[Written for and performed as part of “Light,” a production of Thought Theatre in Pioneertown, CA that ran for three nights in December 2017.]
The sun has been down for hours, though it’s only 8:00 pm. I grab the leash; the dog races to meet me at the door. We go outside.
The moon is old. It will not rise until just before dawn. Until then, it is dark. At the foot of my driveway, away from the bit of light leaking through my windows, I can just make out the dog six feet away. I cannot see the road at all.
But we have come this way hundreds of times before, and tonight it is too cold for snakes.
I like walking in the dark anyway. Carry a flashlight, and your world contracts to the pale ellipse it illuminates; the brighter your light is, the darker all the world outside becomes. Turn off the light and wait, and within a few seconds the night world will reveal itself.
We walk into the necrotic glare of a streetlight. Swooping bats chase the insects gathered there, in that cone of unnatural yellow. And then we walk out the other side. I am blinded for a moment, but the stars come back one by one. Our sodium vapor shadows lengthen. A mile down the dark dirt road they are gone.
Ten miles west, Yucca Valley’s pallid smear obscures the horizon, a band of pale, hazy light soiling the sky and washing out the stars behind it. Out here, the Milky Way is bright and colorful above my head. The visual taint the town leaves on the western sky is an annoyance, but it is not bright enough to cast shadows. Orion hangs low to the east. Above him, the Seven Sisters – the Pleiades – shine in a tight cluster.
As I watch, the cluster winks out, almost as if someone had drawn a curtain across it. The stars are gone for half a second, and then come back just as suddenly. I spot a bit of dark motion just left of the cluster: an owl, visible only in silhouette against the Milky Way, settling in atop a power pole a hundred feet away.
I can’t see it well enough to figure what kind of owl it is, but then it speaks: “Who-who! Who. Who.” A great-horned owl then, and one with an important question.
Skies are dark here, but I once lived in a place where they were darker still. Fifty miles south of the outskirts of Las Vegas, with a mountain range between The Strip and me, I would venture out in the cool of the summer sunset, the temperature plummeting to a mere 101 Fahrenheit, and watch the shadow of Clark Mountain cut across the Ivanpah Valley like a dagger. The red in the western sky would fade to indigo, then violet, then black. To the west, a string of white diamonds draped itself along the slope down from Mountain Pass; headlights on Interstate 15, ten miles west.
And then the brightest stars in the eastern sky, Vega and Deneb and Altair, visible as the sun set, would be joined by dozens of their kin. Then hundreds. Then thousands. The sky was sable, a raven’s pelt with a hundred thousand fiery glints scattered all upon it. I would leave my house and walk away from the few feeble lights of the tiny town I was living in, and watch the sky grow darker still as my eyes relaxed into night.
Walk a few hours with only starlight to show your way, and a few things change in you.
The moon casts bright light from one direction, and the objects beneath it throw a shadow heading the other way. The moonlit world thus retains the relief of day, the shapes and contours of the land limned in patches of relative light and dark. But a sky full of stars sheds light from all directions, and thus deprives you of most shadow. All but the largest hills and holes in your path are concealed. You learn to walk more tentatively: at any time, the Earth may be a few inches away from where you expect it.
Without a single, sharp shadow to remind you of your discrete and opaque identity, you might forget to assume that you are separate from what surrounds you. You might start to feel more like a single small particle of stuff enmeshed in night, different from but no more important than the cholla, the rock, the nighthawk swooping languid parabolas above you, the insects the nighthawk is chasing, the owl posing tough questions from atop its power pole perch.
On one night in the Ivanpah Valley when that precise question vexed me, a divorce in progress and with no sense of what my future held, I walked out into the moonless night. My eyes grew accustomed to the dark. The stars shone with what seemed unusual brilliance. They illuminated the veins of each Datura leaf, the spines on each cholla, the wrinkles on the backs of my hands. I walked to the railroad tracks near my house: the starlit rails were black lines converging endlessly into blackness.
The road was miles of arrow-straight through a preposterously broad valley. To my left it passed the Nevada state line and headed for the Colorado River. In the other direction lay an ocean of black. At the shoulder, the usual narrow strip of white paint shone as bright as any set of airport landing lights. I began to run atop the stripe, heading for that ocean of oblivion. My breath came a little harder. I took the night’s desert breezes into me. I became suffused with light and dark. The desert held me up as I ran. The starlight told me where to go.
First published April 19, 2015, at BeaconReader.com.
When street artist André Saraiva got the notion to tag a parking lot boulder in Joshua Tree National Park, a few miles from where I live, he probably didn’t expect the roof to fall in on him a few short hours later. Saraiva whose work has appeared on blank walls and in galleries around the world, was in the area visiting a family member, and blithely documented his visit on Instagram. That was his mistake.
One of Saraiva’s Instagram followers took offense at his signature “Mr. A.” tag being applied to a boulder with a millennia-old patina of desert varnish. Said follower alerted Casey Schreiner of the website Modern Hiker, who posted the image. Schreiner’s readers quickly identified the boulder as one in the parking lot of the National Park’s Contact Mine trailhead, and the outrage flew.
Here’s the original image as posted to Saraiva’s Instagram feed, which he made private within hours of Schreiner’s post:
Photo by André Saraiva, reprinted here under Fair Use provisions of U.S. copyright law relating to public discussion of an artwork.
Shortly after Saraiva tagged the boulder, I visited the parking lot. Someone had gone to some trouble to cover over the surface with a layer of something like mud and plaster. Here’s my household’s leading street art critic inspecting the work:
Some weeks afterward, the boulder was flipped so that its painted side now faces the center of the earth.
In the week in which the news broke of Saraiva paying his fine, a remarkably similar act of vandalism was reported in the Nevada desert. Like Saraiva’s tag, the Nevada vandalism was an ill-considered defacement of a natural desert surface intended to boost the creators’ commercial prominence. Like Saraiva’s tag, the Nevada vandalism was reported to the world by its creators, who were apparently under the impression that they had done something admirable.
But unlike Saraiva’s tag, the vandalism in Nevada was larger than New York’s Central Park. Five and a half square kilometers of Delamar Dry Lake, near the Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada, now bears a heavy-handed attempt at viral marketing by the Hyundai Corporation. It’s a “feel-good” campaign in which a 13-year-old girl’s message to her astronaut father was carved into the lakebed in January by 11 synchronized Hyundai sedans fitted with special spiked tires that gouged the girl’s message into the desert.
In the expensively produced video on Hyundai’s campaign site, we see Stephanie’s astronaut dad — unidentified by Hyundai, but likely current International Space Station mission chief Terry Virts, who has a daughter with that name — photographing the dry lake with a long lens. And the crowd cheers.
It’s an undeniably sweet message; a young girl missing her dad, of whom she is proud, and wanting to tell him she loves him in a spectacular way. And in an ideal world, she’d have had grownups around to congratulate her on her initiative, explain to her that even a message as important as this one didn’t justify scarring two square miles of public lands in the desert of southern Nevada, and suggest a less destructive manner to get that message across.
But instead of grownups, she had the Hyundai Motor Corporation, which saw an opportunity to scrawl a bit of feel-good advertising into those public lands. And it’s paid off: glowing praise of the stunt has appeared in venues from Forbes to the Huffington Post to ABC news, with none of the coverage mentioning any environmental cost.
What environmental cost? It’s a dry lake, after all. Won’t the next big flood smooth out the playa soil, erase Steph’s ❤ as if it were on a Central Park-sized Etch-A-Sketch? Maybe. The next big summer monsoon flood to fill Delamar Dry Lake with water could come four months from now. Or four decades.
