Monthly Archives: June 2010

Some thoughts on Twitter

I have a Twitter account that I’ve used for the last couple years. I think I started in December 2007 or thereabouts. Whenever I started, it was long enough ago that I’ve published 7657 “tweets” since then, a word that I will now use perversely because the Serious Style Guides officially frown on it.

Twitter’s a bit of a potential time suck, and I’m not going to encourage anyone to use it if they’re not sure they want to. But every now and then you find some curmudgeonly person declaring — usually without any experience — that Twitter must necessarily be useless because of certain assumptions the curmudgeons hold. Those assumptions generally fall into two sets:

  • Twitter consists of nothing but egotists who think the world wants to know that they’re eating a sandwich, and
  • Nothing of value can be said in 140 characters.

That first class of assumption bears some truth to it. There are a whole lot of boring, self-absorbed people using Twitter. There are also a lot of interesting, witty and perceptive people using Twitter who will go through hours-long stretches of posting things you’ll find self-indulgent. There are people using Twitter who you will find fascinating and worthwhile who will be incomprehensible and boring to most other people. The thing is, following those people — signing up to receive their tweets, in other words — is voluntary. No one’s forcing you.

The second assumption — that nothing of value can be said in 140 characters — is bullshit. For one thing, people who say that seem to have forgotten the existence of hyperlinks. Here, for instance, in 140 characters, we have a sentence worth of important information and a link to a page where one might educate oneself further, with room left over for yours truly to append a stupid joke.

But even without links, if you can’t say something worth saying in 140 characters, I doubt whether you could with more. Sure, the length doesn’t allow for much detail, depth, or nuance. But is this (for instance) not worth saying? Or this? You can tell stories in 140 characters. You can write metareferential haiku.

I’ve used Twitter to keep in touch with people, to get messages to The Raven when I don’t have a cell signal, to announce new blog posts, to make plans with small groups of people,  to stay informed on environmental and scientific news. I’ve also used it to ask the world for favors: getting copies of public domain scholarly articles behind JSTOR paywalls, advice on technical problems, opinions about software and hardware and the like. It’s a wonderful tool if you know how to use it.

All the above said, it’s a social tool and as is the case with any social tool, Twitter use can give rise to a misunderstanding here and there, and occasionally even drama. So in an attempt to manage some of that potential misunderstanding and drama, and because the list of people who are following me on Twitter has grown a bit past the point where I can say this directly to everyone involved, I append below what at the risk of seeming more formal and less nonchalant than is my intention, I will call my Twitter policy. So here we go, as informally and ad hoc as possible:

Twitter Policy

1) I warmly invite you to follow me on Twitter. My main personal feed is at @canislatrans. I also post on behalf of the Desert Protective Council at @DesertBlog. I have two inactive feeds at @AridCarnival (which will resume if the Carnival of the Arid revives itself somehow) and @WalkingWithZeke, which may become active again if there’s news to report about the book. The Clade also has a feed at @TheClade, which updates when someone posts a new post there, which these days is not often.

2) I do not think there is a “right way” to use Twitter. I don’t tweet every day. On rare occasion I tweet twenty times in an hour. I use Twitter as an adjunct to my blog’s RSS feed, to pass along links I think are interesting, to share poetry and observations, to crowd-source breaking news, and to tell strings of egregious jokes.

3) If any of the above-linked Twitter feeds turn out to be of less than sparkling interest to you, feel free to drop them. I won’t be hurt. I don’t use any of the apps available to see who has unfollowed me. That way lies drama. If I know you and I notice you’re refollowing me — implying that you’ve unfollowed me in the past — I’ll probably just assume you got tired of a string of bad jokes or earworms or something, and mainly I’ll be glad to see you come back. I do pay attention now and then to raw follower numbers, but primarily because statistics are interesting. I’ve lost significant numbers of followers all at once on a few occasions and figured that either Twitter culled invalid accounts or that I said something provocative. Either scenario is good news.

4) I don’t automatically follow everyone who follows me. I use Twitter for work purposes, in addition to all the rest, and keeping my list of people followed to a small mob helps make sure I don’t miss some of the important links and such. This is especially true given that there are times when I can only read Twitter on my phone, and it’s much harder to scroll through hundreds of tweets. Don’t feel bad if I don’t follow you back. If you unfollow me as a result, fair enough.

