Author Archives: Chris Clarke

IMG_5476.JPG

Grassroots

I have made my share of mistakes in this life, errors manifold and sundry, and lately I think the worst one has been to expect unhappiness and strategize accordingly. I have assumed disappointment and planned only to maximize the value I could extract from it.

Steadfastness and loyalty are fine traits, but too often I have used them to prolong situations that I should instead have ended. Lean into your work, force that plow past stone and stump, and for all your diligence? At the end of the season you have still rended the breast of the earth.

It is harder to heal that soil than it is to plow it. Grass roots may infiltrate for centuries, sequester the carbon of a hundred ages, then die after one pass of the moldboard.

At some altitude last week, I hiked through a meadow of native grasses, Muhlenbergia and Hilaria grown ancient and yet still green. I would have liked to infiltrate my fingers among their roots. I would have liked to feel their seeds take root in my heart, to be sequestered securely in that meadow in the San Bernardinos.

I have assumed too much unhappiness. I have spent too much of my life in the furrows. It is time for Hilaria and Scirpus; time for stolons and leaf blades and the slow drift of windborne pollen.

cropped-Coyote-Crossing-2010.png

Voice recognition

I just got my first new phone in five years. It’s the bottom of the line for iPhones; it only has barely enough storage to be a phone as opposed to a fancy microcomputer.

Despite that bargain-basement status, despite the fact that I’ve had to delete apps like my bird field guide and the one that alerted me when scientists discovered a new planet outside the solar system, this new phone does have some features that my old phone lacked.

Chief among those features is voice recognition. I’ve written thousands of blog posts in my life, but I’ve never dictated one.

Until now. This may prove to be very helpful in managing my carpal tunnel syndrome, which has been flaring up lately.

At any rate I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank Jim Stanger whose name this phone’s voice recognition software spelled correctly without intervention. Without Jim’s gracious gift of a used iPhone 4 a couple years ago, I would have spent those intervening years unable to iPhone anyone. Thanks Jim. Do you need the iPhone 4 back?

Image by mkhmarketing

Social media isn’t

Image by mkhmarketing

Image by mkhmarketing

Somewhere between the time I hit publish on the first post on this blog and today, my writing changed. Back then in 2003 I mainly wrote for the benefit of a couple dozen readers, some of them friends I had known for some time. Those readers I hadn’t met in “real life” were few, and thoughtful, and generally writing on their own lightly trafficked blogs, and some of us became friends as well.

This blog, called Creek Running North back in those days for the watercourse nearest the house I lived in then, was started as a refuge. I was editing environmental magazines for a living back then, feeling myself oppressed by the litany of bad news I had to process every day, and I wanted to be able to keep a diary of sorts. That first post involved a garter snake that had darted between my feet a week before as I ran along a levee on the south shore of San Pablo Bay. I remember that encounter much more clearly than I remember what bad news was happening for me to edit that week.

The inevitable ironic thing happened: the blog soon got more readership than the serious environmental magazine from which it was supposed to be a respite. I made a mistake: I didn’t change what and how I wrote as a result. I kept it personal. I kept it confessional. Over those first few years as my dog Zeke aged and died, and then as my marriage to Becky ground to an end, I used this blog’s audience as therapy and confessional and ego support. And I did so without asking how any of the other people whose stories I was sharing how they felt about my doing so.

That might have been okay. There is room in the world for writing like that, and despite that older version of the blog having become largely centered on the lives of Chris and Becky and Zeke for a while, neither Becky nor Zeke ever complained about it. At least not to me. The Zeke book came out of it, for one thing. There’s a remove to paper and ink that I think takes away some of the false intimacy found online. While people can and do write comments on passages in a book, few expect the author to reply.

Things changed as I moved to the desert. The blog’s focus changed somewhat, languishing at times, becoming monomaniacal on a particular topic at times. My work here got me the gig at KCET. My readership grew, as did my writing’s reach and influence. That is a wholly good thing: I am incredibly lucky.