Fox News quotes BLM spokesperson Chris Hanafeld as saying the message is fading “quickly.” One hopes that’s true. More likely, though, that fading is as the result of the newly exposed soil drying out, becoming the same color as the original crust. The damage to the playa would still be there; just less visible.
Delamar Dry Lake isn’t a wilderness: it’s been an occasional airstrip since World War 2, and is the site of activities like amateur rocket launches. But so far as I can determine, it’s never been the site of a project that deliberately gouged the playa soil a couple inches down over several thousand acres with the sole intention of making some of that soil a different color for an ad campaign.
Playas such as Delamar Dry Lake aren’t lifeless. They contain unique ecosystems with unique organisms: fairy shrimp, tadpole shrimp and clam shrimp, spadefoot toads, algae, halobacteria, and unknown other odd life forms adapted to prolonged desiccation. Their soils are fragile, and once the surface crust is broken random winds can carry particulate matter far away and into people’s lungs, increasing locals’ risk of valley fever… and considering Delamar Valley’s proximity to 20th Century atmospheric nuclear weapons testing sites, perhaps maladies far worse than valley fever.
It’s worth comparing Delamar Dry Lake to another playa that periodically gets a lot of vehicle traffic. Here’s a satellite photo of that other playa in the off-season:
Google Maps screencap
Marked changes in the playa surface just leap out at you there, and that’s without special studded tires making marks: just regular car and truck tires, bicycle tires, flip flops and ill-advised bare feet.
In fact, in Black Rock City shown above, occupied by people during Burning Man and at almost no other time, the powers that be take special pains to limit their damage to the playa floor. They require that campfires be kept on metal sheets. They ban digging. They urge volunteers to pick up and pack out every last stray discarded pistachio shell.
And yet there’s seemingly permanent damage done to the playa at Black Rock City, or permanent enough that traces will likely still be visible when today’s 20-something burners are boring their grandkids with stories of how the playa used to be cool.
All that said, it’s possible that the direct ecological damage done by Hyundai to the Delamar Dry Lake was indeed minimal, at least by comparison to previously existing damage.
It’s hard to tell at this point. The federal government does have a means by which it’s supposed to gauge the impact of projects as big as Hyundai’s on public lands, and it would have been nice if the BLM had put that to work. It’s called the National Environmental Policy Act, the law that has brought us all those fancy Environmental Impact Statements. True, if BLM had opted for a full Environmental Impact Statement process to evaluate Steph’s note to her dad, that note might not have been delivered until she started college. There’s a short-cut in the process called a negative declaration, in which an agency can determine that a project doesn’t have significant potential effect on the environment. That short-cut can still sometimes take a year.
Yes, that would have interfered with Hyundai’s ability to get those playa-scraping precision drivers out on the dry lake in a timely fashion. That’s a feature, not a bug. The National Environmental Policy Act is one of those mechanisms by which the federal government, when it cares to, can be a grownup when neither private nor corporate citizens are willing to take on that responsibility, a massive “let’s think this through” written into federal law.
At any rate: assume the Hyundai project did not in fact cause significant damage to the desert environment. That doesn’t matter. André Saraiva’s spraypainted tag in Joshua Tree National Park didn’t cause significant damage to the environment either. His black spray paint damaged less than a square foot of the desert varnish ecosystem on one boulder. The old guy I met in the Park three weeks ago heading the wrong way up a dirt road, who politely pulled off to the side onto what had been untrammeled desert soil, did immeasurably more damage to the Mojave Desert ecosystem than did Saraiva.
People were furious at Saraiva. And rightly so. His tagging was an insensitive, self-absorbed act. I have appreciated Saraiva’s work in other venues, but let’s be clear: his endlessly repeated “Mr. A” character has been, since the late 1980s, as much personal brand as artistic expression. Saraiva’s tag on the rock at the Contact Mine trailhead was a billboard advertising the rest of his work, at least to that circle of artistic insiders familiar with Saraiva’s brand. His decision to leave that brand on a rock inside a national park was a decision to usurp public property for his own (admittedly somewhat intangible) personal gain.
Until that rock was flipped, there was no way members of the public could use the Contact Mine trailhead without being subjected to Saraiva’s tag. It was a high-handed, narcissistic act. Anyone at that trailhead is likely there out of a desire to experience the Mojave Desert in a somewhat untrammeled form. Saraiva decided that the wishes of those Park visitors were less important than his desire to have his artwork seen.
It was an act that a trained, professional psychologist might well describe in technical terms as a “douchebag move.” And the reaction to Saraiva’s act was almost immediate, and fairly intense.
Why then the difference in public reactions to Saraiva’s tag, which covered about five square feet of rock surface, and Hyundai’s 59.7-million-square-foot tag on Delamar Dry Lake? If anything, Saraiva’s tag was a more honest act than Hyundai’s, which cynically capitalized on a young girl’s love for her father to get people on the Internet to share a long video showing Hyundai’s products driving across the desert with a waltz soundtrack. Is it that Delamar Dry Lake isn’t part of a national park? Is it the sentiment? Is it the social esteem granted astronauts, which is generally significantly greater than that bestowed on poseur douchebags? I suspect that question could fuel weeks’ worth of late-night beery arguments.
I see more commonalities than differences between Saraiva and Hyundai. Aside from the incomprehensibly larger scale of Hyundai’s act, that is.
Saraiva’s tagging was clearly illegal, and given the apparent lack of NEPA analysis, a good lawyer could make the argument that Hyundai’s was as well.
As if to underscore the potential for copycatism, Hyundai’s campaign site offers visitors the opportunity to scrawl their own messages on the virtual floor of Delamar Dry Lake, like so:
Couldn’t help myself.
But the most central similarity of the two acts of vandalism is in the attitude each act conveys about the value of the desert’s living, non-human landscape.
For the plainest, clearest symbol of that attitude, let us once more consider the Burning Man festival.
Every last Monday in August since 1990, celebrants have gathered on the Black Rock Desert’s playa for what has been described (as for example in Wikipedia) as “an experiment in community, art, radical self-expression, and radical self-reliance.”
There is much to admire about the sentiment behind Burning Man, and much to admire about both the creativity and good cheer of many participants, and the organizers’ commitment to reducing their impact on the Playa. But at its literal core, Burning Man is a manifest symbol of the sickness in our relationship with the desert, the sickness that drove both Saraiva’s and Hyundai’s vandalism.
Every late summer, Black Rock City swells with celebrants. Since 1999, when the crowds had grown too large for random campsites to be either feasible or safe, the city springs up on a arcuate grid, concentric two-thirds circles with radial avenues intersecting the arcs.
When Black Rock City is dormant, the desert is omnipresent. A few miles to the east is Old Razorback Mountain, also called Boiling Butte, with a diverse vegetation of shrubs native to the Great Basin Desert. Westward, the taller Granite Range is even more diverse, with seeps and hot springs supporting perennial wetlands choked with bulrush. I have visited the foothills of the Granite Range, and if there is a prettier small mountain chain in the United States I do not know it.
And between the ranges, opening up to the north and stretching 100 miles from Black Rock City, is The Playa, the Black Rock Desert, so perfectly geometrically flat, in that non-Euclidean sense to which we are confined by our occupying the surface of a sphere, that the mountain ranges at the far end are obscured only by the curvature of the Earth.
Your mind will struggle to make sense of scale on the playa. It will fail. Without a frame of reference other than flat, flat soil, flat, flat sky, and mountain ranges that seem as inaccessible as Jupiter, the question of your place in the universe becomes more than an idle, philosophical rumination. The question becomes visceral. You see an object out on the playa, its details heat-shimmer obscured. Is it a house-sized boulder or a tin can? You don’t know whether you’re much bigger than it, or much smaller. Your proprioception shifts. You start to feel very small, properly insignificant, and then the sun sets and the Milky Way appears and erases any lingering sense you might have had of your importance in the grand and indifferent scheme of things.
