Author Archives: Chris Clarke

Cynicism and sentiment in the desert

Originally published February 17, 2015 on BeaconReader.com

I couldn’t tell where the feathers came from. There were no trees, no power poles or other perch from which they might have descended; just the bare Mojave Desert sky, uncharacteristically overcast. There were four of them, then six, then a dozen, arcing and twirling lazily toward the ground.

Had a peregrine or a prairie falcon swooped and caught one of the Eurasian collared doves that flock in my neighborhood, knocking a few feathers loose from its inflight prey? Had a hawk’s talon scraped them off a quail’s breast? I glanced at my dog Heart at the other end of the leash, briefly imagining she would nod, mutter “huh,” and confirm the oddness. But she was lost in thoughts of her own, sniffing after side-blotched lizards beneath the desert milkweed.

The feathers were beautiful and plain, a dun-gray color slightly darker than the sky, each of them the length and width of a fingernail. They pirouetted and eddied in the light wind. I craned my neck again to find where they’d come from. I failed again.

Sometimes the small painful pieces of a desert life provide their own creation myths. Sometimes they don’t. Walking a few days beforehand Heart had done a classic olfactory doubletake, doubled back forcefully to sniff at a patch of sticks, a bit of fluff. It was downy rabbit fur, and the sticks were spattered with a bit of gore, and a pile of coyote scat lay nearby.

“Clearly, Holmes,” I explained to Heart, “an unfortunate hare happened upon this sample of coyote dung, sniffed at it, and exploded.” She gave me the merest ear flick.

ravenThe dog is new. I’ve had her for two months. She is energetic and exuberant, and as a result we have spent a lot of time walking. We put in four miles a day or so, sometimes six.

A couple weeks ago, that odd Mojave overcast having reached its full and appropriate flower as a slow, soaking rain, we walked out at 8:30 in the morning. I had my phone to my ear. I talked with a close friend as we walked. A mile from the house Heart froze at roadside, stared off into the creosote. I didn’t see why for a few long minutes, but I was distracted and glad to stand. It took a moment for them to resolve out of the blur of creosote and fog: a pair of coyotes, then three, then four, out doing a few late morning rounds under cover of the sheltering gloom. One of them, a seeming youngster, approached to within 20 yards of Heart in apparent guileless curiosity. A moment of curious sniffing for both young dog and young coyote passed, and then the wild ones loped casually across the road in front of us and into the National Park.

Phone to my ear, I would have missed them if not for Heart, wholly in the present as dogs always are.

It was a good reminder of the value of time spent the way dogs would prefer.  I now spend two hours a day at least outdoors walking with Heart, afoot in the Mojave Desert. I have walked with her first thing in the morning and then after midnight.  The extra time spent away from screens has been instructive. I have felt more hopeful. I have felt invigorated.

Mainly, I have felt less cynical.

If you were to sum up the usual mood of the Internet as a whole in a single word, it’s would be hard to find a more accurate one than “cynical.” That’s a generalization, of course, but I think it’s a fair one. Cynicism is a suit of armor. If a video or a piece of writing threatens to teach you something new and uncomfortable, you can just dismiss it by arguing with the headline. No need to actually click away from Facebook and read the thing.

Modern cynicism defends itself by casting itself as the only intelligent alternative to mawkish sentimentality. But in truth, it’s only the mawkish sentimentality that cynics allow to survive. A video of a kitten giving a mastiff a shoulder massage will go uncriticized. So will a mass and useless catharsis over the political tragedy du jour, drip with sentiment as it may. As long as sentiment is utterly powerless to change anything, cynics like it just fine.

Sentiment with power behind it is a different matter altogether. Develop a passion for a particular place, or a cause, or group of people, and harness that sentiment to protect what you love, and you will be tweaked for caring too much. Caring too much about an issue makes the cynic tired. It makes the cynic defensive against the possibility that his or her life is lacking something essential. Hackles will be raised. Suggestions will be offered that you get a life, that you have too much time on your hands.

Personally, I’m thinking cynics have not enough time on their feet.

