Monthly Archives: November 2008


I’ve found a spot of connectivity and time to put together a couple of link lists, including an updated version of the blogroll from my former blog, Creek Running North. You’ll see them in the right column here. (If you’re using a screenreader, you’ll find them at the end of the page.)

I’ve broken the list into sections for desert writers, other desert/coyote links (the “dogroll”), and the basic blogroll. Feel free to suggest additions in comments. What have you been reading lately that’s good? Have I missed any obvious desert writers or constructive, well-written, non-obnoxious blogs?

Review: Trespass, Amy Irvine

It’s not surprising that Amy Irvine’s erstwhile neighbors in Utah’s San Juan County have supplied some of the harshest online reviews of her book Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land, released earlier this year.  They don’t all come off well in Irvine’s retelling. San Juan County, nestled down in Utah’s slickrock southeastern corner, is one of the hardest-ribbed conservative parts of the US. The county is essentially a theocracy. If non-Mormons are not actually shunned there, neither are they really able to become an accepted part of the community.

Irvine is herself at least technically a Mormon, the child of a Jack Mormon mother and an atheist father, long-since lapsed but not yet excommunicated. Even she had trouble fitting in when she moved there in 2000, reeling from her alcoholic father’s suicide, hoping the desert would offer healing, or at least solace. As other not-exactly-shunned locals put it to her, if your ancestors didn’t come through the Hole In The Rock — hadn’t been part of the original Mormon pioneers who blasted an unlikely road through the Escalante — you’re unlikely ever to be accepted in Monticello or Blanding, even if you have an impeccable Mormon pedigree. Irvine’s alienated tenure in San Juan County proved this true, in a way. Her great-to-the-nth grandfather, Howard Egan, was Brigham Young’s right-hand man, or at least one of a few. His descendant was still an outsider in San Juan County.

Of course, her profession didn’t help. When she moved from northern Utah to Monticello, Irvine worked for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. An effective advocate for the redrock wilderness, SUWA enjoys much the same regard among rural southern Utahns that PETA does in the dogfighting community. Add into the mix that Irvine’s paramour is an environmentalist lawyer specializing in land use, and you pretty much have a recipe for shunning.

Irvine did in fact encounter a communal cold shoulder of varying politeness in San Juan County, and Trespass is in part the story of that evolving interaction. But Irvine rises above the predictable and cloying denouements to which most Stranger in a Strange Land storytelling succumbs. There is no climax to the conflict here, and no cloying realization of the other side’s humanity presented as a happy ending. Irvine does present her neighbors as fully human. The laundromat cowboy who launches into an anti-environmentalist tirade at Irvine proves friendly when Irvine refuses to back away from the argument. A neighbor apologizes within minutes for an “unChristian” outburst on meeting her. Another neighbor drives up to Irvine and a hiking friend all smiles, then explodes in derisive anger when the friend mildly suggests he refrain from further driving on the pre-Columbian archaeological site on which he’s currently parked.

She isn’t an innocent victim in the community’s regard for her. Irvine can be abrasive, if perhaps rightly so. After a lifetime of ambivalence toward the Mormon patriarchy and growing bitterness toward the Church’s sexism and the conformity it encouraged, Irvine berates a pair of condescending Mormon “elders” — youth missionaries — who arrive at her door in Monticello:

“… Come back and preach at me,” I bellow, “when you’ve made love — to someone other than each other. When you’ve seen death. When you’ve walked — not driven — across the desert”

(“To someone other than each other” was Irvine’s jab at the widely-alleged circle-jerk sexual explorations of the elders, who are officially forbidden romantic pairing.)

Irvine takes pains to distinguish among the diverse “other side.” The irascible ranchers aren’t the same as the energy industry behemoths, and neither of them are the same as the Mad-Max-style ORV thugs who run down another friend of Irvine’s while trespassing on private land. When a rancher finds a mining proposal would dry up his grazing allotment, he pleads with Irvine’s partner to stop the mine in court, but refuses to sign onto the suit for fear his name and the environmentalists’ will be linked in the local public eye. Irvine offers a clear look at the shifting politics in this corner of the New West, and Trespass is worth reading for this reason alone.

There’s much more to the book, though, than a simple memoir of moving to a new neighborhood.

Irvine is a seeker, one of that annoying breed of people who insist on mining everyday interactions for deeper meaning. Those interactions can be interpersonal, or between a person and a community, or between a woman and her remembered past, or between a human being and the non-human landscape: to a seeker, the superficial context of the interaction doesn’t really matter. There is thus no clear line, in Irvine’s writing, between the landscapes outside and inside her skin.

The result is prose of surprising depth, an intimate honesty. There are simple, unadorned declarations throughout the book that provoke double-takes, then open up chasms in the reader’s gut: A straightforward mention of moments of violence in her relationship. A neutral observation about her realization that her father’s suicide followed not too long after she’d published, in a national magazine, an article that cast him in a less-than-favorable light.

