Monthly Archives: April 2010


A couple of years ago, a relatively small spill — 58,000 gallons of bunker fuel — poured out of the damaged Cosco Busan into San Francisco Bay. I took the photo just below a day later.

Keller Beach

The Cosco Busan was not a drilling accident. It would have happened even if there were no offshore oil drilling anywhere. But it’s what I think of these days when I imagine the current oil spill in the Gulf. I can still smell the Cosco Busan’s fuel on my fingers, my bootsoles, fumes emanating in waves from the dying grebes on the East Bay shoreline.

The spill from the destroyed rig Deepwater Horizon,  centered forty miles from the Louisiana coast, is putting out a Cosco Busan’s worth of oil into the Gulf every six hours. It has been gushing for nine days now. It may be mid-July before the flow is stopped. At the current estimated rate of spillage — likely a low estimate — this spill will, by June 13, outstrip the Exxon Valdez in gallons of crude loosed upon the water.

The slick, so far uncontrollable, is a day away from reaching the Gulf Coast.

Brown pelicans are nesting there right now, on the barrier islands. So are egrets.

This week I played a very small role in helping stop an expansion of Chevron’s Richmond refinery, at which the tanker in the photo above is off-loading crude. I’ve been thinking about that non-stop the past few days, working on getting press in touch with the environmental justice groups that blocked the expansion. Three underfunded community groups took on the third-largest corporation in the US and won, for now.

I’ve been thinking of that instead of the Deepwater Horizon. Escapist of me.

The Mojave Cross


The boxed-up cross on Sunrise Rock, Mojave National Preserve. Photo by Florian Boyd.

As far as I can determine from reading the decision [PDF], and contrary to what’s being widely reported today in the case of the Mojave Cross on Cima Dome, the Supreme Court has not ruled that religious symbols may be displayed on public land.

What the court actually did was construct a rationale based on a doctrine of “accommodation” of diverse religious beliefs to quash a lower court’s ruling that NPS could not give the piece of land surrounding the cross to a private party.

Justice Stevens, who wrote the dissenting opinion, didn’t challenge that rationale, merely the decision:

As the history recounted by the plurality indicates, this case comes to us in a procedural posture that significantly narrows the question presented to the Court. In the first stage of this litigation, the District Court and the Court of Appeals ruled that the Government violated the Establishment Clause by permitting the display of a single white Latin cross at Sunrise Rock. Those courts further ruled that the appropriate remedy was an injunctionprohibiting the Government from “permitting the display of the Latin cross in the area of Sunrise Rock in the Mojave National Preserve.”  The Government declined to seek a writ of certiorari following those rulings. Accordingly, for the purpose of this case, it is settled that “the Sunrise Rock cross will project a message of government endorsement [of religion] to a reasonable observer,” and that the District Court’s remedy for that endorsement was proper.

We are, however, faced with an additional fact: Congress has enacted a statute directing the Secretary of theInterior to transfer a 1-acre parcel of land containing the cross to the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), subject to certain conditions, in exchange for a 5-acre parcel of land elsewhere in the Preserve. The District Court found that the land transfer under §8121 “violate[d] [the] court’s judgment ordering a permanent injunction” and did not “actually cur[e] the continuing Establishment Clause violation.”  The District Court therefore enforced its 2002 judgment by enjoining the transfer, without considering whether “the land transfer itself is an independent violation of the Establishment Clause.” Because the District Court did not base its decision upon an independent Establishment Clause violation, the constitutionality of the land-transfer statute is not before us. Instead, the question we confront is whether the District Court properly enforced its 2002 judgment by enjoining the transfer…

Although I agree with the plurality’s basic framework, I disagree with its decision to remand the case to the District Court.

