Monthly Archives: November 2009

Otter Pop

image

We got a call last night from The Raven’s daughter to tell us her kitty Otter Pop was very sick. Shortly afterward she called us again.

He was strange and though he and Nosy didn’t really get along, he was a good boy. He tried sometimes to hide the fact that he was good: a little Napoleon Syndrome at play, I think. Every once in a while I had to pick him up and humiliate him with kisses and baby talk and making him dance. He tried awfully hard to pretend he was insulted. He had something to prove.

He was four years old. We’ll miss him.

It’s Carl Buell’s birthday

Carl and Arctodus
Carl with a short-faced bear acquaintance. Painting by Carl Buell. Reproduced here without actually technically asking permission.

Our friend Carl Buell has completed yet another revolution around the sun. His blog’s been dormant for some time, but comments are still open if you wanted to wish him well. Or you could do so here, as I imagine word will get back to him.

Carl, in between being a globally renowned yet still occasionally starving natural history illustrator, has been an unfailingly generous donor of artwork to this blog (note banner painting), the previous blog (note banner painting), and various other projects. He’s one of the best friends I’ve never met. (Maybe this year we’ll remedy that part about not meeting. Whattaya say, Carl?)

Desire Lines

Longing defines the storied heart. Contentment is pleasant enough, but it kills story. “And they lived happily ever after.” Fukuyama arrived at this realization, though his dystopia — unlike those of Orwell or Huxley — was unintended. But he knew it: the end of striving is the End of History. The End of His Story.

The thing longed for may itself be contentment. It may be escape therefrom. It may be power or freedom from power’s yoke. It may be passion, or thrill, or love. It may be water or fire, air or earth. It may be utterly intangible. It doesn’t matter. Narrative demands it. A character’s existence occupies a mere point in the cosmos. Without longing, without want, there is only that solipsistic point in isolation. Need turns the focus outward. From need springs awareness of the distance between the character and the thing for which the character longs. Narrative maps the path the character trods toward the object of its desire.

This weekend marks a year since I moved to Los Angeles. I run down streets hemmed in with buildings, each turn a right angle, a grid imposed on my old dendritic life. It has been worth it, for the most part. I have tasted things I could not have found in the desert, food and companionship and love among them. I can now tell myself I’ve lived here. Still, on too many of those days I’ve sulked here, my desert just an hour away. I have been resentful of the desert, of its remaining across that range of burning mountains. Longing can immobilize as easily as motivate. Twenty-six centuries ago the Greek soldier-poet Archilochos wrote

Miserable with desire
I lie lifeless,
my bones shot through
with thorny anguish
sent by the gods.

Archilochos was the earliest lyric poet of whom evidence has survived, and in those lines he anticipated much of the work composed in that poetic form in the millennia since. Nonetheless, a journey through an interior landscape is still a journey. Archilochos’ text implies that among the desires shot through his bones is the desire to find the will to move. Thus we have the writer, the thing he desires, and an implied path between the two.

Analyze a piece of writing. Pull it apart into its component pieces. Peel away the conceit, the exposition, the formulaic reversals and reveals. Eventually what you have left is a entwining of strands, the paths each character takes between where they are and what they want.

The writers call these paths “desire lines.” The character may never get what he wants. The character may not even be a character. In non-fiction, the character may well exist only by implication: the reader, the writer, the landscape. No matter. Desire lines make the pages turn. They engender, in the character and in the reader, the will to move.

Last year my paths were arcs, the lines of least resistance flood-carved into the desert plain. Or I walked among the anguished thorns, my paths ragged dances to connect the open places between the spines. I saw where I wanted to be and traveled there in the way that seemed best. It was never the straightest way. A year ago The Raven and I walked out of my little house in the desert into the storm. Sheets of water on the desert floor reflected a firmament of dusty nimbus. Sky and earth were inverted: clouds billowed where we would have liked to step. These days, my path constrained, I walk where planners long dead would have had me walk: due south, then due west.

There are places where that grid has faltered, where the careful platting has given way, Jericho before the howling of entropy. The houses fall to ruin. They burn or are carted away as scrap. If there is rain enough, grass grows green in the void. If not, the dust and dried awns accumulate. In either case those who walk nearby will venture across the new-freed lands. Certain routes will make more sense than others; feet will build new paths across the land.

The planners call these emerging trails “desire lines.” They lead through those places where the pavement falters.

 

Unpacking the Central Valley “dust bowl” lies

The last few months have seen a flurry of astroturf protests of federal court decisions to protect the critically endangered Delta Smelt, and California’s marginally less-threatened salmon runs.