5) My unfollowing you, should I do so, is not intended as a judgment of your character or my fondness therefor. You might just be tweeting incessantly about the World Cup/American Idol/latest Blog Drama, or something else about which I could not care less, for a stretch of time beyond which I am unwilling to scroll down. I’ll almost certainly refollow you again once the World Cup/American Idol/latest Blog Drama is over.

5a) Unless you whine at me for unfollowing you, which is an easy way to make sure I don’t come back. This has happened.

6) I tend to follow people I know in real life, or who are regular commenters on my blog, or who are consistently smart and funny, or who link to fascinating topics — especially in the environmental and scientific realms. I tend not to follow people who do not fall into any of the above categories, though there are exceptions. I quickly unfollow people who appear to be permanently set on negative, especially of the snark or “poor me” or fanning the flames of online drama flavors, because you know what? Fuck that.

7) Even if I’m not following you, I do try to respond to all messages directed at me if they seem to ask for a response. If you’d like a response and I don’t give you one, nudge me again. It sometimes takes me days to reply to urgent (non-work-related) email, as my close friends will attest. So don’t take it personally.

8) Do say hello to me on Twitter if you like. It makes my day. I do always say “hi” back.

The Solar Energy Industries Association visits Coyote Crossing

“Front-paged” from a comment on the previous post, a disappointingly content-free piece of flackery from the Solar Energy Industries Association.

This comment is in reference to your post, “Desert Solar is Not Renewable Energy”:

Which is why I thought I’d move it from where they put it, on a post about my cat. (Social Networking Lesson 1: off-topic posting makes you look inept.) Not that it would have looked much better posted as a reply to the “Desert Solar is Not Renewable Energy” post, because it doesn’t really address any of the points raised in that post, some of which rebut points made here. Though you can be the judge of that.

Solar energy is the cleanest, safest and most abundant energy resource available. As an industry we are committed to solving our country’’s most pressing energy problems. As the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico illustrates, the U.S. needs to quickly move away from the dirty fossil fuels of the past and toward clean, renewable energy sources like solar. In fact, 92 percent of Americans support greater use of solar, now.

All of the above is more or less true, aside from the second sentence. People in the US do support greater use of solar. They don’t necessarily support public lands concentrating solar as opposed to rooftop PV, especially once they learn about the costs of concentrating solar. The trade group uses the Mom And Apple Pie aspect of rooftop solar panels as cover for their land grab.

And about that second sentence.  As an industry, the developers of large industrial solar are committed not to “solving the country’s most pressing energy problems,” but to capitalizing effectively on a developing business opportunity. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that: developers of rooftop solar are doing the same thing, and I applaud them. But if the SEIA was truly “committed to solving our country’’s most pressing energy problems,” it would be working on conservation — another burgeoning business opportunity! — not on scraping irreplaceable old-growth desert for short-lived concentrating solar factories. Conservation could cut US energy use by 30 percent in the next year or two, using existing technology and with minimal environmental impact. There’s no way concentrating solar could make that kind of difference in that short a term, even if we removed any kind of environmental, worker safety, and zoning safeguards.

The way we currently generate power in the U.S. not only pollutes our air, rivers, lakes, and coasts, it uses massive amounts of water at coal and nuclear power plants. While water is a necessary ingredient for many concentrating solar power (CSP) technologies, the industry has developed dry-cooling technology that uses 80-90 percent less water and is continuing to develop technologies that use even less water.

Here’s an interesting fact about concentrating solar’s water use. Last month the staff in the office of US Senator John Kyl (R-AZ) put out a report on just that topic [PDF], and based on figures they gathered from the US Department of Energy, they put together a comparison of the water use intensity of different methods of electric power generation: in other words, how many gallons of water per megawatt Kyl, like many Arizona Republicans, has an axe to grind, or at least an axe handle. It may be there’s a flaw in the figures somewhere. Still, they’re interesting:


  Water Intensity of Electricity by Fuel Source and Generation Technology
Generation Technology Wet Cooling Water Consumption
Other Water Consumption

Solar Trough

760-920 8

Solar Tower

750 8

Photovoltaic Solar

0 5


0 0


300-480 35-104



Highly variable depending on whether biomass is irrigated


400-720 75-180



Not available

Natural Gas Combined Cycle

180 18-21

As you can see, this table shows that concentrating solar uses far more water per megawatt-hour of electricity generated than do most other industrial sources of energy. (Interestingly, the biggest water user, geothermal, is also touted as a “renewable” source of energy.)