I’ve never really been able to get too worked up about the existence or placement of the cross. It’s old enough to qualify as a historic resource, and besides there are icons sacred to MY religion running all over Cima Dome at night singing songs and eating bunnies. To my mind, the decision was far less ominous from a civil rights perspective, and far more ominous from the perspective of someone wishing to see the Preserve preserved. I’m glad the land transfer deal involves adding five acres of other land to the Preserve in exchange for one acre around the cross. This one acre, however, is one of the most-visited in the Preserve. It is subject to abuse already, and without direct NPS enforcement of things like campfire restrictions, use of this one acre could have drastic effects on the rest of Cima Dome.

Floyd Dominy, RIP

Floyd Dominy was a river-murdering son of a bitch, but the man had style. The chief promoter of the Glen Canyon Dam and thus the man mainly responsible for the drowning of one of the most beautiful landscapes of the American West, Dominy, who ran the Bureau of Reclamation from 1959-69, was unapologetic in his approach to western water. In an interview ten years ago with Ed Marston of High Country News, Dominy said:

I was in the federal government for 37 years, in water and land development, but I expect the Glen Canyon Dam and the creation of the most wonderful lake in the world, Lake Powell, is my crowning jewel.

In the words of the late Mark Reisner, author of Cadillac Desert, “Dominy was General Patton with General MacArthur’s ego doing Mulholland’s work, which he considered the Lord’s.”

Floyd Dominy died a few days ago at 100 years of age.

I once told Dave Brower my goal was to “think like Brower and dress like Dominy.” Dave said “you might have that backwards.” Dave knew Dominy well, having faced him down across both DC meeting room tables and rafts on the Colorado River. Dave had a lot of respect for Dominy. Dominy was sincere and passionate and brilliant. Yeats had something to say about passionate intensity like Dominy’s. There are those of us who struggle now to undo much of his work, and changing climate threatens to render it moot anyway. But he honestly thought he was making the world a better place. I can appreciate him for that much.


A thousand feet from the border fence. A thousand chorus frogs sing in Boundary Creek. The air is cool, a moist tang of sulphur from the spring.

A bright planet settles toward the mountains in the west. Jupiter, we guess, and we watch Orion follow it with his dog. The moon is bright: it washes out all but the hundred brightest stars.

A thousand feet from the border fence. We walk the road’s wide and moonlit shoulder. The Raven’s hand finds mine. “I knew it was a good run,” I tell her, “when the frogs in Pinole Creek didn’t stop singing as I ran past. I felt like I was part of the night. I felt like I belonged there.”

Headlights come around a hill from the south. A Border Patrol truck, and it hesitates long as it reaches the pavement. We pass the frogs, still singing. The truck idles at the corner. I feel its driver’s eyes on me, but after a long moment it turns the other way and parks in front of the store.

We keep walking, ten minutes or so until the bark of a wary dog comes to us from a darkened house ahead. No use vexing a dog used to barking at people passing on foot, we decide, and turn around.

Another Border Patrol truck emerges from the darkness, turns toward us. Its headlights sweep us long and lingering, deliberate. It is a harsh light. It bleaches away the nuances of The Raven’s Mexican ancestry, it would seem. Both of us as pale in the light as gringo ghosts, we keep our scowls hidden. One of us has ancestors in England and France, the other in Spain and Mexico. Walls rise at times between us but we tear them down as fast as possible.

The frogs sing as we pass again.

You know what’s weird?

…when you’re doing research on climate stuff and you see a thumbnail of a video of one of your dearest friends, and it’s the first time you’ve seen it and it’s almost a year out of date.

Not bad for lacking a teleprompter. Nice work, Shar.

Writers write because we must, and other untruths

A week or so ago, eating a late breakfast with The Raven at Canters’ on Fairfax, she said she couldn’t imagine me not writing. It took me by surprise. She sees me not writing most of the time we’re together. I spend most of my waking hours not writing, and every one of my non-waking hours.

It put me in mind of Richard Dawkins’ retort to a Christian, a little. Dawkins pointed out that the Christian didn’t believe in Zeus, Ahura-Mazda, Odin, Shiva, Quetzalcoatl, in fact of all the many hundreds of gods referred to in the literature, the Christian disbelieved in all but one. As an atheist, Dawkins said, he merely disbelieved in one more god than the Christian did. I spend almost all of my time not writing: all I’d have to do is change what I did with a fraction of my day to not write at all.

