Monthly Archives: December 2008

Ripley Desert Woodland

Snow remains this afternoon, thin glazed patches underneath the junipers. Ravens fly in pairs through the Western Mojave sky. A pair approaches, not seeing us behind a stand of juniper and Joshua. First one and then the other double-takes, stumbles in mid-air.

Their wingbeats are loud enough to echo off the low Neenach hills. It’s not as quiet as I’ve gotten used to, but it will do. The ground is sodden. It must have been a few inches of snow fell here last week, drifting under the junipers, turning the alluvial silt and gravel to mud as it melted.

Juniper and Joshua on the valley floor: a taste of the Pleistocene Mojave. We passed the Gorman grove on our way here, burned to the ground a decade or so ago. Stump sprouts already studded that field when I stopped three years ago. That’s the westernmost stand of Joshua trees, and the story is they rode there on the San Andreas fault, escaped the confines of the Mojave Desert with sly, tectonic patience. Their closest fellows that I know of are fourteen miles east, about a 70,000-year trip along the fault. This seems wrong. I need to ramble in the hills between, see if I can find a closer grove. Perhaps there were such, fallen in the last century to the plow and the torch.

Or perhaps the fault had little to do with it. The locals did plant trees, here and there, pre-contact. They are forever confounding the wildlife biologists, those pre-Columbian desert natives, planting groves of desert palms and carrying disjunct populations of tortoises into the Black Mountains.

The ravens work the Aqueduct route back and forth, searching for roadkill and drowned jackrabbits. The Raven searches in me. I have been in a deep funk these last days, out of place in the city and sifting through the ashes of who I was once, hoping for a stray ember to blow on. We came up here to see if it would help. She watches me as I watch the landscape.

Had I but water and bread, I would stay here happily for weeks.

A hundred years ago this whole valley was clothed in forest, aromatic juniper and Joshua dagger-armed, and coyotes slept fat on beds of desert forest duff. They lope across dangerous highways now, brave the guns of angry ranchers. One passed here recently, its tracks sunk deep in the sodden ground.

Coyote print

More than nine-tenths of the Antelope Valley’s forest is gone; more than ninety-nine hundredths. Fallen to the plow and the torch. A bare spot near here was dry-farmed in the 1930s and then left alone. Nothing but rabbitbrush has grown back since then.

Juniper and Joshua on the valley floor. A packrat midden sits four feet off the ground in a stout crooked elbow of juniper. Sage sparrows flit noisily between the yucca stems.

Much of the remaining forest is for sale, ready to be subdivided into ranchettes.

The Raven searches in me. Old terrains shift along scarred faults, slide by increment to places unanticipated. The ground is sodden and records our passage.

Yes We Can drill off the California coast?

Connect the dots.

From a San Francisco Chronicle article published yesterday, written by the estimable Jane Kay.

The context:

The federal government is taking steps that may open California’s fabled coast to oil drilling in as few as three years, an action that could place dozens of platforms off the Sonoma, Mendocino and Humboldt coasts, and raises the specter of spills, air pollution and increased ship traffic into San Francisco Bay.

The nut graf:

President-elect Barack Obama hasn’t said whether he would overturn President Bush’s lifting last summer of the ban on drilling, as gas prices reached a historic high. Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Col., Obama’s pick as interior secretary and head of the nation’s ocean-drilling agency, hasn’t said what he would do in coastal waters.


In Congress earlier this year, Salazar, Obama’s nominee for interior secretary, supported a bipartisan bill allowing exploration and production 50 miles out from the southern Atlantic coast with state approval.

The reveal:

“We’ve been encouraged that the president-elect has chosen Sen. Salazar,” said Dan Naatz, vice president for federal resources with the Independent Petroleum Association of America, a group with 5,000 members that drill 90 percent of the oil and natural gas wells in the United States. “He’s from the West, and he understands federal land policy, which is really key.”

The cliffhanger:

[Obama] reiterated his campaign position that he was open to the idea of offshore drilling if it was part of a comprehensive package, adding that he would turn over the question to his team.

Here’s the “Contact Us” page. Let them know what you think.

Surprise Canyon

There’s snow on Telescope Peak right now. We saw it from the spot we hiked to in Red Rock Canyon State Park this afternoon, my first visit in years. (The Raven and I sat for a time where Zeke and I sat one night long ago.) And then a few hours later on the road near Randsburg we saw it again, snow mantling the highest point in Death Valley National Park, eleven thousand feet and change. The peak looks down to the flat at Badwater, 282 feet below sea level.

