Monthly Archives: April 2011

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Hundreds of tortoises dead at Ivanpah?

David Danelski reports in the Riverside Press-Enterprise:

More than 3,000 desert tortoises would be disturbed by a solar project in northeast San Bernardino County and as many as 700 young ones would be killed during three years of building, says a federal assessment issued Tuesday.

Construction has been halted on about two thirds of the project until a new Biological Opinion can be written by Fish and Wildlife, but it continues on Phase I.

Young tortoises are incredibly hard to find, and many stay underground for some time after hatching. If the BLM now expects about 700 baby tortoises to be killed during construction in total, and if a third of the footprint has now been graded, then logically it seems reasonable to assume that BrightSource may already have killed hundreds of tortoises.

At this point the sane response would be to stop all construction, to go over the Phase 1 area with a fine-toothed comb for evidence of killed tortoises in burrows that have been compacted by construction equipment, and for BrightSource executives to start explaining why they shouldn’t go to jail.

I’ll settle for stopping all construction. There’s a petition to that effect here. If you haven’t put it front and center on your blog, Facebook page, or any other venue you might have, please do so.

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Small

A few months ago I was walking back downhill in Runyon Canyon after having reached the top and Mullholland, and I noticed it again. I was cruising along at a reasonable clip, not running but not dawdling, and one person after another meandered into my way as I overtook them.

This wasn’t a simple matter of me catching up to them and them suddenly being in my way. They’d be a dozen yards ahead of me with three or four yards beside them where I could pass, and as I approached they would just drrrrift into that formerly open spot.

I expect this with people wearing earbuds. Listening to music makes it harder to hear footfalls. Talking on the phone makes you walk like you’re drunk. But these were seemingly alert, undistracted people, maybe talking to a friend with them or maybe just getting some exercise, and it was like my actually somewhat heavy footfalls behind them just didn’t register.

There are at least two or three people like this on any given hike in Runyon, but that day last summer the whole canyon seemed full of them: speedbumps in spandex, weaving back and forth just in time to cut me off no matter how I tried to anticipate their trajectories.

I wondered why. It seemed to me a foreign way to be in the world, not accounting for the presence of others.

As I walked downhill I suddenly started thinking about supermarkets. That was something I absolutely hated about Berkeley. I’d be in the produce section of Monterey Market or the old Berkeley Bowl, my shopping cart tucked into the least obtrusive spot near me I could find, and I’d reach for some fennel or something and suddenly there’d be six other people’s carts randomly and temporarily stowed between me and the greens I was trying to reach. You know the kind of person I’m talking about.  If there’s a narrow spot in a busy aisle, where the store staff has set up a center-aisle display of kitchenware or discontinued cereal or something, and if leaving a cart there is likely to cause an entire aisle to become impassable, then that’s where they leave it, and they take affront if you clear your throat at them.

I can’t do that. I can’t block an aisle without feeling painfully self-conscious. Neither can I walk on a trail without hearing every set of footsteps behind me, without watching the trail ahead to plan how I might best avoid the people I pass.

I had a friend a few years back who was a fellow dog person, and she and I used to send images of adoptable dogs to each other. I sent her one once that showed a sweet-looking, large white wolfy dog sitting demurely in a corner like a good boy, and her response was startling: “He’s trying to make himself as small as possible.” That describes me in supermarket aisles, I thought walking downhill that day in Runyon. It’s a submissive posture without the display, an attempt to be as literally unobtrusive as possible. But more than that, I thought: as the people in whose way you’re trying not to be shift and wander, taking no notice of you being unobtrusive because after all you’re pretty good at it after all these years, you have to stay alert at all times so that what was an obscure corner doesn’t suddenly become exactly where someone else wants to go. “It’s really kind of a skill,” I thought to myself, “to maintain that kind of hyper…”

Hypervigilance. That’s what it is, isn’t it?

Shit.

Hypervigilance is one of the things that’s diagnostic of PTSD. PTSD runs in the family, but I don’t think I have it. Traumas I have had here and there, but aside from a broken arm or three these hypervigilant feelings predated my trauma collection by some years.