Heart and I don’t just notice the lovely things, the wondrous things, as we walk. We see the damage we’ve done to the desert as well as the desert’s attempts to survive. We find plastic grocery bags blown here from twenty miles away and fetched up against the shores of a stand of creosote, wrack on the sea of local commerce. (I disentangle them and fill them with dog shit.) We find broken bourbon bottles and illegally dumped mattresses. We find new tire tracks on the open desert. Some of them, the ones that end a few yards from the road, were left by people clearly just looking ineptly for a place to camp. Others, the ones that crash through the creosote and cholla and hold deep spun-tire ruts along their path, were left by off-roaders. That last is another generalization. There are some off-roaders, myself among them, who see four tires and a bit of clearance as a way to get to wonderful places where we can then get out and walk, or camp, or sit and look around, or drink in solitude and fall asleep under the wheeling stars. You almost never see these people breaking new illegal trails.

But there are others, the ones who find it fit and proper to blaze their new and aimless roads across intact deserts and decry the landowners if they object, who go out expressly to tear shit up. Incurious enough to drive over desert plants they could never name, too lazy to hike any slot canyon that might reasonably be driven, these are the people who lack the courage to face the landscape as it really is without the shelter of their metal and plastic armor. They leave gouges in the desert it will take centuries to heal — if those gouges do not metastasize by eroding into gullies, loosing eons of sequestered dust into our lungs.

Ed Abbey wrote that “sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.” He had a fair point. Sentiment devoid of the power that passion brings accomplishes little. It may be, like that quadrant of the Internet devoted to pictures of cats, of momentary value for entertainment and distraction, which few would argue we don’t need.

But sentiment without action, sentiment without passion, bolsters cynicism. It reinforces cynicism. It justifies cynicism. And cynicism is the off-road vehicle of the soul. It selects a goal and bee-lines toward it, heedless of what lives along the path. Cynicism is incurious. It obliterates nuance, breaks the branches of actual living detail as it roars past, then reaches its destination and declares there was nothing worth noting en route.

Yee haw. And yet the cynics miss the drifting of coyotes across their path, the unexplained showers of odd feathers. I could not give those up for anything.

End of summer

For seven days, chest-tightening melancholy
as the eastern sky purples.

We made it through another one,
little dog. The desert floor no longer sears our feet.

These seasons flicker by too fast,
bright and dark frames in a time-lapse film.

Last night I drove to Twentynine Palms,
scanning the road for deep rain pools.

A flood once caught me unawares.
By the time I saw it it was up to the undercarriage.

In the Mojave there are floods of water,
of air and lifted sand, of fire, of memory.

You have to be careful. Your wheels will slip
and you’ll find yourself facing the way you came.

Heart

Tonight, in dog class, a big unruly unaltered male kept getting in her face.

I don’t know what her life was like before the pound and the rescue, but I have some guesses. One of those guesses: she had to defend herself against unfriendly dogs. She is hypervigilant when other dogs are in sight, unless they are among her small circle of friends.

She has already taken this basic obedience class, and mastered everything except “heel.” I take her anyway so that she can spend time around misbehaving dogs, dogs who do not listen or respect boundaries or know how to play nice, in the hope that she will become desensitized and relax.

She shuts down when the triggers get to be too much for her. I will tell her to come with me but she will shut me out, freeze in place, pick a random spot on the floor that must be sniffed for the next 20 minutes. I have learned to ease her out of those moments, to take her muzzle in my right hand and bring her eyes around to meet mine. I whisper reassurances. I kiss her forehead. I envelop her.

Tonight that boisterous, unruly male, dealing with traumas of his own, came too close to her. A year ago she would have snapped at him. She did tonight as well, but it was a polite, pro forma snap; the merest baring of three or four teeth and a nod of her head, as far removed from an actual bite as a handshake is from an attempt to jostle loose any sleeve-hidden daggers.

That male is one of three in the class, and they have developed a triangular and resentful rivalry. There is much serious growling. There is unseemly barking. There is aerosolized testosterone and display of tooth enamel.

Tonight she grew tired of the boys.

It took her 45 minutes to reach the limits of her tolerance and shut down. When she did, it was a thing to behold. I took her muzzle in my hand, brought it around to make eye contact, and she was so rigid I lifted her front feet off the linoleum. We took some time away from the activities, off to the side, me whispering blandishments and offering bits of dried liver.

Twenty minutes later, in front of the whole class, she demonstrated for the less-tutored dogs the perfect sit-lie down.

That was lovely, but what made me happiest was something only I noticed. For the rest of the class I watched her. She lay on the floor at my feet watching the other dogs. I watched her. Every now and then, as she looked at one of the boys, her glance would harden, fix itself into a cold and calculating stare.