There are also a few passages in Trespass that make a person want to sit down and have a long talk with Irvine about the assumptions she hasn’t questioned. A reflection on her alienation from her past and concurrent and (she decides) connected hormonal imbalance veers into a gender-essentialist mini-rant on androgyny as a byproduct of toxic civilization, concluding with the revelation that the macho thug who ran her friend down was actually female. It’s no revelation that women can be thugs, after all. The brief meditation on this particular thug’s androgyny is disappointing, coming as it does from a writer who would seem, as a feminist and sorta-Mormon, an environmental radical and scion of ranchers, predisposed to sensitivity toward people who don’t fit neatly into externally imposed categories.

Irvine is more useful in her description of the ORV mob when she describes the role they play in the landscape:

“These people are not the hardworking, mild-mannered, modest, and polite version of Mormons that I grew up with, nor are they like the folks of San Juan County.  These are hybrids—the new West…They may or may not go to church, but they lack my father’s genteelness, and they definitely don’t ride horses or run cows.  They are extreme recreationists—the same type who own the big powerful boats and high-powered personal watercraft that now dominate Lake Powell.  And, more than any rancher, they hate environmentalists.  I can’t help thinking that they embody what may be the Last Days in Deseret—not in a Christ-returns kind of way, but in terms of what the landscape can withstand.”

The occasional and unnecessary blind spot aside, the result of Irvine’s commitment to gentle honesty is that her writing is every bit as critical of the writer as it is of people like the San Juan County rancher she describes who — without saying a word — drew a gun and shot a dog belonging to one of Irvine’s friends, who’d been been hiking peacefully on public land just a few feet away from its master.

There’s a tendency in environmental writing these days, and in fact in much writing in general, to identify enemies and blast away at them. It doesn’t matter whether those enemies be people, groups, or schools of thought. Sometimes the temptation to hold forth on absolute right and wrong is too much to bear, and shooting from the hip seems the only appropriate response. Irvine gets this, and reminds us that there are very few easy answers, and very few people who are completely right. In Trespass, she offers a remarkably courageous honesty and self-examination as an alternative to such overwhelming self-righteousness. It doesn’t matter how justified you’re sure you are: there’s always the chance the dire enemy of the moment will turn out, in retrospect, to have been a happy dog on a hike.


The first storm of winter will come a day from now, or two. At noon today the clouds arrived, a cirrus haze thin as a knife’s edge. Over Nevada the sky was still pale turquoise, but gray lowered in the west.

By two the sky was wrapped in gauze.

On Cima Dome at four it was too cold to sit still. The breeze made me tremble through two thin layers of shirt, and I clambered a while in the rocks to warm up. A hundred feet from the place I parked the Jeep, a mature barrel cactus grew flanked by blue yucca. I’ve slept a hundred feet away on occasions too numerous to recall, for a dozen years, and never found it until today.

My hands shook with the cold. The photos I took are blurred, but I will remember the cactus now. I will go back with a tripod, and a sweater.

I clambered in the rocks, which did not warm me.

The gray light provoked detail that summer blaze obscures. The cold drove every living thing to shelter. Every living thing save me, save a lone raven out on the roadside, disconsolate quarks ringing above the earache wind.

A flake of rock came loose beneath my boot. We did not fall. I wiggled it deliberately, tooth in a socket eight feet above the ground, hanging on to the shelf above with numbed hands.

Disconsolate quarks. This place a constant in my life if I indeed possess a constant, and each visit reveals some new wonder previously overlooked. Under my nose. I spent some time berating myself for my incuriousness, my ability to spend a decade and change in desultory visits to this place and miss a globe of bright red spines thirty seconds’ walk from the firepit. Was the fire too seductive? The bag too warm? A more systematic man would have catalogued the Dome by now, would have mapped each mile of old two-rut and run quadrant surveys over a decade’s change, pit-trapped the local rodents and counted the fleas, memorized the chemical composition of the basement rock.

It is a doubt long-smouldering inside me, and now and then the world will kindle a little bright flame from that coal. Now and then, in fact, I seek it out, afraid that I have grown too proud and I seek out something, some memory, some person that will bring me low. It is a sickness, of sorts. It is a well-marked trail that skirts the peaks.

A thought came to me, later than it should have: what if this shelf above my head will not bear my weight?

The Dome is a crenellated landscape, though. No shame in finding an embrasure I had missed. My time here over the years has mainly been spent in distracted observation, each day a set of tangents nested within tangents. Today a whim took me through a field of boulders I had not previously crossed. I saw something I had not previously seen.

A sharp pain in my shin: my attention turned inward and recursive, I’dwalked into a blue yucca. Its spines left punctures that burned for a few moments after I pulled away.