Some of the wealthiest individuals in the country, heirs to huge and massively subsidized agricultural holdings on poisoned land that should never have seen a plow, have cast the last-minute move to save the Bay-Delta ecosystem and its inhabitants as a “Congress-Created Dustbowl,” with the usual hacks shilling for them.

And the thing is, they’re right, though calling the present-day San Joaquin Valley a “Dust Bowl” even at its worst is an insult to those who lived through the original, about like calling a round of layoffs at a tech firm a “Holocaust.” A few fields were fallowed this year that might not have been. Many of the “Dust Bowl” signs along I-5 were backed up, within a hundred yards or so, by lush, sufficiently irrigated orchards and row crops. Notably, many of the fields sporting those signs along the highway had been recently farrowed: almost as if the Westlands Growers meant to increase the amount of dust blowing off them onto the highway. It was a Potemkin Dust Bowl. But Congress created the situation. Congress created it by granting, as Lloyd G. Carter says in the article embedded below, “well over a billion dollars in taxpayer aid… to a few hundred growers” over decades, getting them accustomed to the Federal Teat.

In the process, those same growers created the poverty and misery they now wield as a rhetorical weapon.

His article — perhaps the most readable such I’ve ever seen on water politics in a law review — should be required reading for anyone living in California, and anyone uttering an opinion in public on the “Congress Created Dust Bowl.”

Reaping Riches In a Wretched Region: Subsidized Industrial Farming and its Link To Perpetual Poverty

 

A year full of Joshua trees

2010 Joshua Tree Calendar Forgive the crass commercialism, and I won’t even mention that thing that happens toward the end of the year with the orgy of consumption and the stress and the Carol of the Bells driving you into a tightly choreographed stabbing frenzy, but 2010 is coming up. You’ll need a calendar. Other people you know will as well. I have one for sale with my Joshua tree photos on each page. Actually, I have more than one, but each one is the same. They’re all collectively called “Sentinels of the Mojave.” A sample page, from September 2010, is featured at left. You can see the whole thing here. You can buy the whole thing there too. $24.98, major credit cards accepted and the evil paypal too.

Hey, desert-related blogs!

There are a whole lot of slots waiting to be filled in the Nature Blog Network‘s largely deserted Desert category. At the moment, it’s just Coyote Crossing and the wonderful Desert Survivor blog. Getting listed there is a great chance to get some like-minded readers.

There are some requirements, described in the below-cut-n-pasted text:

1. Your site must be a BLOG. If your web presence manifests as a log of reverse-chronologically ordered posts, you’re in business. If you’re not sure if you have a blog, you probably don’t…
2. Your blog should focus on the discussion of NATURE or some aspect thereof. You need not write exclusively about any single aspect of nature or restrict yourself solely to that topic at all. The other blogs on this list usually don’t. However, were your site to be described in just a few words, one of those words should reflect its status as a nature blog. This means that sites that would more logically be classified as SCIENCE, GARDENING, or GREEN blogs don’t necessarily fit this network.
3. Your blog should celebrate wild, unfettered, living nature. This means that blogs devoted to topics such as HUNTING, FISHING, TAXIDERMY, or PETS don’t fit the profile of this community.

You can join here. It’s relatively easy.

Your earliest response required

[decided to repost this from here -CC]

We need your trust, o dearest one
your trust, and then your bank account
by war my country is undone
and though I have gained an amount
of treasure fit to see me through
these times of war and civil strife
I turn, o dearest one, to you
to aid me and my dying wife.

My name is BAXTER JOSEPH SMITH
NGORO ENTER SENDER’S NAME.
My father found employment with
our Ministry of Fish and Game
and when our ruler was deposed
my father gave to me a key
saying “dearest, keep this close;
the wealth I’ve saved will help us flee.”
But he was taken off and shot
by the new army; we have lost
my father’s houses, and his yacht.
Our freedom has so steep a cost.

Forgive me dearest, for this long
intrusion in your busy time,
but I have turned to you, a strong
and honest man, no thought of crime
in helping me restore the wealth
my father earned so selflessly
at cost of all his life and health.
Entrust your bank account to me
and I will place into your care
the sum of FIFTY THOUSAND AND
ELEVEN DOLLARS, with a prayer
for your continued health, command
my kind colleagues at Abidjan
Imperial City Bank to wire
the remainder to you upon
receipt of deposit required
from you, a small processing fee
of seven thousand dollars. I
implore you keep, should you agree,
this secret. They have many spies.

I pray this finds you well, my kith,
and that you’ll help me in my claim.

