Monthly Archives: January 2008


You would not recognize us if you saw
us now, a year along and tattered, worn
down by survivor’s tasks, bereaved and cold.
You were the thread that sutured us. You were
the flaxen chain that bound us, each bright link
now sundered, planets once in your orbit
cast out, careering in the void. You once
sat at our hearth, refulgent. Now I pull
bright golden hair from the upholstery
as we contest its ownership. This is
the fate of all loves: casting lots to fix
the destiny of joint possessions, things
once wholly yours. A year on, we discuss
which one of us should keep them when I go.


The bridge across the Gate awash in rain. Victoria’s Requiem is playing, the chorus’ major sixths ascending the tall towers, pinnacles of refined sorrow and they carry my heart with them. I cross the Californian aorta, the main way from the Californian heart, the Bay of San Francisco and it beats still, but faintly.

Each year brings with it rain, and rain freshens the rivers that at last flow out the Gate, and the salmon hold until the water tastes right to them. There were millions of them, not long ago, and I have talked to men who remembered watching salmon harvested with pitchforks. From the ocean they came, the Californian sacrament, leering monsters from the deep set on wriggling their way past the mouth of the creek I live on, up through the Delta and the Valley, to fling themselves onto the cobble bars of Sierra Nevada rivers, food for grizzlies and condors and people. They sacrificed their lives so their young might live, and smolts tumbled down the streams each year into the Delta.

There were three runs each year, or four, depending on how you count them, great pulses of Chinook into the rivers for their young to tumble down in turn.

Thousands of miles of spawning beds reached by the Gate, a watery hand with a hundred fingers, and one by one we chopped those fingers off. The dams went in. Snowmelt languished in dull reservoirs, and downstream the winter and spring run chinook staggered. Those runs are a historical curiosity now. The spring run on the San Joaquin River is extinct: the San Joaquin’s slack, piss-river tributaries are, below their respective dams, far too warm for spawning in spring. The Sacramento spring run and the Winter runs on both branches of the Central Valley watershed are not far behind. It is the fall run of Chinook that has survived so far to keep Central California a salmon country. That run is a fraction of its historic size, but still a quarter million fish a year.

But not this year. The fall run of Chinook into the Central Valley has collapsed.

I cross the opening of a dead heart, and Tomás Luis de Victoria’s grief a half-millennium old is near too much to bear. They have fallen, there below me, kept from the mountains we have so betrayed. Oh, my mountains. Unto you all flesh once came, dug redds in streambeds, mixed milt and egg with meltwater, brought life out of the gravel. They are falling now, the last of them. The bay constricted and intoxicated, salmon smolts sucked by millions into turbines, their water shipped to the desert to grow cotton, billion-dollar concrete aqueducts running past rivers dry in summer, fish curling in the sun on the bottoms.

Dies irae, dies illa, solvet saeclum in favilla. The soul of California’s land and water and we are losing them. Dona eis requiem.



Marc Bousquet interviews Michael on the “Academic Bill of Rights.”


Nature photography

I’ve been poring over the photo catalog the last 48 hours or so, seeing images I’d forgotten, cast back into times I’d left.

Some of the images that say the most to me are the ones I might have thrown away, were I a purist. A blurred glimpse of butterfly speeding across the field of vision as I struggled to follow it with the long lens, the Mojave sun backlighting it into incomprehensibility. Feedlots in evening glow, blurred as I aimed, steadied, and shot one-handed, my other hand on the wheel at 80 mph. A perfect Calochortus with a thick blade of grass in front of it, out of focus.

Elk in a fenced-in side yard, spools and fallen chain link underfoot.

Among the best, in terms of composition: a puma seen from behind, relaxing. To call it a “nature photo” might cause some disagreement. It’s a zoo puma, and while shooting photos of captive animals still requires talent and skill, it’s a lot easier than photographing animals out running around. And on the outside of the zoo walls, when you do find animals, they’re far more likely to be doing something worth documenting. But try getting a shot like the one of that zoo puma, in the wild, with a 50 mm lens. And when you try, be sure to turn the camera’s shutter sound setting to “off.”