And then late August rolls around, and Black Rock City, LLC builds itself with its back to the emptiness, a city of clustered rings with a figure at their center. The figure? Not the sun, which would seem an appropriate object of veneration and respect in the alienating desert. Not a coyote, nor a raven. Not a tree to represent those in the fringing ranges. Not an abstract figure of geometry to symbolize the abstract geometrical perfection of the surround.
The narcissistic city centers on a man, and that man is lit aflame at the city’s climax. The firelight drives that impersonal galaxy back where it can be safely ignored. It makes eyeshine in the animals outside the fence, who regard us in yet another demonstration of the exclusive esteem in which we hold ourselves.
A piece that appeared in issue number 2 of Luna Arcana, Joshua Tree’s local arts and culture print journal, published in June.
There is a new gold rush in the Mojave Desert, a new ore being mined from the landscape. The mines are everywhere, but they concentrate here in the Morongo Basin. Unlike the first Gold Rush, this “gold rush” isn’t chasing gold. The New Miners aren’t after silver or uranium or borax. Unlike their predecessors in recent decades, they’re not even after the desert’s scant water or ubiquitous solar energy.
Some of them are after enlightenment on demand, the people who come to the desert for a three-day weekend to find more meaning in their lives, then declare to themselves they have found it whether their lives change afterward or not.
Some are after a self-declared authenticity, a reputation as the kind of person that hangs out in the desert instead of, say, the beach or the mall.
Some are chasing style points. Their pick and shovel a selfie stick and a smartphone, they fan out across the desert, a good day’s haul a few artfully framed shots of themselves in front of desert plants they cannot name.
Some are after a sense of the edge, a fulfilled longing for post-apocalyptic lawlessness with a rust-colored motif, the Wild West updated to the 21st Century.
They come. They delve the Mojave. They prospect for their intangible prizes. And then they leave, thinking they have gotten something of value.
Is this assessment too harsh? The Mojave has seen far more than its share of mining, some of it catastrophically destructive of the actual desert. The New Miners generally do not slick ephemeral streams with mercury or cyanide, nor do they leave radioactive tailings piles a thousand feet tall behind them. They do sometimes leave behind tire tracks on previously undisturbed desert soils, a moment’s carelessness that will take centuries to heal. They sometimes set fires, or leave behind spray-painted tags on rocks or old houses or Joshua trees. They sometimes assemble in large groups for events that could far more easily have taken place in a stadium in Covina, save for the fact that Covina isn’t cool.
Still. Each individual New Miner is generally a fine person with lofty personal ideals, a fine sense of responsibility for her actions, and a willingness to listen and learn. Few of them actually want to damage the desert.
I certainly didn’t want to when I first came here. But I did, in a dozen small and stupid ways, born out of ignorance of what the desert actually is. In thirty years of seeking my own self-proclaimed desert authenticity, of stripmining the landscape for meaning and inspiration, I have just begun to learn a few things.
The biggest of those things I’ve learned: the desert— shockingly! — does not primarily organize itself around providing you with maximum comfort. Things that have lived here long enough have had the sense to grow thick skins, stout spines, chemical weapons and the ability to just… wait. The desert works just fine for them.
The desert is not about you.
It’s not a stylish backdrop for your music festival. It’s not your post-apocalyptic theme park. It’s not a monastery or a boot camp. (There are monasteries and boot camps here, but outsiders brought them.)
The desert is a tough, sensitive, harsh, forgiving environment. It is barren and lush, dangerous and nurturing, hard and soft.
A while ago, well out in the outback, I laid my sleeping pad down on a flat expanse of black-varnished gravel, desert pavement. I laid my sleeping bag atop the pad, crawled into the bag and laid there for a few hours, mostly sleeping. I awoke in the same position I’d fallen asleep in, my mummy bag too tight for thrashing. Packing up I found that my pad had left its mark in the black gravel, which was actually a layer just one stone thick. Beneath was a pale, invasive dust that began to billow from the scars I’d made in the gravel cap.
Black varnish develops slowly, over millennia. That gravel layer was very black. It had lain there for thousands of years, withstanding storms and howling wind and time and parching sun, and I broke it with a sleeping pad in a few hours.
We can take desert pavement as a symbol of the desert itself. The threat comes when we do not see it for what it actually is. When you see a continuously evolving, sensitive and responsive, nearly organic surface as just a pile of gravel, you will do damage.
But when you toss your preconceptions about the desert out with your empty IPA and kombucha bottles, when you start to see what the desert actually is, that right there is the beginning of hope.
It is not too late for you. Just put down the miners’ tools.
Antisocial personality disorder is generally defined as a condition in which the sufferer exhibits a repeated pattern of disregard for the rights, feelings, and well-being of others. Tell me that isn’t how most people regard the non-human world.
(Originally published June 4, 2014 on Beacon Reader)
Mono Lake is drying up again. The unprecedented drought that’s settled in over the state of California has dried out the snowmelt that usually feeds the picturesque, unearthly lake east of Yosemite.
Because the lake has no outlet other than evaporation, its water gets saltier as the lake shrinks: there’s no way of flushing out the dissolved minerals. In the best of times, when the lake is at its ideal level with the water surface at or above 6,400 feet above sea level, Mono Lake is twice as salty as the ocean. Right now the lake’s surface stands at 6,380 feet and an inch or two, and its water is closer to three times as salty. That increased salinity threatens to undo the lake’s ecology, killing off the algae and brine flies that form the base of a food chain supporting millions of migratory birds.
As the result of decades of bitter court battles against the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which diverts fresh water from the streams that feed the lake, 6,380 feet is a threshold level for the lake. With the lake above 6,380 feet, LADWP is allowed to take 16,000 acre-feet from Mono’s tributaries each year. (An acre-foot is the amount of water that would cover an acre to a depth of a foot; 16,000 acre-feet per year is enough water to fill Pasadena’s Rose Bowl to the brim every six days.)
Once the lake drops below 6380 feet, which it likely will by the end of June or July, LADWP’s exports are cut to 4,500 acre-feet per year. That’s still a significant amount of water to be removing from a lake in the desert, but it’s a steep cut nonetheless. And as a result, Los Angeles residents eager to make sure they help preserve the amazing ecosystem at Mono Lake have drastically cut down on the amount of water they use.
Wait, no, they haven’t.
Don’t get me wrong: ecologically conscious Angelenos exist by the tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands. That’s a lot of green-leaning people. But in a city of ten million, a hundred thousand people putting buckets under leaky taps to catch the water for reuse amount to a… well, you know.
It’s not just Mono Lake, of course. The whole west is going dry, with California hardest hit. Los Angeles infamously gets water from the Owens Valley. It also gets a fair amount in typical years from the Colorado River and from Northern California, via the California Aqueduct. In other words, the city of Los Angeles has straws stuck into just about every major stream and a bunch of minor ones across the southwest, all of which are exceptionally dry this year.
I visit LA about twice a month, and here’s what I see when I go:
That’s a photo from 2006, but trust me: it’s easy to find it happening this week. After a year of increasingly urgent warnings from local water districts, the state’s governor, and federal scientists that there’s not enough water to go around.
Oh, people are doing their part in other ways. You’ll see little signs in restaurants saying that the servers will only bring a glass of water to people who ask for it. That does make a difference. If all of Los Angeles’ 10 million residents refused an eight-ounce glass of water each, the water saved would add up to 1.9 acre-feet. That’s something.
If you knew someone who treated his family and friends the way Californians treat the ecosystems that give them water, you’d likely give that guy a wide berth. Taking resources from someone for your own benefit, and not changing your ways even as they languish and decline? On a personal level, that is generally considered the mark of a monster.
