Author Archives: Chris Clarke

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This weekend

In Lost Hills, California, the dog sleeps on a motel bed. A hundred yards east the long haul truckers drift gently off to sleep at 75 per. Their trailers sway sinuously, sensuously, heedless of the dotted white line. 

I got off the road. 

At Rodeo Beach today the brown pelicans skimmed brisk surf flawlessly, the wave crests missing their breast feathers by millimeters. We watched them fly in their characteristic perfect formation, bonded to each other inviolable and unseen. 

In Maxwell Park, the scent of jasmine and the scent of citrus. The dog pulls me up steep night streets, past Art Deco ghosts, past the shed feathers of owls. 

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Desert words I want

This week The Guardian published perhaps the finest piece of writing I’ve ever seen in its pages, and it has gotten me thinking.

The article, by British nature writer Robert Macfarlane, comes as a sort of prologue to his book Landmarks, due out next week. The book and the article in The Guardian discuss our increasing loss of a vocabulary befitting the landscapes in which we live.

There’s a paragraph in Macfarlane’s Guardian piece that’s gotten a lot of attention, fittingly enough as it’s the springboard from which the rest of his essay sproings. That passage concerns a revision in 2007 to the Oxford Junior Dictionary:

A sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature. Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture, and willow. The words taking their places in the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player, and voice-mail.

If I can’t spend my childhood having acorns and conkers be relevant to me, I don’t want to be part of your revolution. Still, Macfarlane notes, the 2007 revisions to the OJD are just the culmination, reductio ad absurdum style, of cultural trends outside Oxford University Press. Macfarlane has spent a lifetime collecting odd regional words used throughout the British Isles to describe natural phenomena, and the 2007 deletions from the OJD spurred him to formalize his hobby.

Not long after returning from Lewis, and spurred on by the Oxford deletions, I resolved to put my word-collecting on a more active footing, and to build up my own glossaries of place words. It seemed to me then that although we have fabulous compendia of flora, fauna and insects (Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica and Mark Cocker’s Birds Britannica chief among them), we lack a Terra Britannica, as it were: a gathering of terms for the land and its weathers – terms used by crofters, fishermen, farmers, sailors, scientists, miners, climbers, soldiers, shepherds, poets, walkers and unrecorded others for whom particularised ways of describing place have been vital to everyday practice and perception. It seemed, too, that it might be worth assembling some of this terrifically fine-grained vocabulary – and releasing it back into imaginative circulation, as a way to rewild our language. 

The rest of the article is a delight, and it’s a longish read by the standards of The Guardian. Macfarlane trots out a vocabulary of words used in a number of British Isles dialects that seem archaic and yet far from obsolete:

Ammil is a Devon term for the thin film of ice that lacquers all leaves, twigs and grass blades when a freeze follows a partial thaw, and that in sunlight can cause a whole landscape to glitter.… On Exmoor, zwer is the onomatopoeic term for “the sound made by a covey of partridges taking flight”. 

And my own personal favorite:

Smeuse is an English dialect noun for “the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal”; now I know the word smeuse, I notice these signs of creaturely commute more often.

Important, that detail: without a word for a thing, our chances of noticing the thing when we see it are diminished.

I never pass up the chance to use the word “autochthonous” in a sentence, and that’s what the lexicon Macfarlane has curated is: a collection of words that emerged out of the very soil of the countryside.

And of course there’s a problem for us American nature writers, bound as we are to the traditions our nation’s dominant cultural whatchamacallits have attempted to import wholesale from the British Isles. American natural history writers owe a huge debt of gratitude to our Brit forebears, the Gilbert Whites and Strata Smiths and Chuck Darwins, without whom we might not have had a genre at all. But the natural history of Great Britain bears only a passing resemblance to that of eastern North America, and both of those two exotic and unusual places share little but carbon-based life forms with the Mojave Desert.