Each time I whispered “leave it.” And each time her shoulders would relax and she would turn her gaze elsewhere.

She will be a happy dog yet.

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Oakland

At 80th and East 14th, ragged tents line the sidewalk.
Last time I was there, they weren’t.
Comfortable men talk over coffee at the Alameda Natural Grocery:
a friend flipped a 2-bedroom for 750K.
New logos have bloomed on the high-rises.
A decade since I left, almost,
and still I imagine I could walk up Oak Street
open an unseen door, and come home
to 1993.
On the ridgeline, a path I’ve walked for decades
still grows manzanita and western leatherwood.
You can twist the latter’s branches backward
until they point in the direction they grew from.
On East 14th, a man my age looks at me.
I look back at him. We are the same,
though my exile is more comfortable by far.

Whistling in the dark

In the dark and the ancient creosote, something has pulled the dog taut at the far end of her leash.

A coyote then, affecting nonchalance. It lingers, then ventures out to the road, backlit, then stops.

It is warm, despite the dark. A smell of dust, of distant shredded brake lining.  A curious liberation.

It is a puzzle. The more the years-long bleakness lifts, the more I can admit my work is pointless. Sisyphus reaches the top. There’s a sign with a boulder and a red slashed circle over it.

Silhouetted coyote flicks a silhouetted ear.

Farther east? Perhaps. Perhaps. “Remind me of this when I complain about my life,” I said today, in momentary wonder over interesting plans.The pinacate beetle over there means more to me. It walks between the dog’s tensed paws. It pauses. it turns.

We four face each other for a long moment.

Coyote tires of our company. As she glides up the road a bright blue fireball meteor burns slowly above her head, and then is gone.

As portents go, not a bad one. Abandon all hope and the trickster has no power over you.

Orion rising

In retrospect, I must have been under for a very long time, until long after I tired of splitting my fingernails on the underside of the ice. Until I forgot what it was to have lungs that didn’t ache, forgot how it felt not to bleed warmth into the abyss.

I awoke in the desert, but that’s not news.

It’s a good indication that you might not be quite right when you find yourself taking the constellations personally. I woke yesterday far too early, took Heart out for her walk at 4:15 a.m., and as we stepped out the front door they were there: Orion, with the head of his dog Canis Major just coming up over the Wonderland of Rocks.

We walked together again, the four of us.

I have trouble remembering the first months after he died. I was numb, a dangerous and lingering anhedonia. After a few weeks I managed some semblance of recovery. I wore it like a hermit crab would, carrying it with me so I could hide behind it. I saw friends. I got a different job. I wrote things. I remember almost none of it.

It was years before the ice began to break. It took me a while of gasping on the bank before I could stand.

Look, I am broken. We all are broken. Again, not news. My whole life a bottomless pit of imagined loss, despite decades of astonishing fortune in love, in friendship.

For his last six months? I was content. It was enough. It was a frighteningly sad time, leaden with the expectation of certain grief, and yet it was a culmination, to be needed so completely. He asked for very little, but he asked for it constantly. To be held up when he tottered. To be reassured.To be carried when he could not make the last hill.

It was my sole focus, my sole purpose: walking with Zeke. I needed nothing else, wanted nothing else. He took 15 minutes sniffing and then re-sniffing the same tortured boxwood, walking a step away and then seemingly forgetting, then sniffing the boxwood again. I was content. He stared rheumily into the distance as admirers asked the same three questions over and over again, all of them ending with the same sad prediction. It was life. I awoke each hour to look in on him, to make sure he had not fallen or soiled himself. I was terrified and happy.

One night I woke to find him splayed improbably across a cushion, unmoving, and I was sure his time had come without me noticing. I felt for a heartbeat through his still-thick fur. I listened for his breathing and did not hear it. It took an endless 30 seconds for him to open his eyes, part his lips in a smile of greeting. I was eerily calm throughout. I kissed his forehead for perhaps the 50th time that day.

I’d found the third W in the Zen aphorism about what you do before enlightenment and after: Chop Wood, carry Water, go for a Walk. It was as complete and as content a time as I have ever felt.

And then he was gone, and the universe was a wilderness of mocking constellations. Orion kept his dog. Sirius was still a bright clear eye, Canis’ ears stlll folded back as he regarded his two-legged partner. The ice beneath my feet began to crack.

Zeke started his rapid decline ten years ago next week.