Tomorrow or the next day the rain will start to hit the valley floor. Above 4,000 feet it will fall as snow. This pile of boulders sits at 5,500 feet, and Joshua trees will likely greet Thursday morning draped in white and languid ribbons on their upper surfaces. I woke up here once a thousand years ago, with Matthew, after snow had fallen in the night. We sipped our coffee and waved our arms in glee, and our shouts fell muffled on the snow-mantled Dome. 

End of November

The valley here runs south to north. At sunset the shadow of the Clark and Ivanpah mountains creeps across the valley floor, a second hand marking the time in yards. From where I sit, a mile up the washed-out road to the Lucy Grays, I watch the shadow advance.

It is an odd perspective. From up here, two-thirds of the way up the east side of the valley and six miles from the dry lake, the shadow seems abrupt: a distinct terminator between sunlit and shadowed land. When the shadow arrives in a few minutes, though, it is hard to tell just when it begins. Up close, the line between shadow and light is near-impossible to pin down. I am sitting in full sun, and then after some time I notice that the sun is not quite so bright. A quarter of the sun’s disk has dropped behind the ridge, then half, but what remains above still shines brightly. It seems as though the sun will never set, Zeno’s tortoise there in the sky moving half the distance between it and the ridgeline, then half the remainder, then half of what’s left after that.

A sudden breeze raises the skin on the back of my neck. The sun is now a brilliant pinpoint atop Clark Mountain. The sun is now fully behind Clark Mountain, but the sky is still brilliant where the sun was a moment ago. I am fully in the mountain’s shade here, the light from the sky alone enough to cast my shadow within the shadow.

A man confronting loss and mid-life crisis retreats to the desert to work, to confront his demons: my stay in this valley has been predictable, has been clichéd. It has been five months since I moved into this little house beside the railroad tracks, and what I expected to get out of my time here I no longer remember. I have written, though not enough. I have hiked the hills and creosote flats here, though not enough. I have slept under the stars, but nowhere even close to enough.

I have spent three consecutive summer days without leaving the house, turned inward and grieving. I’ve trudged eight miles in triple-digit temperatures and laughed at my own giddiness. I have spent a month sleeping in three-hour shifts on the floor beneath the ceiling fan. I have argued on the phone and cursed the passing trains for drowning out words I didn’t want to hear. I have been cruel to people I’ve loved half my life. I have found glimmers of solace in old friendships. I have exulted in this valley and resented its remoteness. I have spent night after night trying to read with moths and flies and stingless wasps covering each illuminated page. I have been jolted out of sleep by those same insects as they land on my eyelids in the dark. I have watched a hundred sunsets, coming earlier and earlier each day.

I have watched the thunderstorms scud across the valley below me, smelled the acrid lightning, seen the stripes of renewed green where the storms passed two weeks ago and fed the creosote.

I have learned nothing, aside from a few facts.

These days the nighttime temperature is close to freezing and I huddle thankfully beneath my comforter, but I still have trouble sleeping. My last cup of coffee may have been twelve hours ago, or longer, and yet I lie awake my heart racing, mind running full tilt in its exercise wheel, relaxed but taut. The other night it was coyotes, singing an uncharacteristically prolonged chorus — 45 minutes, as opposed to the usual three. I didn’t know they ever sang that long, and then a passing train silenced them at 3:15 am.

They did not sing last night but I lay awake anyway, wondering at the pull this valley has had on me. I hiked with a friend in Wee Thump yesterday and our conversation played again and again in my mind, her gasp at the pink and backlit clouds as we drove down Big Tiger Wash and back into the Ivanpah Valley. No matter how distracted I have been these last months by my own internal turmoil, coming into the valley that way at sunset has filled my chest. I lose myself in the yucca and the slanted light.

This is my last week in this little house, and I pack my few belongings here a little at a time. I will spend December in Los Angeles with The Raven and after that, it all depends. I will have to make a living, somehow. Easier to find a job in Tucson from Los Angeles than from here. Easier to pitch stories to magazines from, well, just about anywhere. It takes me five minutes to upload five hundred words, from here, and sometimes it takes two or three tries.

It’s a strange thing. I spent my first months here enmired in leaving, aslog in my past’s tar pits. The last few weeks my eyes have been pointed forward, though I still track asphaltum on the kitchen floor. At some point in the last five months I went from shadow into dim sunlight, but I’ll be damned if I can point out when.

Obama and Extinction

There is more to protecting the environment than mitigating climate change.

You wouldn’t know that just from listening to the campaign speeches we’ve all heard over the last few months. The one environmental topic that ever got brought up was climate change. Reducing our dependence on oil, supporting renewable energy, pushing for emissions standards and hybrid tech, energy conservation, that kind of thing. All of them laudable goals, all of them crucial.

But we’ve heard nothing, during this season, of the mass extinction in progress, though it is possibly — in terms of the sheer number of species eradicated so far —  already the worst one in Earth’s history. (The end-Permian extinction still holds the crown for percentage of species wiped out, but life has gotten more diverse since that one happened 250 million years ago. There are more species to wipe out now.)

