Coyote Crossing Writing and photography from the Mojave and Sonoran deserts by Chris Clarke Thu, 31 Jul 2014 04:05:49 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Fencepost hawks by Chris Clarke Wed, 30 Jul 2014 04:45:26 +0000 Interstate 5 near Lost Hills. Photo by Annette Rojas

Interstate 5 near Lost Hills. Photo by Annette Rojas

I drove twelve hundred fifty miles this weekend, a quick trip to Oakland and then back again. Our anniversary. Six years.

From 1990 through 1998 I lived with my ex-wife and Zeke in an apartment not far from downtown Oakland. It was the longest span of time I have ever spent with one address. Annette and I stayed a few blocks away this weekend. Awoken Saturday by the sound of distant trains, the smell of trees, I remembered oddly that I woke that way every single day for eight years. Wondered how I could ever have forgotten.

Back then I drove that same route, more or less, on desperate trips to forsake Oakland for the Mojave. Interstate 5 through the San Joaquin Valley was a gauntlet to be run, and I breathed deeply only after dropping down the far side of Tehachapi Pass into the gloaming desert.

After a few trips I began to find things to value before the desert. Place names: Ortigalita Creek and Crows Landing. The cats’ paws of wind in green oat stems. As years passed and the spread of almond orchards swelled, February would fill the valley with vivid pink blossoms. Along the west verge of the highway, red-tailed hawks stood watch on rough fence posts, one hawk to the mile or more.

The suburbs have filled the valley. They strain against the freeway. They will soon break past it and run rampant through the Coast Ranges.

I saw not a single red-tailed hawk this weekend in more than 1,250 miles of driving.

There have been other losses since last I drove that way. A majestic old Joshua at roadside just east of Kramer Junction has gone missing. And so, it would seem, has this:

Outside North Edwards

Outside North Edwards

There are a hundred thousand blinking red lights outside Mojave now: the wind that stole at least three of my perfectly good hats has been broken to wheel, and turbine blades reflect the scarlet aircraft warning lights.

But it is the loss of those fencepost hawks that hurts today. In their stead, a thousand signs blame liberals for the drought.

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A Sonnet For Dawkins by Chris Clarke Sat, 28 Jun 2014 20:40:40 +0000 Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s Eve?
Thou art more churlish and intemperate.
Fine words don’t camouflage a nasty peeve,
and someone here is past their sell-by date.
Sometime puffed-up a head too far refined,
and charm supplanted by a deathly prim;
and civil words that cloak a heart unkind
by chance (and nature’s winnowing) too dimmed.
So thou, eternal bummer, can go fade
just like the reverence you think we ow’st;
as those you would have led now throw you shade
for every portion of manure you throwest
so long as lungs can breathe, or eyes can see,
and you post tweets in insipidity.

(Revised from an earlier draft.)

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Despair by Chris Clarke Thu, 26 Jun 2014 02:20:20 +0000 Here is a story of a beautiful, once numerous bird going slowly extinct so that California can sell milk.
Here is a story of an agency delaying action to protect a disappearing predator.

I wake up in the morning to find bad news.

A new species of western pond turtle discovered: it’s already in serious trouble.
The Feds have refused to protect a rare lizard for decades, so activists turn in desperation to the state of California to do the job.

I find the worst of the news and take it in, bring myself to understand how bad it is, then share it with the world.

I look for good news. I do.

Here is a story about suing at significant expense to keep eagles marginally safer from wind turbines.
Here is a story about a much-heralded move to remove a handful of deadly poisons from the retail market, while others remain available.
Here is a story on common-sense measures to save water and wildlife that are too smart and sensible to be enacted.

Sometimes the only good news I can find is that someone, somewhere, has decided to stand up against the mounting horror.

I live alone now. I talk to others rarely. I see no one else for a week at a time. I awake at sunrise to read bad news that has been carefully emailed to me. Before the desert air warms I have had enough to sear my soul. I drink some coffee, bury any hopes of ever being happy, then keep reading.

This story is about why a virally popular idea to save the world won’t work.
This story is about why a virally popular idea to save the world is actually making things worse.
This story is about some good news that even its proponents say is only temporary.
This story is about our last chance to avoid catastrophic climate change being met with half-measures and compromise.

The stories linked above are a tiny fraction of everything I’ve written in the last month. I have been doing this since 1989. Technological advances allow me to compile and distribute the bad news much more quickly now.

Here’s a industrial energy project going in near a national park.
Here’s wildlife science being discarded at another industrial energy project near a national park.
Here’s a third industrial energy project threatening a rustic town’s groundwater.
Here’s an orchid being collected and trampled to the point of near-extinction.