On the political or corporate management levels it’s standard operating procedure, and as a result the makers of the 2003 film The Corporation proposed that we regard corporations the way we’d regard individuals who acted the same way: as sociopaths. That term has been deprecated of late in favor of phrases like antisocial personality disorder, but the basics remain:
a pattern of behavior that fails to take the welfare of others into account or even deliberately disregards that welfare;
•a lack of either empathy for those affected by one’s actions or remorse for those effects;
poor impulse control and failure to properly assess the risks of the impulsive behavior.
Treating people the way we treat the planet is considered a profound personality disorder.
And rightly so. Who’d want to be on the receiving end of the kind of treatment the non-human world gets dished out to it? Even just suggesting that the non-human world might be due a bit of concern and compassion can get you ridiculed in print, as witness the New York Times’ report on a recent controversy over negligient harm done to baby heron chicks in Oakland, California. Reporter Carol Pogash couldn’t just write about the heron chicks: she had make to unsubstantiated allegations that Oaklanders who cared about the birds didn’t care about homeless people. She did this not once but twice.
The inability to take part in a discussion without shifting everyone’s focus to one’s self is diagnostic of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. What do we call Pogash’s apparent inability to allow a discussion to proceed without making it focus on her species?
It’s a bigger issue than just individuals’ feelings about conserving water or helping urban wildlife. The conservation movement, which has always been opposed by those whose short-term profits might suffer if they can’t trample the natural world to their hearts’ content, is now being challenged by people calling themselves “new environmentalists,” who proclaim that conservation’s goal should be “Take Care Of People First.”
In other words, there’s a massive campaign to rewrite the goals of conservation away from protecting wildlife and their habitat, and in favor of terraforming the planet for humans’ maximum long-term comfort.
We should call out this point of view for what it is: a widespread personality disorder in which the sufferer is unable to empathize with the 99.9 percent of species in the world that aren’t human, feels wholly justified in any actions that benefit humans no matter the cost to those other species, is unlikely to feel remorse for the deleterious consequences of human actions on other species, and thus does not adequately assess the real-world risks of those actions.
Anthropocentric personality disorder hurts the planet. It hurts people who care about the planet. And it hurts the people who have it.
But there is help. If you think you might have anthropocentric personality disorder, just go outside and start paying attention.
At 8:15 pm on May 18, 2016, the sky was darkening over Joshua Tree. I was driving across La Contenta Road heading eastbound on Route 62, doing about five under the limit.
And then I died.
At least I think it was me. I do lose track of these things.
You need to understand this: in my entire life, spanning more than half a century spent in the company of a staggeringly diverse cast of people, I have, as far as I am aware, had precisely one nickname: Coyote. Except, pronounced the correct way, the Mexican way: “Coyóte.” The name was bestowed on me by my co-workers in the Berkeley café where I worked in 1983. I asked my boss Beto why he started calling me that. “Because, Coyóte, you shut up about them never.”
“Oh,” I said. “Never,” said Beto. “I see,” I said. “Jamas Nunca,” said Beto.
I couldn’t argue. Still can’t. I am not always happy with this human skin I wear. Coyóte has long seemed a salubrious alternative.
Where I live there are always at least three or four coyotes within a quarter mile, drifting though the creosote and yucca as silent as they wish to be. On occasion they allow me a moment or two of their time. They stand a ways off, eyeing me as though I am preposterous and likely to do something dangerous and stupid at any time, and then once they have had their fill of me they look sidelong at one another and vanish as if due to some prearranged signal.
This is precisely the relationship I have with my birth family, and so it makes me feel right at home.
Though it also makes me less certain of the precise boundary between Homo sapiens and Canis latrans. I hear coyote song and I strain to make out the words. Disoriented in the desert a decade ago I found a fresh set of coyote tracks and cursed, certain that they were mine and I had been walking in circles.
You get the picture. When my species dysphoria kicks in, when the manyfold flaws of the human race begin to rankle, there is a deep part of me that longs to run out into the desert, to chase down cottontails and sleep curled up beneath the cholla. I see one of my coyote neighbors and for a moment, a part of me becomes him. Or at least it wants to. I want to fit into the land as seamlessly as they do, to drift through the creosote and yucca with them as heedless of bank accounts or Twitter handles. There is a part of me that longs to be that grizzled fur coat camouflaged against the varnished rock and alluvium, that longs to be just a pair of wild eyes surveying the Mojave, the desert grown conscious of itself.
I long to be in the landscape, not on it.
And certainly not driving across it, dog and bags of groceries shifting in the back seat, the panel truck to my left seeming to have trouble deciding which lane it wants to occupy. I decide to slow and give him room. When we get to the east side of La Contenta he’s pulled about halfway past me, his front bumper about ten feet farther east than mine.
darts out from in front of the truck, avoiding it by a hair’s breadth. He is making for the Joshua tree forest across the way. His eyes are bright with glee. And then his expression changes. He didn’t expect me there in the right hand lane.
Sometimes I think that in order to really belong to a place you have to have your heart broken there, to have your smug certainty stripped away and your sentiments shattered, brought to that state where every detail of the moment in that place is seared into you, each roadside can and broken Joshua tree branded on your soul forever.
The look of surprise and terror in those wild eyes stakes your heart to the ground.
The knowing that you cannot stop in time.
The knowing that you cannot stop time.
I will grant you the kindness Fortune denied me, and spare you most of the details. But here is the worst of them: it was… subtle. Imagine the Roman soldiers’ nails sliding through Christ’s wrists as if He was made of seafoam.
Coyote dies all the time in the stories, I know, and his friends roll their eyes and set to reviving him. Or he jumps over his body three times to bring himself back from the dead. Death is a momentary inconvenience for a demigod.
I have tried to imagine this since as a comfort. It hasn’t worked.
Because in that endlessly extended second, Coyote’s eyes riveted on me in surprise and terror, I recognized that look wholeheartedly.
My eyes were the same on him.
Our hearts broke the same in that place, just ten feet from the Joshua trees and safety.
My grandfather comes to me in pieces; The angle of a plywood sign nailed to a tree, my worn work boots on my porch in Richmond. I never call him up deliberately. This week marked 50 years since I saw him last.
If I make it through the next few months, I will be older than he was when he died.
I spend the end of the year alone these days. I don’t drink; alternatives are few in the Mojave. Thoughts chase tails. My grandfather was an oak tree; a rock face. He was incomprehensibly old, wrinkles forming on his forehead, hair completely white in a stiff brush cut, work pants and calluses. He wet his thumb to turn pages. A workshop shelf; salvaged bolts and screws sorted into applesauce jars.
Winter stars struggle to be seen; a storm off the Pacific. I have his reticence and his forehead. He would recognize the impatience, the recoiling and the longing. He would think my politics insane. He would pat his lap, invite my dog to join him in the recliner. He would know how to fix the hole through which the mice get in without dismantling the water heater in front of it. New Year’s Eve rain pelts the window. I have a low table he built me out of things he had on hand. No two of its screws match.
Today the dog, off-leash, flushed the back porch rabbit from behind the washing machine. Placidly staying at my heel, she watched the rabbit regain its composure under a creosote a few yards away. Rabbit folded his left ear down to wash it with both forepaws; dog flicked her left ear in turn.
Ten years after he died, I stood at six a.m. beneath a sodden eastern hemlock. The rides had run out in Western Pennsylvania. I watched a farmhouse through the rain, shaking to the bone. A white-haired man in green work pants pried open the hood of a pickup older than me, bent over it with a trouble light. I fought the urge to go to him, certain of disappointment at a stranger’s face. How different my life might have been had I gone to hand him tools.