The western Mojave is oddly green right now. Snow settled on the ground last week and melted slow, feeding the grasses and the exotic filaree, the tickseed. The snow on Telescope Peak may melt this week or not until March. Some of the meltwater will run down Hanaupah Canyon toward the floor of Death Valley, will mingle with the hypersaline groundwater there. And some will run off toward the Panamint Valley through Surprise Canyon, which holds one of just a few perennial streams in the DVNP.

Surprise Canyon, copyright Center for Biological Diversity

What do you see when you look at this photo of Surprise Canyon? A place to sit and rest? Rugged walls on which to clamber? I see an oasis, a cool moist island in a sea of creosote and desert varnish. A desert hiker might see rescue in the water.

Off-roaders see a place to drive.


It takes less time and effort to walk this canyon than to force your way through by vehicle, leaking motor oil and antifreeze into the water, digging up silt beds and damaging the plants. The only possible reason to drive the canyon instead of walking it is to express one’s contempt for the canyon as it is.

Each vehicle winched up those falls is a mechanized “fuck you” to the desert.

The canyon has been closed to vehicular traffic for some time, and earlier this month the Interior Department reaffirmed the ban after appeals from off-roaders. The off-roaders are predictably upset. On one 4X4 discussion board, the first post in reaction to the decision threatened violence:

Its looking like we are going to have to break the law and just on the trails we want to and do it armed.

They will defend their claimed right to literally run over a desert oasis at gunpoint.

It gets clearer and clearer to me, though I fight the festering conviction in my heart. Two species of human, Homo sapiens and Homo phobiens. One tries to understand the world it lives in. The other indignantly defends its god-given right to shit where it eats.


[photo, left: Dead porcupine, Los Angeles]

One thing about the home I left this year, the SF Bay Area: The science museums there will spoil you but good. The flagship is the California Academy of Sciences, for whose erstwhile publication I actually did a little writing back in the day. Anything I can write about CAS is outdated, as they’ve opened up a brand new facility in Golden Gate Park that I haven’t seen, but the pre-move facility was damn impressive, aquarium-cum-planetarium-cum-paleoecological reconstruction done right.

Across the Bay is the Oakland Museum, quite possibly my favorite natural history museum, though Tucson’s Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum offers some serious competition. Oakland Museum’s natural history section is a mere third of the museum, but of all the places I’ve been to, again possibly excepting the ASDM, the Oakland Museum does the best job of contextualizing natural history. OM has the usual dioramas of taxidermied dead things arranged artfully, but rather than sticking all of them in wall sconces the majority are in mid-floor, the smaller ones in clear plastic boxes: you can walk all around, look at each one from various angles. The metaorganization works too: the hall is laid out as a transect of mid-latitude California, with the coastal stuff close to the entrance. As you walk farther into the exhibits you pass the Inner and Outer Coast Ranges displays, the Central Valley and Sierra Foothills and the High Sierra. At last, all the way at the back, is the California Desert section. Walking through you get a bit of a visceral feeling for the way the landscape of California is arranged, and a more physical understanding of things like rain shadow deserts.

Natural history museums are chronically underfunded and innovations in curatorial practice often get passed up for lack of the wherewithal to implement them, kid-pleaser items like animatronic dinosaurs usually getting first dibs on the capital improvements capital. The Oakland Museum and ASDM are unusual in that they show a uniform implementation of a curatorial ethic. You could add the Monterey Bay Aquarium to that list too, I suppose. Most natural history museums are more a patchwork, a mix of architectural styles and museum fashions and pedagogical theories. One presumes the CAS, having had a total makeover, might hang together as a whole more closely, in a curatorial sense, than it did before: those of you who’ve been there since the reopening in September are welcome to opine in comments.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, where I went for the first time yesterday, is definitely a patchwork. Successive expansions of the building show from the outside, as the architectural styles are both anachronistic and incongruous: the overall effect is not unlike seeing a person wearing a stovepipe hat, an argyle sweater, and Tevas.  It’s a charming building nonetheless, and in any event I was rapt as soon as I got inside, with Science Museum Nostalgia.