When a dog is broken, she does not hide it behind layers of subterfuge and curdled resentment the way a human might. Even a terrified dog is honest. Even a shattered dog will forgive those who never hurt her, in time. It took me longer. The universe built to culminate in those six months of my walking with Zeke, and then useless, an empty and discardable husk.

And Canis still chased Orion across the winter sky.

orion

Photo by Kronerda, some rights reserved.

People will tell you it gets better. It never does. You might get better at pretending it does.

A phrase from a friend to describe her late dog: “one of your internal organs walking around on its own.” Then she laughed, and said “but you know. Look what you named yours.”

One winter night before Heart got her name, we walked out into the desert as Orion was rising. It was a few weeks after the hermit crab carapace I’d toted for years finally splintered. There was nothing between me and the constellations. The dog pulled at the other end of Zeke’s old leash, and I wondered what on earth I was thinking to consider getting back in line to ride the world’s worst rollercoaster. If all went well, I’d go through one of the worst losses in my life in my early seventies. And if it took another six years to catch my wind again?

I sat down suddenly, on the berm along a dirt road a mile and a half from the house. Sirius shone remote. Zeke panted behind me, unseen. And others, too. Gilgamesh. Kudzu. Dogs I’d never met. Shalom, Stella. Chupacabra. I knew the wrenching grief they’d left behind, though they never would have wanted it. I was not strong enough to go through that again, and I began to cry helplessly at the inevitability of betraying this sweet dog by handing her back to the rescue.

“Love isn’t worth it,” I told her. “It’s just a thing we tell ourselves we feel so we don’t have to think about how bad all of this hurts.”

She sat in front of me, sniffed a little at the wetness on my beard.

“I don’t believe you,” she said.

NASA: Earth-Like Planet Found in Solar System

In what’s being called the most important discovery in the history of planetology, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced today that it has confirmed the existence of a habitable, Earth-like planet in the Solar System.

The planet, which was discovered during an exhaustive search of older data in the NASA archives, appears to have a nearly circular orbit at a distance of 92.96 million miles from the Sun, well within the system’s habitable zone, where temperatures permit the existence of liquid water – and thus life as we know it.

In fact, some seven-tenths of the planet’s surface is covered in liquid water, reports scientist Nicole Cooper-Nikos, who NASA credits with the discovery. According to Cooper-Nikos, the planet is teeming with life forms both in its oceans and on several dispersed continents.

“Our endobiologists are working to categorize the different kinds of organisms on the planet,” said Cooper-Nikos. “It will be quite an undertaking. There may be as many as nine million different species on the planet. It really is the most remarkable place we’ve found to date.”

Cooper-Nikos said that scientists have discovered life forms everywhere they’ve looked on the planet, from the upper atmosphere to the deepest ocean trenches, and even growing inside solid rock.

The planet’s proximity has scientists excited as well.  According to NASA, the newly discovered planet is close enough that a craft traveling at the speed of a standard passenger car could make the trip in a week or less.

Public reaction to the news was mixed. “I suppose it’s interesting,” said one man watching the press conference on his phone on the subway, who declined to give his name. “But it’s really not going to make any difference in my career as an investment analyst, and it won’t lower the price of Soylent, so I don’t see the practical value.”

Others were more enthusiastic. “I never thought I’d live to see this,” said Franz N. Jonathan, who live-tweeted the press conference from his 34th floor apartment in San Francisco. “I mean, for so many years people thought we were the only living things in the universe. And now… Now there’s an amazing, habitable planet that’s so close I might visit it in my lifetime.”

The_Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17

Artist’s conception

 

Creosote and Dream Time

I dreamed last night that I was working on a new project, a grass-roots environmental mapping, aerial photography, advocacy, and art endeavor.

It worked like this: we’d take a drone and abundant battery recharging capability out to a plot of desert that had been approved for use as a utility-scale solar power plant, and the drone would fly over every square foot of that soon-to-be-built project, photographing the vegetation. We’d look at the photos, then pick likely ancient plants to go “ground-truth” on foot, with video cameras and implements of measurement, and means to take and document genetic samples of the candidate plants.

We found, in my dream, any number of creosote clonal rings that rivaled the 11,700-year-old King Clone in size, and likely in age. We also found very old stands of Ephedra, rings of ironwood trees forty feet across, sixty-foot semicircles of palo verde and mesquite, circles of cholla and of barrel cactus, and we sampled every likely looking potential clonal ring so that some scientist someday might determine whether each ring was really a single individual, or just a bunch of plants that happened to grow in a certain shape.