Unless you consider my upbringing a long-term, rather subtle trauma, that is. I know. Whose isn’t? But that “making himself small” thing rings true. It’s how I spent my time at home as a kid, at school, singled out for attention, part of me wanting the attention, most of me shrinking into the wall to escape notice. Sometimes the attention was positive, but more often the positives were used as an excuse to berate, a situation with which anyone who was ever accused of failing to live up to his or her potential will empathize. My happiest times at home were the times when my parents were distracted or absent, and I could slip out the door, across the road and into the woods. Or — when no woods were available as on car trips for instance — hiding my face behind a book, a shield of seventy or eighty thousand words between me and my relatives.

It’s an odd thing to realize, considering I do public speaking rather comfortably and well. Perhaps that’s an issue of control.  One disastrous early 1990s speaking engagement at San Francisco’s New College aside, when I get up in front of people they have generally stipulated that I have a right to exist in that spot, and then I collect whatever attention comes my way and then it’s over and I leave. Maybe the hypervigilance helps that, makes me a flexible and responsive speaker. Or maybe I’m kidding myself. I don’t know.

It wears thin, the needing to be small. It gets old as I do. It used to be that being in the desert by myself was a reprieve, no one around to have to hide from, almost everything there accepting that I am the size I am, if they notice me at all. These days I go into the desert and see places I love that are doomed, and am reminded that the people dooming them are perfectly content to pay me no mind no matter how loud I am.

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On Writing For Free

Exposure is what writers die of.

I say that having used exposure as a carrot myself, and fairly often, over the last couple of decades. Working for publications that had no budget to pay writers you generally have no other choice but to wave that “exposure” in front of writers, the promise of “clips,” of portfolio-padding. Writers respond to it. We think we have to. And maybe we do, at first. Maybe building up a clip file — that portfolio of things published in other venues that you can show an editor to give them a sense of your capabilities — maybe that’s worth writing for free a few times. A dozen, even.

I’ve been thinking of myself as a writer since 1989. I’m still getting offered “exposure” in exchange for writing.

I’ve had a lot of writers give me writing for free, some of them over and over. They include people who should be far better known and people who subsequently became far better known and people who have been well known since before I started writing. I’ve gotten free writing from prominent but unsuccessful candidates for President and Vice President, and from dozens of people who aren’t very prominent at all except to the people who love them.

If not for people who wrote for me for free I would likely have been fired from most of the jobs I’ve held since Reagan was President. I don’t have clean hands here. As an editor I have mainly worked for activist non-profits, which means that when I’ve asked writers to work for me for free — and photographers, for that matter, and artists and designers — I’ve essentially been asking them to make a significant donation to the cause. Apparently I’m persuasive. But I think it was in 1995 that Alexander Cockburn told me, when I was soliciting permission to re-run a piece he and Jeffrey St. Clair had already written, that sure budgets were tight, and the cause was good, but that few lefty publishers of his acquaintance had ever asked their printer to work for free.

The reason is that printers won’t generally work for free. Writers usually will.

There are a lot of reasons for that. Devotion to a cause is one, as we see above. Another is that writers generally want to write, they want to be read, and until that writer decides to make writing her sole activity getting published, and subsequently getting readers, is in itself a reward.

Sadly, it’s not the kind of reward that fills the writer’s belly unless your editor gives you pie.

This topic has been in the news lately, what with Tasini’s lawsuit against the Huffington Post. That link is to Jonathan Peters’ piece on the Tasini suit at MediaShift. I think I agree with Peters. The suit isn’t great, as much as I admire and sympathize with Tasini. Too many people willingly write for free for HuffPo, execrable as the site is, for a plaintiff to make a persuasive argument that HuffPo is benefiting unfairly. When you voluntarily sign on to row a galley across the Indian Ocean without a promise of pay, you don’t have much of a claim to profit off the sales of the spices you haul back to Europe.

The suit’s probably going to lose, in other words, and Huffington will walk away ever richer and even more annoying, because hundreds of writers think working for her for free is a great deal.