I still don’t understand why my parents never took me to the Buffalo Museum of Science when I was a kid. It wasn’t that far away. There was no admission charge. There was ample parking. The neighborhood wasn’t one of the commonly understood “good neighborhoods” in rigorously segregated 1960s Buffalo, but that sort of thing didn’t usually stop my parents from going places. Most parents in the demographic we were in, with the kind of kid I was, have family memberships to museums: it’s a default rainy weekend kind of thing. I don’t know why it wasn’t my parents’ thing. What I do know is that after five or six years of unsuccessful wheedling, at age twelve or so, I finally just gave up, left the house, and walked to the damn science museum myself. It took about an hour and a half of walking to get there, about three and a half miles through city streets and parks. And there it was: the pale brick front, the verdigris observatory dome I’d watched wistfully receding through my parents’ car’s rear window more times than I could count, and I was there. I walked up the stairs to the front door.

On the front door, in staid gold leaf letters, was an admonition that made my heart sink. No children under the age of eighteen were to be admitted to the museum without an adult in tow. I’d walked all that way for nothing. I’d have to wait until I was eighteen to get in, or find new parents, or something. I’d been to Toronto’s science centre [sic] on school field trips, but Toronto was two hours’ drive away and even less likely a destination for a family drive. Breaks, I did not have them.

The door opened. A security guard stood there, uniformed and gruff-looking. He’d obviously seen my shoulders slump. He waved me in. “Behave yourself,” he said. This remains one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me, and people have done a hell of a lot of nice things for me. Beyond lay shiny terrazzo floors, sonorous echoes, impossibly high ceilings and dark wood paneling, and displays of rather tattered dead animals arranged in tableaux meant to represent various bits of the natural world in Western New York.

Little was provided in the way of context. Each blue jay’s or porcupine’s or white-tailed deer’s behavior was described, briefly, in accompanying interpretive material, but each diorama was a thing unto itself. Little if any attempt was made to provide a through-story to carry the observer from diorama to diorama. The line between Natural History Museum on one hand, and Curio Collection on the other, was not well-defined.

I’ve been to a lot of notable natural history museums since, from the Smithsonian and the Field Museum to the Buena Vista Museum of Natural History in downtown Bakersfield, and yet I still have a soft spot in my heart for the old, mainly outmoded Serious Stuffed Animal Diorama esthetic.

Hence my happy feeling of nostalgia at entering the LA County Museum of Natural History yesterday. Inside, there’s much the same feeling of dimly-lit mystery. The entrance has its canonical fossil T. rex and Triceratops locked in post-mortal combat, with flanking halls of Big Mammal Dioramas, African on one side and North American on the other. The Raven and I got there with the day mostly gone, committed triage, and so we’ll have to go back to see the gemsboks and hippopotami.

The North American mammals display hews to much the same “cabinet of curiosities” arrangement as the old museum in Buffalo. Though the emphasis is on mammals of Western North America, that’s about it for unifying themes. The displays had been restored at some point in the last forty years, with curators’ increasing focus on ecological context reflected in the addition of insects and small vertebrates to many of the displays, but each diorama is still a world of its own, with no overall organizing principle apparent. Walking past the scenes one visits the San Mateo Peninsula, the Grand Canyon, the Owens Valley, Alaska, then the Owens Valley again, then the redwoods and then back to the Owens Valley. I began to wonder whether a sort of ecological guilt over LA’s wholesale purchase of the Owens Valley played a role in the collections policy. Or maybe it was just convenience.


Elsewhere in the museum there’s evidence of more recent curatorial sensibilities. Of special note is the Ralph W. Schreiber Hall of Birds, named for its creator after his untimely death from cancer in the 1980s. (Schrieber was one of the lead scientists who noted the correlation between DDT and reproductive failure in brown pelicans. Next time you see a brown pelican, think of Schreiber. If not for him you wouldn’t be seeing any pelicans.)  The Hall O’ Birds has a bunch of interactive interpretive displays aimed at the under-13 set, many of them appealingly devoid of high tech. What struck me most was the collection at the entrance, hundreds of birds arranged by family and labeled carefully.

Schreiber was certainly possessed of a fine ecological sensibility, and other LACMNH staff clearly did some rethinking of the museum’s mission around the time of the first Earth Day as well. Charismatic megafauna are lovely things, of course, but in the late 1960s and early 1970s more subtle denizens of more ignoble habitats began to get some attention in museum displays, and sometimes the display itself — as does this one at LACMNH, fuzzily photographed with my phone — fairly screams out the rough era of its inception:

LACMNH mudflats sign

That rounded “Geometric Sans” font probably looked relatively timeless back in its day, which coincidentally was about when museums started telling the public about things like mudflats and tubeworms and fiddler crabs, with the closest thing to charismatic megafauna being a dunlin or a sanderling.