Climate change would certainly aggravate that mass extinction. Quite a few threatened species — the one I’ve studied intensively for a decade being just one example — are likely to be done in by warming temperatures.

But stabilizing the climate won’t reverse all the causes of that mass extinction. We could become carbon-neutral overnight. We could ban all fossil-fuel-burning vehicles. We could replace every last incandescent light bulb with LEDs that use 1/100th the power, put photovoltaic panels on every rooftop and sequester thousands of tons of carbon in salt mines and subduction zones. We could get the partial pressure of atmospheric CO2 back down to pre-industrial levels and still lose species after species as the living systems of the world unravel.

John Muir famously said that when you try to pick one thing out by itself, you find it hitched to everything in the universe. There are few ecosystems not already partly affected by changing climate, few environmental issues not closely interwoven with our bad habit of putting carbon in the air. But we could stabilize the climate and still use the chemical pesticides implicated in the frightening die-off of amphibians. We could stabilize the climate and still trawl the ocean floors, a practice roughly equivalent to clearcutting old-growth forests so you can eat the animals that lived there. We could stabilize the climate and still introduce invasive species to wetlands and estuaries and deserts, still plow under mile after square mile of grassland or forest for monocultured organic crops.

If there is a root cause of this extinction, it is habitat destruction: the conversion of more and more of the Earth’s surface area and biological productivity to human use.

And many of the measures proposed to combat climate change would actually accelerate the pace of habitat destruction. In the desert, we’re faced with projects from concentrating solar generating stations — paving the desert with mirrors — to new transmission lines greenwashed as routes for “renewable energy,” to massive windfarms. There’s renewed interest in fish-killing hydroelectric dams. People still seriously study the feasibility of projects like staggeringly large plantations of fast-growing trees or seeding the ocean with iron dust to promote phytoplankton bloom and consequently boost CO2 uptake. Developers promote new “sustainably-designed,” human-scaled, pedestrian-friendly towns built on what was once undeveloped land.

And it seems, to this observer, like an increasing number of putative environmentalists are ready to sacrifice habitat in the name of “green” energy generation. Some cloak their dismissal of habitat protection in concern-trolling over NIMBYism, while others, for instance some of the commenters in this thread over at Pharyngula, pretty much come out and say “we’re facing Peak Oil, and if the bighorn have to go extinct so that we can meet our energy needs, then that’s the way it is.”

What did our President-Elect say about habitat destruction during the campaign? Not a whole lot, at least not during the debates and major speeches.

The Obama-Biden campaign did release an Energy and Environment policy brief, an honestly wonderful document that does address some major habitat-related issues: restoring the Great Lakes, Gulf Coast, and other wetlands; protecting National Parks and National Forests, and rationalizing water use in the arid West, praiseworthy initiatives all.

The document also details plans to protect and restore clean air and water, has an environmental justice plank more far-reaching than Bill Clinton’s, and speaks in support of sustainable agriculture. It’s a great document and I support its implementation in full, as should you.

It’s also a woefully incomplete document.

It mentions the Endangered Species Act not once.

It doesn’t even mention endangered species. The word “endangered” does appear once in the nine-page document, on page eight:

Barack Obama is also an original cosponsor of the [2007] Combat Illegal Logging Act, which would prohibit the importation of illegally harvested wood products.  This would make foreign companies much less likely to engage in massive, illegal deforestation in other countries.  Saving these endangered forests preserves a major source of carbon sequestration.

The Combat Illegal Logging Act is an important law, finally passed this year as an amendment to the Farm Bill, written by a coalition of environmentalists, organized labor, and representatives of the domestic wood products industry, which extends the scope of the Lacey Act to include regulating timber imports. Though there’s argument over its effectiveness, it probably will help protect forests in the Amazon, Siberia and Southeast Asia. It’s also a done deal, and the Obama-Biden campaign document offers no expansion, strengthening, or extension of it, merely reporting a past co-sponsorship of a bill that failed to pass in its original form.

The omission of any mention, in the Obama-Biden campaign’s environmental policy document of the US’s keystone species-and habitat-protection law is disappointing in the extreme, but it doesn’t mean the President-Elect hasn’t gone on record as regards ESA. In a March, 2006 letter to a constituent who wrote to support strengthening the ESA, Obama replied:

“The goal of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 is to conserve and protect both the species that are threatened or in danger of extinction and the ecosystems upon which they depend. It currently protects more than 1,200 animal and plant species, of which approximately 25 are found in Illinois. The law can become controversial, however, when projects that may conflict with the ecosystem of species listed as threatened or endangered are proposed in a particular area.

I strongly support the goals of the Endangered Species Act, which has paved the way for a number of species — such as the bald eagle — to return from the brink of extinction. However, during the past 30 years the Endangered Species Act has not always worked perfectly. With all of its accomplishments, we have learned not only what works, but also what is ineffective. Consequently, the Endangered Species Act needs to be updated and improved. And that means moving past rigid ideological positions so that we can reach consensus on the right solutions.