There is of course the issue of quality. To write well takes practice, and to practice takes time, and finding time is difficult if you have to make your living at some other, NON-writing thing. Making it harder for writers to earn their keep at writing makes it less likely that good writing will happen. But that’s not really a persuasive argument for a lot of people. One of the things that always made me wince back in the days of the Koufax Awards were the pieces of tossed-off, badly argued, cliche-speckled writing that would run neck-and-neck with writing from Michael Bérubé or PZ Myers or other skilled writers in the popular vote. People with talent who have had the opportunity to hone that talent had their work held up against people whose only talent was snark and pandering, and lots of people couldn’t tell the difference.

And what about blogs? I write for free here, mostly — though people have been generous with the tip button in the last couple months, and thank you — and I don’t think of myself as a sucker for doing so. True, sometimes in years past this blog has proved a great way to procrastinate from doing paid writing. Writing for myself seems different from writing for HuffPo, and in more ways than just the relative lack of Deepak Chopra hereabouts. You could call my work here promotion of my paid work, or developing my brand, or practicing, or cultivating a community of readers who will then help spread the word about my paid writing. My KCET and DPC gigs might not have happened if not for this blog. Would we be better off if personal blogs faded and some better, less-evil Huffington Post started paying thousands of writers a dollar a word, which is what I was offering Verde.com writers back in the days of venture capital for web sites? Writers who have no other obvious means of support might be better off, but readers would likely not be.

I really don’t know the best path to a humane, sustainable writers financial ecology that would serve the interests of readers, writers, and readers who want to become writers.

I do know that I can’t afford to write for free anymore, aside from on this site.

I seriously doubt that any volunteer opportunity will afford me more exposure than I’ve already gotten for this or this or this. The only additional exposure I need right now is to the desert wind.

There’s a story an old friend told me about Woody Guthrie, perhaps even a true story, that he was approached in the 1930s or 1940s by an East Coast Progressive doyenne, who asked if he would perform at a benefit concert. Guthrie agreed readily. “Certainly, Ma’am. My fee is one hundred dollars.” “One hundred dollars!” gasped the woman. “But Mr. Guthrie, this is for a good cause!”

“Ma’am,” Guthrie said, “I don’t work for bad causes.”

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Ivanpah construction halted

Here’s a somewhat impenetrable document from the BLM that likely gave sour stomachs to those Coyote Crossing readers who work for BrightSource when they received it:

BLM Temporary Suspension Notice for Ivanpah Solar site

The nut grafs [emphasis added]:

Based upon monthly monitoring information regarding desert tortoise, submitted by the holders of these grants, it is the BLM’s Decision to immediately and temporarily suspend all further surface disturbance or construction of fences under the NTPs issued on March 2, 2011 for Ivanpah 2 and Ivanpah 3. Solar Partners I and VIII are directed to cease all construction activities on Ivanpah 2, and Ivanpah 3 with the exception of filling open trenches
on the fenceline and filling open fence post holes that might create a hazard for desert tortoises. This decision is issued under the authority of 43 CFR 2807.l6(a).

This immediate and temporary suspension Decision requiring you to cease fence construction are [sic] based on the current status of the Biological Opinion and the incidental take limits established for the project. As communicated to you, it is the position of the BLM that activity on the Ivanpah project site has reached, and in some categories, just exceeded the incidental take limit for further construction activities within Ivanpah 2, and Ivanpah 3, with certain exception. BLM has determined that work within the access road and power block areas of Ivanpah 2 may continue. Construction within the Ivanpah 2 access road area and power block area may continue since those areas were previously fenced and all desert tortoises have been removed. All other construction work associated with Ivanpah 2 and Ivanpah 3 is suspended.

The BLM, in other words, has set in motion the process by which BrightSource goes to the Fish and Wildlife Service and asks for permission to kill more tortoises. Construction can still proceed on unit 1, so this isn’t victory. But it’s a reprieve for a lot of the tortoises, and if we can get Fish and Wildlife to take their sweet time we can make BrightSource miss the summer cut-off for more tortoise relocations. And if the pending lawsuits result in a preliminary injunction against all construction, then maybe we’ll see BrightSource’s execs joining Tessera execs on the Rich Guys’ Unemployment Line. A man can dream.

Do you know I haven’t been back to the Ivanpah Valley since construction started? I haven’t been able to face the idea.