Of course, that era ended with the advent of the most charismatic of all megafauna, the animatronic dinosaur. Others have noted that the Jurassic Park movies have had a Chixculub-sized impact on natural history museum curation, and The Raven and I were briefly pressed up against the mudflat sign to allow a free-roaming T. rex to go past, looking for small children to terrorize. (I’m as jaded by gimmickry as the next guy, but while I do love seeing little kids in science museums, I admit I wondered briefly about allowing similar T. rexen to roam all publicly funded science museums, with docents pointing out that they’re hungry, with a marked preference for shrieking prey.)

The dinosaur craze, which is unlikely to ebb anytime soon, has prompted the Page Museum, the LACMNH’s sister museum five miles northwest on Wilshire, to post a sign. The sign explains that the reason there are no dinosaurs in the bone-filled Page Museum is that each and every bone in the Page Museum came out of the La Brea Tar Pits just outside, and the tar pits only opened for business 40,000 years ago or so, and would need to be more than a thousand times older than they are to have captured dinosaurs. That’s not exactly true, of course: There were plenty of dinosaurs entrapped in the tar, some of them pretty damned impressive. But I suppose people asking about dinosaurs at a Pleistocene fossil location are unlikely to be mollified when told that there are plenty of live dinosaurs outside rummaging through the trash cans, and that they still get stuck in the asphaltum from time to time.

* though, sadly, not to the AMNH,  despite having spent a couple weeks in New York City with nothing much to do. This is surely a failing on my part.

Find that receipt

Eric has an gift or two he’s planning to return this week, including:

… Ken Salazar. But then, we actually pay attention to Interior. Its one of those “Indian Things”, like siting in circles talking to rocks, or watching the revolving doors at DoJ and Interior and K Street as the Savages of Wyoming move billions out of the MMS and into the coffers of corporations that love the RNC more than butter.


It all fell apart this year, the affected exoskeleton I’d thought of as my life: the garden and the art, the home, the writing. There was a moment this summer it all sank in. I had been Becky’s husband, the one who walked with Zeke out of the house painted orange with the agaves out front, the one who hiked in the East Bay hills and wrote facile snark and tossed-off poetry on his blog, and all of it gone.

All of it, and I spent the summer taking that in, cowering beneath the creosote, wincing at each incoming phone call.

Nabokov said that “transformation from larva to pupa or from pupa to butterfly is not a particularly pleasant process for the subject involved.” The caterpillar at least has the consolation of eventual flight.

It is not all bleakness, by any means. I am loved and I love. I have redressed past wrongs, made amends long overdue. And even in bleakness there is solace, the honesty of stony ground and cholla.

The problem is distinguishing between the honest bleak and the bleakness driven by inward illness, in me and in others. I have sought out those who would undermine my heart, found the ring of truth in their declarations of my worthlessness. It is a subtle distinction this year. This year I have improved the lives of some I love by leaving them.

This year I most desired solitude when others’ absence left me battered by ghosts. This year I felt desolate in close company, walked away from friends to seek the companionship of moss-covered stones.

I am getting too old for this.

A month before Zeke died, or two, I helped him up onto our bed and lay there with him drowsing for an afternoon. I dreamed that again the other day and woke disconcerted, two years downstream and his absence not at all assuaged by time’s flowing. I can layer it over with the new, but it has healed as much as it will, his grave still glaring in me though I have not laid eyes on it for months.

Genetically Modified Organisms: A Non-Knee-Jerk Primer

[This post was at first a comment on the Vilsack thread, and after a couple requests to promote it to post status I am doing just that, after correcting a couple of typos. Hope someone finds it useful.]

Unlike a lot of environmentalists I don’t have an across the board objection to the notion of altering an organism’s genome. There is a lot of uninformed and alarmist commentary on GMOs, and it can be hard to separate out objections to the current implementations of GMO technology from more non-specific gut-level opposition.

My objection to GMOs as they are being implemented is that the basic motivation for almost every introduction thus far is profit-driven rather than need-driven.

Probably the best-known example is that of Roundup-Ready crops, developed by Monsanto to withstand applications of Monsanto’s patented herbicide Roundup. Theoretical benefits to the farmer include the ability to grow crops without tilling the soil to control weeds. In actuality, weeds develop resistance to Roundup and yields have been shown not to exceed conventional crops reliably. In the meantime, Monsanto not only gets more income from crop-driven sales of Roundup, but from sales of its proprietary seed, and the company protects its seed aggressively, going so far as to sue farmers whose non-GMO crops have been pollinated by wind drift from neighboring Roundup-Ready farms.