It’s actually pretty damned easy for me to imagine not writing. I spent my twenties not writing. I think I wrote three or four little things during that decade, all of them prompted out of sheer unemployed boredom during a summer in which I was -literally -staying in my father’s basement. Maybe a thousand words during the entire decade, which works out to a consonant and half a vowel a day on average.

I have heard it said that the defining characteristic of a writer is that writers absolutely must write. They can’t help it. It’s a compulsion. By that metric, I am not a writer. By that metric, I am pretty much the opposite of what a writer is. Most of the time, I have to be forced to write. This post, for instance, is prompted by my desperately needing to work on something else with a looming deadline. Yes, it’s still writing, but my only alternative is doing the dishes. There have been days this week where I chose a sinkful of dishes instead.

I like writing. I’m good at it. I’ve come to realize that my writing has made a few incremental changes for good in this world: swaying people’s opinions, helping people better appreciate some neglected things.

But do I need to write? No. I have been happy with my life without writing being a part of it.

I think about this as more and more of the Old Order of writing collapses around us. There’s a lot of talk lately about the future of the book, and almost none of that talk concerns the person who creates the book. Who will triumph in the race to determine the industry standard for the piece of electronic machinery that people use to carry the book around? That’s the important question.

In the meantime, discussion of the digital rights management issue over past years has focused on music, and to a lesser extent video and the visual arts. It’s only recently that the topic of electronic duplication and dissemination of written works has become an issue deemed worthy of discussion. This despite the fact that people had been mass-copying and distributing written works electronically for many years before the mp3 was developed.

Ten years ago I made a phonecall to a local newspaper editor and landed myself a gig writing feature stories and a biweekly column. Doing so brought me a few hundred dollars in a good month. It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough to justify the time spent. That’s pretty much impossible these days. The bottom’s dropped out of the newspaper freelance market. There are still papers buying things from freelancers, some of them online. I’ve sold a few pieces that way. Whether I’d be able to if I was just breaking into this thing, I don’t know. It seems most people who get that kind of gig do so from the launching point of a successful blog, which it becomes increasingly hard to start. That land rush is over, and the ecological niches are full.

The mid-list publishing house is assumed to be on its way out, and the corollary of that assumption is that non-best-selling authors will have to assume responsibility for promoting their work if they want their books to sell. I don’t wish to stereotype here: there are certainly talented, artistic writers who have a knack for promotion. The Eggerses and the Lamonts will do well. But what of the Pynchons, the Salingers, the D.F. Wallaces? I think it’s safe to say, without insult to the few percent of non-hack writers who possess bullet-proof self-promotion chops, that a system in which those most adept at self-promotion are most likely to succeed will elevate hackery to the detriment of art.

Yeah, I know: what else is new? It’s been like that for decades. But the editors and publicists in the mid-list houses have made a difference, pushing books so that the writers didn’t have to as much, scheduling book tours so that the writers could complain about being on book tours. What happens when there are no more mid-list editors and publicists?

This Joshua tree book is going to be good, I think. It’ll be a miracle if sales bring me a tenth of what I’ve spent writing it. I wouldn’t complain if it made a fortune, of course. It started out as a deliberate attempt to fill a vacant spot on National Park Visitor Center Bookstore shelves, after all, a calculated bit of market research. It’s turned into a mission. I’ve had friends in my writers’ group tell me that the few chapters I’ve brought in have started them caring about the Joshua tree, prompted an interest in desert wildlife. That’s worth the time and money I’ve spent. I suspect those of my readers who donated to the progress of the book might feel the same way.

But once the Joshua tree book is done, I have to say I doubt I will have it in me to do another project of that magnitude unless it creates income instead of outgo.

