Coyote Crossing Writing and photography from the Mojave and Sonoran deserts by Chris Clarke Sun, 04 Oct 2015 03:20:20 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Cynicism by Chris Clarke Sun, 04 Oct 2015 03:20:20 +0000 If there is a phenomenon more dehumanizing, more destructive than hate, it is this: hopelessness.

That’s been driven home to me with a vengeance the last few days, but it’s something I’ve thought about for decades. Hatred can ebb. It can burn itself out. People can be educated out of their hatred. I have seen it happen, seen the former Klansman realize his world view had been broken, seen the fervent patriot come to realize the Enemy isn’t all that different.

But that stylish sentiment that nothing we do can ever change the world, that feeling strongly about issues is embarrassing and sincerity is not to be trusted, that world-weary and separate cynicism is, I think, far more pernicious, far less amenable to cure.

Hatred is fueled by fear, and fear has a half-life. Unless stoked, it eventually goes cold. Cynical hopelessness is self-healing. In other realms, other contexts, it would be called “learned helplessness”: the conviction that trying to improve your lot will only make you feel worse in the long run.

Cynicism is a form of depression. It is scar tissue covering that part of the soul that would dare to hope, if it had a little fresh air on it. I have spent time in the last years describing radical feminism to angry misogynists in Mojave Desert bars, and deep green environmentalism to off-road vehicle riders, and getting somewhere with each group. I cannot recall the last time I persuaded a cynic of anything: the very attempt to persuade is seen as selling something.

In his 1999 book Soul of A Citizen, Paul Rogat Loeb wrote:

Cynicism salves the pain of unrealized hope. If we convince ourselves that nothing can change, we don’t have to risk acting on our dreams. But the more we accept this, the more we deny core parts of ourselves. We deny even the possibility that our choices can matter…
Cultivated or crude, cynicism is treacherous. It converts the sense of not wanting to be lied to into bitter protection against dashed hopes: if we never begin to fight for our dreams, there’s no risk that we will fail.

Loeb quotes Lewis Hyde describing cynicism as “the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage,” and observes — in a passage that predated most social media by more than a decade but which rings ever truer with each updated Facebook feed:

[T]oo many activists almost delight in rolling around in the bad news, like dogs in rancid fish. If that’s all we do, we’ll reinforce the belief that efforts to change things are doomed. We’ll foster resignation and despair.

I hear him. My job for the last 25 years has been finding and sharing that bad news. I’ve fought that resignation, that despair, sometimes less successfully than others.

And I look back at my life over those last 25 years and find ways in which the world would be worse, at least marginally, had I not done the work.

I might as well quote Loeb again. (Really, you should read the whole thing.)

As an alternative to this impotent realism, I’d like to propose a clear-eyed idealism, which recognizes that these are bad times for many people, but refuses to accept that the bad times are inevitable.

That clear-eyed idealism is a difficult path: it requires you take a fair number of jabs to your soul right where that scar tissue might once have cushioned the blow. Walking the line between blithe and jaded isn’t easy.

But it is the best, most fulfilling way to live.

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Comments off by Chris Clarke Thu, 01 Oct 2015 17:49:37 +0000 My apologies for this, but commenting is no longer enabled on new posts on Coyote Crossing. Over the past month or so I’ve had to clear out more than 500 off-topic, occasionally personally abusive comments weighing in on a controversy having to do with a blog network I was once part of. Dealing with those comments was starting to become a serious intrusion on my time, and getting in the way of the actual work I’m doing in the real world.

So I’ve turned comments off on new posts, and will be turning them off on older ones as time permits.

This is not a move I make without regret: due to my increasingly stringent moderation here and the overall cleverness and joy among the commenters I allowed to stay, we had some good conversations at this joint over the last 12 years.

But the vandals and the people trying to drag fights here just make it no longer worth seem my time and energy. File under “why we can’t have nice things,” I guess.

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Some reasons I have been called a radical environmentalist by Chris Clarke Sun, 20 Sep 2015 05:56:37 +0000 I often express approval of landscapes that show no specific evidence of human activity.

I find your profits over the next fiscal year way less important than the existence of the species your company threatens.

I think the stories told by species’ distributional ranges are way more compelling than your favorite multivolume fantasy epic.

I have wondered aloud whether running for elective office should be a privilege granted only to those who achieve a 4 on the Biology AP.