Not all hearts break at the end of a fist. Not all wounds bleed. Some hearts erode a bit at a time. Skin grows calluses with each insult. These hearts grow thin. These hearts weaken a bit with each minor insult, each microaggression or microinsensitivity, each unhappy parting, each conversation postponed and postponed again. Then they crumble at the smallest-seeming jolt. A bump in the road, a promise blown off, a disappointment not otherwise worth noting, and all is lost.
Hide a heart in a futile attempt to shelter it from harm, and it grows brittle. It ossifies. The calcification grows worse with time and lack of use. Eventually all hope is lost: the heart is too shot through with bony crystal. It will never throb with longing, will never beat faster at the sight of a beloved one returning.
Some hearts, broken early, are agaves; tough skin, fierce spines. These hearts open only to reveal that the protected layers inside have spines of their own, each layer in turn bearing scars from the spines that once protected it.
A healthy heart, exposed to air and sunlight and worn without armor, is the worst of all. It will break repeatedly then rage back strong to break again, its owner fated to suffer beauty without end, a Promethean cycle for those who would grace the world with fire.
This piece was first published August 27, 2015 at Beacon Reader.
“They’re goddamn invasive plants.”
Biologist Tim Shields had an odd look as he observed a mid-sized shrub in my yard in Joshua Tree, California on an evening late in March. “They’re not native. They’re from South America. They got here somehow and then they colonized the whole desert, taking over thousands of square miles and making an ecosystem that never existed before.”
And then he laughed. He was pointing at a creosote bush, Larrea tridentata, likely the most common woody plant in the California deserts. You won’t find creosote on any list of desert invasive plants. Most plant species move their ranges, and none of the plants currently considered native to the desert have been living here forever. Their ancestors dispersed their seeds here from somewhere else. Or their ancestors grew here, but were of a different species, and their descendants evolved in response to changing conditions. But generally, a species is considered native to the North American deserts is if was here before the deserts were opened to global trade.
Call the cutoff date 1492; that’s close enough for government work. And the shrub Shields was regarding may have been in the desert almost that long. 300 or 400 years, easy.
Creosote clonal ring | Chris Clarke photo
It’s all about perspective. Shields was taking the long view, abandoning our usual human-scaled frame of reference for something a little slower. Or would that be faster? Rewind the record of life in the North American deserts back about 15,000 years, play it back again a couple hundred thousand times faster than it happened the first time, and Shields has a point. Though it’s thought there may have been creosotes growing in Central Mexico as early as 8 million years ago, the species probably didn’t show up in the present-day North American Deserts — the Chihuahuan, Sonoran, and Mojave — until maybe 13,000 years ago or so.
Play that tape, and creosotes will seem to explode across the Chihuahuan Desert, perhaps with a few false starts as unstable Ice Age climates bring especially cold winters every 500 years or so. A reproductive fluke happened as the plants moved into the Sonoran Desert, perhaps an error in a single seed’s development: Sonoran Desert plants have two pairs of each chromosome compared to the Chihuahuan plants’ single pair. That doubling of chromosome pairs is known technically as tetraploidy, “tetra” referring to the four copies of each chromosome. Botanists who’ve looked into the creosote genome suspect that the tetraploid creosotes may have been better able to survive in the greater aridity of the Sonoran Desert. Moving from the Sonoran into the Mojave, it happened again: some creosote made a mistake in the chromosome copying and collating process. Creosotes in the Mojave have three pairs of chromosomes: they are hexaploid.
So tetraploid creosotes exploded across the Sonoran Desert, and then hexaploid creosotes rampaged across the Mojave, each covering broad swathes of new territory in a seeming eyeblink — at least on our sped-up, Shieldsian timescale. It’s not hard to imagine creosotes spreading rapidly, given the right conditions. The shrubs produce prodigious amounts of fruit, white fuzz-covered capsules with five seeds that are avidly gathered by ants, birds, and other wildlife. The fruit collects in drifts in washes and alongside the raised soil mounds beneath creosote clumps. They are so numerous that a local species of wasp known as “velvet ants” find it evolutionarily advantageous to camouflage themselves as little puffs of white fuzz the size of a creosote fruit. When the desert is awash in creosote seeds, predators specializing in velvet ants would probably prefer looking for needles in haystacks.
So, lots of seeds waiting for the right conditions to germinate. Those right conditions may not come as often as they did back in the Pleistocene. Creosote seeds germinate readily, but then succumb to desert heat unless the next three to five years are unusually cool and moist. That means that many of the creosotes in a typical desert valley full of creosote likely grew in pulses, decades when conditions were right for survival of germinated seeds.
Four months later, sweating out a July day in a broad valley north of my home, I think about Shields’ assessment of creosote’s invasive potential. Toss a fluffy creosote fruit onto the desert soil, and ensure five years of cool wet summers, and you get a seedling with bright waxy green leaves. In a mere decade that seedling may have raced toward the sky, reaching a full foot in height. In just a century or so, its single trunk will grow a shoot from its base, perhaps two or three. They will grow into mature plants and shade out, crowd out their parent stem. It will die back, leaving a hole in the creosote donut. Those stems will grow their own clonal stems, which will grow their own in turn, ripples expanding outward from the seed thrown into the ocean of desert.
The ripple I’m napping in is 45 feet across, more or less. In the late 1970s biologist Frank Vasek and his colleagues at UC Riverside calculated that it had been growing here in the Johnson Valley area for a very long time.
I once heard a joke about a family visiting Chicago’s Field Museum and marveling at a fossilized hadrosaur. “That’s 80 million and 27 years old,” said a nearby custodian. “That seems unusually precise,” said the mom. “Well, they told me when I started working here that it was 80 million years old, and I’ve been here since 1988,” said the worker.
In that spirit, I think of this creosote ring, which Vasek dubbed King Clone in 1980, as 11,735 years old. Give or take.
I’m here with my hiking buddy Monica, who is a biologist, and my dog Heart, an olfactory forensics researcher. We got here with a set of somewhat vague directions, which I improved upon using technology approximately 1/2340 as old as the creosote clonal ring: I fired up my smartphone’s mapping app and we walked until the blue dot was next to the biggest ring of creosote on the map.
Now that we’re here, Heart wastes no time providing the oldest known creosote with a bit of nitrogen, then she wisely retreats into the thin sliver of shade cast by Monica, who has found a place to sit near the edge of the ring.
Heart and Monica | Chris Clarke photo
I intend more contemplation than socializing, so I move twenty feet away to the approximate center of the clonal ring. I lie on my back. I look at the pale, sunburnt sky. I imagine a slow tide of invasive creosote wreaking dilatory havoc across the landscape in a mere geologic eyeblink.
When you start paying attention to very long-lived plants, 11,700 years becomes less impressive. King Clone probably isn’t even the oldest creosote clonal ring: it’s just the one we know about. So much of the desert remains unexplored, unexamined. In the last decade botanists decided a shrub oak about an hour’s drive from here is likely around 13,000 years old. A four-hour drive in the opposite direction, there’s a clonal forest of cottonwood trees thought to have germinated from a single seed 80,000 years ago.
Ancientness lurks everywhere you look in the desert. Vasek estimated the lateral growth rate of creosote clonal rings at about .7 millimeters per year. It’s not at all hard to find creosote clonal rings five feet across. Five feet divided by .7 millimeters is about 2,177 years and seven weeks. Give or take.
I’m something like 11,645 years younger than King Clone, and yet at the rate years seem to be speeding up as they pass me I expect these days that I will catch up in no time. My age is growing steadily and well, mulched thickly with calendar pages. I have shirts not yet threadbare that are older than some of the people I work with. There are urgent tasks I have been reminding myself to finish for 15 years, unfinished conversations fresh in my mind with loved ones long dead.