The chart doesn’t list the water intensity of dry-cooled plants, which are indeed far more water-efficient. DoE figures put that efficiency at about a 95 percent reduction in water use over wet-cooled concentrating solar. The thing is, dry cooling is less efficient when it’s hot out. Just when the sun’s blazing down in the southwest and people are cranking up their AC, the output of dry-cooled concentrating solar plants takes a hit.

Meanwhile, rooftop PV keeps chugging along just fine as it gets hotter.

Fossil fuels also require a massive amount of land. Currently, oil and gas companies have leased an area equivalent in size to Washington State to drill for fuel. While Americans who live near these drilling sites worry about oil and gas spills near their coast lines and communities, no one is worrying about a sun spill.

Very droll! Also a non sequitur, and a third-grade excuse. And, technically, wrong in a minor way. Yes, fossil fuel extraction destroys an immense amount of the earth’s surface. Mountaintop removal mining, oil spills, poisoning of aquifers by fracking for natural gas, sludge floods beneath mines, yada yada. It’s really, really bad. So why is the answer to destroy even more untouched land? This isn’t a question of “fairness” to industrial public lands solar developers. Fossil fuels’ impact on the landscape is egregious, and industrial solar in the desert makes the situation worse. If it was a question of repairing damage done by the fossil fuel industry — if the big solar plants were going onto old stripmines and oil refineries and land permanently ruined by oil spills, then maybe they’d have a point.

But as it stands, coal involves mountaintop removal mining and solar involves desert removal, and proposing one as an alternative to another is just nuts.

Also? There are solar spills. Here’s an example, in a photo provided by Basin and Range Watch:

flash glare It’s called “flash glare,” and it’s a known issue with solar trough installations. Sure, it’s not as devastating as a coal slurry flood or a crude oil spill, but it’s a real problem for highway safety and potentially for air safety, as well as having significant visual impact on surrounding wildlands and unknown effects on wildlife. Saying “no one’s worried about a sun spill” just isn’t true. It may not be the biggest concern over siting of these facilities, but it’s there.


Solar energy helps the environment by supplying clean, renewable energy and the industry is committed to ensuring that utility-scale projects have a minimal impact as well. CSP projects proposed for public lands must complete a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) before being issued a construction permit by the U.S. Department of the Interior. This review process involves coordinated analyses by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other state and local agencies to identify the potential impacts of a proposed project, including on water resources.


And those agencies are contending with so many applications for new projects, many of them with very tight deadlines due to potential Stimulus funding, that they are completely overwhelmed. Applicants are submitting ludicrously incomplete EISes, conducting biological surveys from vehicles, omitting mention of major biological and geological features. Tessera flat out lied by omission, for instance, in its documents for its proposed Solar Two plant near Ocotillo, California, declining to mention the presence on the site of large flood-carved watercourses, ancient creosote and smoketree forest, flat-tailed horned lizard habitat and other delicate and irreplaceable features of the Colorado Desert. BrightSource’s contractors failed to assess the visual impact of the proposed Ivanpah solar site on the protected Stateline Wilderness because they decided it was too hot to hike to the wilderness boundary. Etc.

As federal and other agency staff struggle to contend with the volume of applications, effective oversight and analysis of each proposal increasingly depends on activists, members of the public who devote time and effort to doing the work the agencies should be able to do themselves. And this isn’t enough for the energy developers, who routinely support “streamlining” the permitting process.

And this becomes an even bigger issue when projects start going in. BrightSource, for instance, is having some serious problems installing test poles at Ivanpah. Pile-driving into an alluvial fan is hard work: there are seemingly random boulders strewn all through the top few hundred feet of soil. After all, it’s basically the scree and rubble created as a mountain falls apart. So what’s their plan? To vibrate the poles into place, which will theoretically nudge the boulders out of the way.

The kangaroo rats living in the Mojave desert have extremely sensitive hearing. The noise from a passing Off-Road Vehicle can deafen a k-rat for days. Same goes for desert tortoises. Kangaroo rats depend on their hearing to evade predators. Imagine giant machines vibrating hundreds of giant metal poles into a mass of rock. Imagine the undocumented effects of that process on sensitive wildlife — none of it mentioned or formally reviewed in the permitting process.