And then, the naming. We chose names for each stunning potential ancient plant, some of them possibly as old as 15,000 years. We started with the names of the executives of the companies that would be razing these ancient plants, but we quickly ran out of names. Adding high-ranking agency officials got us a bit further toward naming all the plants, but we still needed more names, so we added the executive staff of certain foundations and program staff of certain mainstream environmental groups.

Toward the end of the dream, a volunteer scientist told us she’d found that one of the creosote rings we estimated might be older than King Clone was in fact very likely a single individual plant, and we prepared the press release. Then I woke up.

I have been chuckling over the glimpse the dream gave me into my id. I don’t believe in blaming most people for the jobs they do. Many of us feel stuck in this system like flies in amber.

I just fired up Google Maps. There are some interesting rings of plants on the site of the proposed Palen Solar Plant. It may be they’re young plants that just randomly started growing in  rings. I don’t know.

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Habitat loss

I want to go back to this little place I know, on the east side of Route 14 in Mojave, California called Reno’s Coffee Shop. I had homemade turkey soup there once two days after Thanksgiving. The waitress apologized. It would be turkey soup for days, she said. The place closed in 1992, and when I go back I will buy the space shuttle postcard I always meant to send to my brother.

In Nipomo, surrounded on all sides by close-grazed green hills, there’s a lonely taqueria I’ll revisit. A basalt molcajete on the counter holds an incendiary salsa verde. Two carnitas tacos, the gamelan hum of truck tires on Highway 101, and a wizened side-eye from the woman behind the counter as she explains again in a language you do not quite speak that the payphone has not worked in some months. I will go back, roll away the new asphalt and the Panera and the Starbucks, find the old green hills underneath the acres of shopping center parking, and three or four layers beneath the drive-through ATMs I will find her and ask for carne al pastor.

I will watch the Perseids again with Matthew, lying on our backs on the side of Grant Line Road at the farthest reach of the Bay Area’s light dome in Tracy, where the still-wild Central Valley remains just beside the glare-lit outlet malls and each meteor brings jokes about the space defense system President Reagan is pushing.

All these places. All these places. The spot below Lone Tree Point where Zeke stands, his last visit to the Bay, staring out with rheumy eyes at the far shore for which he’d soon depart. The Bay rose to cover that little beach in 2045. I want to hold his trembling hips upright, tell him how good a dog he always has been.

The Ivanpah Valley, sitting down at night among the waist-high creosote again, the eleven new square miles of solar factory hell irrelevant for now.

That place on 16th and Valencia, right on the corner, with the milanesa lunch special and banda on the jukebox. I’ll order the molé pipian.

I’ll meet her, hold her hand again under the plum trees on University Avenue in Berkeley, window-shopping in stores closed for hours and now for decades, and tell her how my life has been in the more than 30 years since she died.

I’ll hike up to the ancient junipers burned dead in the 2005 Hackberry Fire, Mojave National Preserve, and sit beneath them again in a hot noon, smell the sweet oil sun-distilled from their new leaves.

These three things happened

Thing one.

My colleague Matt and I were sitting in the shade of a black locust on a Southern California Indian reservation week before last, watching some dogs. The dogs were boisterous mutts who’d found a family to watch over them after white people had abandoned them on the Rez.

They were wary when we first arrived, but soon got over it and welcomed the new human company. We’d been there a couple hours when one, a brown brindle mix, trotted up to us all proud, wanting to show off the toy she’d found.

Matt noticed something odd a split second before I did. “Is that…” he said, just as my eyes registered the rabbit ears sticking out the right side of the dog’s mouth.

I gestured to the dog, a come-hither tone to my voice. “Good dog. Can I have it?” The dog looked at me as though I had lost my mind, a polite back-sidling side-eye, and found a shady spot beneath a shrub a few yards toward the house. There commenced a sound of crunching.

Thing two.

My ex-wife and her best friend visited me in the desert few days ago. It was the first time B. had seen where I live since a short visit in 2009 to my apartment in Los Angeles. I tidied a bit, made sure to tell my sweetheart my ex- was going to visit (“best relationship practices,” I said), and then they arrived and met the dog and we went to dinner and B. was pleased at my house and beamed at the desert plants and she said she was thrilled that I had made such an appropriate life for myself.