This past year took about 20 minutes to elapse. It has brought remarkable changes in that short time. A year ago I was resigned to settling for consistent but somewhat manageable unhappiness. I am now happy. A year ago I dreaded the future mildly: I now look forward to it. From hopeless disappointment to occasionally elated optimism is a remarkable change, even more so given the year’s racing past. I have been a bit breathless. Time and change have come at a staggering clip, and despite those changes’ positivity I have wanted a bit of slow.
Slow is here, in abundance. It is layered over with fast, of course: the frisking dog, the flies’ inexorable wingbeats, the plunge of the sun toward the mountains to the west. My shadow grows in length, and yet it is far more permanent to me than I can ever be to King Clone. I am a passing shade to King Clone, a flicker on the far margins of his sleeping consciousness, and if I had had children their great grandchildren might well have come here in their ninth decades of life to find King Clone essentially unchanged, not remembering the afternoon when I was a fly alighting briefly on his shoulder.
“The hundreds of miles of soil that surround the lives of Valley dwellers should not be confused with land. What was once land has become dirt, overworked dirt, overirrigated dirt, injected with deadly doses of chemicals and violated by every manner of ground- and back-breaking machinery. The people that worked the dirt do not call what was once the land their enemy. They remember what land used to be and await its second coming.”
— Cherrie Moraga, Heroes and Saints
It is two hundred fifty miles between Grant Line Road in Tracy and Beale Road in Arvin. It is also two hundred fifty miles back the other way. I have made each drive perhaps a hundred times. Perhaps more. Southbound Interstate 5 flirts with the San Joaquin Valley until Coalinga, sticks to the base of the Coast Ranges as if hesitant to commit itself fully to the Valley’s preternatural flatness.
Just south of Coalinga, after the low grasslands of the Kettleman Hills, those mountains recede to the west, a bay drawn down before the tsunami of the Grapevine. The road has no choice but to plunge across the flat from Kettleman City to Wheeler Ridge, where it can climb at long last into the Tehachapis, heading toward the sky and Los Angeles .
Travelers who do not intend to stay — in whose number I usually count myself, but not always — curse the flat. The speed limit is posted as 70 but traffic generally moves at 15 or 20 miles above the limit, as if pursued by demons. Perhaps it is. In more than thirty years of traversing the Valley I have at times fallen prey to that haste, the desire to exit the Valley as soon as possible after entering it.
At length, though, the Valley itself beguiled me, local two-lanes heading eastward toward one small town or another, miles of arrow-straight pavement punctuated every so often by a block or two of shade trees and vacant storefronts. At first I was traveling through, passing along the streets of Escalon or Wasco on my way to Yosemite or Los Angeles or, increasingly, Tehachapi, the fastest route into the Mojave Desert from my former Bay Area home. Then I stopped traveling through and just started traveling.
California’s Central Valley is actually three distinct valleys, or four, depending on who’s counting. In the north, the Sacramento Valley cradles its namesake river for about 150 miles. The Sacramento River is the West Coast’s second largest in terms of volume after the Columbia, and its valley is consequently better watered than much of the rest of the state. Immediately south is the Delta, where the Sacramento and San Joaquin conjoin to flow out into San Francisco Bay. About 50 miles north to south, the Delta has some of the richest soil in California. South of the Delta the San Joaquin Valley stretches southward for about 250 miles, becoming more arid, more desert-like with each mile.
The fourth Valley is contained within the third: The Tulare Basin, occupying the southern third or so of the San Joaquin Valley, separated from the rest of the valley by a low rise around Visalia.
It was a wilderness once, and a garden. Some of each. A chain of seasonal wetlands ran up and down the spine of the 450-mile Central Valley. Sometimes those wet seasons lasted longer than others. A record wet winter in 1861-2 filled the valley with a lake 300 miles long and about 20 wide.
Like his later admirers, John Muir visited the Valley on his way somewhere else; it was an obstacle, especially to the traveler on foot, especially in the foot-slogging wet parts. But he paid it admiring attention, seeming hardly to mind the miles of wet socks between him and the foothills of his beloved Sierra Nevada, in a passage about an 1868 journey now more famous for what came after he looked upward from the Valley floor:
”Looking eastward from the summit of Pacheco Pass one shining morning, a landscape was displayed that after all my wanderings still appears as the most beautiful I have ever beheld. At my feet lay the Great Central Valley of California, level and flowery, like a lake of pure sunshine … And from the eastern boundary of this vast golden flower-bed rose the mighty Sierra, miles in height, and so gloriously colored and so radiant, it seemed not clothed with light but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city…. Then it seemed to me that the Sierra should be called, not the Nevada or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light. ” — from The Yosemite (1912)
The pre-development Central Valley wasn’t just covered by the little yellow daisies — goldfields — and California poppies that provoked Muir’s comparison of the Valley’s floor to the face of the sun. Much of the Valley’s 22,500 square miles was taken up by what ecologists call “Central Valley grassland,” a mix of prairie and savanna that was actually a mix of bunchgrasses and annual and perennial flowering herbs. Muir tarried for two weeks to do some botanizing, as he wrote 14 years later about his descent from Pacheco Pass:
“Descending the eastern slopes of the coast range, through beds of gilias and lupines, and around many a breezy hillock and bush-crowned headland, I at length waded out into the midst of the glorious field of gold.All the ground was covered, not with grass and green leaves, but with radiant corollas, about ankle-deep next to the foothills, knee-deep or more five or six miles out. Here were bahia, madia, madaria, burrielia, chrysopsis, corethrogyne, grindelia, etc., growing in close social congregations of various shades of yellow, blending finely with the purples of clarkia, orthocarpus, and oenothera, whose delicate petals were drinking the vital sunbeams without giving back any sparkling glow. Because so long a period of extreme drought succeeds the rainy season, most of the vegetation is composed of annuals, which spring up simultaneously, and bloom together at about the same height above the ground, the general surface being but slightly ruffled by the taller phacelias, penstemons, and groups of Salvia carduacea, the king of the annuals.” — The Bee-Pastures of California, 1882
Clarkia unguiculata off Panoche Road Creative Commons photo by Eric in SF: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarkia_unguiculata#/media/File:Clarkia_unguiculata.jpg
In low-lying spots where the soil became waterlogged in winter, specialized ecosystems called vernal pools held unique populations of endemic plants and animals, including fairy shrimp. Hundreds of miles of forest flanked the Valley’s rivers, the Sacramento and San Joaquin and their tributaries, with impenetrable tangles of elder and grapevine, box elder and willow and mulefat, sycamore and cottonwood. Inexpressibly fertile soil made from decayed leaf litter sprouted morels and amanitas.
On the rivers’ higher banks, close enough to be well watered but not so close as to drown their roots too often, were parklike savannas of valley oak, Quercus lobata. The largest oak species in North America, valley oaks are big. The tallest known valley oak now living is in excess of 150 feet in height; one that grew in Chico, California until 1977, when it fell over, had a trunk 29 feet in circumference eight feet above the ground.
A description of the Santa Clara Valley by 18th Century explorer George Vancouver could stand in for a description of the Central Valley’s oak savanna:
“For about twenty miles it could only be compared to a park which had originally been closely planted with the true old English oak; the underwood, that had probably attended its early growth, had the appearance of having been cleared away and left the stately lords of the forest in complete possession of the soil which was covered with luxuriant foliage.”
Valley Oak in the Stanislaus County hills above the Central Valley Creative Commons photo by Allie Caulfield https://www.flickr.com/photos/wm_archiv/6546517055/
In the low foothills ringing the valley on the east and west, valley oaks grew in even greater profusion.
And then there was the jewel of the Valley.
As mapped in 1873.