If I stop I don’t eat. If I stop I don’t make the rent. Through disaster and dislocation, through moving everything I own into a storage locker at the beginning of May and then moving it all out again at the end of May, through the grief and isolation in my new life, I cannot stop this soul-destroying work.

This is no life. How did I find myself here?

Straining at good news: a lone condor visits Pescadero, and biologists say maybe if more come they can eat elephant seals.
Straining at good news: the tiny group of gray wolves poised to confront the guns of California’s wildlife-loathing yahoos may gain formal legal protection.
Straining at good news: A few fish spawn in a few feet of river downstream from an impassable dam.
Straining at good news: California may make it illegal to shoot as many coyotes as you can for cash prizes.

People tell me nice things. “Keep writing,” they say. They call my work important. It is intended as a kindness, and I take it as such. Lately I think the true kindness would be for someone to take this burden away. Is there a crowdfunding platform that helps people like me stop working for six months? A writers’ retreat where writers can retreat from writing?

I have known burnout before. This is different. I have worked in less than functional institutions with inadequate support insufficiently funded. It was bad. Now my world is burning to the ground.

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Clarke’s Laws of Internet Commenting by Chris Clarke Thu, 19 Jun 2014 01:04:58 +0000
  • No matter how broad or blatant a satire, more commenters than you expect will take it literally without hesitation.
  • If there is one comment on a post it will dispute something in the first sentence of the post.
  • If an Internet commenter struggles to understand a bit of writing, he or she will label that writing as “stupid.”
  • The first five commenters who attempt to rebut a post by logical argument will raise objections anticipated and thoroughly addressed in the post.
  • For comment threads longer than one screen, the inanity of a comment is directly proportional to the number of other commenters who’ve already said the same thing up-thread.

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    Opening lines by Chris Clarke Tue, 17 Jun 2014 05:17:12 +0000 I learned today that I am in need of magnesium.

    I learned today that everything hurts.

    It was the kind of day where the wind blows nonstop from the west, raising clouds of dust off the dry lake bed and stripping even the droughtiest desert plants of moisture.

    I went outside to photograph the dust storm; a curator emeritus of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History was standing across the road.

    The cat is crazy with the wind.

    88 degrees today, but with the wind it felt like 88, albeit windier.

    “Magnesium will help your restless leg syndrome,” said Rebecca, smoothing my knotted calf with a strong oiled hand.

    “You haven’t taken a deep breath in a long time, have you.”

    A typical human body contains 25 grams of magnesium, though that constitutes a dietary source of the mineral only in the direst of situations.

    There is no wind like a Mojave wind.

    “This desert will become uninhabitable, with toxic dust storms reaching as far as the coast.”

    “I will be right back,” I told the cat, lying through my teeth.

    “Grief and breathing are tightly linked; people coping with loss don’t draw deep breaths.”

    The sudden sharp pain opened my eyes.

    “I think,” I told her, “that I get angry because it’s easier than being sad.”


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    Ladderbacks by Chris Clarke Mon, 16 Jun 2014 05:34:51 +0000 Another walk tonight as the wind picked up, this one two hours before the moon. Walking in the desert in the dark with only the dim light of other people’s homes to guide me: a metaphor for something or other.

    Three miles and change, almost all with sand ground into my heels. Arrived at the front door shaking with hunger, some of it for food.

    At the house in the late afternoon after my trip down out of the Mojave to drop A. at the Los Angeles shuttle, I watched two absurdly gawky ladderbacked woodpeckers wrangle over the hummingbird feeder. They were teens with back haircuts and pointed elbows. One climbed the window frame and drummed on it for a few minutes, then drummed on the window pane to see how that worked.

    What it did was summon the cat, and each regarded the other with frankly hostile interest.

    In Palm Springs this afternoon I found myself idling in traffic in front of the vet where last I saw Thistle. All at once I couldn’t see the street in front of me, blurred with saltwater. I pulled over to let the moment pass.

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    Moonlit by Chris Clarke Thu, 12 Jun 2014 08:11:54 +0000 I hung up the phone and walked out into the night.

    Two miles? Three? Probably more. I lost count of the long desert blocks, of my breaths, of the pallid bats circling my dusty footfalls, of the creosotes and the shining eyes in the distance.

    It was perfect weather for walking, cool and a slight scented breeze. A shame, really. I was after something more scathing. Something to sandblast my bothersome self down to bone, to bake out the decades-old sadness so recently prominent. To be blasted and bleached and battered.