As the taillights of her friend’s Tesla headed toward Los Angeles, I called my sweetheart to report on the evening. She was thrilled that all had gone well. She told me of her gratitude to the universe for providing me with that little bit of validation, of something like closure, and as we hung up I felt buoyed by love in its many forms, and I went to bed.

A different, more recent ex- showed up in a dream to correct my course. We argued over things I forgot as soon as I awoke. All that remained when I awoke was the feeling of worthlessness she had inspired, and that I ended the dream by walking away from her.

That afternoon I had a shrink appointment, and I told my shrink about the dream. “I feel like my brain couldn’t give me just 24 hours of feeling uplifted by people who love me and who actually want to be part of my life, so it plunged me into an argument with someone who wants nothing to do with me,” I said.

“You should write about it,” she said.

Thing three.

A few weeks ago, as part of my ongoing attempt to revegetate my life, I brought home a Dasylirion quadrangularum from my favorite local nursery. I put it in a big terra cotta pot and placed it on my front porch.

About a week ago I looked at the plant, wondering if the neatly trimmed stubs of what were once long-strappy leaves were a new thing, or if I’d just missed seeing them at the nursery when I bought it. No worries either way, I thought. Dasylirions are tough.

For about six years I had one plant, and the person I lived with resented me having even that one. It’s a wonder that plant survived the enmity, the being relegated to dark corners and locked in car trunks in the summer in Palm Springs while I wasn’t looking. It’s now many times larger than it was a couple years ago, and it has company: several Dracaenas, orchids, ferns and Tillandsias, a Coffea arabica I rescued from the hardware store’s trash cart.

The plants help me feel like myself, again, a commodity in short supply over the last decade. But they survive well only indoors. I set a Calibanus on my table outdoors to get some air, and something ate it in about 12 hours. The desert is voracious. White sage, chiltepin peppers, potato leaves full of solanine, it doesn’t matter. The mammals around here will take any source of green they can get.

This morning I surprised a rabbit in the act of snipping the last long leaf from the Dasylirion on the porch. I sighed, sat down in the shade of the house, and watched the cottontail haul the leaf beneath my car.

There commenced a sound of crunching.

The giant ancient forest you cannot see

Imagine we found a country the size of France covered in ancient forest, where trees a century old were mere saplings just getting started, where the oldest sprouted when near-mythical monsters roamed the landscape.

Imagine visiting this country, standing in a particular spot and watching. Perhaps you’ve left the house on an errand. Perhaps you just went out to get some air. And you walk a half a block from the place you’re staying, caught up in one important thought or another, and you suddenly realize that within 60 feet of you are three trees more than a thousand years old. You turn your head and there are two more.

You start to see the open, park-like forest with new eyes, really seeing the unimaginable ancientness of it. Everywhere you look: trees 700, 1,000, 3,000 years old. You rack your brain for half-remembered scraps of human history. Charlemagne was emperor when that tree sprouted, and that one a dozen paces east was probably sending out leaves when the Magna Carta was written. Every now and then you see a tree that could have sheltered Nefertiti, had she the airfare.

And imagine that as you really see the trees for the first time, you remember hearing about a hundred different plans to cut them down. It’s not that their timber is valuable, or that people need centuries-old firewood.

It’s just that people have deemed this incredibly ancient forest worthless, and they’ve decided the land it occupies could be better used for other things. And so they plan to bulldoze it, stack the trees in debris piles to rot, and build their more important parking lots and garbage dumps.

This country, this forest: they exist. I live there. The trees rarely exceed ten feet in height. They are well known to science: Mojave yucca, diamond and buckhorn cholla, Mormon tea, but mostly, and almost everywhere you look below 5,000 feet in the Mojave, Sonoran, and Chihuahuan deserts, creosote.

creosote

A mere baby of less than a century

The oldest known creosote bush, about 40 miles from my house as the raven flies, is estimated to be 11,700 years old. It’s a ring of seemingly independent shrubs. A single creosote seed germinated, its stem grew and widened for perhaps a century, then a side shoot emerged from the ground next to the original stem. It grew. Side shoots emerged. After another century or five, the oldest stems began to die, leaving a widening hole in the clump of stems.