I’m not a self-promoter. (Buy my Zeke book anyway, please.) That fact may consign me to penury if I keep writing as a primary avocation. I’m not claiming to be unique in that regard. Writing is notoriously an underpaid gig. Current industry trends making it harder for writers to support themselves by writing just make an already unpleasant situation worse.

The one consistent answer I’ve seen to all this, the doom and gloom forecasts about writing’s financial future, has been that trope about writers having to write. The usual application of this trope can be pretty much summed up as “yeah, but it’s not like you’ll stop writing, so it doesn’t really matter to me whether you get paid or not.”

It may be that I’m an aberration among writers in my only doing so because I want to. It may be that not all writers could, as I conceivably could, put away the keyboard for a trowel and shovel. Maybe all writers other than me couldn’t stop writing to save their lives.

But if you’re one of those people who assumes that means it doesn’t matter whether we get paid and that you’ll still have plenty to read, I have a question for you.

What makes you think that once we write that text we “simply have to write because we’re writers,” that we’ll be compelled to put it somewhere where you can read it?

Einstein forsakes Coyote

“It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”

— Albert Einstein, as quoted in Albert Einstein, the Human Side

Desert Solar Is Not Renewable Energy

[A sneak preview of a piece I wrote this week for the Desert Protective Council’s upcoming Educational Bulletin. I cribbed a few sentences from my earlier post on ancient blackbrush forests.]

As the reality of human-generated climate change grows more obvious and more dire, the campaign to replace our outmoded fossil-fuel-based power generating infrastructure with carbon-neutral alternatives has literally gained ground. Development of solar, wind, biomass and geothermal energy is now a Federal priority. This development, unthinkable just a few years ago, is long overdue.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to do just about everything, however. In the deserts of the American Southwest, most of the large-scale developments on the drawing board have been proposed for public lands, the bulk of those lands previously undeveloped.

Advocates of solar and wind energy development in fragile wildlands often refer to their projects as “renewable energy” development. In the strictest possible sense, the term is accurate: solar power will be abundant as long as the sun shines, and wind will blow across the landscape for about as long. But expand the scope of the discussion a bit and the validity of the term “renewable energy” becomes more doubtful. The energy transformed into electric power may be renewable, but what of the other impacts the power generating stations may have? In desert wildlands especially, development of massive industrial power generating facilities involves damage to the landscape that may take centuries, or millennia, to heal — if it ever does.

If energy company interests proposed cutting down redwoods for biomass conversion, or filling Yosemite Valley with a reservoir in order to generate hydroelectric power, most environmentally concerned people would scoff derisively. The redwoods would certainly grow back, and snowmelt would almost certainly recharge the Yosemite reservoir each year, but few people would limit their assessment of the projects’ “renewable” nature to the specific sources of energy harnessed. Most people would demand that the assessment of the “renewable” nature of the energy project address the nature of the habitats destroyed in order to install the power generating capacity — the old-growth redwood forest, the meadows and sheer rock walls along the Merced River — and the continuing damage to those ecosystems from those projects’ daily operations. We would ask how long it would take for those old-growth redwoods to grow back. We would ask how long it would take, once the Yosemite Dam was eventually removed, for the Valley floor’s ecosystem to regain its grandeur. And we would likely ask ourselves whether a forest 3,000 years in the making, or a valley four times that old at a minimum, were really worth losing for a few extra megawatts.

In the Bureau of Land Management’s California Desert District, just the handful of solar and wind energy project proposals that have been “fast-tracked” — chosen by the Obama administration for accelerated permitting and regulatory approval — would destroy just under 59,000 acres of publicly owned desert wildlands in the Mojave and Colorado deserts. All told, that’s more acreage than is occupied by the city of Lancaster, California. Sprawly Palm Springs occupies only a few dozen acres more. That’s a huge amount of land. Even more would be affected by the new transmission lines the projects would require. And that’s just the fast-tracked projects. Overall in California, the BLM is examining more than 350,000 acres of public land for solar energy development — an area larger than Los Angeles slated for possible habitat destruction in the name of “renewable energy.” Many more hundreds of thousands of acres are being studied in other Western states.