If you want to know what the the Solar Energy Industries Association really thinks about environmental protection, check out these remarks contained in the group’s formal testimony on the California Desert Protection Act of 2010:

The proposed legislation would prohibit BLM processing of any right‐of‐way application that could affect native groundwater supplies, both within and adjacent to the proposed Mojave National Preserve. The National Environmental Policy Act and other laws already require the consideration of the environmental impacts of water use by any proposed project, and SEIA believes these existing provisions to be sufficient. The additional requirement proposed in S. 2921 could serve to restrict solar development, even on lands outside protected areas.

Another provision in this proposed legislation would allow BLM to deny a right‐of‐way application for any project which is on “wilderness quality land” or which may impact “sensitive species listed by the BLM.” SEIA is concerned that these provisions are overly broad and could unduly limit solar energy development in the Southwest.

Kinda gives the lie to the pious expressions of concern for the environment.

Back to the blog comment:

Many solar developers are also strategically locating projects on previously-disturbed land to minimize impacts. For example, Abengoa Solar’s proposed 280 megawatt parabolic trough project in Gila Bend, Ariz., is to be constructed on land previously used for alfalfa farming. Once operational, the project will farm the sun, generating clean, renewable electricity while using only one-fourth of the water required for alfalfa irrigation.

That’s potentially a promising development. Depending on the specific site, I might well support the project. I strongly prefer distributed generation: the era of giant power-generating utilities is over, and distributed generation is really the only sane way to go in the long-term. Still, retiring desert alfalfa farms is way better than converting old-growth desert wildlands. Abengoa has another project planned at Harper Lake that sounds similar, to be placed on former alfalfa fields using allocated groundwater, and if it weren’t for the project’s encroachment on the Harper Lake Area of Critical Environmental Concern I might just quietly fail to oppose it. Developing private lands isn’t a panacea. Many private lands possess significant ecological value for wildlife, watershed values, and cultural value for long-time residents. The Marin Agricultural Land Trust oversees a lot of undeveloped ag land that’s privately owned, for instance, and converting it to industrial energy development would be atrocious.

But Abengoa’s at least heading in the right direction: replacing a destructive land use with another that uses fewer resources.

It’s clear that America needs to move toward a renewable energy future and solar energy is one of the quickest ways to reduce our dangerous dependence on fossil fuels.

Monique Hanis, Spokesperson
Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA)

See, here’s the thing that frustrates me so much about SEIA’s content-free comment: as is potentially the case with projects such as Abengoa’s, the group supports a lot of good things. It represents installers of rooftop PV as well as giant energy companies seeking to pave the desert. It pushes for net metering and feed-in tariffs, for sensible amendments to Renewable Portfolio Standards, for repeal and amendment of restrictive covenants and HOA rules that slow installation of rooftop PV and solar water heaters. It does a lot of good work. Representing both sides of the industry as it does, the SEIA could have offered a nuanced, informed response to my post that furthered discussion and offered the chance for informed disagreement on certain issues, and consensus on others.

Instead we got PR flackery. It’s an opportunity missed.


Trouble manifests

N: I’m hungry. You may have meant to feed me and then forgotten you were going to feed me, so I’ll just remind you. Isn’t that thoughtful of me?

C: [sound of keyboard tapping]

N: You probably meant to get up to feed me when I reminded you fifteen seconds ago, but just forgot. It’s okay. I’ll remind you again. I don’t mind.

C: [sound of keyboard tapping even more pointedly]

N: Hey, you know what? I was just thinking you could give me some food. Because the food is in cans and I don’t know how to open cans. I totally would if I knew how. You should teach me.

C: It’s 3:30. You don’t eat until 5:00. Remind me at 5:00.

N: Okay. [Brief pause] It’s 5:00 now. You can feed me.

C: No it isn’t.

N: It probably is now, then.

C: It really isn’t. It’s not even 3:31 yet.

N: How about now?

C: Look. You’ve got crunchies in your bowl. Go look in your bowl.

N: Um, what? I’m sorry, I didn’t quite understand that. It sounded like you were telling me to do something. Like I was a dog or something. Which I am not.