This concord-flavored language may appear reasonable at first reading, but there is nothing in those paragraphs that would be out of place in a speech by former Representative Richard Pombo of California, the worst enemy the ESA ever had. The law becomes controversial when actually enforced against developers of the kind of projects that prompted the passage of the law in the first place, and we must therefore “improve” the Act so that all voices and interests are reflected, not just those of the rigidly ideological wildlife biologists with their non-economically based scientific study and data and such. Language like this has been used to cover over every single weakening of the ESA since its inception, from the development of the Habitat Conservation Plan and Multiple Species Conservation Plan compromises, to the erosion of the Critical Habitat process, and the Executive Branch decisions to impede the listing process.

It’s the wildlife biology equivalent of the creationists’ “Teach the Controversy” line: an apparent compromise that cedes ground in only one direction, and not the direction we want.

The environmental website Grist reports that in the landmark issue of northwestern salmon protection, a dire extinction crisis if ever there was one, Obama has pledged to make sure the interests of agriculture were represented in any solution. It is the interests of agriculture that have put the salmon in the vulnerable position they currently enjoy: federally subsidized dams and diversions for crop irrigation have devastated salmon populations by destroying their spawning habitat.

On the other hand, says Grist, in the public discussion these last weeks of the lame duck Bush administration’s eleventh-hour attacks on ESA, the President-Elect vowed to “fight to maintain the strong protections of the Endangered Species Act and undo this proposal from President Bush.”

The Obama administration’s actual policy toward ESA will likely be determined, to a significant extent, by his Cabinet picks. ESA is mainly administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service, part of the Interior Department, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a division of the Department of Commerce. The President-Elect’s choices for the Interior and Commerce Secretary positions will signal his intent toward the law, if any, and give us a taste of what lies in store for endangered species in the US over the next four years. Clinton-era FWS director Jamie Rappaport Clark has been mentioned as a possible Interior Secretary, and though she’s publicly criticized Bush’s interference with wildlife science, she also presided over the implementation of the ruinous Safe Harbor program, a weakening of ESA under which landowners can disrupt endangered species habitat all they want if those species weren’t found on the property until after the paperwork is done. Montana governor Brian Schweitzer, a promoter of Big Coal and a gut-level libertarian, is another often mentioned as a likely nominee. We’d be better off with Clark, who would at least make wingnuts’ heads explode: she’s currently employed by Defenders of Wildlife, and probably wouldn’t be worse than Bruce Babbit was.

Whichever way Obama goes with his Cabinet picks, we need to start pushing him now to strengthen the Endangered Species Act, the single most useful tool we have to slow down the extinction crisis in the US. The Center for Biological Diversity, probably the most effective (and not coincidentally most uncompromising) organization working on endangered species issues, has spent the last eight years suing the Bush administration to force it to obey the ESA, and they’ve adopted a tone of cautious optimism as regards working with Obama’s administration. You should sign up for their online activist bulletins and join them or donate or both..


Comments on!

I’ve heard from a few friends whose participation here I’d value that the password limitations in the Coyote Den kept them from taking part. So I’ve opened up comments on posts themselves, and we’ll find another way to incorporate the Den into our daily lives. I’m thinking about asking desert-based activists and other notables to sit in for public “town hall” interviews, for instance. Stay tuned for that, and say hello in this new comment thread if you like.

Update: Here’s the comments feed.

Jerky Treats

Readers who have been around here for a while will recall that I used to have a dog, a fine and patient and only a little bit neurotic dog, whose name was Zeke. I loved Zeke. Zeke loved me in return, and others who have loved me will attest to the fact that this required some work on his part.

Zeke died in February of 2007 after a long and occasionally agonizing decline.

I took increasingly attentive care of him for several months before he died. His daily walks a half-mile down to the local park and back began to require my carrying him back up the hill toward our house. Zeke was of a stature somewhere between Siberian husky and German shepherd. Though he was thinner than dogs of either of those breeds, it still took some doing to carry him a half mile.

His chronic problem, aside from age — he was 16 when he died —  was arthritis in his hips. Walking became painful for him, and we tried a full array of pain control techniques, some of which worked for a while. Five months before he died he began to lose weight and his blood sugar crashed, and it became imperative that we keep him abundantly fed. The vets eyed his kidney function with concern. It was abnormal, but the vets couldn’t come up with any explanation other than the possibility of cancer, which they then ruled out with further tests.

Zeke’s appetite was fantastic even as he dwindled. My ex-and I pulled out all the stops feeding him. The end was looming and spoiling him was no longer an issue, and so he ate chicken. And turkey. And ground bison from Trader Joes. He ate dried chicken strips, meatloaf from the supermarket deli, hamburgers (no onions) and barbecue from the joint down the road, as much dry dog food as he wanted.