Let’s take a look at some of the aspects of those landscapes that this “renewable” gold rush would damage.

Desert aquifers

Fifteen thousand years ago the climate in Western North America was much different. The California deserts were far wetter; freshwater lakes filled many of the desert’s basins. Water from those lakes, and from the relatively greater runoff and snowmelt from the desert’s fringing mountains, pooled in large aquifers in the deep alluvial soil of the valleys. Most of the great pluvial lakes in the southern part of the desert dried up by about 7,500 years ago, but the aquifers they had left behind remain to this day, water tables sometimes several hundred feet beneath the desert valley surface. One such “fossil water” aquifer, beneath the Amargosa Valley, feeds the renowned springs at Ash Meadows, Nevada, home to the endangered Devil’s Hole pupfish. 

Annual recharge of these aquifers — the amount of water present-day precipitation adds to the total — is quite limited. In the Ivanpah Valley, for instance, astride the California-Nevada line south of Las Vegas, the total annual recharge of that valley’s aquifer amounts to an average of 800 acre-feet a year, according to one estimate. This water comes almost entirely from precipitation falling on the nearby Clark, New York, Ivanpah and Spring ranges. Eight hundred acre-feet sounds like a lot of water. However, the Ivanpah Valley groundwater basin spans more than 400,000 acres. Eight hundred acre-feet of water would raise the water table on an aquifer that size by about half a millimeter.

At that rate of annual recharge, it would take thousands of years to fill the Ivanpah Valley’s aquifer. Most aquifers throughout the desert, aside from those recharged by more well-watered mountains such as the Sierra Nevada and Transverse Ranges, are recharged at similarly slow rates. Desert groundwater from these aquifers is thus best considered a nonrenewable resource.

Artesian springs supplied by these fossil aquifers provide a crucial source of water without which wildlife would suffer. In places where humans have developed the desert, these aquifers are chronically overdrafted: settlements, agricultural irrigation, livestock watering, mining, resort development, and even golf courses all add to the demand on this precious and limited resource.

Whether they are photovoltaic or concentrating thermal in design, industrial solar facilities depend on regular cleaning in order to run at peak efficiency. Even a thin layer of dust on PV panels or mirrors can cut output by a considerable amount. Though research continues into dust-repellant coatings and dry cleaning methods, getting rid of dust means hosing down the relevant pieces of equipment. And in most of the desert, unless the facility is on the Colorado River or an aqueduct therefrom, that water will come up out of a well, adding to the demand on already overdrafted groundwater. Concentrating solar thermal facilities may use water either to drive steam turbines or for cooling, or both. Though engineering advances in concentrating thermal solar technology will likely make the installations far more water-efficient, the amount of water current designs use may be considerable. A plant proposed for the Amargosa Valley by the Solar Millennium corporation would have required 20 percent of that valley’s groundwater. Even the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station, which would use air-cooling techniques to increase water efficiency, is expected to consume at least 100 acre-feet of water each year — an eighth of the annual water budget in the Ivanpah Valley.

If production of industrial-scale solar electricity requires such massive use of a nonrenewable resource, calling the result “renewable energy” seems deceptive.

Old-Growth Desert Vegetation

Visitors to the desert often assume that the wizened-looking large plants there are immensely old. As it happens, many of the most prominent desert plants — outside of the altitudinal range of the piñon-juniper forest, at least — have surprisingly short lifespans. Joshua trees and saguaros are good examples, with average lifespans below 150 years. Ocotillos, one of the more notable large woody plants in the Colorado Desert, endure for about the same length of time.

Desert shrubs, however, often outlive their larger tree companions by a considerable margin. In a 1995 study of woody plants in the Grand Canyon in which landscapes documented in 19th century photos were rephotographed, researchers found that a wide range of desert shrub species reached ages of more than a century. These included catclaw acacia (Acacia greggii); bursage (Ambrosia dumosa); fourwing saltbush and shadscale (Atriplex canescens and A. confertifolia); the cacti Echinocactus polycephalus, Opuntia acanthocarpa, O. basilaris, and O. erinacea; Ephedra; desert thorn (Lycium andersonii); Yucca angustissima; and, a bit surprisingly, the bunchgrass big galleta (Pleuraphis rigida).