I mistrust people who assume human comfort is sufficient excuse for hurting wildlife.

I kinda thought that proposal to preserve half the planet as wildlife habitat was a weak compromise with The Man.

I’d rather listen to silence on the playa than techno.

I think people who wear earbuds while hiking need a couple weeks in a reeducation camp.

I would support Americans going without power for two hours every day as a more reasonable approach to limiting climate change than paving another square mile of desert with solar panels. (Hospitals and nursing homes could be exempt.)

I consider all writing that mentions the non-human world solely as scenery to be part of a minor literary genre.

I am unconvinced that human beings are more important than all other species combined.



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And this is his sofa, is it? by Chris Clarke Wed, 19 Aug 2015 01:24:17 +0000 Water flat as glass. I dip the left blade of my paddle into it. It makes no sound. The right blade makes no sound. Then the left.

The sun has not yet risen. Caspian terns regard us sidelong, dive with abandon. Cormorants stand on the low tide banks. They air their wings in solemn, funereal circles. Judgments of cormorants.

We skitter along the surface, water striders in sit-on-top kayaks. Anchovies leap like tossed pebbles, and she grins, and then so do I. We pivot and veer, compass needles in search of true north. We drift on the sea’s slow breathtaking.

Pink sky, then gray, then blue and pink again. White pelicans on the far shore. An early morning siren howls from a firetruck on the road along the slough; coyotes call back to it like yard dogs.

A slow pull on the paddle, blade slicing the water silently. It leaves deep vortices in its wake, one for each edge of the blade. They spin for a very long time. I have made my intentions known to the water: more than two hundred pounds of jetsam wants to go that way. I skate forward, a fractal rosary of whirlpools for my Newtonian reciprocal.

Have I ever been quite this happy? Spirals in spirals. The whirlpools off our paddle blades and our boats’ long languid arcs. The tide swelling slow and the sun finally cresting that eastward ridge. Terns circling, diving. The dark galactic sky we watched last night, the night before. Our long, deliberate circling of a common north star.


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Let ‘Er Drift by Chris Clarke Sat, 27 Jun 2015 00:55:27 +0000 2015-06-22 11.18.57

How long has it been since my life truly began, since I saw this stretch of road for the first time? I crane my neck for a better view down the canyon. 70 per and the slabs of concrete sing. The Yuba shines in the mid-afternoon, and I almost wake her by mentioning it.

“Let ‘Er Drift,” the Caltrans sign reminds the truckers on the downgrade. Foot off the pedal. Take ‘er easy. Let the planet do the work, that inexorable pull downward and toward the west.

How long has it been since I first felt that pull? Since that first breath of sun-warmed pine, that first dazzle of glacier-slicked granite?

Thirty-three years since that Greyhound door opened in Truckee. A lifetime since. It seemed impossibly long ago when half my current age, I stood on High Sierra glaciers now melted away, hiked across the earth with friends now under it, and I smelled pine and sunlight and I marveled at the turning of the years.

No need to push that pedal. Life is a juggernaut. One cannot escape forward motion, no matter how our fingertips feel blindly for the fingertips of those behind us on the trail.

A lifetime since. And yet each time is as the first, and my chest swells at the prospect of a life once more remade, my destination somewhere unknowable and remote, and the Yuba shining as I remember to let ‘er drift.

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Louis Sahagun makes it into the Joshua Tree book by Chris Clarke Sun, 07 Jun 2015 00:20:10 +0000 … for vectoring two pieces of folklore:

“The species scientists know as Yucca brevifolia isn’t actually a tree; it’s a succulent. ”


“They were named for the biblical figure Joshua by members of a band of Mormons traveling through the Cajon Pass back to Utah in 1857. They imagined the trees as shaggy prophets, their outstretched limbs pointing the way to their promised land.”

Why are these wrong? Answers lie below the photo of the succulent trees which probably did not get their common name from migrating Mormons.

On Cima Dome. Photo copyright 2009 by me.

On Cima Dome. Photo copyright 2009 by me.

Answer number one:

“Tree” is a job description, “succulent” is a water conservation strategy. You can be both a tree and a succulent. There are plenty of trees that are succulents, from aloes and dracaenas to the ones in the Mojave Desert with a National Park named after them.