    Instead, I was moonlit. I was suffused with bright regret and memory.

    I battle my worst self each day now. I pared myself back a month or two ago from most online socializing, but it seems I brought the angry, insulting voices with me. Was the Internet merely a way for me to externalize the voices in my head? Now Someone Is Wrong Inside My Brain, and the effort to moderate those voices is far harder than it ever was online.

    Here was the point of all the last few decades’ sadness, the divorce and the philandering and the quitting of one job after another, the leaving of my first hometown and then the leaving of my second: all desperate attempts to stop being me. It is a litany reaching back more than 40 years. If there was any way to be someone else for the rest of my life, I would have run up to that big red button tonight and slammed it hard enough to break my fist.

    Instead, I was moonlit.

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    Math problem by Chris Clarke Wed, 11 Jun 2014 23:29:57 +0000 ladderback

    The feeder is eight inches from perch to the fulcrum from which it hangs. It weighs approximately four ounces empty, and has just filled with a pint of food, consisting of one pint of water plus a half cup of table sugar. There was no wind when the photo was taken.

    Given that information, estimate the weight of this ladderbacked woodpecker.

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    Now there’s something you don’t see every day, Edgar by Chris Clarke Wed, 11 Jun 2014 17:54:12 +0000 Spied from my desk chair: the local coyote scurrying across the back yard, the local roadrunner in hot pursuit.

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    In which I finally take notice of Peter Kareiva by Chris Clarke Thu, 05 Jun 2014 00:24:53 +0000 I usually don’t bother with people like Peter Kareiva. His kind would be a dime a dozen, were it not for the fact that he operates in a part of society where dimes are probably considered litter. “Chief Scientist” for the Nature Conservancy, Kareiva has gotten himself some notoriety in recent months for signing on with a growing reactionary criticism of the conservation movement which says, to summarize, that conservation needs to stop thinking so much about non-human species, especially those that don’t offer direct benefit to us all-important humans.

    I said what I think of that point of view on Beacon a bit earlier today.

    But it’s a point of view that’s wildly popular with a certain sector of society, to wit: the corporate donors that ensured Kareiva’s employer reported $5,406,671,996 in net assets to the IRS in 2013. If one dominant species is properly the be-all and end-all of conservation, then that species’ short-term economic activity becomes more important weighted against the mere survival of lesser species.

    We dominate the planet now, Kareiva has argued, and we might as well adopt that as our overarching goal. There are about six or seven logical steps missing in the road from that hard to dispute premise to Kareiva’s conclusion. That hasn’t kept him from becoming a darling of the present-day anti-environmental movement. For instance, he’s found supportive fellow travelers in the Breakthrough Institute (BTI). BTI was founded by the bantamweight environmental pundits Michael Schellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, who turned humiliation at being laughed out of the grassroots habitat protection movement in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1990s into success, when philanthropic foundations bought the same line of argument that had caused the redwood defenders mirth.

    Again, I don’t usually spend much time paying attention to their ilk. If I spent time pulling apart everything a well-funded antienvironmentalist said in public that happened to be wrong, I’d never have time to write about those unimportant non-human species. Especially if I started with Kareiva and BTI.

    Buut in the course of pulling a few things together for my Beacon piece, I found a video by Kareiva on BTI’s site that I just couldn’t ignore. Those of you who know me will understand why almost immediately. Here’s the video. I’ve set it to start at the thing that set me off, 2:45 in. You could watch the whole thing, but why?

    Here’s the transcript of that section:

    You know, there’s this notion out there, and a lot of us have read these books, read these philosophies, of this pristine wilderness that exists out there in which we can venture — it’s almost always a solitary man — a solitary man can venture and rediscover himself and find himself and be inspired, and somehow learn something more about the universe and themselves [sic].

    Henry David Thoreau was a classic take on that.

    In the 1960s, when I grew up, I read Edward Abbey. Edward Abbey wrote a book called Desert Solitaire. A fascinating book. I loved it.

    I recently discovered his personal journals.

    In Desert Solitaire Edward Abbey has a couple lines in there in one of the opening chapters about sitting out there in Utah and being by himself and looking up at the stars and writing poetically about “Oh, I’m alone, there’s nobody else around, it is beautiful. I feel nothing but exhilaration and happiness.”

    At the same time in his personal diary he wrote “Oh my god, I’m so lonely, why did my wife Rita have to go back to New Jersey?”

    It’s a lie! It’s a total lie.

