Monthly Archives: November 2009

Otter Pop


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