C: [Walks over to cat bowl] Look, Nosy, see? In your bowl? Delicious crunchies. [Rattles bowl] Expensive premium crunchies. Which we got for you by paying a lot of money. That we could have spent on things for us. But we didn’t. Because we bought cat crunchies for you instead. Because we love you.

N: Yes, and they’re very nice. But they are broken. There’s no food on top of them.

C: They’re not broken. They’re perfectly good.

N: Broken.

C: You know, Zeke would have been thrilled to eat these cat crunchies.

N: [Haughty ice-cold glare]

C: Here, I know. We’ll put a few of your hairball treats on the crunchies. [Goes to get treats] How many would you like?

N: The Pete Puma joke stopped being funny a long time ago, man.

C: [Puts treats in bowl, puts a carrot in the rabbit’s cage]

N: [Finishing treats]  Hey, it’s not dinner time and you’re giving the rabbit something yummy. I want something yummy!

C: I gave him a carrot. Would you like a carrot? You can have a carrot if you want one.

N: Let me see.

C: [Offers carrot.]

N: [Sniffs carrot, backs away.]

N: I hate you, you know.

C: [Goes back to typing]

N: I read what you wrote about me on the internet.

C: No you didn’t. You’re a kitty. Kitties can’t read the internet. You were probably just watching a fly on the monitor.

N: What do you mean cats can’t read the Internet? Have you seen the Internet lately?  It’s all written by cats.

C: Okay fine.

N: I didn’t say you could write about me. Now all those people are laughing at me.

C: I don’t think anyone’s actually laughing.

N: “Hilarous.” “chuckle.” “heh.”

C: Yeah, okay. But they aren’t laughing at you. It’s more an existential humor at the perennial interplay between the human and feline umwelts, and the commonality of the readers’ exper-

N: [pushes iPhone off desk onto floor, where it lands with an expensive-sounding thwack]

C: Hey! Stop that! [Retrieves phone]

N: What? Did I do something wrong? [Taps at base of full coffee cup poised above keyboard]

C: No! Cut it out. [Moves coffee cup]

N: I’m a good kitty. I only do good kitty kinds of things, ever. [Knocks reading glasses off desk onto floor]

C: This isn’t funny. Stop it.

N: [pulling paper out of printer tray with teeth, tossing to floor] It is funny. It is an existential humor at the interplay between your stuff and gravity.

C: [puts cat off desk, sees cat’s discarded carrot on floor, absently puts carrot in rabbit cage]

N: Oh No. You Didn’t. [Exits]

C: [resumes work]


C: Cut it out in there.


C: For the love of….


SFX: [Unspecified off-stage crash, elephant footfalls]

N: [entering] What? Nothing. I didn’t do anything. You can’t prove it.

C: [exits, groans offstage, returns bearing fragments of plant pot and picture frame and clock radio, tosses in trash.]

N: Hey, you know what would be great right about now? Some cat food.

C: In twenty minutes.

N: Is that now?

C: No.

N: How about now?

C: no.

N: Now?

[fade to black.]

I may be in trouble


A couple of months ago The Raven was out of town for a while and Nosy was put out. In order to keep him distracted from his separation anxiety I overfed him a bit. Since I’ve known him he’s mostly eaten dry food, so I thought I’d liven things up for him by giving him a couple servings a day of the wet stuff.

Yes, I have had a cat before.

No, I don’t know what I was thinking.

It’s just that Nosy isn’t like any other cat I’ve known. The cats I’ve known have had their culinary idiosyncrasies — Jasper liked cucumber, for instance — but would generally chow down on anything vaguely meat-flavored if it was within reach: pizza, tuna sandwiches, what have you. Nosy, oddly, has no interest whatever in any food people eat, unless said people are eating unadulterated tuna out of a can. Oh, he’ll ask politely if he can examine the fork full of salmon you’re holding, but he always turns away after a cursory sniff as if to say “… I see. How interesting for you.” He reacts exactly the same way after asking to inspect the rabbit’s carrots. He only eats cat food, and nothing else. It’s weird, really. And so, more than any cat I’ve known I thought he might be unspoilable. 

I was wrong, of course, but I think that’s a reasonable excuse.

I started giving him a “pouch” of wet food for lunch and one at dinner, along with his usual ration of crunchies. Given that the pouch manufacturer’s daily serving suggestion for a cat of Nosy’s size ran to approximately twelve times that, I figured it was a modest treat. It did seem to make him happier. He sulked less, he meowed at the door a bit less, and at first I didn’t notice that he asked for lunch about 15 minutes earlier each day.