We in the Mojave may cross swords rather often, but we rarely cross swards. The autochthonous vocabulary of fen and moor and marsh does not, in general, apply to us, despite some of the vocabulary of river people like the Aha Macav, lately known as the Mojave. (The Mojave phrase ‘a’ii hana’e, “wood that has been in water a long time,” makes sense coming from a riverbank language, even in the desert.)

There are words that have sprung organically from the North American deserts, though many of them are loan words. Likely the best known in this age when Burners run the world is “playa,” Spanish for “beach,” used to describe dry lakes — though salina is better used for those dry lakes made more of salt than dust.

The jargon of geology has permeated modern desert language. When rocky detritus builds up a pediment at the mouth of a mountain canyon, it forms an alluvial fan; when a number of alluvial fans merge at their margins, they become a bajada: an apron (the literal translation from Spanish) girdling the mountain.

(In case you’re starting to think all the loan words come from Spanish: when a bajada envelops an isolated prominence of the local mountain range so that it appears to be an island mountain disconnected from its parent range, it’s called an inselberg: German for “island mountain.”)

In the desert we have rivers of sand that flow under the force of wind, and they create a unique and dynamic kind of habitat that’s crucial to animals like a few species of fringe-toed lizards. It’s called blowsand habitat.

Sometimes rainstorms head in from the coast, or from the Sea of Cortez, and they shed precipitation that doesn’t reach the ground, sublimed instead into the greedy desiccated air. Such a rain is called virga, and it frustrates those of us who live below.

And as I mention above, there are whole libraries of words in disappearing languages spoken by those who lived here for millennia, whose languages and lives hang on by the slenderest of reeds. Another Mojave phrase: ‘amat iimiith, the fine, hairlike tendrils of grass or moss that grow suddenly in wet places after a desert rain. The Chemehuevi call the beans in mesquite pods opa, the berries of Rhus trilobata “hu’upi,” and an abandoned settlement ka’nip, all of them perfectly useful words, the last especially in today’s Mojave Desert.

I’m no expert on the lexicons of languages I don’t actually speak, but I do know that there are some words desert English lacks.

That Exmoorian “zwer” works as well for a covey of Gambel’s quail taking wing as it does for Devonian partridges, so that’s covered. But I want a word for that season in which those Gambel’s coveys dissolve into mated pairs, the formerly cooperative males suddenly regarding one another with something like suspicion. That season would roughly correspond to summer, but longer, beginning with spring nesting and mating, ending when the baby quail no longer require their parents’ solicitude.

I want a word for the ring of chaff surrounding the hills of the Mojave’s ubiquitous small red and black ants, created when each hill’s workers take the seeds they’ve gleaned from the surrounding desert and husk them, then carry the inedible seed coats only as far as they have to from the nest.

I want another word for the circle of bloom that bursts forth when the flower seeds those ants accidentally discarded with the chaff get enough water to germinate.

A word for three days after a rain, and the difference in color of the desert soil at the surface and just below the surface.

I want a word for the scent of rain a dozen miles away, and another for the sight of storm clouds on the hundred-miles distant horizon.

I want a human word for that coyote word that is neither bark nor howl, but something unresolvably between. I want words to distinguish the group howl from the solitary, the tentative yip from the full-throated song of the successful rabbit hunt.

There ought to be a word to describe the islands, raised up a foot from the sea of surrounding desert, buttressed with ancient roots and well-fed with resinated humus, that surround every single creosote bush in the desert.

I want a word for the spiny gloriole of backlit cholla. I want a word for the tracks of Pinacate beetles, fearlessly straight across a desert full of beetle-eaters.

I want a word for the earth’s shadow in the sky on a summer sunset evening, that terminator between pink and indigo, and the knowledge in the gathering chill that tomorrow’s sun will be every bit as hot.

 

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Ethical malfeasance and the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan

Today’s the deadline for commenting on the draft Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP). Many of the people I know have been putting in long hours for the last several months pulling their comments together on the plan, which is gargantuan.