The fleeting idea of permanence

I wrote an essay about a dozen years ago that is now obsolete, a hopeful piece about eternity in a marriage that has since ended. There is a line in it:

The year that Becky and I were married, we drove south to an un-named valley near Blythe, a small river town in the middle of the Colorado Desert, California’s subsection of the Sonoran Desert. There we camped for the night in a grove of Olneya tesota.

This week the US Department of Energy announced it would offer more than two billion dollars of your money, and mine, to help turn that “un-named valley” into an industrial wasteland.

I am getting roundly sick of this.

I have come to terms reasonably well with the end of the marriage, am in love anew and making a life I like better than the old one, working to avoid all my old mistakes. But careful curation of happy memory is part of how a person moves on from what was. There was a time when an old man could wander out into the desert, find an old familiar spot and recall wistfully his making love with his new bride there a half century before, noting the trees’ growth and the rocks’ increased age. And now I wonder will the wash still be there? The rocks? Those ancient, “essentially non-biodegradable” trees? When I wrote this in 2000, they stood for permanence.

Palen Range

Ironwood

The dark wood is cool in my hand, and smooth. It sheds sawdust to my old grafting knife, a slow, reluctant yielding of deep brown flecks like ground cinnamon, powdered chocolate. I put a moistened fingertip to the pile of dust on my knee, then to my tongue, and am surprised despite myself when I taste nothing but cellulose.

Just as well. There isn’t enough of this tree for people to start eating its wood. Restricted in range to the increasingly impacted Sonoran Desert, the desert ironwood (Olneya tesota) is faced with threats ranging from harvesting for “mesquite” charcoal to suburban sprawl to exotic plants spread by cattle grazing. And as goes the desert ironwood, so goes the desert: the tree is the shelter under which the rest of the desert lives.

I harvested this piece of ironwood in what I thought was as benign a fashion as possible: I found it, and a couple others, sticking out of the gravel in a dry wash. Something, it seemed — a desert windstorm, a flash flood, a band of stick-fetching coyotes — had carried them from a copse of trees a hundred feet away. They looked like they’d lain in the sun for years, wearing a gray patina that only year-round UV can provide. A few passes of the knife over this piece, though, and gray gave way to reveal this deep, confectionery brown. A few strokes with the coarse section of a four-way file, and the wood looks nearly polished.

I’m not the first person ever to pick up a piece of desert ironwood with art in mind. The Seri people along the Gulf Coast in Sonora, Mexico, among the last hunter-gatherers on the North American continent, list ironwood carving among their contributions to world culture. You’ve probably seen their work, or its imitators: deep, dark fluid sculptures of sharks, sea turtles, birds and desert animals. The best carvings, made by artists with a hunter-gatherer’s familiarity with nature, seem about to come alive. Frogs crouch in a pose they strike when under threat by something big. Sea turtles seem to bear exaggeratedly large forepaws, until you learn that, like husky puppies, baby sea turtles have to grow into their feet. Sharks are, I think, the pinnacle of Seri art: carved as the natural curves of the wood suggest, they are fluidity embodied. You expect them to flick a tail and disappear from the display case.

Other Sonorans have adopted the art form as a means of generating tourist revenue. The differences aren’t hard to spot. Where the Seri opt for spareness of form and smooth line, their Mexican neighbors turn out angular pieces with gouged-out hatch marks. The Seri rarely carve fish other than sharks, and almost never portray subjects other than local animals. Sonorans, on the other hand, will offer carvings of everything from stereotypical siestans leaning on saguaros to stunningly detailed representations of local beer bottles. The Mexicans’ powered machine shops turn out sculptures at a far faster rate than the Seri’s human-powered hand tools. More to the point, the Seri, with an ecological ethos not uncommon among hunter-gatherers, carve only wood from downed or dead trees. The Mexican machine shops, with their higher capacity, have spurred a demand for cutting green trees. The US and Mexican governments have taken some steps to restrict trade in non-Seri carvings.