He’d always been thin, and he’d always been a bit of a picky eater, and yet when he turned down a bite of food I would fret. But no matter how disinclined he was to eat, he’d always accept a dog snack from the cupboard. The Jerky Treats brand was his favorite, to the point where the trade name “Jerky Treats” became, in our household, one of those diluted trademarks, like Kleenex: both generic term and favorite piece of canine vocabulary. Even when Zeke would turn down a de-boned, freshly roasted chicken leg, he’d eat three or four Jerky Treats.

He had to take a lot of pills, too: pain pills, pills to keep the pain pills from hurting his stomach, glucosamine, occasional antibiotics, and worst of all was the amantadine, a drug that was available only in sicky-sweet red syrup form, a flu medicine for children that was also a synergist pain control drug. He hated that last especially, and enjoyed being pilled only a little more, and so we developed a routine. Twice a day I’d corner him, and each pill swallowed got him a kiss on his widow’s peak, and holding still for the syringe of syrup got him another kiss, and then we’d head for the cupboard and get a Jerky Treat and he’d take it outside and eat it.

I felt guilty enough about the amantadine that I usually gave him two or three Jerky Treats at a time.

In December 2006 it was clear that he was done for, but — good dog — he kept hanging on. The vets began to make insinuations about decisions. His back legs were weaker and weaker. His blood work still showed abnormal liver and kidney function, and those scared me, but failure of either of those organs is usually preceded by nausea, or at least loss of appetite. Zeke was still eating well. I’d lost a cat to kidney failure and vowed that I wouldn’t let Zeke go that way, but as long as he enjoyed eating I relaxed about that, a little.

He needed 24/7 care by mid-December. I did some creative scheduling with my enviro magazine editing job, worked at home as much as I could, took advantage of the holidays, and then quit in early January. I slept in two-or three-hour stretches for several weeks, on the couch in the living room where I could help him in and out the door when he needed it, several times a night. He found it increasingly difficult to stand. His right rear leg weak with arthritis pain, his left stiff from compensatory overuse, he was an unstable tripod throughout January. Staying in one place, facing one direction meant turning in wobbly circles every so often. His right leg would collapse and he’d pivot, turn 360 and come to face his elevated food bowl again. He would drop his Jerky Treat on the ground and be unable to reach it. I’d pick it up, hand it to him.

Despite eating more than I did, his weight continued to drop throughout January. He dropped below forty pounds by mid-month: two thirds of his baseline healthy weight. He continued to eat right up until February 2. The vet came to our house the next day. We buried Zeke in the backyard. My friend Matthew came over and did most of the digging.

We put two Jerky Treats next to his face before we covered him up.

The next weeks were a blur, as we adjusted to life without Zeke. The degree to which he had soldered our failing marriage together became apparent. The garden that had been my refuge was now a cemetery. I threw myself into topical writing, venting my loss in political venom. When the news broke a couple weeks after Zeke died that thousands of pets across the US were dying of melamine poisoning, I flinched, then consoled myself that as horrible as the news was, I no longer had a personal stake in it. I had neither anyone for whose protection from such a thing I was responsible, nor a job that would have included reporting on the topic. I was a bystander: horrified at the idea, but not personally affected. I made certain Zeke’s 20 pounds of leftover dry food wasn’t on the recall lists before we donated it to the shelter down the road, and I chatted with pet-owning friends about the issue, and that was it.

And so I didn’t find out until yesterday that it was more than just canned dog food and kibble that were recalled in March 2007 after thousands of dogs died of melamine poisoning.

I didn’t find out until yesterday that Jerky Treats, a product of the Del Monte Corporation, had been included in the recall.

Melamine killed pets by inducing kidney failure due to toxic crystals forming in the kidneys. Most of the deaths were sudden and dramatic, including for instance several animals who died after taking part in an industry “taste test.” Most of the animals who died likely got the melamine as part of their staple food rather than, as Zeke did, in smaller doses as a snack. Zeke didn’t die of kidney failure: the proximate cause of his death was euthanasia. He’d lost his appetite the day before. That may have been due to his ailing kidneys, or it may have been pain from his arthritis, or his injured pancreas acting up. I don’t know, and never will.

But I do know that in the months after he died, as my marriage failed and I lost my home, as I moved away from the only garden I had ever actually owned in my life, as I began to question every aspect of what I wanted to do with my life and who I wanted to do it with, I knew that I had gotten that one thing right. As late as last week, in a dark moment, I told myself that I may have failed as a husband, as a lover, as a journalist and a blogger and an editor/publisher, I may have failed as a gardener and a homeowner and a son and brother, I may have failed as an activist and a friend, but I did that one thing right: for five or six months in 2006 and 2007, I cared for Zeke as deeply, as lovingly and carefully and effectively as anyone I knew — or had heard of — had ever cared for a dog.

Yesterday I found that I had probably been poisoning him the whole time.