When The Raven got back home, though, lunch was being requested at about 9:45 a.m. This was a noticeable discrepancy. I’d forgotten that the best possible way to make sure you get up early on a given date is to feed your cat a good breakfast every morning for a few weeks beforehand: soon you will be the recipient of 4:00 a.m. wakeup calls.

We needed to nip in the bud this slow ratcheting-forward of Nosy’s lunch schedule, but going back to crunchies alone seemed Draconian. Besides, depending on the brand and ingredients, canned food is better for cats anyway. So we figured we’d get him some good canned food, and feed him the actual recommended amount of it every day at 5:00 p.m. I don’t recall getting much work done the day we switched his schedule over, but he caught on pretty quick.

The ratcheting-forward commenced at once, but I held my ground. I would walk into the kitchen in the afternoon. He’d be in there with me and yowling in something less than a femtosecond. I’d turn to check the clock on the wall and would see that it was 3:30, or 2:45, or some other time well in advance of food-o’clock, and I would tell him that he had to wait and that he was a very smart and brave kitty and he could certainly hold out that long. Sometimes, if I’d been immersed in my work, I’d look at the clock and see that it was actually food-thirty, and I’d grab the can opener apologetically.

This past week I walked into the kitchen after my one-hour two-o’clock phone meeting ended half an hour late. I poured myself a glass of water. Nosy barreled in, meowling. I looked him right in the eye and told him I knew it was nowhere near time for dinner.

He turned and looked up at the clock.

I’m going to have to start checking it every day now to make sure he isn’t setting it forward.

Harrison Solow on writing and payment therefor

Harrison Solow, interviewed at Working Writers:

In your opinion, what’s the measure of a successful writer?

My opinion is very conventional and very American. The measure of a successful writer is a published writer who gets paid for her/his work. A writer of “prosperous achievement.”I know there are other opinions, but this is mine. When I was teaching a course called Writing to Pay the Rent which I created and developed to help my students answer the question “What can you do with an English Degree?”, I heard from my students that there was a local poet in the area who kept advising students not to take it! It was hailed by the Head of Department as the single most innovative course the department had ever taught; it brought attention to the university from the external assessors during their examination of the department and the university that was extremely positive; (I was told by them that the university was being given extra positive reviews as a result of my course and that they wanted to make it a model for other universities in Great Britain); the students loved it – it was oversubscribed when it was first offered and the students asked for an extra class every week, in addition to the two classes already scheduled just because they loved it; and this crackpot (not even a member of the university) decided to launch a little mini-campaign against it.

It seems, as it turns out that she encourages her half dozen or so followers not to get paid for their work, because, she purports, if one is paid for one’s work, one cannot possibly be any good, which is really too idiotic to be believable, condemning, as it does, the judgment and professional evaluation of every book, magazine, journal, chapbook editor, agent, publisher, critic, on the entire planet, with the exception of the “poet” herself. Not to mention every writer who has ever been compensated in the history of letters. But there is that attitude out there apparently. I suspect the rationale is that as long as you keep your work to yourself and a few misguided local groupies, you will be assured of a very high self regard no matter what rubbish you turn out and will never have to face public or professional opinion.

A few things on Friday

1) I have been reminded (via a Facebook post by the Center for Biological Diversity’s Great Basin guy Rob Mrowka) that I’ve been meaning to point you all in the direction of Chance of Rain, a wonderful blog on western water and related politics by writer Emily Green. Of recent note there are Emily’s update on a suit over Las Vegas’ attempt to siphon water from the Snake Valley (mentioned here before) and a fascinating look at how biologists and land managers are rethinking tamarisk, an invasive plant long the bane of western ecologists that has nonetheless become crucial habitat for the southwestern willow flycatcher.

