Monthly Archives: December 2009

Online fires

It’s almost exactly two years old at this point, and it links to a post at the Old Blog that I have long since taken down at the request of the guest blogger, but this post by our friend rrp remains one of the most cogent and thoughtful essays on blog discussion dynamics I have seen. The essay has to do with blog wars, but it’s relevant to the less unpleasant aspects of online relationships as well, and to other facets of writing for an online readership.

Starting off with a description of some of the real-life meetings, good and bad, in which she’s taken part, rrp moves on to the blog world.

Put three posts side by side. Make A a calmly argued, logically structured, even beautiful essay. Make B a full on emotional diatribe, making sure to keep it somewhat coherent. It can’t read as flat-out insane. Make C a sardonic, clever piece of wordplay that manages to make any opponents look like fools. How will they rank? Well based on my experience C will get the most attention, B next and A will come in a sorry last.

This rings true. I’ve written all three of the above, if you stretch rrp’s definition of “A” just a little bit. The posts that fall into category C are the ones that still get spasms of blog traffic, even years later. I’m really good at writing C, whether it’s snarky one-liner reductio “Shorter” comments on other blogs, or rewriting Eliot’s poetry to make fun of wingnuts. I lately feel kinda sick to my stomach when I look at some of those old posts, most of them written in a form of anger that I can only describe as something akin to the abuser’s mindset.

Writing in category B is a little healthier. Rants are often provoked by righteous anger, as opposed to the curdled, denialistic loathing that taints much online snark in category C. Bad things happen, and anger is an appropriate response to them. Anger expressed in public will always draw some attention. A couple weeks ago there was this thing floating around Twitter that basically said “either you go wade into this blog fight on the same side as me or you don’t care about the lives of trans people,” and some smart and thoughtful people helped spread the message despite the manipulation and the bloody-shirt-waving. Prairie fires of this sort of anger lick back and forth across much of the political blog world a lot these days. In the desert, fires like that have a peculiar effect, changing the structure of the landscape. Wildfires tend to favor grasses, which can burn and grow back. After a few seasons, the fires don’t hurt much as they periodically burn over the same spot for the dozenth time. Of course at that point, not much interesting grows there between fires.

rrp really gets down to business when she contrasts offline behavior with online, a topic on about which I have been known to yammer:

What does this have to do with online political work? Well, take an audience that’s predisposed to regard the medium as entertainment and primed with the dynamics I’ve described and it’s a recipe for disaster. The behaviors that lead to the worst real-world meetings are the following:

  • Rigidity
  • Insecurity
  • Loud, Obstinate Ignorance
  • Concealed Motives
  • Poor Faith Arguments
  • Unexamined Motives

In the online environment (and out here in the world too) all of these are lethal to progress, but the last three are especially guaranteed to derail and destroy useful discussions. It’s easier to construct snappy comebacks when you don’t believe in what you’re writing (poor faith arguments) It’s easier to pour out an enraged rant when you’re reacting and typing first, without thinking about why a particular post is making you crazy (unexamined or concealed motives).

But thinking through your own reactions takes training and it takes time. And time is at a premium in a online discussion. …[I]n an online discussion, you have to hit it quick or the moment will have passed you by. That wonderful thing you were going to say loses its context and relevance. It will disappear without an answer, without an echo, without a sound. So there’s every incentive to type fast, to type first thing that comes to mind, to type the words that will have the greatest impact.

You’ll probably type what you feel not what you could have thought if you had a day or so. You’ll probably type out of your reactions rather than your principles. And you’ll type for your audience, wanting to please, instruct, anger, enlighten, and entertain.

There’s more.

It’s a year and a half since I’ve promised myself I wouldn’t wade into the slagfights anymore. I haven’t, mostly. I still watch them, partly out of interest in the issues being fought over, and partly out of self-defense—my name still gets dragged into the things now and then, despite my long absence from the roster of combatants. There are plenty of crucial issues at the center of these fights: human rights, respect, justice, peace, taking place across seemingly intractable divides of gender and race and ethnicity.

There are, I have no doubt, people learning hard-fought personal lessons amid those fights. I wouldn’t say nothing is gained in the fighting. But I still see a lot more flinch-apologies than I do dialogue, a lot more defensive bluster than listening: fire-adaptations any ecologist will recognize handily.

