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.
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.
The 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.
Imagine that someone you love is dying needlessly. You make one plea for help after another, but to no avail. Instead, the health care providers you consult tell you that your loved one’s completely curable illness doesn’t exist. Or that her health is a lower priority than the other things they’re working on. Or even that she needs to be allowed to die so that her illness doesn’t spread to other, more important people.
That’s what it’s like these days for environmentally concerned people who love the desert.
Subscribers can read more here. You can keep track of new stories on my Beacon page, though I’ll post pointers here as well.
My project on Beacon is funded, and I’ll be writing a story a week for the joint on issues affecting the desert from Idaho to Sinaloa and Texas to Gorman, California. (You’ll need to subscribe to read them if you haven’t already, but the subscription rate — $5 a month — is dirt cheap, and it brings you everything by 65+ other writers as well.)
But because there is more than a week left in the campaign, my colleagues at Beacon have added another hurdle for us all to jump. And frankly, it’s a pretty cool hurdle. Here’s the update text from the campaign page:
We hit our goal with more than a week to spare. Thanks for your support.
Here’s my stretch goal.
At 85 subscribers I’ll be able to produce a series on the Owens River watershed, to note the 100th anniversary of the completion of the LA Aqueduct. Each piece will be shared on BEACON, and when the series is done, we’ll produce it as a small ebook and send it to subscribers as thanks.
I’ll need about 20 more backers to make this a reality. Eight days and a few hours to reach that level: I think that’s doable. Because really, you’ll want to subscribe anyway. Might as well do it now.
Executive summary? If at least 5048 47 people chip in $5 a month by February 8, I get to dig up more important, unreported stories about the North American deserts.
Beacon’s an interesting platform. It’s a subscription-funded journalism project. Subscribers choose a Beacon writer to fund, with subscriptions starting at $5 a month (with lower monthly prices if you buy more than a few months at once). The writer gets the bulk of that money: about 3/4s, after overhead. And when you fund a writer, you can read everything else on Beacon as part of your subscription.
Right now that means that if you back me, you can also read the work of 65 reporters writing on topics ranging from environmental health to Somalian piracy. (I’ll be in good company. Great journos already onboard include science writer Arikia Millikan, envirojourno Amy Westervelt from the SF Bay Area, and my old colleague Molly McCluskey.)
In exchange for your support, I’ll write a story a week on issues affecting the North American deserts, from Idaho to Sinaloa to Texas to my backyard here in the Mojave. There are some opportunities for interactivity I’m still learning about which may be fun. And Beacon has put together some tastefully designed t-shirts for people who subscribe at the highest support levels.
So read the pitch, watch the video, subscribe if you are inclined (and thank you), and please feel free to share this with people you think may find it of interest. Thanks!