I’ve been carving this piece of wood for several months. You wouldn’t know that to look at it. It’s hardly an intricate form; a rectangle, with a bend in the middle, which I labor to make symmetrical. I imagine polishing its final, perfected geometry with double-ought steel wool, fixing a barrette clasp, giving it to Becky to wear in her hair. The colors of wood and hair would complement one another well, differing shades of dark brown. For the hundredth time I consider carving a bas-relief on the surface, a raven or coyote, something appropriate to the provenance of the medium. Perhaps the leaves of the desert ironwood itself, plain compound leguminous leaves like those that littered the wash from whose gravel this wood protruded, driftwood miles from the nearest sea. It’s hard to say. There is something in the heft of the wood, the soapstone texture, that seems to ask for more than simple Euclidean geometry, and yet my inclination is to scour the slightest ridge away, to make a mirror of this dark piece of old dead tree.

The eponymous “bean trees” of Barbara Kingsolver’s Tucson novel were wisteria, thirsty exotic plants brought in from the Far East by way of England and the East Coast, growing in a well-watered downtown garden behind a tire repair shop. The wisteria would wither, with most of its human neighbors in Tucson, if not for the constant pumping of millennia-old water from aquifers under the city.

But climb the adobe wall that fictitious vine encumbered. Cross the street. Pass the Sonic drive-ins and Waffle Shops and motels and the metastasizing spread of stylish homes of ringing urban Tucson, get out into the unadulterated, stinking hot slopes of the Sonoran Desert, where the rattlesnakes and tarantulas play; there, you’ll find bean trees of another sort. Native to the place, they do just fine without any help from us or pumped Pleistocene aquifers or the Central Arizona Project. Four species of palo verde, acacias with sharp claws that snag hikers’ clothing like rabid Velcro, knee-high desert senna with its complement of buzzing pollinators, the notorious and fashionable mesquites, and the desert ironwood, beans all, make up much of the perennial plant cover of the Sonoran Desert. Column cacti may have better PR, but if it wasn’t for the bean trees, there’d be damn few saguaros to grace kitschy postcards and travel magazines. The desert ironwood and its cousins are the ecological foundation of the Sonoran Desert. Remove them and the rest of the plants and animals in the desert would likely vanish as well.

If you’re a plant that wants to survive in the desert, it’s a good idea to sink your roots under a desert ironwood, or one of its cousins. Shade is one reason: as sparse as a bean tree’s leaves generally are, they’re better than nothing at all. Then there’s the heat and the humidity: even droughty desert legumes exhale a little bit of water through their leaves, and their loss is your gain. Higher relative humidity due to the bean tree means you’ll transpire less water yourself. There’s the simple fact of shelter: germinate under a bean tree and it’s less likely that browsing animals will find you and eat you. Leguminous thorns also help protect young plants. Nitrogen from shed leaves is augmented by that excreted by birds and other small animals who come for shade, shelter, or nutritious bean seeds. The shade beneath the trees is optimal habitat for cacti. Each majestic saguaro, each venerable multi-stemmed organ pipe, each white-bearded senita you see on your travels to the desert quite likely got its start beneath one of the region’s legumes. Remove the trees, as happens when a subdivision goes in or wood is cut for the burgeoning gourmet “mesquite” charcoal industry or the bosque burns after an invasion of exotic buffelgrass ups the fuel load, and you close down the nurseries from which new generations of column cacti are fledged. With this in mind, Bill Clinton — in one of his final acts in office — established a bit less than 130,000 acres of the Sonoran Desert as the Ironwood Forest National Monument.

Desert ironwood trees tend toward far longer lives than do mesquites or palos verdes. One live tree near Tucson has been carbon-dated at 1200 years old: 300 years is a fairly probable average life expectancy. Even after dying, the tree can provide an oasis of shade in the desert for an immense stretch of time. The wood is, in the words of A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert (Stephen J. Phillips and Patricia Wentworth Comus, eds., Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum & UC Press, 2000) “rich in toxic chemicals and essentially non-biodegradable.” Once ironwood dies, nothing eats it, though I’ve seen termites making stalwart attempts. Firewood-sized chunks found in desert washes have been determined to be 1600 years old. A standing snag may, after its death, provide valuable habitat for a thousand years.

This knowledge, gained after I collected the few pieces of wood now sitting on my writing desk, does not exactly fill me with an uncomplicated sense of joy in acquisition.

The year that Becky and I were married, we drove south to an un-named valley near Blythe, a small river town in the middle of the Colorado Desert, California’s subsection of the Sonoran Desert. There we camped for the night in a grove of Olneya tesota.