In the meantime, the gene conferring resistance to Roundup doesn’t just transfer into neighboring crops, but also into related weed plant species.

A lot of this trouble stems more from the notion of patenting living things than from the origin of those living things, GMO or not. For instance, without the ability to patent life forms, it’s unlikely that Monsanto would have bothered to come up with “Terminator” seed technology, a genetic modification that prevents the crops in question from setting fertile seed. The idea is that farmers wouldn’t be able to circumvent patent restrictions by saving seed. The reality is that the Terminator genes can migrate into non-patented crops as well, affecting farmers’ ability to save even heirloom, “public domain” seeds. Monsanto has pledged not to use Terminator technology after worldwide public outcry, but they’ve quietly broken that pledge as well, and a handful of other companies have developed equivalent technologies.

Bt corn is another very common GMO, bred with genes from a soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, that secretes insecticidal compounds often used in organic gardening. The European corn borer -a moth larva -is a major pest of corn, and Bt is designed to include the gene from that bacterium responsible for making a lepidoptericidal substance. The larva eats Bt corn and dies, not reproducing, and thus suppressing the long-term pest population. It was thought for a while about ten years ago that pollen from Bt corn posed a threat to other butterflies and moths, especially monarch butterflies. There’s been evidence to suggest that might not be as big a problem as first thought, though many of the findings saying so come from the Bush administration’s USDA, and Bush’s interference with federal science to promote corporate welfare is well-documented. But the Bt gene does escape the patented corn, and prevalence of the gene in other crop populations — as well as wild plants — is a basic precondition for quick evolution of resistance to the insecticide.

The popular conception of genetics is that each trait has a gene that causes it, the unspoken assumption being that genes act in isolation from one another. But genomes are complex systems, and gene expression is affected not only by other genes but also by the environment in which the genome resides, inside the organism or out. Scientist Árpád Pusztai found that when he fed rats potatoes that had been modified to produce a plant toxin known as snowdrop lectin — generally shown to be harmless to mammals — the rats suffered intestinal damage that was not reproduced when he fed rats potatoes mixed with the same amount of snowdrop lectin. His conclusion was that the act of genetic modification itself, not necessarily the action of the implanted gene, had caused the potatoes to become toxic to rats. Making changes in complex systems guarantees unexpected results, and a sane regulatory framework for GMOs would take this into account, using the Precautionary Principle as its guideline.

For his part, Pusztai was attacked by the GMO industry: he was fired from the lab in which he worked and his materials and data destroyed, after the lab received a phone call from Monsanto. The editor of The Lancet, after deciding to run Pusztai’s peer-reviewed paper on the study, received what he described as a “threatening phone call” from a GMO-friendly member of the Royal Society, which had formed a Swift Boat-style “Rebuttal Unit” to counter criticisms of GMOs.

Which is very much reminiscent of the experience of UC Berkeley’s Ignacio Chapela, who found GMO-drifted genes in theoretically GMO-free maize in Mexico. The GM industry and its partisans waged an unsuccessful “dirty-tricks” style campaign to keep Nature from publishing Chapela’s findings, and then eventually forced Nature to partially retract Chapela’s paper, the first time the journal had ever done such a thing, and based on the objection of a single reviewer.

Shorter me: I have some concerns about the safety of GMOs, based on our rudimentary understanding of how gene expression may be affected by change in a single gene, but not enough to make me want to ban research or completely rule out use of GMOs in daily life altogether.  But add the profit motive and the ability to patent lifeforms and you get attempts by individual corporations to corner the worldwide market in one species after another, which is bad for farmers and consumers, and you also get thuggish attempts to subvert independent research, which is bad for science.

Elysian Park

I miss the certainty I had back then.
I miss the knowing all of it, the keen,
the ardent hewing to my heart’s clear path.
Old men slow-shamble in the liquor aisle,
sigh Russian imprecations baleful, soft
under their smog-choked breath. This shortest day
ends soon, the sun resigned. This is the life
I have these days, the slow awakening
and tethered dreams, heart tied to ghosts and soul
enervated, searching these tawny hills
for beating hearts there, under the chamise.
I saw a hawk above Elysian Park,
two hundred feet or more, and all the world
below it scurried heedless to some end.