In the meantime, I have spent this last year trying to get my writing closer to what rrp describes as category A, generally forsaking the other stuff. Despite rrp’s well-argued analysis of the dearth of response such writing gets, I’ve heard from plenty of you — rrp included! — that you find some value in the attempt.

That response from all of you was a good thing in 2009, and here as the year ends, I want you to know I’m grateful for it. Thank you.

Sheep Pass


Yesterday, around 3:00 PM. Driving on Park Boulevard, Joshua Tree National Park. We drive past a sign that says “Sheep Pass Campground.”

Me: You know, I bet you could get a really good night’s sleep there.
The Raven: [near-silent groan]
Me: You know, because of the sheep passing…
The Raven [interrupting]: Uh-huh.
[pause of 45 seconds or so]
Me: See, it’s hilarious because you could count…
The Raven [interrupting, a bit more emphatically]: Right. Got it.

Stripped clean

Yesterday a blue-eyed storm blew through Los Angeles. The wind had been out of the desert for some days, calm and a bit warm, and then Tuesday morning we were buffeted. It got cold, for Los Angeles, and the wind reached 30 miles an hour at times.

The wind stripped dead fronds from all the streetside palms. They formed drifts at the curbs. Piles of tire-shredded mulch built up between the lanes.

A few nights ago I ran the same route, saw Orion and Canis promenading across the sky, saw a bright Geminid meteor outshine the smoggy night. A barn owl screamed at me as I ran, block after block. The nest in palms, come out to hunt the rats and squirrels.

Tonight it was still cold, for Los Angeles. I ran anyway. Today the air was filthy, and reaffirmed my desire to leave before the next year is out, but tonight was clear: a dozen stars glinted feebly above the sodium vapor lamps. I ran headed for Rigel, for Sirius bright in the south, then south of Santa Monica Boulevard I turned west.

A moon one day shy of first quarter was setting, orange-tinted, at the end of the street. I ran toward that for a while, through piles of spent and shattered palm fronds.

Arcane and mysterious texts, deciphered

There’s a cultural document with which you are almost certainly familiar that for most of my life has occupied a place central to my cosmogony — the nature aesthetic, the trickster worship, the sharp inhalation of joy that each new moment in life brings. I’ve held this work dear since I was, oh, three or four. And yet there has always been a mystery at the very core of this work, a stream-of-consciousness flow of unintelligible information that informs the text of the work. It is interpreted within the work itself, if a bit unreliably. You can enjoy this work for years — you can understand it very well indeed, for Pete’s sake — without deciphering the mystery.

But the mystery is there, and prominent, and I have puzzled over it almost since I first encountered it. I have tried to work it out myself for years. I have taken my share of lumps in the process.

The other day I realized I had the key I needed to unlock the mystery, right here on my desk.

Here it is, complete with a flaw the authors placed there, expecting no one would ever notice. Feel free to — as they say in the large predator business — help yourself.


A sweet little wistful nostalgic love poem

I wish that I had never met
the one who set my heart aflame.
All the decisions I regret
I made after I learned her name,
excepting those I’d made before.
I used to long to hear her voice.
I never do that anymore,
which seems to be the wiser choice.
I wish that I had never found
myself enmired in talking late.
I wish I’d been more tightly wound,
my basal metabolic rate
less prone to fluctuation when
her silence took that certain tone
and I would tread eggshells again,
dallying desperately alone.
I wish I had avoided all
our shoulder-hollow-knotting trysts
that etched away my stomach’s wall
and made me want to slash my wrists.
I wish that I had been the one
to call it ended, when it seemed
her fantasy had come undone
and I was not the man she’d dreamed.
But I was me, for ill or good.
I rode it out until the end,
when finally I understood
what failed in love would fail as friends.
I wish I never knew her, yet
there isn’t much real there to mourn;
trivial pleasures I forget,
the chaff blown off of last year’s corn.

Castle Peaks area would be added to Mojave Preserve

castle peaks

From the California Desert Protection Act of 2010:

‘‘(a) IN GENERAL.—The boundary of the Mojave National Preserve is adjusted to include—
‘‘(1) the 29,221 acres of Bureau of Land Management land that is surrounded by the Mojave National Preserve to the northwest, west, southwest, south, and southeast and by the Nevada State line on the northeast boundary, as depicted on the map entitled ‘Proposed Castle Mountain Addition to the Mojave National Preserve’, numbered 170/100,075, and dated August 2009; and
‘‘(2) the 25 acres of Bureau of Land Management land in Baker, California, as depicted on the map entitled ‘Mojave National Preserve–Proposed Boundary Addition’, numbered 170/100,199, and dated August 2009.