A few desert shrubs have lifespans more properly measured in millennia rather than centuries. The best-known of these is the creosote bush, Larrea tridentata. Creosote stems put out side shoots every so often, expanding the plant’s width. As a creosote bush gains in width and the center of the plant eventually succumbs to old age, the shrub becomes a ring of stems and foliage. By measuring the ring’s width and dividing by the annual growth rate, the age of the ring can be determined. King Clone, a creosote ring near Landers with an average diameter of 45 feet, is estimated to be approximately 11,700 years old — placing its germination back in the last pluvial period, when freshwater lakes dotted the desert. 

Another long-lived, slow-growing species, the Mojave yucca (Yucca schidigera), also forms clonal rings. Estimates of the growth rate of Mojave yucca rings vary widely, but it’s relatively safe to conjecture that many such rings exceed 2,000 years in age. Clumps of Mojave yucca with a probable age of 1,000 years are widespread throughout the species’ range.

To be thorough, any discussion of slow-growing desert life must at least mention cryptobiotic soil crusts. These obscure communities of cyanobacteria, mosses, lichen and fungi stabilize soils, fix nitrogen that can then be used by other desert life, and slow runoff of rain and snowmelt. Cryptobiotic crusts are extremely fragile: a stray footstep can break a centuries-old crust, making the soil beneath it vulnerable to erosion by wind and water. Even a slight disturbance in a cryptobiotic crust can take many years to heal. A film of cyanobacteria can recolonize a damaged area within a decade, but the full complement of lichens and mosses may take as long as three centuries to regain its former vitality. It’s worth noting that burial by wind-driven soil is a major threat to cryptobiotic crusts. Bulldozing a swath of desert landscape for industrial energy generation may well cause a swath of continual downwind damage to such crusts, compounding over time as more crust dies and releases the soil beneath it.

Vegetative communities

As an old-growth redwood forest is more than a collection of large trees, so the old-growth desert is more than a collection of shrubs. The broad alluvial fans and plains so tempting to the alternative energy developers are often the home of plant communities that may have taken a staggeringly long time to develop.

At elevations too high or latitudes too cold for creosote to thrive, the unassuming shrub blackbrush (Coleogyne ramossissima) will often cover huge areas in an almost unbroken mantle. These thick stands of Coleogyne are unprepossessing, even uninteresting to the average traveler. They feed wildlife with their seeds and provide nurse-plant shelter for other desert plants, Joshua trees a prime example, and as far as even most desert aficionados are concerned, that is the extent of their interest. 

In 1987, Robert H. Webb, John W. Steiger, and Raymond M. Turner published the results of a study of disturbed areas west of Death Valley. Some of those areas had been disturbed by human activity in the late 19th century, some by debris flows in the last few thousand years, and some by debris flows of Pleistocene age. They determined the rate at which desert plants recolonize disturbed areas. They found that Coleogyne is very slow to revegetate areas from which it had been stripped.

Webb, Steiger and Turner found that blackbrush took as long as “tens of thousands of years” — their words — to revegetate up to 20 percent cover in the areas they studied. Other studies have reaffirmed their findings. The consensus is that the thick, uniform stands of blackbrush so prevalent in the high deserts probably took from 5,000-10,000 years to develop.

Individual blackbrush plants may live as long as 400 years. They grow slowly, and “recruitment” — successful reproduction with offspring surviving to maturity — is rare. Biologists who’ve studied the species have suggested that blackbrush reproduces in “pulses,” its seedlings surviving best in years with heavy early spring rains. Those conditions may well have been more prevalent toward the end of the last pluvial, when — if current thinking is correct — at least some of the current stands of blackbrush got their start. As Webb, Steiger and Turner said it: “Time span for [vegetative] recovery [of blackbrush stands] may be longer than past periods of climatic and geomorphic stability.” Some of the blackbrush stands in our deserts have been developing since there were standing lakes in the Mojave with sabertooth cats and ground sloths drinking out of them. Their replacement under current climatic conditions may take even longer.