The plan covers 22 million acres of the California desert, with a huge amount of land proposed as renewable energy Development Focus Areas (DFAs) and an even huger amount proposed for a modicum of protection, but what that protection actually entails is a matter of both vagueness and controversy.

I suspect that most of the comments submitted by today on the DRECP will dive into the details to a formidable degree. One such set of comments, crafted by Basin and Range Watch, was so good I signed onto it myself.

But the comments I submitted today were very specific, and concerned an issue not addressed in the draft DRECP itself.

Here they are.


 

I am Chris Clarke, a resident of Joshua Tree in San Bernardino County, and of the 22-million-acres covered by the draft Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP). I work as a journalist covering renewable energy issues for KCET TV in Los Angeles, but I make these comments solely on my own behalf as a private citizen.

These comments are submitted in addition to a comment letter by Laura Cunningham and Kevin Emmerich of Basin and Range Watch, which I co-signed.

My comment here centers on the fact that the identification of Development Focus Areas (DFAs) in the draft DRECP has been tainted by an instance of personal malfeasance by high-ranking Interior Department staff, to the extent that the ecological and energy resource justifications for any of the wind-oriented DFAs are now likewise tainted with the prospect that they may have been tailored to maximize the personal gain of Interior Department brass rather than to either develop renewable energy or protect public lands’ biological resources.

On November 7, 2014, the Interior Department’s Office of the Inspector General posted a report on its investigation of malfeasance by Steve Black, a senior counselor to former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Interior’s lead on renewable energy siting. The report identified several areas in which Black at least appears to have improperly influenced renewable energy policy to benefit either his own professional advancement or that of his then-paramour, Manal Yamout, who at the time worked for NextEra Energy Resources.

According to that report, which I have attached, Black put pressure on federal agency staff preparing the draft DRECP to increase the acreage of wind-oriented Development Focus Areas in the draft DRECP. This pressure induced staff to reconsider areas they had previously ruled out as too ecologically sensitive or lacking in wind potential, or both.

At the time that Black pressured DRECP authors to increase the amount of acreage available in the draft DRECP’s wind DFAs, he was seeking employment as the Executive Director of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). Black did not notify the Interior Department of his conversations with AWEA until nearly two months after he pressured agency staff to add wind DFAs to the draft DRECP.

According to a timeline included in the Inspector General’s report, NextEra Energy Resources’ Vice President of Development, a member of AWEA’s board of directors, asked Black in early January of 2013 whether he should add Black’s name to a list of candidates for AWEA’s Executive Director position. Black agreed but asked that his interest in the position be kept quiet.

On January 11 of that year, Black received an email from the director of the California Wind Energy Association, a member group of AWEA, complaining that his group felt the draft DRECP should include far more wind development areas.

On January 17, says the Inspector General’s report, Black directed state and federal agency staff working on the draft DRECP to — in the words of the report — “find more areas in the plan for wind development.” The DRECP program manager — not identified by name in the Inspector General’s report, but presumably Vicki Campbell — told investigators, again in the words of the report, that

“she and other DRECP team members disagreed with Black about adding certain areas for renewable energy development to the DRECP because the areas were not biologically supportable. She said that the areas were ultimately added, but the DRECP team decided to add requirements for them to mitigate the environmental issues. She said this was one of the ways the team ‘dealt’ with Black’s involvement. She stated that DOI officials, including Black, also asked the team to find more areas for wind development in the DRECP, but doing so would be difficult in the desert because the eagles and condors that lived there were ‘not real compatible with giant spinning blades.’”

Black did not inform Interior Department ethics staff of his interest in the AWEA position, according to the Inspector General’s report, until March 4, at which point he was informed that he “should not engage in matters that affected AWEA’s finances.”

Had Black informed Interior ethics staff of his interest in the AWEA position when it first arose, in January, that proscription would assuredly have included intervening to increase the acreage available for wind development in the draft DRECP.

Black’s unethical tinkering in the DFA selection process is a matter of public record. And yet the draft DRECP contains no indication as to which DFAs may have been included or expanded as a result of Black’s influence.