2) I’m finishing up reading Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century, which I heard flogged on NPR’s Fresh Air last week. It’s a fascinating read, authoritatively researched, and made very personal by author Michael Hiltzik, who tells stories of the personalities involved in the dam construction project, from Presidents to wage laborers. There’s a problem, though. Hiltzik seems to make absolutely no mention of the environmental impact of the dam and reservoir, aside from mentioning two towns and some archaeological resources flooded as Lake Mead filled. I don’t usually like to criticize books for what the author didn’t write, but in this case Hiltzik seems to underline the omission by repeatedly referring to the desert landscape as “barren,” devoid of life and notable only as a blank slate on which humans create their profitable projects. There is no mention of the free-flowing river’s native fisheries driven toward extinction by the dam’s construction. There is no description of the old-growth desert drowned by the rising waters, no description of the effect on the estuary at the river’s mouth on the Sea of Cortez. The only mention I’ve found in the entire book of environmental effects other than earthquakes due to the weight of the impounded water is this passage, on page 400, in a discussion of the dam’s chances of being built today:

The environmental impact statements mandated today for large-scale public and private developments by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and subsequent legislation certainly would have consumed years, if not decades, of study and debate, and surely would not have become final without several rounds of litigation. Under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, a further assessment of the dam’s impact on wildlife habitats in the reservoir zone and downstream would be required prior to construction. America’s unconcern with those issues in the 1920s and 1930s facilitated the construction of the dam, but also led, doubtlessly, to the eradication of undiscovered, unrecorded, and unrecoverable habitats and the extermination of untold species of flora and fauna.

An apt turn of phrase, that: “untold species of flora and fauna.” Their stories remain untold by Hiltzik. It’s about like writing about the engineering efforts that went into building Apollo 13 and the deadly drama of the crew’s struggle to cope with equipment failure, reserving for one short passage on page 400 of your 408-page book any mention that the whole thing took place in outer space. The desert environment isn’t just a backdrop. We know many of the the changes in the desert since the dam was built and they are staggering. We know the species lost and damaged. They have names: the bonytail and humpback chubs, Colorado pikeminnow, and razorback sucker near extirpated from the river below Hoover Dam; the Colorado Delta clam, once so abundant that its shells formed miles-long ridges throughout the delta, now endangered and found in only a few spots; the desert tortoise, threatened for the most part by human development of the “barren desert” that would not have been possible without Hoover Dam.

That, given any kind of objective point of view, is the story of the building of Hoover Dam. In omitting it, Hiltzik relegated his book to the realm of political and engineering minutiae. It is entertaining, informative, and extremely well-written, but an entertaining, informative, well-written book of trivia is still, when you get down to it, a book of trivia. And that’s a damned shame.

3) Also heard on that NPR show, last night, an interview with the wonderful Mark Moffett, who is to ants what Roy Chapman Andrews was to Mongolian fossils. Moffett’s got a new book out, which I’ll be reading, entitled Adventures among Ants: A Global Safari with a Cast of Trillions. The book includes new science on superorganisms, supercolonies, and behavior and ecology, as well as what promise to be hilarious stories by Moffett. For examples of said hilarity, check out Moffett’s blog.

On Teutonia

The verges of Cima Road are lined with penstemon flowers just past their peak, with desert milkweed and evening primrose, datura full open despite it being midday. The Teutonia Peak trail winds past mainly spent desert bloom. Mojave mound and hedgehog cacti hold withered flowers tightly closed, protecting a new season’s developing fruit. Bright green seedpods grow on the Joshua trees, the banana yuccas. Rabbitbrush blooms yellow, aster and fleabane in pale violet, four-o-clocks clasped shut after the previous day’s effusion. The whole desert seems to be waking up after a few days’ carouse, greeting the bleary sunlit aftermath.

There is still revelry in progress. A few Opuntia flowers are open wide to the sun and enticing beetles into mad, pollen-drunk orgies.

Bug sex

Most of the cactus blossoms are eaten away, spent, petals wrinkled and drooping, shards of prom dress on the morning’s motel floor.

I sit halfway up Teutonia Peak. The road a mile away through the Joshua tree forest, I can almost forget it’s there until the occasional car comes rolling up toward Sunrise Rock, slows briefly at the scene of the crime, then heads on south toward Cima. Far enough uphill that I could see the whole of the broad saddle between Teutonia and Kessler Peaks, I relax in the shade of a juniper. The air smells of gin.

The sky is full of cheerful white clouds, and now and then one rolls between the sun and me, chilling the sweat in my hair, on the back of my neck. I watch their shadows track across the base of Kessler Peak two miles east.