Another thing happened as I moved to the desert: the way people interacted with blogs changed radically in the space of a couple of years. Facebook opened itself to the public in 2006. Behind the curve as usual, I joined in September 2007. Twitter came around in 2006 as well, and I joined that in the last hours of 2007, with my auspicious first tweet embedded here:

Smarter people than I have expounded on the effects of Facebook and Twitter on the world of blogs, on the tenor of social discourse, and on the human cardiovascular system. Each platform offers the writer a mix of good and not so good. Readers can now hold conversations about a piece of writing that the author of that piece may never see. It’s much easier for writing to go viral now than it was in 2005. There’s no longer any need for a person to have a shred of technological expertise before holding forth publicly before large audiences. You may have noticed that I am assiduously refraining from assigning any of those phenomena to the “good” or “not so good” categories. I’m not so sure myself.

Twitter is its own animal and I am not there so much any more. Its use is straightforward: read or don’t, engage or don’t. But I am realizing, these last months, that I have been using Facebook wrong from the beginning. I thought I was hanging out with friends. Instead, I’ve been broadcasting.

In my defense, I couldn’t really have known.

Here’s the elevator version: I devoutly wish Facebook had used a concept for its basic unit of connection other than “friend.”

At this writing, I have 1,277 Facebook friends, a number that exceeds the number of people I can actually bring myself to think of as friends, using a broad and shallow definition of the term, by a factor of about four.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that: it’s merely the usual American English deflation of intensity of meaning of a formerly meaningful word. The way “love” has come to mean a mild preference for one commercial product over a near-identical product, “awesome” to mean “acceptable,”  or “freedom” to mean easy access to a freeway lane with no traffic, “friendship” now means that you’ve clicked a link.

But it fooled me for a long time.

I’m pretty sure there’s a reason none of us had 1,277 actual friends before the word got devalued. Behavior in friends that can seem quirky, endearing, or even just mostly tolerable if a few of your couple dozen friends display it can become overwhelming when you scale that group of “friends” up to four figures. For example: if you have 20 friends and ten percent of them are in the habit of giving you unsolicited and not really helpful advice, that’s something with which a mostly emotionally healthy human being can generally contend. At 1,200+ “friends,” that ten percent becomes exhausting and demoralizing. (Keep that in mind when commenting on this piece, thanks.)

Or let’s say one of your 20 friends is given to argument for its own sake after drinking a couple beers. You can tolerate it, or you can go into the kitchen when he’s holding forth in the living room, or if things get bad you can take him aside and ask him to knock it off. If the equivalent five percent of your 1,200 “friends” do the same thing, the emotional impact is much, much larger.

Hell, even the wonderful and uplifting things friends do get overwhelming at 1,277 friends. I have more than a dozen unanswered messages from Facebook friends who plan to be in town in the next few weeks and would love to see me.  Every single one of those invitations is appealing. All of them en masse? That’s different.

That roster of 1,277 friends I have at this writing would be a lot larger if I hadn’t  spent a fair amount of time over the last few years removing people from the list, sometimes because they posted something egregiously offensive, but sometimes over behavior I might well easily tolerate in a real-world friend. And sometimes it’s been over behavior that I couldn’t fit cleanly into either bin, like the person who was the first to click “like” on every single link, photo, idle observation or cat picture I posted for a month and a half.

Facebook’s choice of terminology confuses us all, I think. Tell us often enough that someone is our friend and we start to feel an intimacy that may not actually exist. That one burned me last year pretty hard, as for example when Facebook “friends” messaged my then-partner to inquire as to the state of my mental health when I was going through a rough patch.

It’s come to this: the more Facebook friends I have, the lonelier and more isolated I feel.

And that sucks, because at the core of my actual relationship with most of those 1,277 people is that they read my writing and get some value from it, and are kind enough to act on that appreciation. Sometimes that kindness comes in the form of tossing money my way, without which I’d currently be in a lot worse shape financially. Without the support of those 1,277 readers (and others), I might well have ended up homeless a couple years ago.

That appreciation is almost wholly a good thing, though I have been increasingly uncomfortable with the persona I seem to have developed, in part due to my own increasingly careful curation of what I share online. I’ve made some sharp departures from past practice in what I choose to share. I’ve learned the downside of oversharing the personal stuff, the effects on both myself and those I love. There are glorious aspects to my personal life right now that will remain offline. I have scaled back my shared life to include mainly my writing, sporadic political rants, pretty photos of the desert and an occasional dog face.