Sincerely, BAXTER JOSEPH SMITH
NGORO ENTER SENDER’S NAME.

If David Byrne had written “Lost In The Supermarket”

I’m all lost in the supermarket
I have never been happier
so many aisles with so many products
so many grownups get their shopping done here.

Hey mama mama, come here and find me
wrapped up in the cereal aisle
you know Trix are just Kix with more colors
I eat a bowl and I scream for a while.

They got the fifty-pound dog food
they got the corn in a can
they got the guy stacking apples
he is a good-looking man
they got the black and white floor tiles
they got the checkout machines
they got pineapples marked down
to just a dollar fifteen.

I wanna ride in the supermarket
mama please just put me in the cart
I promise I won’t kick or make noise now
I’ll follow rules you might want to impart
I wanna sit in the shopping cart seat now
the bars make lines in my fat little legs
I wanna ride through the frozen department
I wanna ride past the sour cream and eggs

Hey mama mama, come here and find me
jumping the platform on the big magic door
I make it open and close it’s so easy
I found this piece of gum stuck to the floor.

They got the dish soap and cleanser
they got the bacon and beans
they got a can with a label
that I don’t know what it means
they got the Leonid Brezhnev
they got uranium ore
they got the todd-a-ler diapers
that I don’t wear anymore
they got the frozen dead chickens
they got the turkeys and veals
they got the doors in the back room
and all the things they conceal
they got the beans and the brown rice
they got the Swiss cheese and ham
they got the shopping cart wobble
because the front wheel is jammed
[fade out]

Friend or fan

It’s been an interesting week here thinking about things online.

It started off with a coffee date with my pal On The Public Record, whose blog of the same name is a must-read for anyone trying to make sense of California’s arcane water policy. OTPR and I were making observations about the different sorts of relationships between blog writers and the readers of same, and OTPR made what I thought was a rather cogent observation, to wit: There are fans, and then there are friends.

Of course there are other categories too. Trolls, for instance, who are sort of the mirror image of “fans.” There are drive-bys and casual acquaintances and random well-intended commenters who may venture into a place a few times and then amble off. It takes all kinds of commenters to make an online world.

But most regulars at any particular blog, aside from trolls and deliberate antagonists, can generally be pigeonholed into “friend” or “fan.” There are probably lots of differences delineable between the two categories, but the important distinguishing mark, to OTPR’s way of thinking, was this:

Fans feel you owe them something.

I had a lot of fans at Creek Running North a couple years ago. I don’t have so many of them now.  From January 1 to June 30 of 2009, Coyote Crossing got about 38,000 visits. Creek Running North, in the same period in 2007, got over 160,000. There are a number of reasons for that difference, including the increase in RSS feed use and an overall decrease in blog readership among low-to-middle end blogs, the rise of Facebook and Twitter, the fact that a bunch of that 2007 traffic was brought by Zeke, the fact that I spent the intervening time bewailing the loss of my dog and then picking a few blogfights I shouldn’t oughta, which drove some folks away, and then stopped doing both those things, which drove away the people that showed up because of them. I closed CRN and stopped blogging altogether for a couple of months last year, and when I started up again it was emphatically as a niche writer. And I don’t post every day like I used to, in part because I’m doing other writing.

There’s lots of noise in that statistical signal, and trying to tease it all out is a bit of a fool’s errand. But the result is inarguable: 23 percent of the traffic means a lot fewer fans. Most of the people that stop by regularly to comment I consider friends rather than fans. Every once in a while, though, a fan drops in.

The day after coffee with OTPR I got email from (what would appear to be) two different such fans. Each of them informed me that I was letting them down by not taking sides in an online argument. Each of them referred to different arguments to which I was putatively obliged to hie myself. This is blessedly uncommon, but there are one or two examples of the phenomenon that regular readers might remember taking place here this year. Close on the heels of the second one, a third “fan” emailed to let me know that I might have missed something derisive that another blogger said about me a year and a half ago, and provided a link.

It was one of those days where I was sorry my traffic hadn’t dropped even farther here. This is not a good feeling for someone who hopes to make a living by writing to cultivate, this desire for fewer readers. Fortunately, I got better. I think.

Almost by coincidence, I wandered over to Kate Harding’s joint later that day and saw, a couple posts down, an explanation of changes that were going to be taking place there. Those changes, summed up: Kate and her talented co-bloggers were now going to be writing about what they wanted to write about rather than what they have been expected to write about — which, in the specific case of their blog, is feminism and fat acceptance. From that post:

[I]ncreasingly, there have been headaches and frustrations that have made this feel a bit like the kind of job where, if they didn’t pay you, you’d have no motivation to show up every day. Thousand-comment threads. Blogwars we tried to stay out of but somehow got dragged into anyway, without any of us saying a fucking word. Constant arguments about whether the boundaries we’ve set for our own space are appropriate. That sort of thing.