I’d filled my Camelback “canteen” in my pack at the trailhead, but neglected to screw the lid back on as tightly as I should have. I got the pack six years ago, and one of the features that recommended it to me was its mesh interior pocket designed to hold a drinking bladder, and the conveniently sited hole through which the thirsty hiker might thread the accompanying drinking tube. The thought of being able to drink without taking off my pack appealed to me. I probably drink too much water on desert hikes as a result — when I remember to bring water. About half a mile into today’s little hike I felt something wet bumping into my left hip: there was a quarter inch of water in the bottom of the pack. Good thing I’d kept my camera in my hand. I’ve found that rattlesnakes and bighorns don’t usually wait around for you to dig your camera out of your pack. That behavioral quirk saved me about a thousand bucks in camera replacement costs this past weekend. I’d retightened the lid on the bladder before hiking any farther. Sitting up by the juniper I rummage in the pack’s moist entrails. Nothing lost except a cup of water. Even the whole wheat crackers are tolerably dry in their paper wrapper. I prop the pack open and set it in the cool desert sun to dry out.

I feel like I’ve hiked this trail a hundred times, though lately it’s just been short jaunts of a few minutes from the road. The last time I got as far as Teutonia’s “foothills” was two years ago and the time before that was in 2005. It’s been a while. The boulders around me glisten in the sun, then fade as each cloud passes overhead.

Striped Mountain far downhill to the northeast, Clark Mountain beyond it on the other side of the interstate. That must be Kokoweef over there in front of them, the bright white outcrop with its mythical deep caves. Due east is a low pass in the Ivanpah Mountains. I hiked to it some years ago, gazed down onto the Ivanpah Valley as a pair of juvenile golden eagles soared a few hundred feet below me.

I know this place as well as I know anyplace, and yet on each visit I see something I’d missed before: a dramatic clump of cacti in a spot I’ve passed a hundred times, a dike of microcrystalline granite running through an outcrop with the usual dime-sized salt and pepper crystals, a juniper twisted into a corkscrew, a memory, an idea, a resolution. I sat up here with Matthew once with snow still holding on in the shady spots, all that was left of the two inches that fell on us the night before. It had been raining when we got into the tent. We’d sat under a tarp for hours that night passing a bottle of rye back and forth. We woke the next morning to a quiet winter scene.

That was a long time ago. Children born that February are these days clicking “it’s complicated” on their Facebook relationship statuses. I suddenly wish I had some rye. Half an hour ago as I was hiking toward Teutonia the air got very hot for a moment, and very still, and the air was full of solvents exuded by the junipers around me, and the smell hit me without warning. It takes me by surprise every single time, even when I remind myself to expect it.

Beauty, standards of, changes therein

That’s a California striped racer, Masticophus lateralis lateralis. I saw one an hour or so ago hiking in Runyon Canyon, which is just up the hill from the apartment. The one I saw was gorgeous, charcoal with pale yellow racing stripe, in great form at the very end of a shed, and a bit more than three feet long. It was gliding and entwining itself through the brush along the uphill side of the fireroad, waiting rather impatiently for a moment in which the human and canine foot traffic ebbed.

Why? To get to the other side. Come on, people. We’ve gone over this already.

Admittedly part of the snake’s problem as I stood there at what was clearly an insufficiently respectful distance, I nonetheless spent a little time gawking hungrily. It was just so goddamned beautiful with its sleek form, its innocent demeanor. I stood staring stupidly, the not quite as snakelike spandex-clad hardbodies giving me the hairy eyeball as they passed, or running past clodlike and unaware.

It’s a common phemonenon in Runyon, and for that matter everywhere else. People don’t see. Earlier this week I watched ravens mobbing a red-tailed hawk, and the hawk had someone in its talons — a ground squirrel, probably — whose legs hung limp and defeated. It was all happening right there in front of us, a passion play a thousand feet above the Hollywood Bowl, and yet no one else seemed to think it more worth watching than the enspandiced asses of various passersby. A forty-inch snake having a moment of panic significantly less than forty inches from your running shoes and you don’t see it?

Maybe that’s just as well, seeing what can happen when the pretty people of Los Angeles do notice a perfectly harmless snake. I’m not one to hold people’s unreasoning and uncontrollable fears against them. I have phobias of my own, after all. But I will say that my decades-long appreciation of Salma Hayek notwithstanding, if she acted that way in the vicinity of my acquaintance in Runyon Canyon I would almost certainly tell her to get the hell away from me and stop scaring the snake.