The photo here is of the Castle Peaks area. It’s obviously of National Park stature with regard to scenic beauty, and though I did frame the shot to exclude a small powerline and fencepost here and there it’s wild enough land as well. Privately owned land in Nevada runs along the northeastern boundary of the parcel, but said landowner is not particularly hostile to the Park Service.

This is one provision of the CDPA2010 I support without reservation. If they tossed in the Wee Thump wilderness, just across the Nevada line, I’d support it even harder.

First take on the California Desert Protection Act of 2010

Dianne Feinstein introduces her much-ballyhooed desert protection bill in the Senate today. Some desert activists have been working with her staff to craft the bill, working under a pledge of confidentiality. Other activists (myself included) have been waiting a bit impatiently for details. We’re still waiting for some of them, including specifics as to the actual tracts of land added to National Parks and the Preserve, etc.

The below is based on a note from Ryan Henson of the California Wilderness Coalition. I’m monitoring for text of the bill and will share that as it becomes available.

On the upside, the bill:

  • establishes the 941,413-acre Mojave Trails National Monument in eastern San Bernardino County along the southern boundary of the Mojave National Preserve
  • designates the 133,524-acre Sand to Snow National Monument that stretches between Joshua Tree National Park on the east and the highcountry of the San Gorgonio Wilderness in the San Bernardino National Forest to the west
  • adds three areas encompassing 173,861 acres to the National Wilderness Preservation System, including the Avawatz Mountains Wilderness (86,614 acres), Great Falls Basin Wilderness (7,871 acres) and Soda Mountains Wilderness (79,376 acres)
  • enlarges four existing wilderness areas by 172,247 acres, including the Death Valley National Park Wilderness (90,152 acres), Golden Valley Wilderness (21,633 acres), Kingston Range Wilderness (53,321 acres) and San Gorgonio Wilderness (7,141 acres)
  • establishes the 75,575-acre Vinagre Wash Special Management Area in Imperial County where many ecologically and culturally sensitive areas would be protected from development and vehicle use, including 48,699 acres that would essentially be managed as wilderness
  • enlarges Death Valley National Park by 40,740 acres, Mojave National Preserve by 29,246 acres and Joshua Tree National Park by 2,904 acres
  • adds over 70 miles (22,400 acres) of stream to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System along the Amargosa River, Deep Creek, Surprise Canyon and the Whitewater River
  • permanently prohibits the staking of new mining claims on approximately 10,000 acres of land sacred to the Quechan Tribe in Imperial County
  • mandates the study and protection of a cultural trail and the features associated with it along the Colorado River that is sacred to several tribes
  • makes it more difficult for developers to excessively exploit groundwater in or near the Mojave National Preserve
  • transfers a 994-acre Bureau of Land Management holding in San Diego County to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and require the state to manage the land as wilderness
  • protects land from development that has been donated to or acquired by the federal government for conservation purposes and
  • requires the Department of the Interior to study the future impacts of climate change on the California desert, to mitigate these impacts and to identify and protect important wildlife migration corridors in the region.

On the downside, the bill

  • withdraws protection from 33,571 acres of the Soda Mountains Wilderness Study Area
  • withdraws protection from the 84,400-acre Cady Mountains Wilderness Study Area (however, all but 5,500 acres of the area will be included in the Mojave Trails National Monument)
  • facilitates the transfer of isolated parcels of state-owned land that are surrounded by desert wilderness areas and parks in exchange for federal assets, potentially including parcels of federal land
  • turns five existing administratively-designated off-highway vehicle (OHV) recreation areas into legislatively-designated OHV areas and requires the Secretary of the Interior to study the possibility of expanding them (though my DPC colleague Terry Weiner points out that this increases the likelihood of actual management plans for these areas to mitigate current damage)
  • allows the expansion of a small airport in Imperial County.

Other parts of the bill not yet released involve energy development in the desert, and conservationists are quite concerned about those provisions.

I’ll report more as I get it.


CafePress Stuff

image I’ve changed up the old CafePress store*, adding a preliminary logo for the site which is kind of cool even if you don’t know the site, and also including a test run of some things to benefit the Mojave National Preserve Conservancy. All proceeds from sales of the MNPC stuff will go to the Conservancy.