That’s if those communities come back at all. Desert ecologists famously refer to the still-visible tank tracks left more than half a century ago by the US Army, training under General Patton during World War II. The Army’s wartime impact on the desert extended beyond making tracks. A few miles northwest of Needles at Arrowhead Junction, the military established Camp Ibis — part of the Desert Training Center — in 1942. The camp was decommissioned two years later. Building the camp involved blading large swathes of creosote-Mojave yucca vegetation for an airfield, building footprints and a network of roads. Though all structures were removed in 1944, the extent of the blading is still clearly visible in current satellite photos. Native plants have colonized much of the cleared area, but those plants are very different from the ones removed. Despite abundant creosote and Mojave yucca surrounding the camp and providing a source of seeds for revegetation, the cleared areas are carpeted mainly in burro weed (Ambrosia dumosa), which may inhibit the germination of other plants by outcompeting them for soil moisture. It may be that once disturbed or destroyed, desert landscapes in areas such as the former Camp Ibis will never regain their original ecological composition.


Our deserts are irrigated by water that fell thousands of years ago. Their slopes are covered in vegetative assemblages that have been developing for a span of time far longer than recorded human history, and some of the individual plants in them are almost that old — older than the rightly venerated ancient redwoods; older, some of them, than the oldest bristlecone pines. Once altered, those plant communities may never return to their original state even under optimal conditions. If the desert’s aquifers and vegetative communities are forever changed, the animal wildlife that has evolved dependence on local springs, plant habitat and edible vegetation — desert tortoises, bighorn sheep, and a raft of other vulnerable species — will suffer.

Losing a few thousand acres of old-growth desert would be a shame, yet hundreds of thousands of acres in the California desert are being studied as possible alternative energy sites. Given the permanent damage to an ancient, irreplaceable ecosystem that would result from industrial energy development in desert wildlands, it’s time we stopped calling such development “renewable energy.”

A dream, having recurred yet again

Zeke was instructing me. I was struggling to interpret his voice in my mind. I was building a body for him to inhabit. A few hollowed out logs for trunk and head, pampas grass tail, birchbark shreds for fur. I was having trouble. I split in two. My other half seemed to hear him more clearly. He helped me interpret Zeke’s voice, and carved big pointed ears for him out of shelf fungus.

I got his head built to the point where his mind could move in, and I saw glints of eye sparkle in the holes I’d left for him to see through, but I couldn’t get the facial hair quite right. He had a scruff-beard like a terrier, and that was just wrong. My other half told me I was worrying too much about details. “It’ll be better than it looks,” he said. “You’ll see. Just get him here and the details will take care of themselves. He’ll inhabit the bark and it will become him.”

We got him put together and his eyes opened wide and he saw me, saw me for the first time since he’d died and he danced with joy, then came and put his paws on my shoulders as I knelt, licking my face all over, drinking my tears. He went over and kissed my other half. He seemed overjoyed to have two of me there. He came back over to me and leaned against me for a moment, utterly content.

I stuck my knuckle into his ear and twisted it the way I used to do. Flakes of bark and moss came off on my hand. He gave the same long, near-orgasmic moan he used to, and then kissed me again, looked hard into my eyes, turned abruptly and ran into the forest. I called him back and he paused a hundred feet away, looked back at me over his shoulders through the trees, and I started to call him back to me, started to slap my thigh lightly with my palm.

My other half stopped me. “This is how it works,” he said. “I’m sorry, did you think he was going to stay? He can’t. You freed him. He’s going where he belongs.”

I let my hand fall limp. Zeke watched me for a moment. He walked back to me deliberately, kissed me again, turned and ran and vanished into the woods.