I don’t feel guilty, or at least I stopped feeling guilty after an hour or two. I knew Jerky Treats probably weren’t the absolute healthiest food in the world for Zeke to eat, but that’s a different issue. I acted in good faith toward him. I gave him what I thought — and was told by the experts — was the best care possible. I organized my entire life around ensuring his comfort and safety, and maximizing his joy even in his last days. He ate better than probably half the people in the country did that January. Had I known even of rumors about toxic contents in anything I was feeding him, I’d have drained my bank account to find alternatives. Zeke had the death I hoped he’d have, mainly comfortable and surrounded by love and calm. I hope I go that well when it’s my time.

No, this isn’t about guilt, or at least not about my guilt.

This is about anger, an anger too slow to erupt, an anger that should have been aroused almost two years ago when thousands of people grieved losses far more unexpected and tragic than the one that staggered me.

They polluted my dog’s food. They polluted Zeke himself. They polluted the last weeks he and I spent together. They polluted the moments of joy each snack had brought. They polluted the last gift I gave him, melamine moldering there in the soil next to his remains where we laid those Jerky Treats as tribute.

They made me poison the one I loved most of anyone in this world. They stole my last bit of solace, the notion that I did right by him up to his end. They stole that from me and I will never get it back, and if I can find a receipt for a package of their poisoned food they will refund to me the six bucks it cost me out of pocket, because the Del Monte Corporation truly wants my continued business.


I’ve just been notified that my sonnet cycle Trinity will be published in the upcoming issue of Camas, the environmental and literary journal of the University of Montana. I’m immensely grateful, of course, not to mention flattered at the company I’ll be keeping.

The issue will be going to press in December, and available shortly thereafter should you want one. Of course, if you subscribe now — and you should, as it’s a fine journal — you won’t have to track down a copy.

Taos 3

Coyotes sing just outside my window. I awake. It isn’t a dream. The dogs take off after them, singing joyous outrage. The sheep must be protected. Hazel the little goat has broken her leg somehow, and my host will cart her down to the vet in an hour or so. Last night we fretted whether she would die of shock, but she was alert and hungry at two-thirty in the morning.

They aren’t made of money, but what can you do? You take care of your animals. Better one doesn’t do the math, amortize the vet bill with each hoped-for pint of milk. Farmers know the value of a life better than most anyone, or at least to the greatest degree of accuracy.

The sun is not yet up. At this time of day, at this altitude, the air is pink; pink as the belly of a salmon waiting at the threshhold of its home stream. It takes a pulse of storm, a quickening of fresh water, before that mystery unravels in their guts, propels the swift journey up the mountain.

It took a long time for me to fall asleep.

What was the last eight years but a surrender to myth? What was the last eight years but an attempt to deceive the people I loved most, myself first among them? I planted trees and watched them unfurl leaf after thirsty leaf, watched them overtop my house, only to be uprooted by a mere pulse of storm.

“Love is not enough,” I’d said at times over the last eight years, and when my friends asked me what I meant I had to confess I didn’t know. The sentence felt like a still, dark pool, a letter from the self I had paved over. I tried to send roots down into the rock, into the bedrock beneath the house my wife and I moved into after I said goodbye to Sharon, and as long as the dog both worshipped me and needed me I could persuade myself that it was right.

And then we draped our marriage over him in that rude hole, covered both of them over with broken bits of rock and sterile soil, tamped down a mantle of garden over both of them. The garden didn’t take. When I moved out the weeds had grown head-high, and I had to clear a path when my friend Matthew helped me carry the couch out to the U-Haul truck.

Love we had in abundance. Love is not enough.

Every dog within a mile is barking, a self-sustaining chain reaction propagating outward from the coyotes. I pry my eyes open again, pull the blanket down to my shoulders. A cloud off toward the Rio Chama in the west reflects the sun’s first yellow. She’ll show up in half an hour, haul me down to Santa Fe for a day of doctor’s appointments, a day of fretting over the Jeep’s transmission though I do not know that yet. I swing my legs over the side of the bed.

Who had I fooled? No one save myself. We watched the salmon ten years ago, or eleven; we walked sodden streamside fire-roads under redwoods and looked for spawning coho; we argued over the meanings of words; we walked together silent and content; and then the end. A marriage must be preserved! No matter that the married grow despondent and alone in the midst of love. Who had I fooled? No one save myself, no one save the one who spun the myth himself, caught on the unseen cleft between the right and proper things to do.

All of it hindsight and we spoke frankly of it yesterday, spoke of my missing her and denying it to myself, covering it in drink and cynicism and flirtation, her settling for a life without me as though she had learned a lesson about wanting too much kindness. Her friends joked kindly about her life and what it would be had we stayed together. A tentative diagnosis of a terminal disease is a prospect, a place of sudden perspective: you see your life arrayed in front of you as though you stand on a mountain above it, forked paths and roadblocks limned there plain before your eyes.

All of it past tense save the deep friendship, the thirsty friendship; me happy with my lover in Los Angeles, her roiled in family and heartache a generation old. I am the friend who wants nothing from her save a friend who wants nothing from me. I am the beat of crows’ wings that echo off the stucco and straw bale of her home here.