And that curation has had an odd effect: since I’m less eager to share my frustrations and nagging doubts and insecurities online, the version of myself that appears online has fewer of those things. People fill in those blanks and apprehend me as some sort of desert-saving hero, or at least anti-hero. Need I point out that that is manifestly a false assessment? I sit on my ass all day, to the detriment of my spine, and try to write clearly enough to be understood, and try not to lose my temper on a handful of occasions per month when I feel like a few people choose to misunderstand me anyway. There are heroes in this world, the clinic escorts and public school teachers, the people who advocate for the indigent and rehab injured wildlife and keep transmission lines out of National Monuments. I write about those people. That’s different. It’s a great gig, but I notice a marked absence of capes in my closet.

Anyway. Much of my relationship with those 1,277 “friends” is gratifying and touching. And yet I found myself thinking, the other day, how much I wish I could use Facebook the way almost everyone I know uses Facebook: to keep in touch with loved ones and an assortment of fond acquaintances. I have a professional page to feature my work life; how nice would it be for my personal page to be, well, personal?

And yet because I failed to anticipate the combined effect of my inappropriately personal writing style and the spurious stranger-intimacy Facebook engenders, there’s only one way for me to get even partway there. I’d lay ten-to-one odds that at least a couple of the 300-400 strangers I plan to drop from my Facebook friends list will have their feelings hurt.

And I never wanted that.

"Catharus ustulatus -North Dakota-8a" by Matt Reinbold from Bismarck, ND, USA - Swainson'sUploaded by Snowmanradio. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Swainson’s thrush

You style yourself a jaded sort,
your world-view walled up tight.
You see your world: a simple place
all cast in black and white.
You think that way? Your weltanschaung
is but a house of cards,
for just one song of Swainson’s thrush
will blast it all to shards.
The Swainson’s thrush: a fearsome beast
six inches beak to tail
no human thought so leaden-bound
its song cannot derail.
You’ll know it by its size and shape
(the birders call it “jizz”)
and by its doubt-dispatching song
that says “life, simply, is.”
That spiral song emerges
from the thrush’s speckled breast.
It echoes through the conifers
(where, typically, they nest)
a scale of tones that rises
as if headed out to space
until it cannot yet be heard
but in a better place.
Go, lie out on the forest floor.
Let fog drip in your eyes.
Watch Ramalina lichen swirl
beneath the gray-churned skies
and linger there. Eventually
that song will ring above.
And then: just you, the Swainson’s thrush,
the woods, and fog, and love.
The Swainson’s thrush: a fearsome beast
six inches beak to tail
no human thought so leaden-bound
its song cannot derail.
You’ll know it by its size and shape
(the birders call it “jizz”)
and by its doubt-dispatching song
that says “life, simply, is.”

IMG_5212.JPG

The Vortex

We will rebuild.

 

At just after 3:30 pm this afternoon my yard was hit by either a very large dust devil or a very small tornado. It lifted this heavy, glass and metal table and flipped it: when I drank my coffee out there this morning it was on the other side of the chairs. My smoker landed two lots down. The wind knocked over two cinderblocks. 

Given that this happened on the anniversary weekend of my beginning to live alone, I choose to interpret it as a good omen, Coyote-style. 

Offered as a public service.

If a Puma Tries To Enter Your Home’s Crawl Space

 

Offered as a public service.

Offered as a public service.

Actually, here’s what you really ought to do if you encounter a mountain lion. And if you were following the saga of puma P22 in a crawl space in Los Feliz and wondered what you could do to help pumas in Southern California, check out and support this freeway wildlife crossing project.

In my last garden, 10 years ago. I don't even know who I am anymore.

Five Year Plan

In my last garden, 10 years ago. I don't even know who I am anymore.

Greens growing in my last garden, 10 years ago. I don’t even know who I am anymore.

I’ve been thinking a lot about propagating plants. I miss it.

I have spent so much of my time over the last 25 years collecting ideas into different shapes and then putting them out on the Idea Network, getting rapt over some ideas and getting angry over other ideas, and it is getting incredibly old.