    There’s a lot to pick apart here. There’s the odd insistence that expository and lyrical nature writing is the domain of the solitary man. True of John Muir, perhaps, but not of Thoreau, of whom I can only recommend that you read Rebecca Solnit’s deft unraveling of his complicated relationship with solo contemplation. What of Mary Austin, Terry Tempest-Williams, Ann Zwinger or Ellen Meloy? What of those men whose wilderness sojourns were as often as not in the company of others? For fuck’s sake, the genre in the American West essentially began with Frémont, with Powell, with Lewis and Clark, none of whom got any solitude on their journeys. Clarence King with his assistants, John Steinbeck on the boat with Ed Ricketts, any number of desert writers of the 19th and 20th centuries: convivial exploration of the wild world.

    Kareiva isn’t the first observer to ding Abbey for misrepresentations of the degree of his solitude at Arches in Desert Solitaire. After the above transcript leaves off, he does mention Rita and their son moving into the trailer with him for the second season, which never gets mentioned in the book. That criticism is fair game.

    But his characterization of Abbey’s opening chapter is orthogonal to how the chapter actually reads. It begins:

    This is the most beautiful place on earth.

    There are many such places. every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary. A houseboat in Kashmir, a view down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, a gray gothic farmhouse two stories high at the end of a red dog road in the Allegheny Mountains, a cabin on the shore of a blue lake in spruce and fir country, a greasy alley near the Hoboken waterfront, or even, possibly, for those of a less demanding sensibility, the world to be seen from a comfortable apartment high in the tender, velvety smog of Manhattan, Chicago, Paris, Tokyo, Rio or Rome — there’s no limit to the human capacity for the homing sentiment. Theologians, sky pilots, astronauts have even felt the appeal of home calling to them from up above, in the cold black outback of interstellar space.

    For myself I’ll take Moab, Utah…

    Hardly a paean to the illuminating properties of pristine wilderness.  Later in the chapter, mainly taken up with a description of the surroundings on his arrival, Abbey does wish that his time at Arches will provide redemption of a sort. But it’s a hard-headed and rational redemption he seeks:

    I dream of a hard and brutal mysticism in which the naked self merges with the nonhuman world and yet somehow survives still intact, individual, separate. Paradox and bedrock.

    And then, in Chapter Two, Abbey is engaged in tasks with his coworkers. Worlds apart from Kareiva’s goopy misrepresentation.

    As for those journals, I just happen to have them here. Here’s the sum total of what Abbey says in his Arches first season journal about his wife: On August 26, 1956, at the end of a purple-prosed passage describing summer storms, we have Ed saying:

    It’s the evenings that are kinda bad; mostly around supper time; I sit down to my steak and beans with only a can of beer for company. Ah then, then I miss her, miss my friends, miss all the crazy irresponsible delights of my old society. But most of all then I miss her, the one true love-passion of my life on earth.

    I mean — Rita.

    On September 15 Abbey quotes from a letter from Rita in which she decrees that their marriage at an end, and he writes:

    Terrible words; they make living rather difficult. Therefore, I must go back to her at once, even though she writes that there is nothing for me to come home to except “a glimpse of what could have been.” I must go back; three or four days, and then I leave this place. Probably forever. A lovely place, but tourists have come to depress me terribly. I can’t bear to look a tourist in the face anymore.

    That’s what Kareiva is talking about when he says Abbey’s longing for a hardheaded communion with the beauty of the slickrock country while pining for his wife as their marriage crumbled is “a total lie.” As if a person’s heart can’t be broken in two directions at once.

    Kareiva recorded this video in 2011, but I just saw it today — like I said, I generally have more significant targets for my time and attention — and I was primed to respond badly to what he said about Abbey and Desert Solitaire. In the interests of full disclosure, I share here my immediate reaction on Twitter:

    I would like to take this opportunity to say that I regret that intemperate response. But I can’t without telling a total lie.

    I have spent much of the last month grieving a change in my life I did not ask for or want, longing for the company of the one I love and being deeply sad. I have also seen simple, quiet things in the desert, those I meet out walking or those who come peer at me through my window as I work, that fill me with joy. And I write in some detail about those things. I exclude the sadness, mostly, because everyone whose business it is already knows about it.

    So I write about verdins. One came to eat mandarins off the shelves outside my window today:


    Is it really that hard to understand that I could grieve my lover’s absence and rejoice in this little subtly colored spark at my window? That both of those pangs could coexist in my heart?

    If I don’t offer up my private pain for public delectation, is that verdin a “total lie”?

    Kareiva’s main argument is that conservation is doomed unless it reorients itself to focus first on the welfare of human beings.

    I don’t think he’s qualified to make that determination until he learns what it’s like to be a human being.

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