Suggestions of items you’d like to see, either in the main Coyote Crossing line or the MNPC line, are welcomed.

* which involved discontinuing sales of the Zeke product line, or at least it would have been a discontinuation if there had been any sales of the Zeke product line in the first place.

Ashen in the Desert

There’s a scene in the 1998 film Passion in the Desert that does not appear in the Honore de Balzac short story on which the film was based. The short story focuses on the relationship between a man and a leopard: the film takes an entire act to get us to the beginning of the real story, a feat Balzac accomplished in fewer than six hundred words of text.

In the film, the protagonist — Augustin Robert —  is at first charged with guarding a character the filmmaker borrowed from contemporary history: the renowned, eccentric, aging and thoroughly difficult painter Jean-Michel Venture de Paradis. It is 1798, during Bonaparte’s campaign to conquer Africa. Venture has been commissioned by Napoleon to document the scenic and cultural wonders of Egypt, but had failed to ingratiate himself well with the French soldiers he accompanied through that occupied land. Augustin’s job is to protect Venture from his fellow soldiers.

Mameluks attack the company, and Venture de Paradis and Augustin are separated from the rest. They wander in the desert, the old man’s frailty slowing their progress. He persists in painting as they go, even using the last of their drinking water to thin his paint. At length Augustin leaves the man, promising to find help and return. He doesn’t, and the real story — Balzac’s story — starts shortly thereafter.

In life, Jean-Michel Venture de Paradis actually died of either dysentery or the plague in Paris in 1799, having been there for at least two years teaching. In the film, he dies soon after Augustin departs, blowing his head off when he realizes he is failing.

The scene that has been playing through my mind comes just before that. The artist is dying of heat and thirst, and remembers that he’s put the last of the water into his paint pots. He drinks his paint. It burns his throat horribly. Lurid streaks of color, yellow and red and cyan, plaster his beard to his chin. He chokes uncontrollably.

The film is pretty, to be sure, and fantastic in the original sense of the word. The short story is in many ways superior. It is more understated: it does not hit the reader over the head with leaden metaphor the way the film does. It does not strain credulity as much.

But there’s something about the paint-drinking scene from the film that haunts me. Words are my medium, not paint. They make a much lighter palette to haul out into the desert, but these days they burn my throat every bit as much, abrade my gut, tinge my blood and breath.

It all makes perfect sense when you realize that Lake Wobegon is a dystopia

I actually wrote and sent a response to Garrison Keillor’s anti-Semitic Xmas column, in which he says, among other things,

If you don’t believe Jesus was God, OK, go write your own damn “Silent Night” and leave ours alone. This is spiritual piracy and cultural elitism, and we Christians have stood for it long enough. And all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year, Rudolph and the chestnuts and the rest of that dreck. Did one of our guys write “Grab your loafers, come along if you wanna, and we’ll blow that shofar for Rosh Hashanah”? No, we didn’t.

Unsurprisingly, my email — sent to the address given at the end of the column — bounced. I’m looking for other ways to get it to him. Perhaps he’ll print all the responses out and line them up on him mantel above the garlands.

In the meantime, thought I’d share. Happy Hannukah.

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Subject: Your appallingly ugly Xmas column
Date: December 18, 2009 7:24:23 PM PST
To:  .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
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Do you no longer pause to think before you unburden yourself of your bigotry by way of your keyboard?

You have done harm here, with no concommitant gain in anything of value: not humor, not understanding, not literary merit.

You are lucky enough to have a platform that affords you some measure of attention, one you have earned through your own hard work and good fortune. You are not obligated as a writer to use that platform other than as you see fit. You do, however, have an obligation as a human being to refrain from doing needless harm to others. This column fails rather stunningly to fulfill that obligation.

You owe your readers — all of them, Jewish and otherwise — an apology.


There was no time. The flow of time had ceased
as chill night air might check rose-petal jam
in flow across a sampled piece of bread,
or idle thought would make a fingernail
to tarry on its way along the curved
and gentle night topography of spine.
Our skin standing on lovely end, the breeze
had raised a thousand downy hairs, and then
there was no time. The honey-sodden air
had ripened into amber, you and me
held fast, skin upon skin, tangles of hair
and leg, whole dark eternities of eyes,
soft fingertips held close, tracing the curve
of warm, slight-parted lips rose-petalled.