The valley was bleak indeed. It was October, far from the hottest part of the year, and yet we saw little in the way of vertebrate life during the day. A house sparrow that had probably strayed from the alfalfa fields flitted briefly into the ironwood canopy, then returned eastward. Other than that, I don’t recall seeing so much as a lizard. Not a creature stirred the desiccated husks of summer annuals, the pallid leaves of desert ironwood and palo verde. All was silent. This was driven home when, eyes on the desert pavement at my feet, I absently muttered something to Becky. She replied with a tone of amusement. I looked up to see we were at least two hundred yards apart, yet we could hear each other’s normal speaking voices perfectly.

That afternoon I found a comfortable-looking spot in the wash, shaded by a bit of ironwood, and laid down for a nap, shifting my back to gouge out a depression in the gravel. I opened my eyes for a moment, saw nothing but a few ironwood leaves silhouetted against an impossibly blue sky, then dozed. Not a few minutes later, something soft brushed my cheek, and I started awake. Eyes the color of polished ironwood gleamed: Becky had kissed me. The image of my wife’s face, bean tree leaves behind her, deep blue firmament framing all, would prove to haunt me through months of desultory wood carving.

Things picked up a bit when the sun went down. A wind came up from the south, bearing the slightest odor of the Sea of Cortez. Zeke, our dog, noticed a desert packrat or two whose stick homes we had missed among the fallen trees. Far-off coyote song punctured the twilight, the local great horned owl providing a bass line. After dark, the valley was palpably alive.

I sat by a fire. We were far remote, there was an abundance of dead wood in the wash, and I wanted a fire, so the first two clauses in this sentence seemed sufficient justification. Ironwood burns hot. A pile of fuel the size of a regulation softball, and we couldn’t get closer than ten feet to the blaze. With wood like that, you don’t need much fire. The next morning, half the small pile of scraps I’d collected lay unburned next to the coals. I grabbed a few and put them in the truck. They’ve sat near my computer since then.

I pick up one of the larger pieces now, a rough, splintery crescent a foot long, four or five inches wide at its thickest. It looks weathered, old, rotten, yet it weighs at least three pounds. I heft the wood in my hand. I can’t be sure this stick is a millennium-and-a-half old, but I can’t rule it out, either. When did this piece of wood die? When did its tree release it into the desert soil, there to bleach and suffer futile attacks by termites? 1500 years ago the Anasazi were just learning how to add roofs to their adobe houses. Augustine was writing his Confessions. The Roman Empire had collapsed within living memory. And this stick, perhaps, or one just like it in the same valley, was already turning gray on that alluvial pediment west of Blythe. “Essentially non-biodegradable,” these few pieces of dead tree straddle the line between biology and geology. A tree grew them, but they may as well be rocks for all the effect that the centuries have on them. “Driftwood,” hell: it’s just as likely that I found these pieces where they fell, and the ironwood grove drifted away from them over the intervening millennium. The immense antiquity of this firewood makes my collection of it seem, in retrospect, abhorrent, like the actions of the guy who cut down the world’s oldest bristlecone pine to count the rings.

But there is something in the desert ironwood that seems to ask for more than simple Euclidean geometry, which naggingly reminds me that issues are never as straightforward as ideology would insist. Who would criticize the Seri for turning ironwood detritus into grocery money? Ironwood supported human beings long before the first Seri carver ever saw a chisel. Leached of a mild toxin, ironwood seeds were used for centuries as food by the Seri, the Tohono O’odham, and other Sonoran Desert people. Warriors and hunters used ironwood bark tea as a ceremonial purgative. When an O’odham couple married, elders gave them an ironwood branch to hold between them, so that the wood’s durability would infuse itself into the marriage. Though we’ve done it some wrong the past few decades, this is a tree whose memory is long, and it was deeply involved in human lives long before the invention of the four-way file and the chain steakhouse.

I look again at the piece I’ve been carving. I won’t be collecting any more, and I certainly won’t insist on a fire when I’m camping in ironwood country, but giving this piece to my wife seems, somehow, appropriate, a way to infuse this marriage with the permanence ironwood engenders. A bit of dark wood, and the knowledge that more grows, protected, in the heart of the Sonoran Desert.