You sometimes hear this as “Often called a tree,Yucca brevifolia is actually a member of the lily family.” That’s even more wrong than Sahagun’s version: partly because “tree” is a job description and “lily family” is a pedigree — it’s like saying “often considered a dentist, Dr. Bob Goldstein is actually a German.”

What’s more, Joshua trees aren’t in the lily family any more. They were removed from the lily family (Liliaceae) some years back and placed in the Agave family (Agavaceae). Then the Agave family was demoted to a subfamily of the Asparagaceae, whose common name you can probably puzzle out. So good on Sahagun for sidestepping that version of the folklore.

Answer number two:

It’s complicated, but while Mormon settlers seem to have originated an early version of the name, it probably wasn’t on the trail so much as after settling in southwestern Utah. I go into detail in this piece at KCET.

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“Moon’s up.” by Chris Clarke Thu, 04 Jun 2015 04:13:10 +0000 “I said, Moon’s up.”

Her voice filtered into the house from out back. A familiar tone. Pretending at impatience.

“Sorry! Coming.” He closed the screen, flicked off the row of switches, briefly checked the level on the bank of batteries. Good. Enough charge there to finish his chapter tomorrow even if the sun never came up. He pushed his chair in, slipped his huaraches on, wandered out back to find her.

“Over here.” There was no way he’d have missed her, red rising moon shining off her shock of white hair, but he thanked her anyway.

“How’d it go?”
“I’ll be done tomorrow, looks like. Out the door on deadline.”
“Congratulations!” Never taking her eyes off the moon, she took his hand, squeezed.
“Thanks,” he said. “Glad to have it finished. I’ve been sitting way too much this last month.” She squeezed his hand again.

Two miles east, silhouettes of tall Jeffrey pines pierced the moon’s disk. He’d walked there with her a month earlier, as the last of the melting snows swelled the creek, and they grinned to each other at the new-spring needles. The fire hadn’t gotten all of the trees: a full three-quarters of them were showing new green. The rest would be homes for spotted owls, for black-backed woodpeckers. The forest would be healthier than before. It had been a relief.

She shivered a little in the breeze off the high country. It brought him back to the moment. “How was class?”

“Delightful!” Her eyes glinted red moonglow. “We’re definitely getting somewhere, this class. I love watching them learn how to move.”
Showing them how, you mean. Hip didn’t bother you?”
“It always bothers me. But i didn’t let that bother me.”
“I wonder if we should slow down, you know? Both of us busting our asses all day, lifting trees, hauling water, and then the side jobs. You know?”
“I’ve been thinking about that too,” she smiled. “I think we should make a 20-year retirement plan. I have some charts I drew up.”
“Twenty years, huh?” He stroked his beard. “How old will I be again?”
“You’ll be the oldest guy in town.”

That had already been true for some time. Then again, it wasn’t that big a town.

The moon was higher now, and he could see the grove of orchard trees they’d planted, green apples on an ancient drip line. How long ago had they put those apples in? 35 years ago? 38. The whole west reeling from drought, and yet they’d found a piece of land with a slow yet reliable artesian drip, just enough water coming from it that they’d stayed put when the local water company first went dry and then went under.

A gallon per minute didn’t seem like much back then, but it turned out to be plenty. It watered apples, vegetables, a small nursery full of bunchgrasses and trees. After a few years they started hauling the nursery plants out into what had once been the National Forest, though there wasn’t much forest by then and even less nation. At first they worked on nights like this, hauling one-gallon pots out by wagon, easing the plants into the pumice soil by moonlight. Then they realized no one would stop them, and they started planting in the light of day. Then people started showing up to help. Ranchers without cattle, rangers without agencies, off-roaders without gasoline. The planting spoke to them all.

She was right there in his brain with him, as usual. “Our forest,” she said.

He squeezed her hand. His turn to shiver in the night breeze.

She started. “Oh, look!” A barn owl, flying over their heads out of the Orion Nebula.

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Grassroots by Chris Clarke Tue, 19 May 2015 22:23:07 +0000

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

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

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

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

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

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Voice recognition by Chris Clarke Sat, 16 May 2015 00:26:53 +0000 I just got my first new phone in five years. It’s the bottom of the line for iPhones; it only has barely enough storage to be a phone as opposed to a fancy microcomputer.

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

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

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

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

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Social media isn’t by Chris Clarke Thu, 14 May 2015 02:51:19 +0000 Image by mkhmarketing

Image by mkhmarketing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it fooled me for a long time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I never wanted that.

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