That 11,700-year-old creosote, which for a tiny fraction of its life has been known as King Clone, expanded outward across the Mojave landscape at an average rate of three quarters of a millimeter per year. It’s not the only creosote that has done so. When I take my dog out for her walk in the morning, I pass within stone-throwing distance of two or three dozen smaller rings, some of them ten or twelve feet across at the soil. Some have open soil in their centers. Others have not yet cleared the dead stems from their hearts.

Do the math, and use a much more conservative millimeter per year to defend against charges of hyperbole, and that’s 300 years of age for every foot in width of those rings. Creosote stands in excess of 500 years old are as common as dirt where I live. (That’s literally true: just about the only humus you’ll find in this part of the desert gathers at the base of these creosote clumps.) A ten-foot clump of creosote may have germinated about the time David threw his stone at Goliath, a 12-foot clump before people in Japan started growing rice.

I have been thinking these days about a particular large-scale plan to convert much of the California desert to renewable energy generation plants. This plan has been a decade in the making. It is controversial, but it is getting less so as the years pass. There are provisions in this plan to set aside wide swaths of the California desert for conservation, in arrangements as permanent as anything can be when it’s the U.S. government doing the arranging. There are provisions to protect certain threatened species, and to preserve habitats that are rare or ecologically important or which possess the ineffable characteristics of wilderness.

And so many environmental organizations have been persuaded to support the plan, which trades those protected areas for freedom to convert a large number of square miles of desert deemed to have no wilderness characteristics, lesser ecological significance, fewer endangered animals, fewer rare plants.

Creosote is the most common woody plant in the Mojave. No one fears its extinction. In this renewable energy plan, creosote is mentioned primarily to identify the kind of habitat it dominates. It is not a special status species; it is barely a regular status species. It is ubiquitous and environmentalists peer through its branches hoping to see something interesting on the other side.

I have seen creosote rings 1,500 years old on the footprints of proposed desert solar facilities, at the verges of dirt roads in off-road vehicle sacrifice areas. I have seen them bedecked with discarded plastic bags in vacant lots next to chain drugstores.

They make up the only ancient forest I’ve ever heard of that no one can see, though they look square at it.

I see it lately, and it tears my heart. And once seen, it cannot be unseen.

Berta Cáceres and the California Desert

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Berta Cáceres | Photo courtesy COPINH

In March of this year, Indigenous environmentalist Berta Cáceres was assassinated in Honduras. Her family is certain the assassins were sent to end Cáceres’ opposition to a twenty-megawatt hydroelectric project at Agua Zarca, on the Gualcarque River near Honduras’ border with eastern El Salvador.

The project, which is still being touted as a source of carbon-free power for more than 100,000 Honduran households, would have blocked Cáceres’ Lenca people from access to the river. The Lenca hold the Gualcarque as sacred. Cáceres’ work to stop the project, on behalf of the group National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), was lauded worldwide. Her efforts won her the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize. Her death is mourned by human rights and environmental activists around the world.

Also in March of this year, The Bureau of Land Management held a meeting with Native tribes in the California desert to discuss the proposed Crimson Solar Project, which would generate more than 20 times the power of Agua Zarca, using six million solar panels on as much as 4,000 acres of land adjacent to the Mule Mountains, which the Mojave people and others hold sacred.

The project is new, and local Native people sometimes take a while to draft opposition to specific projects. I don’t wish to put words in their mouths. But after talking to a few of them, it’s clear to me that Crimson enjoys little support among local tribes, and is opposed by many. Aside from infringing on landscapes held sacred for millennia, Crimson risks depleting valuable groundwater — solar panels in the desert do need washing, and dust control is a serious public health issue — and the Mohave in particular suspect their rights to use Colorado River water may be a casualty to increased water demand from industrial solar.

And yet few of the environmental organizations who lent early support to COPINH and to Berta Cáceres as they fought renewable energy development on the Gualcarque have not said word one to oppose Crimson Solar, or to support the project’s Native opponents.

There are two main reasons for this. One is sad, the other ugly.