I spend time these days in the real world, the physical, manifest world. I walk the dog and I see the Pleuraphis rigida leafing out, knitting the desert together, and I think that no matter how inspiringly I may eventually be able to write about the desert, no matter how many people read the first several words of some paean or other of mine to the Mojave and click “like” and move on with their day, even if I get better and better at this for the next 40 years, my entire life’s work will mean less to the desert than the work a typical mediocre-sized clump of Pleuraphis rigida might do in a year. I would do more good for the desert if I grew Pleuraphis and planted it out in scarred lands than I will in another century of writing, I think these days.

When I went to Santa Catalina Island in 2013 for work I rode past a small compound in the middle of the island, a nursery run by the Catalina Conservancy to increase the stock of plants endemic to the island, and even though I rode past on a fancy eco-tour on which I was comped due to my impressive gig as eco-writer for a large TV station in the nation’s entertainment capital, I envied the people working in that nursery so much it hurt.

In the real world, in the physical manifest world, I read some of my writing last weekend to a friend I met in the physical, manifest world, and we mutually and simultaneously observed the difference in my work of summer 2008 and my work today. I have polished my craft since then, a bit, through the simple expedient of writing multiple pieces almost every single day. But my writing in 2008 was unquestionably and ineffably better. More beautiful. More fulfilling to read, in retrospect. More meaningful.

In the summer of 2008 I was living alone in the desert, as now. I am far happier now than I was then, know myself far better, and yet in the summer of 2008 my access to the Internet was extremely limited. To post something on my blog back then took a walk across the road with the laptop to use the wifi in Nipton’s laundromat, and that wifi was slow. Once a post was uploaded, I could count on perhaps two dozen people reading what I had written.

I wrote much more for myself, in other words, and a few friends, and the artistry came first.

Sometime this month KCET will publish the 1,500th piece I’ve written for them, and I’m proud of that output. I’m likewise proud of many of the pieces I’ve written for them. This one comes to mind especially, though it was written in a much darker frame of mind than I generally inhabit these days.

And though KCET has in most ways been a dream gig for me, there will come a point at which I tire of finding the bad news, taking it into my soul, making it part of who I am, and then interpreting it for the reader.

No, scratch that: I grew tired of that 20 years ago. There will come a time at which I simply cannot do it any longer.

And there’s this: I love the Mojave Desert. It is home. And I learned last week that the Palen solar project, which was abandoned when its owner went bankrupt and then abandoned again when its new owner couldn’t gloss over the unimaginable toll the project would take on wildlife is going to be revived again by its remaining owner, and the state and the feds fully intend to approve it.

Will writing about it help? I have more of my articles introduced into the California Energy Commission’s proceedings’ official record on Palen than I can count. I could write a thousand more articles on the thing, or I could Kryptonite my neck to a bulldozer. Which would be more effective at stopping the project?

Or perhaps cutting the project fence, trespassing onto the construction site, and revegetating the landscape with Pleuraphis divisions ready to come out of their one-gallon pots. Though I’d probably only get away with that once.

And that’s just Palen. Palen is just one project in a desert full of them. The Executive Branch, and the California Governor, and the well-funded, comfortable sector of the mainstream environmental movement, have all decided that the landscape I love is an acceptable sacrifice to their larger goals, just as Floyd Dominy et al decided Black and Glen Canyons were acceptable sacrifices to the larger goals of building Phoenix and Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

I’m not about to pack up and leave just yet, but I am more and more certain I don’t want to be sitting in this here front row seat when the final act starts.

Increasingly I have come to realize I’d like to spend most of the rest of my life being somewhere else, doing something else. Growing plants to feed the people I love and to restore a little corner of the planet, in a place where the land is both slightly forgiving and in need of help, in a place where my household can be reasonably assured of a small amount of water to meet our needs, if we husband it wisely. I can easily imagine never writing again; I only started writing in my 30s, so I have a lot of years as a non-writer to use as a model. But even better: writing only when I am moved to write, writing only what I am moved to write, with as little of an online presence as I can reasonably manage.

Slowing all the way down, in other words; living my life at a pace to match the slow unfolding of seedlings and the passage of increasingly precious rainclouds across the sky.

Five years seems a reasonable timeline.