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?