Abundant runoff from the Sierra Nevada’s snow pack ran down the range’s west side rivers, finding low spots in the Tulare Basin. In the driest years, the Tulare Basin’s uplands nearly qualified as desert, as did the adjacent Carrizo Plain: alkali flats and arid grasslands dotted with Atriplex (saltbush). But the floor of the Basin was verdant, with marshes of tule and cattail surrounding three freshwater lakes: Kern, Buena Vista, and the greatest of them all, Tulare.
Up to 750 square miles in extent in wet seasons, about two thirds that in drier years, Tulare Lake was in the 18th and 19th centuries the largest freshwater lake west of the Great Lakes. (Lake Cahuilla had previously held the title, but it dried up some time in the early 1700s.) Fed by four wild rivers draining the highest and snowiest parts of the Sierra Nevada, Tulare Lake was so productive that about 70,000 members of the Yokuts tribe lived near its shores, one of the highest densities of population anywhere in California before European settlers arrived.
I drove across the bed of Tulare Lake in early May, cursing the thick, wind-whipped dust blowing off its furrowed fields. Its feeder rivers diverted into irrigation ditches, the lake died in the early 20th Century.
Utica Avenue near Kettleman City, looking east across the northern end of Tulare Lake. Via Google Street View
California’s Central Valley has been called the world’s most intensively altered landscape. Compared to, say, Manhattan Island, that may seem a bit of hyperbole: the last time I visited Times Square, for instance, there was very little in the way of red maple bog to be seen in the vicinity. But the sheer extent of the alteration counts for something. You could fit 666 Manhattans into the Central Valley and have enough room left over for a spare Roosevelt Island. The Valley is an almost wholly reengineered landscape larger than Croatia, nearly the size of Norway, and though fragments of the original landscape remain here and there, about 99 percent of the original valley has been lost. It has been diked, drained, plowed under and paved, usually for private profit, often at public expense.
We took the rivers that fed the Valley’s riparian forests, that roared in spring flood and slackened in summer, and we cut off their heads. The Central Valley’s chinook salmon runs were once the largest in the world. Now, like the agricultural corporations using much of their water, the Valley’s chinook would go extinct without assistance from the government, their numbers boosted in hatcheries and their fry trucked around dry sections of river on their way to the ocean.
The vernal pools that once dotted the Valley have been plowed up, the riparian forests cut down, the valley oaks preserved and revered in a few old urban parks but otherwise replaced with cotton, and then tomatoes, and then alfalfa and almonds. Square mile after square mile of wild habitat for wild things was replaced by fields whose stewards smoothed them out with laser levels, the better to channel that diverted Sierra snowmelt to their row crops.
Even in the heart of the Valley, the Delta where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers conjoin and flow into San Francisco Bay, even in that wettest and least tractable part of the 450-mile vale running nearly the length of California, we could not resist tampering. Giant pumps reverse the flow of Delta rivers, pull salt water deep into the heart of the land. Irrigators have even tapped rivers outside the Valley, the Trinity and Klamath.
And now, in the face of the worst drought to hit California since we started measuring droughts, the irrigators are turning up the speed on their groundwater pumps, tapping hydrological wealth laid down millennia ago. Few experts think the San Joaquin Valley will have any groundwater left by the end of this century, unless something changes.
In 1999, I walked across a patch of Moraga’s “dirt” near the Stanislaus County town of Hills Ferry, not sure whether I was trespassing. My destination was a copse of box elder draped with wild grape a hundred yards or so across the barrens. I walked past plastic bags and motor oil bottles, unidentifiable bits of plastic spindrift and old barbed wire spools. The woods, when I reached them, were not much relief: a vegetative understory of discarded alternators and buckshot televisions, mattresses decomposed as far as they ever would, and a bit of Russian thistle interspersed between the jetsam.
At the bottom of a sharp slope, the Merced River flowed in lazy meanders to my left. To my right, it flowed into the sluggish, viscid San Joaquin. I stood at the confluence of two rivers that rose in the high Sierra Nevada, the Merced on the back slopes of Half Dome and the San Joaquin off the melting snows on the Minarets, their headwaters within a few miles of each other in the back country of Yosemite National Park, then diverging in a wide arc surrounding a huge chunk of the state, and, I thought, look where they end up. Flowing out of the sublime and into the profane, out of Ansel Adams’ photos and into Dorothea Lange’s. The rivers deserved a better confluence than this, I thought.
And then I remembered. There was no confluence. The riverbeds met here, but the rivers themselves had not met in half a century. Diversions from the Friant Dam above Fresno had “dewatered” a long stretch of the San Joaquin River on the valley floor. Just upstream from where I stood, an electric fence spanned the San Joaquin to keep chinook salmon from trying to run upstream, where they would strand themselves and die.
It was the first time I realized it, and as I would prefer to forget it I have realized it again many times since. The Central Valley is a moribund landscape.
There are fragments left. A chain of wildlife refuges and preserves runs up and down the Valley floor, a rosary of tiny protected beads strung along the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. A patch of upland here and a patch there holds hints as to what the Valley was, once. New ecologies emerge within the irrigated cities of the Highway 99 corridor.
But the pronghorn Muir called ubiquitous in the Valley have been gone for decades. Tule elk survive only because of a fluke, a weird moment of compassion in the heart of a 19th Century landowner not given overmuch to compassion. San Joaquin kit foxes skulk around the margins of the Endangered Species list. Tricolored blackbirds, the Central Valley’s passenger pigeon, now nest primarily in grain fields; one recalcitrant dairy farmer wanting to feed his chattel could do in the species.
And the Delta smelt, a little two-inch fish that once thrived in huge numbers at the shifting interface between saltwater and fresh, where water from the snows of Lassen and Shasta met water from the tidal Pacific, that defined better than any single organism the sensitive, beating heart of California… the Delta smelt probably went extinct this year. It is at least functionally extinct.
It would be a mistake to treat those who benefitted from this wholesale and rapacious conversion, this breaking of one of the globe’s richest environments to the wheel of commerce, it would be a mistake to treat them as monolithic. They are not. A rice grower in the Sacramento Valley might well be proud of her farm’s providing habitat for waterfowl and baby salmon. Delta farmers regard their colleagues farther south in the Tulare Basin with some suspicion. It was a single San Joaquin Valley dairy farmer who, in the spring of 2014, gladly held off on harvesting his triticale until the tricolored blackbirds had left his field. That decision came at no small financial cost.
But it is not the sympathetic farmers, the salmon- and blackbird-loving famers, who have ahold of the megaphone. It is not the farmers who are grateful to the natural world for the common bounty they have privatized who get the press attention. There are no signs along Interstate 5 saying “We farmers can coexist with the salmon and the valley elderberry longhorned beetle.”
Instead, the loudest voices coming out of the Valley, especially the San Joaquin Valley, are spreading resentment and lies. Here’s Fresno’s House Representative Devin Nunes on the delta smelt and its defenders:
I don’t see any of them up here saying that they’re going to tear down this [Hetch Hetchy aqueduct] system, dump this water into the Bay to protect their stupid little fish, their little delta smelt that they care about.
The political discourse in San Joaquin Valley water politics is dominated by voices like this one, in which those of us who prefer not to see one species after another go extinct to enable another few fiscal years of ag industry profits are derided as “radical environmentalists.”
On this last visit to the San Joaquin Valley, I wondered, and not for the first time, whether maybe we shouldn’t take the Wise Use, Tea Party San Joaquin pundits at their word.
What if environmentalists’ approach to the issue of the Central Valley and its dying ecosystem was as radical as the other side claims? Ignore for the moment the fact that the biggest groups in the modern environmental movement are so tamed, so addicted to access and consensus, that if you presented them with the last tree on earth they would try to save half of it. What if we weren’t so domesticated? What could we demand?