And that means that those of us who are observing and commenting on the DRECP process can not extend our full confidence that those DFAs were selected and mapped under the highest scientific standards required by the National Environmental Policy Act, the California Environmental Quality Act, and general best practices followed by the state and federal agencies contributing to the draft plan.

Ethical lapses like those Black committed must not be allowed to shape land management decisions and policy in the California Desert. At a very minimum, the Interior Department should fully disclose precisely which areas were added to the roster of wind Development Focus Areas as a result of Steve Black’s unethical influence into the process. Those DFAs should be removed from the final DRECP or else supported with the best available science to explain just why the initial decision by agency staff to exclude them from consideration should not be trusted.

Without such disclosure and transparency, the full plan will remain shadowed by the suspicion that the DFAs were chosen more to benefit Steve Black’s personal and financial well-being than to move California to a renewable energy future, or to protect its irreplaceable desert public lands.

Thank you for this opportunity to comment.

Chris Clarke

PO Box 1086
Joshua Tree, CA 92252
(213) 254-5382

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Heart

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I have a new family member.

Her name is Heart, named partly because of a black Valentine’s-heart-shaped patch on her left side, and partly because of who she is.

When I first met her, in November, she couldn’t bring herself to make eye contact with me. A series of events I can only guess at had persuaded her that most people, men especially, could not be trusted. She came to live with me in December — a dogsitting-fostering arrangement, I insisted, not to be considered permanent — and it took her several days to stop flinching violently when I’d absently reach to stroke her head.

After a while, in which I spent a lot of time moving very slowly and deliberately, and treating her according to a very smart friend’s advice, we won each other over just a bit.

That advice:

after gaining her trust with walks and ignoring and humor and nothing ever being a big deal, then you expose her to absolutely freaking everything so the shy doesn’t wreck her quality of life.

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Now, she’s devoted to me, and I am in my inevitably inferior, non-dog way, to her. Here’s Heart waking me up on my 55th birthday earlier this month:

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We walk four miles a day on average, and she is slowly starting to learn that words mean things, and she is training me how to listen to her so that she can tell me what she wants, and she leaps onto the bed each morning and wakes me by punching me in the face repeatedly.

We made the decision this week to make our collegial relationship a permanent one. No one who knows me is the slightest bit surprised, excepting me.

Life is good.

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Decision

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I stood tonight at sundown at the south edge of the Mojave National Preserve after a day spent seeing one wonderful aspect of the Mojave after another and the thought came to me: “I live here.”

It’s not the first time I’ve had the thought, but it struck me hard tonight.

This late summer I made one of the hardest, most personably frightening decisions I’ve ever made. It felt correct at the time even when I feared its consequences most.

Had that decision gone the other way, I realized, I would have had to amend my thought to “I could have lived here.”

As painful as that decision was at the time, I have never been more convinced that I chose the proper path this past early September.

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Last night’s dream, still not completely shaken

It was bad news from the oncologist. Multiple myeloma, the same as killed my grandfather when he was just two years older than I am now, and I walked the street in a daze at the prognosis. Four months tops, he’d said, and that was after I cajoled him for optimism, talked about outliers and long right-hand tails of bell curves and essays by Stephen J. Gould.

Four months.

February.

She was waiting for me in the park, right where she’d said she’d be when we parted that morning. Behind her a brilliant blaze of California poppies in full orange bloom, a sky uninterrupted by clouds. She saw me, beamed. She looked so happy.

How would I tell her?

I reached her, sat next to her on the bench. I forced a smile. She looked so happy. Impossibly black eyes gleaming the way they always did. Melted me, the way they always did. How had I lived for so long without her? How could I possibly leave her alone in just four months?

Time to break her heart.

“I have some news,” I told her.

She took my hand in both of hers, shook it a little side to side in not-at-all contained joy. She radiated joy. She shone at me.

“So do I,” she said.