The important thing is to be honest about where you caught the image. If it’s a parking lot raven, don’t pretend you stalked a less-habituated gal out in the roadless desert. A few years back, a nature magazine caught hell for splicing a few extra zebras into their herd for their cover photo without saying so. If you’re pretending at documentation, be honest. That kind of purism is mere ethical behavior.

But some nature photo purism is just misguided. It’s not even all that pure…

Continue reading

Notes from the world of arts

Note the first: Prints for sale

On consideration of some of the response I got in the Marketing Survey, I have found a contractor with whom I have entrusted my photos. Looks like they’ll do a good job of printing them. You can have them ship you prints ranging from card size to 12” by 18”. (That’s as large as RedBubble will go with images from my measly eight megapixel Canon, which inspires me with some confidence toward their attitude toward quality control. Of course, if someone has a ten megapixel or greater digital camera lying around unused they feel like lending me, we could go up to 16” by 24”.)

Prints are available in laminated, matted, canvas or framed form. I set my markup so that I get about a third of what you spend, which seems reasonable. I’d like to make some cash, sure, but I also don’t want to keep things out of reach of my more penurious readers. At this markup, cards are about five bucks and prints start at 21 or so.

And thanks to commenter Kay for the lead to RedBubble. Looks like an active, interesting community of artists there. I think we need to coax Carl to set up shop over there, don’t you?

Note the second: Autography

The Theriomorph is spearheading a new collaborative arts project, Autography. From her description:

Self portraiture can be uncomfortable.

It requires a level gaze directed inward with the goal of communicating something to others.

This can be a vulnerable thing: in trying to capture a transient moment or a larger life, a story is exposed.

This blog is about those stories; ambiguous, personal, and universal.

Instructions for participants can be found at the project blog.

Note the third: annoying promotional teaser

Be sure to watch this space for a potentially exciting Zeke-related announcement. Tell your friends.

CRN marketing survey

Death Valley, January 2005

In comments on a recent post, evil fizz asks:

Chris, do you offer prints of your work?

This is something I’ve been considering for a while, as I do have a few images people have asked about, some of which actually work in print as opposed to the far more blur-forgiving online display mode.

So I’ve been looking around at the print-selling options available online, and have narrowed the possibilities down a bit. I kinda like the features this regrettably flash-heavy site offers, for instance. Looks like I could offer prints for sale by paying about 30 bucks a month in rent, more or less. Looks like the going market rate for an 8 by 10 generally runs about the same, or a little less. If I sold a print or two a month I’d break even. Seems doable.

But before I pursue it further, due diligence requires a bit of market research. Hence this focus group. Help me come to some sort of resolution, won’t you? You can register your point of view in the poll below. Feel free to enlarge upon it in comments.

Icterus parisorum

Scott’s oriole is one of the birds most often mentioned in the context of Joshua tree forests, and I spent about eight years in Joshua tree forests not seeing them. First one I ever saw was in 2005, a ways down inside the Grand Canyon a couple hundred miles from the nearest Joshua tree, and I didn’t see them in the J trees until one night in April 2006, on my way home from visiting Kat in Prescott, which would turn out to be my last night in the Joshua trees for more than a year. That night, there were dozens of them. Had they been absent before, for some reason? Had I just not seen them, though they were all around? That’s always possible for a fledgling birder like myself. Seeing that one in the Canyon may have provided me with the search image I had needed. I’ve been wondering about that since.

But today I found I was just looking in the wrong place.

He also slew Memnon, son of the first morning light

We come into this world at the nadir of our strength, vulnerable to falls, neglect, death dealt by warm breezes. We can neither assess nor comprehend our surroundings. We discern threat from refuge no more expertly than a clam, a philodendron seeking comfortable temperatures without knowing why. We lack memories of our surviving past harms to reassure us.

We lack memory.

