guests trained, though, and Thursday evenings Zeke would be lolling groggily, belly comically distended, getting up only to ask me for more pie.

And then there were the bits of meat and cartilage for the next few days as B cleaned the turkey carcass. The bird was consistently a few pounds larger than the dinner itself required — funny how that always worked out — and for Zeke, the result was that the holiday was usually of true Old World “feast” magnitude, indulgence spreading over days.

By the year before last he had grown tired, and though he tried gamely on Thanksgiving 2005 he could barely cope with my niece’s focused adoration. Last year the invitations to Thursday’s dinner expressly included the reminder that it would be Zeke’s last. Neither he nor I had much interest in the guests, or in the dinner: we spent more time walking in the park than socializing. He still wanted the leftovers, though: I had the bittersweet joy of bringing them to him while he rested over the next few days.

And now, leftovers is all that remains of this holiday. Getting in the truck tomorrow morning and heading for the desert. See you when it’s over.


I ran tonight the way you used to, fast
and quiet other than the slapping sound
of feet on pavement, ran like you’d have past
the shadows, each foot barely touching ground
and panting hard. In night, I run as though
you ran still by my side, peripheral
and fleeting flashes, come up from below
the soil to make our temporary whole.
The moon was out and silver, like it was
for us, and our exertions kept us warm,
steam off of skin. A sudden moonlit pause,
a void backlit by moon, familiar forms
scant feet away: The night deer’s placid stare
swept you from me, alone then, standing there.

Mail from Beth: a play in one act

sumac from beth

Chris: Ah. Mail’s here.

(Chris exits)

(Chris enters)

Chris: Wow! Something from Beth! What could it be? It’s an odd-shaped package. So thin.

Thistle: It’s mine.

Chris: Hush.

(Chris opens package)

Thistle: What did she send me?

Chris: She didn’t send you anything. She sent me a leaf.

Thistle: She sent YOU a leaf? Yeah, right. Give it to me.

Chris: It’s

Thistle: Give it to me NOW.

Chris: It’s a sumac leaf. It’s not good for you.

Thistle: I want it.

Chris: See?

(Thistle sniffs the leaf.)

Thistle: Ew.

Chris: I told you.

Thistle: That’s a bad leaf.

Chris: It’s related to poison oak, and it’s probably

Thistle:  I hate that leaf.

Chris: Ah, there’s something else in here, in some manila paper.

(Chris pulls the manila paper out of the package. A red oak leaf falls out of the paper, fluttering to the carpet.)

Thistle: GROWR!

(Thistle leaps on oak leaf, begins eating it.)

Chris: Hey!

(Chris reaches down, takes leaf away from Thistle.)

Thistle: Hey!

Chris: Aw, it’s a red oak! I haven’t seen one of these in

Thistle: Give that back now.

Chris: It’s not even for you, and I just want to look

Thistle: It’s mine. I’m not finished eating it.

Chris: Simmer down, bun-bun.

Thistle: GIVE. IT. BACK. NOW.

Chris: Ha. Poor bun-bun.

Thistle: No, seriously, listen. GIVE ME BACK MY LEAF.

Chris: Stop it.

Thistle: Give it back or I’ll fucking cut you, man.

Chris: No you won’t.

Thistle: I have a knife.

Chris: You do not.

Thistle: I have a knife, and I’ll stab you in the eye if you don’t give me back my goddamn leaf.

Chris: You don’t have a knife.

Thistle: I meant to say gun. I have a gun. It looks like a knife.

Chris: Yeah, right. Go eat some kibble.

Thistle: Look. I asked nicely. Now give me my fucking leaf.

(Thistle pulls out knifegun)

Chris: Hey! Put that away!

(Thistle aims knifegun at Chris’ eye)

Thistle:  The leaf. If you don’t mind.

Chris: Um, OK. Here.

(Chris hands Thistle the oak leaf.)

Thistle: About fucking time, man.

(Thistle eats the leaf.)

Chris: You’re really pushing your luck, bunny rabbit. You forget that I can

Thistle: Shut up and give me the other leaf.

Chris: You don’t want it.

(Thistle pulls out the knifegun again.)

Chris: Sigh.

(Chris offers Thistle the sumac leaf.)

Thistle: Ew! That’s disgusting! What are you trying to do to me?

Chris: Whatever.

Thistle: Give me the manila paper. I want it.

Chris: Fine.

(Chris hands the manila paper to Thistle.)

Thistle: I HATE this paper!

(Thistle tears the manila paper to shreds, angrily, and with loud growling noises.)


(This play is a faithful portrayal of actual events. All dialogue is verbatim and everything here actually happened exactly this way, and only a couple things were embellished very slightly.)

The Lost Country, part two

John Muir was no purist. Were he to come upon me now, in a once-wild corner of his ranch, using a piece of unimaginable technology to publish photos of live oak barks and lichen for the world to read in moments, the engineer in him would likely have been entranced.

He tamed this land, as fond of wild land as he was. He planted fruit trees and sold the produce, making himself rich. His old house is here, behind this forest and downhill, and yet in this spot he could have lingered, his house near but obscured, and gazed out across a near-wild landscape to Suisun Bay, steamers on it bound for Sacramento laden with passengers and hay.

The miners lettuce is in week-old sprout today. Rain looms, a day away, and flickers argue with acorn woodpeckers down the hill. This much would be familiar to him still, and the wasp-galled oaks perhaps a bit changed in a century — some of them grown, some gone.

They named the highway below to honor him, four noisy lanes of John Muir Freeway, and if he headed east on it along the levee tops, past the refineries that block my current view of Suisun Bay, past the swelling suburbs of the Mother Lode, he would come to Calaveras Big Trees State Park, to Ebbets Pass in the High Sierra.

Muir championed the establishment of wild parks, of refuges for his beloved Big Trees and glaciated granite, and his vision in that regard has largely borne fruit as well. And I suspect that he would second-guess himself today. Mount Wanda, this place where he sauntered among wild and familiar oaks, has been set aside in perpetuity for contemplation and rejoicing in the unbuilt world. I do so here today, under a freeway din with one of our most deadly industries on the plain below, and everywhere around the press of houses.

We have preserved these parks as one preserves the shards of sculptures left after the looters have moved in.

A bit of palate cleansing

For your perusal: an historical document pertaining to some of what is good and wholesome in American culture.


And one more, because we can.


More evidence for my contention that Billy Zoom is a replicant. Or maybe that’s my friend Matthew’s contention. It’s been 25 years, and I don’t remember.