That is, at last, sufficient.

We are, at last, at the headwaters, each of us still tasting our storms’ pulses.

Last night the day wound and rewound through my head, a decade’s worth of conversation distilled, images and regrets, and as I heard the back door open and Erin went out to check on little Hazel at two-thirty the image came that eased me finally into sleep. My head laid innocent in Sharon’s lap, the breeze played over us. The scent of water was in the air. A chorus of sheep-thieves sang out on the mesa toward the Rio Chama. Their song was tenuous and distant. It faded into silence just as it reached us.

Letters from the desert: Photos!

In the regrettable looming orgy of end-of-year buying, please don’t forget to cut me in!

Like many of my fellow Americans in this time of economic crisis, I have seen a number of investments fail to provide me with any return. There’s my grocery investments, for instance, and my gasoline and Zheep repair and maintenance portfolio have been pretty relentlessly negative as well. And so I find I must diversify!

To that end, I have non-denominational, arguably attractive cards of many of my photos of which samples are viewable here, and you know you’re going to have trouble finding cards. The photos are also available as prints in a variety of formats suitable as gifts for people you really like.

You can browse my entire inventory here.

Thank you.

Last gasp Bush plan to kill Yellowstone wolves

What is it with these psychotic Republicans and their wolf-killing fetish?

Via Tmorph:

The Bush Administration is determined to ram through a new wolf-killing plan before leaving office. This dangerous scheme could allow the Northern Rockies states to kill nearly 1,000 gray wolves in the first year alone. Please submit an Official Citizen Comment telling the Interior Department to maintain strong federal protection for wolves.

The plan, concocted in a year in which Yellowstone’s wolf population is seriously threatened by disease, could push the wolves to the edge of extirpation. Take action here.

Taos 2

The rough wood deck feels good against my thighs, sun-warmed in afternoon. A yellow leaf from a cottonwood lands on my knee. I let it stay. My old workboots look good against the duff. There’s motion across the toe of the left one: an elongated dark beetle with two diagonal orange stripes. A box elder bug, fitting as there are three tall box elders just down the hill.

Sweet piñon smoke has followed me all day. Two days ago in a parking lot in Española a muscle car pulled up, stopped in front of me, and a dark-tinted passenger window rolled down. A sullen-looking teenaged girl sized me up. “You wanna buy some piñones?”

The owners of the house are cordial. I’d walked across their front yard and startled them. “Can we help you?” I explained that I was there with my friend, on whom their tenant – a practitioner of Chinese medicine – was working in the small studio around the back. They invited me in for soup, all smiles. But the scent of piñon smoke and the 7,000-foot altitude blue sky and the happy dog in the yard had conspired to get me out of the studio in the first place, and I demurred gratefully.

The happy dog is boisterous, a mix of golden lab and something else short-haired. He has a dead starling, still fluffy and clean-spotted, which he tosses gleefully into the air again and again. He looks happiest, eyes sparkling and jaw slack in a wide grin, when the bird is at the apex of each arc, before it succumbs to dead weight and falls undignified to the ground.  I imagine him hoping the bird will fly away.

I try to pick up the bird and he runs away with it, teasing.

Is it the sidelong canine regard, welcome after two years of drought? Spending time with my friend for the first time in a decade? Some unknown geographic chord with my heart’s harmonic? Whatever the reason, I feel here—sitting in cool sun waiting for Sharon to get her chi combed and repacked—more at peace, content, more like myself than I have in years.

The owners come outside, set to work getting their garden ready for winter. There are tomato vines to be uprooted and piled on the compost, leaves to be raked, cool-season crops to sow. The man sees I’ve been adopted by the dog and approaches us smiling. He’s older, perhaps 70, of East Indian descent and formidably distinguished even in overalls.

“Did you see the dog has a staple in his leg?”

I don’t understand the question for a moment. “Oh. I saw the cut. Is he supposed to have a staple there? Did the vet put it in?”

“Yes, and it was supposed to fall out some time ago, but it hasn’t. Every time I try to take it out he bites me. If you can try to get it…”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

“Be careful!”

“I will. He’s a good boy.”

The man smiles. “He’s completely useless.”

A Steller’s jay lands on the roof of the casita behind me. It scolds me. The dog runs across the yard toward me, starling in his soft mouth. He drops the bird at my feet. I put my left arm over his spine, hug his chest to mine. We spend a moment together admiring the afternoon light beneath the box elders.

As I start to think about casually examining the dog’s leg, the man shows up with a pair of channel-lock pliers. The dog sees them. He tries to squirm out from under my arm, but I pull him closer to me and murmur into his ear, my face buried in his ruff. The old man moves quickly; the dog flinches just a little. “Got it!” says the man, holding the pliers up, a thin wire clamped in their jaws. I let go of the dog. He examines his leg, then covers my face in kisses.