The sad reason? While Agua Zarca is one of just four planned hydroelectric projects in Lenca territory, there are dozens of solar projects proposed, under construction, or completed on culturally significant lands in the California Desert. Across the interstate from the Mojave fringe-toed lizard habitat Crimson would convert to an industrial facility lies the nearly 2,000-acre Genesis Solar Project, which generates 10 times as much power as Agua Zarca would, and the construction of which was halted time after time as construction crews found cultural artifacts, habitation sites, and human remains. Being built not far to the east are the Blythe solar projects, which will generate 485 megawatts on a bit under 4,000 acres, and the adjacent McCoy solar project, now generating 250 megawatts on about 2,300 acres — though McCoy’s owners hope to double its output once they find a buyer for the additional power. To the west, the 3,800-acre Desert Sunlight solar project has been powering Californians’ video game controllers for a few years, at the cost of culturally significant landscapes and the views from Joshua Tree National Park, which surrounds the plant on three sides. Down the road from Desert Sunlight, the ever-changing Palen Solar project might convert as much as 5,000 acres if it ever gets built. The proposed 3,600-acre Blythe Mesa solar project and 4,900-acre Desert Quartzsite project, both within view of the shifting sacred sands Crimson would occupy, merely drive the point home: part of the reason you haven’t heard of the Crimson Solar Project’s harm to Native people is that Crimson is just a drop in the bucket.

And that’s only counting projects within an hour’s drive of Crimson. There are just far too many projects to track.

The ugly reason: It’s easier for American environmentalists to support Native activists living in lands far away, where their activism doesn’t risk cramping the environmentalists’ lifestyles.

And, of course, we do things differently for the most part in the United States. Cáceres’ assassination was an atrocity, as are the killings of her COPINH compañer@s both before March and since. In the U.S., we don’t bury our Native activists in unmarked graves so much any more: we bury them in paperwork and poverty and bureaucratic inertia. The Bureau of Land Management is obligated by Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 to consult with federally recognized Native tribes when considering a project, and to take steps to protect the kind of artifacts and remains found on the Genesis Solar site and to protect the location of other sensitive sites by keeping them confidential. But while those distinct and discrete artifacts and sites are important to the tribes, they aren’t the whole story.

There are few generalizations one can make about the dozens of diverse Native cultures in the California desert, but here’s one, as near as my faulty understanding can manage: The whole desert landscape is considered something like sacred. That “S” word, mind you, carries connotations of piety that are both too exaggerated and too superficial to describe the actual relationship of people and desert. The people see themselves as part of the landscape. They see the landscape as part of the people. They see landscape, people, and a metaphysical layer of ghosts and supernatural entities inextricably intertwined.

In this world view, paving the living landscape of the wild desert is something akin to homicide. Wreaking massive changes on that landscape — industrial conversion of 40 square miles just in eastern Riverside County, if all plans proceed — is a blow to both Native culture and Native lives every bit as threatening as the joint Honduran-Chinese plan to dam the Río Gualcarque.

And yet some of the same environmental organizations that lauded Cáceres’ work, and wrung their organizational hands over her murder, are supporting the wholesale conversion of California desert Native people’s sacred landscape to power plants to run coastal cities.

It’s easier to oppose colonialism when it’s someone else doing the colonizing. When you are the colonialist, it’s important to mask it in procedure, to make a show of formal consultation and grinning respect, to speak in high-minded tones of stakeholding and win-win solutions.

That illusion must be maintained. Faults in the rhetorical armor must be defended. Those of us who’ve spoken up have often found ourselves criticized by our erstwhile colleagues; ostracized, barred from supposedly public meetings and conferences, having our jobs threatened for the simple sin of saying something about the growing cultural genocide that is renewable energy development in the desert Southwest.

 

Movement

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Mojave yuccas in bloom in JTNP.

Having decided to renew my attention to this blog, I spent a little time tonight looking through some of the hundreds of posts I’ve written here in the last 13 years, each one a little time capsule from a time before my life splintered.

I got what I longed for back then, though it took a while to sink in after I got it.

There was so much about movement then, lists of miles hiked and feet of elevation gained, as befits a life lived where the summers are seldom deadly and the winters mere damp hindrances. Here, even my intrepid pit bull wilts at the thought of a walk after 9 a.m.

I have joined a gym. I put on the miles on treadmills and Adaptive Motion Trainers. About six and a third miles today, counting those spent at one end of the leash.

Surprising how good it feels to move. All these years spent sitting in chairs, and I’d forgotten. Credit the dog with my being able to still do it at all.

The other day said dog and I, and our significant other visiting from out of town, hiked into a canyon that cuts through a small mountain range north of my house. We stopped after a mile or so when the way got a little rockier than we were prepared for. It turns out we were just a hundred yards or so from a spot where the canyon clears, and widens, and starts rolling downhill on the other side of the mountain.