Let’s focus on the far more injured San Joaquin Valley. Agriculture as it has been practiced there for the last century cannot continue. It’s the fate of all societies based on agriculture irrigated with imported water: the aqueducts will fall. It was true for the Hohokam and the Sumerians. It will be true for the Southwestern United States. If the rains come back, the system will silt up. If they do not, the system will fail.
The handwriting has been on the wall since the 1980s, when irrigation drainage with dissolved selenium salts from the western San Joaquin Valley began poisoning wildlife in the wildlife refuges the irrigators used as sumps. It was a shot across the bow: massive irrigated agriculture in the San Joaquin would not be sustainable.
We did not heed that warning then. What if we did now?
What if we turned off the taps to large corporate farms in the Westlands and the Tulare Basin? What if we held true to the original intent of the Central Valley Project, which was to serve family farms of 160 acres or less? We can grow all the food California needs on 500,000 acres, less than 800 square miles. That could all be in the better-watered Sacramento Valley, which leaves the San Joaquin, as they say, in play.
What if we decided not to pay for more water diversions that serve only to enrich family farmers like the Resnicks of Beverly Hills?
What if we lived up to the antienvironmentalists’ worst fears, the thought that a fish and a fox might mean more to us than a split stock? What if we started taking back some of the land we gave San Joaquin’s One Percent?
We could twist the knife: we could call it a biosphere reserve. The “Barack Hussein Obama San Joaquin Valley Biosphere Reserve and Ecosystem Services Research Center,” perhaps.
First step: raze the almond groves, let the trees die and dry out, set them afire and bury the charcoal as biochar. (If that seems draconian, perhaps we could merely biochar the 320,000 acres of almond trees planted since the drought began in 2009, almost a third of the state’s total acreage. But we’re blue-skying it here, and besides, those older almonds are toast within a decade anyway.)
Concomitant with ending the San Joaquin Valley almond industry, we let some water back into the rivers. Start with opening the taps at Friant Dam to let the San Joaquin flow year-round again. Follow up with flows in the Kings, Kern, White and Tulare rivers to fill Tulare Lake and its siblings, Buena Vista and Kern lakes. That reemergent vital stopover point on the Pacific Flyway would do a lot to make up for the impending loss of the Salton Sea, and some of the people who lose their jobs tending almond trees could get jobs as fishing guides.
Once the placid shores of Alpaugh have waves lapping at them once more, we hire more of those idled ag workers — who have formidable and relevant skill sets — and put them to work planting valley oaks. We can plant them in orchard rows if the powers that be insist: the woodpeckers and owls won’t care, and in a few decades those acorns might make an edible cash crop for the trendy food people of 2075.
Under the valley oaks, our noble and heroic oak restoration crews — los robleros — can plant bunchgrasses. Nasella pulchra, purple needlegrass, can be the backbone of this reimagined Central Valley Grassland: it’s the state grass of California, after all, and it’s a fine food source for the rodents and rabbits that will feed a growing population of the once-endangered San Joaquin kit fox. But we’ll add other species to the mix as well: Muhlenbergia rigens for its prodigious soil-forming abilities, Leymus triticoides in the boggy and alkaline wetlands of the Tulare Basin, and then there are plants other than grasses, the Clarkia and Madia and Salvia of Muir’s (at that point) two-centuries-old revery.
As temperature climbs, our strategy for the Tulare Basin might shift: instead of cottonwoods and willows, we might need to plant plants from the deserts, mesquite and palo verde and big galleta grass. We can be flexible. We can think outside the box. The point is: the valley soils right now loose carbon into the atmosphere. They could be sucking it out of the atmosphere. As the soil recovers, we could be sequestering billions of tons of carbon in a landscape that once contributed nothing but export cotton, tumbleweeds and pomegranate juice to the global economy.
That sequestration could even be happening on the San Joaquin’s remaining farms. In Upstate New York, the farms from which my family springs were farmed out, worn out, down to cracked gray soil. And then in the 1980s young Amish families started buying up those farms, working them with draft animals. Those farms are rich and productive now, and the manured soil is astoundingly fertile. Hand out parcels nationalized from the holdings of Tenneco and the Resnicks to the Oaxacan and Hmong laborers who know how to work the land, and make that grant contingent on using healthy draft animals instead of fossil fuels, and Fresnos and Visalia and Bakersfield could have food supplies the envy of elitist foodies anywhere — with a negative carbon footprint.
Wild notions of reclaiming the arid wastes, of greening the deserts, are old hat. They are nothing new. But the San Joaquin Valley is a landscape we took in the opposite direction.
A block east of where I stood along this cactus-fringed road tonight, a streetlight cast a yellow inverted cone toward the dirt.
I stand well outside the light.
A few months shy of 40, before the last millennium ended, I walked a night mile through clouds of gnats backlit by a lone streetlight in Oklahoma. Obligations pulled in several directions. Checotah, on the Canadian River floodplain, was where those pulls reached equilibrium. I stood watching the streetlight aeroplankton for some hours.
At 17 it was an inverted cone of illuminated rain, six in the morning in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, no rides coming and soaked to the shivering skin. I knew no one within 250 miles.
And again in Cheyenne, five years later, sleeping in the weeds when the rides gave out. I read Bradford Angier under the Interstate’s sodium vapor aura until my eyes crossed.
So many miles, and it is all the same. All the same. Light cast down upon the earth. I stand outside it.
At each stage of his imprisonment he had known, or seemed to know, whereabouts he was in the windowless building. Possibly there were slight differences in the air pressure. The cells where the guards had beaten him were below ground level. The room where he had been interrogated by O’Brien was high up near the roof. This place was many meters underground, as deep down as it was possible to go.
It was bigger than most of the cells he had been in. But he hardly noticed his surroundings. All he noticed was that there were two small tables straight in front of him, each covered with faux gold leaf. One was only a metre or two from him, the other was further away, near the door. He was strapped upright in a chair, so tightly that he could move nothing, not even his head. A sort of pad gripped his head from behind, forcing him to look straight in front of him.
For a moment he was alone, then the door opened and O’Brien came in.
“First of all, it’s great to be with you,'” said O’Brien, “You asked me once what was in Suite 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. Just read the polls. Suite 101 is the greatest suite, it’s really, it’s a beautiful thing. And they all agree, millions of people that I represent.”
The door opened again. A guard came in, carrying something made of wire, a box or basket of some kind. He set it down on the further table. Because of the position in which O’Brien was standing. Winston could not see what the thing was.
“We are going to stop radical Islamic terrorism in Oceania,” said O’Brien, “You have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They care about their lives, don’t kid yourself. When they say they don’t care about their lives, I’ll do a whole lot more than waterboarding. It varies from individual to individual. It could be buried alive, or burned up, or drowning. Waterboarding is some quite trivial thing, not even fatal.”
He had moved a little to one side, so that Winston had a better view of the thing on the table. It was an oblong wire cage with a handle on top for carrying it by. Fixed to the front of it was something that looked like a fencing mask, with the concave side outwards. Although it was three or four meters away from him, he could see that the cage was divided lengthways into two compartments, and that there was some kind of creature in each. They were rats.
“We’re going to have the best rats, the biggest rats,” said O’Brien. ‘These rats are gonna be so great that you’ll actually get tired of how beautiful they are.”
I would drink every dram of you, were you
not secreted away beneath all these
ten thousand years’ alluvium. I would
wade into you up to my chest, my brow.
Your stony countenance doesn’t fool me.
I know what flows beneath. I know the flood
concealed so artfully, that now and then
wells up like wounded lovers’ brimming eyes.
A day will come, and soon, when the dam bursts,
your empty bed a passionate torrent,
and I will warm my fingers by the fire
I aim to kindle in your lovely wrack.
That day will come, and so today I am
content here, a pale breeze’s slight caress.