It is the beginning of it all, that natal ur-trauma. It is the moment in each person’s life when things first start to turn undeniably bad, and yet none of us remember it. There are people, admittedly, who claim to recall their own emergence from the previous world. They are generally selling something. A rude eviction into a cold and glaring world, awash in blood and shit and strangulating pain, the very fact of your arrival instilling agony in the person who loves you most, and every single one of us has forgotten it.

I have come to believe that that amnesia is the only reason we survive.

Memory is fire, and if you bank its coals tight you can tame it for a while, derive solace and instruction from a careful reading of the ash, but mind the sparks. You cannot catch them. They evade your hand, land on your shirt and set it to burning.

Memory is both shield and sword. Nine times in ten it makes pain worse, a thousand unhealed wounds opening up at the merest touch of the blade. Had Thetis chosen Lethe over Styx as her baptismal font, Achilles would have bandaged his foot and limped for a few weeks and lived.

Insult and injury conjoin. Remembered pain augments the pain of the moment, and the new pain tears at the sutures of the old, and soon you cannot determine which twinge, which ache belongs to which offense. Regard a desert valley abused for decades, cow-burnt, mown to the ground by starveling sheep, weed-sown with worthless Russian thistle. When the Army came in the 1950s they took this battered valley, Yucca Flat, and there they set off one nuclear weapon after another, a hundred atmospheric detonations to scour and poison the landscape.

Had the landscape of Yucca Flat not been previously injured, had it not borne the memory of injury as seeds waiting in its soil, Russian thistle might not have been the first thing to grow back at each Ground Zero. Had the bombs remained undetonated, the land might not have been cleared to make way for new Russian thistle. But both injuries happened in sequence, and the result: tumbleweeds spreading across the desert, radioactive with the memory of hellish fire.

Memory binds the chests of we who suffocate.

It is a shell, this memory, an exoskeleton, secreted flake by flake, offering us an illusory bit of refuge at the cost of freedom. We bear its burden. It is no armor, and pain swells us like sponges inside it. At last there is no more room to swell, the constriction becomes increasingly intolerable, until a loud crack rings out. The shell of memory is sundered, hangs on us in shards, and until new memories grow out of us and calcify there is a little room to move, a little room to breathe. The breeze can play a bit upon us, rake the hairs on the backs of our arms. Injury is more easily acquired without the shell, but the wounds air better.

I found myself alone one night ten years ago on the west slope of the Ozarks, cradled between two arms of the Canadian River, and the night like wet dark velvet covered me. No one I knew knew where I was, a single light a half-mile off casting a bright downward cone aswirl with moths, the sky an upward cone aswirl with stars. I felt roadside gravel sharp against my soles. I would have stayed there rapt — unmoving, stone wedged in heel — but for the memory of love and hunger, the memory that this comforting darkness would be brushed away impatiently, crumbs on dawn’s table.


When the ground shifts underfoot all you can do is ride it out.

There are places in the desert, blocks of earth rolled between tributary faults, where if you stood still for long enough the temblors would turn you slowly around. After tens of millions of years you would at last come around to face the direction you did when you started.

Is this home, still? We are talking. A hundred reasons to leave and one to stay. Omnia vincit amor and sows its salt, and the scorched earth calls me to it. The road I’d take if it all crumbled might be the best route anyway.

It is the hairline fractures that run deepest, the cracks near on invisible that rend the heart.

Ground truthing

In comments on this post, Spyder offered a plaintive observation:

In the year-end surveys on global climate change, one of the big 12 CA issues for the future was the potential loss (eventual extinction) of Joshua Trees.  If i can dig up the research report (i believe it came out the middle of December), it compiled an overview of how global climate change will likely impact CA over this century.  There were 12 worst case scenarios, and one of them regarded the demise of the species.  Say it ain’t so!