But most troubling of all is the expectation of leadership on our parts — of a movement, a community, a fatosphere — just because we’re a high-traffic blog. Some people have argued that whether we asked for a leadership role or not, that traffic means we’ve got it, so we have a responsibility to accept that our position means certain things. Like that we must be more democratic about what goes on here, we must weigh in on blogwars, we must set an example, we must respond promptly to all assertions that we are, in some manner, Doing It Wrong.

But you know what? No. It’s a fucking blog. … A lot of people refuse to accept our self-identification as bloggers — no more, no less — and keep insisting that as long as Shapely Prose remains the most visible blog in the fatosphere, we have an obligation to “lead” it in ways that are never clearly defined and involve some highly mobile goalposts.

There’s more, go read it, it’s good.

The notion that a writer you admire owes you something in return for that admiration isn’t new, and has been remarked upon by the finest cultural critics.

A difference between friends and fans: say you need to stop blogging for a while, and friends will likely say something like “bummer, but of course do what you need to do” or “excellent, because I want to read that book you’ve been procrastinating on” or “just in time, too, because dinner’s ready.” A fan says “No,” sometimes with an extra few dozen “o”s appended as a bit of self-deprecation.

Being a fan isn’t, I hasten to add, a character flaw. It’s a near-inevitable result of the way things work in mass communication. The whole notion that bloggers are actual humans with actual feelings still doesn’t quite sink in all the way, even for those of us have learned better as the result of shameful experience. There is the tendency to treat us as a form of entertainment, a bit of regularly scheduled programming. This unconscious assumption is destructive whether you like or dislike the person you’re so reifying.

Someone reminded me the other day, as I was whining about blogwars and such, that I was at one point widely linked and highly regarded when I was involved in more expressly combative political blogging. She was right, and much of that high regard was wonderful stuff. But it’s an interesting thing. For a lot of people, that regard only goes so far. Stop saying things people agree with, and no matter how well-argued, thoughtful, heartfelt, or compellingly written your arguments may be, the degree to which you are well-regarded will decline. Keep saying the things for which you have earned the regard, and the expectations grow. You are told — as Kate and cronies were, referenced above, and as I was — that your abundant traffic obligates you to write this or that, to rise up and smite the designated side in the usual high school cafeteria spats.

The legacy of all that regard, for me, is one occasional and boring right wing troll, a couple more determined and much more hostile stalker trolls slightly to the left of the first, a few instances (duly and quietly forwarded to me by actual friends) of former “allies” gleefully dissecting my divorce and the other ways in which my life sorta disintegrated over the first few months of 2008, and an ungainly archive from which about a third of the comments disappeared in a database crash, including some of my favorites.

The legacy of friendships made in that process is much more valuable, of course. It’s interesting to note that of all the people I met out in the wide world of political blogging — of the many dozens of people I considered colleagues, six checked in on me in 2008 to see if I was alive. [Edit: Oops. I meant seven.]

That’s not including all the hard core regulars here, of course, without whom 2008 would have been a whole lot more difficult, and friends from other blogging arenas like Dave and Beth and Carl. Let me stop there. My point isn’t to make lists, if for no other reason than that due to the ADD I’ll leave someone out that I don’t want to. My point is to make the distinction between friends — which each of the people mentioned here rather unambiguously are, though I’ve tested many of those friendships — and fans. Friends wondered how I was doing. Fans just figured the Creek Running North show was on hiatus.

I look at what I’ve written since June of 2008. Some of it is intensely personal, some of it so much so that it might be utterly incomprehensible to anyone not me. Given the lack of traction the stuff has found online, it’s unsurprising that my fan base has evanesced. But aside from this week, I haven’t been looking much at my fan base. I look at the world instead. I look at the utter lack of mainstream interest in June 2008 in saving a place like the Ivanpah Valley from paving for greenwashed industrial solar, whose sole purpose, aside from making money, is to make urban dwellers feel virtuous as they crank up their air conditioning. A year ago I would have considered it impossible that a New York Times reporter would speak up for the Ivanpah Valley. But it happened last week.

Is it hubris to think my writing made a difference? Possibly. All I know is I’ve spent my life wandering from one boulder to the next and trying to push each one. A lot of other people leaned into this one, and my contribution may have been just a tiny fraction of the total. Still, it is damn good to feel it move.

That’s the kind of regard a guy could get used to.