It is in fact so, and CRN reported here on the possibility that climate change may render Joshua trees extinct, due to the trees’ relative inability to disperse their offspring into viable new populations, meaning that the trees can’t migrate north to escape the worst of the augmented desert heat. As I mentioned in that post, the trees likely evolved to depend on large mammals such as the giant ground sloth to move their seeds to new places, and when the megafauna went extinct, so did the tree’s main method of dispersing its population. That’s conjecture, if well-supported. It’s not conjecture, however, that the trees depend on yucca moths in order to set seed at all. Joshua trees thrive well to the north of their native range: there’s a nice old one growing as a street tree in Fallon, NV, 200 miles north of the tree’s northern native limits. But unless populations of Joshua trees and yucca moths migrate in tandem, each population will go extinct.

From that previous CRN post, describing a poster Dr. Kenneth Cole, of the Colorado Plateau Research Station in Flagstaff, and several other scientists presented at a 2005 climate science workshop:

First, Cole and colleagues took what we know about current Joshua tree distribution:

20th Century Joshua tree distribution

…which is fairly accurate at this point: scientists have covered nearly every square mile of the plant’s habitat on foot, which wasn’t always the case. Then they took projections of future Mojave desert climate in a world with twice the atmospheric carbon dioxide we had in the 20th century, calculated the likelihood of Joshua tree survival due strictly to climatic factors, calculated the rate at which the trees disperse new seedlings to potentially more welcoming habitat, and mapped the species’ projected range in the mid-late 21st century.

Or they tried to. But the projections didn’t include any Joshua tree stands large enough to show up on the map. So they assumed that the trees would somehow disperse their seeds ten times more efficiently than they have been found to, and they got this map:

projected 21st Century Joshua tree distribution

Even in this extremely optimistic scenario, the Joshua tree will become extinct in Arizona and Utah. No Joshua trees will survive in Joshua Tree National Park, nor will these at my usual campsite on Cima Dome.

Soon after posting that a bit more than a year ago, I learned I’d misspoken. The data Cole and his associates were working with was, apparently, suspect. I took a closer look at the maps in the poster Cole et al. presented. It’s hard to gauge just where the green splotches are in the above maps, as only state and county lines are portrayed. So I took a portion of Cole et al‘s map and superimposed it on a National Geographic map of the same region:

AZ Yucca brevifolia range (alleged)

At first glance, the map looks roughly accurate: the trees along I-40 between Needles and Kingman are there, as well as the Pearce Ferry Road and Joshua Forest Parkway stands, a swath from Mesquite, NV to Beaver Dam, AZ at the top margin of the map, and some near the southern corner of Nevada by Laughlin.

Those last are problematic, though. There aren’t many Joshua trees that close to Laughlin. There are big stands about thirty miles north and east of there, but not in the Newberry Range where that splotch sits. And look more closely at the little spot just east of Yucca (and the BIG spot just east of Yucca is wrong, too, but let’s leave it):


That small patch centering on Wikieup is perplexing. There is one Joshua tree in Wikieup, that I know of, and it was planted by the owners of the general store to make their parking lot look more Wild-Westy. Another patch visible on the bigger map just east of that, on Burro Creek? No Joshua trees there.

And this is the kind of criticism I’ve heard of Cole’s report: the data are not ground-truthed. Much of what Cole’s maps show of the western part of the tree’s range is more or less accurate, though he has the trees heading too far south in Joshua Tree National Park, and there are a number of other discrepancies.

What does this mean for Cole’s conclusions? Well, given that his study was based on data that was unjustifiably optimistic in its assumptions about how many Joshua trees exist now, and given that he had to fudge by a factor of ten the ability of those Joshua trees to disperse, it means that his study, as bleak as it may seem, is almost uselessly optimistic. Given current thinking about climate change, unless we can figure out a way to assist the migration of both Joshua trees and their moth partners, as Connie Barlow is trying to do with Florida Torreya, it seems almost certain that Joshua trees will be extinct in the wild by the end of this century.

Unless we stop burning carbon the way we’re doing. But that would require actual inconvenience, so I don’t hold out much hope.