Coyote Crossing http://coyot.es/crossing Writing and photography from the Mojave and Sonoran deserts by Chris Clarke Sat, 07 May 2016 17:54:42 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Crossing the San Gabriel River by Chris Clarke http://coyot.es/crossing/2016/04/10/crossing-the-san-gabriel-river/ http://coyot.es/crossing/2016/04/10/crossing-the-san-gabriel-river/#comments Mon, 11 Apr 2016 05:03:29 +0000 http://coyot.es/crossing/?p=4168 All this is temporary.
The slick-slant concrete walls
will fail to flood control
in three days, or three hundred years.

The mountains grow four inches in a century.
We drive atop their alluvial fans,
a layer of debris two miles thick
a hundred wide.

It had to get here somehow.

One flood or the next
and this algae-slicked seep
will jump its banks,
add all these lives to its sediment

The restaurants and rocking chairs,
tires and transmission poles
freeway slabs and fire hydrants
surface streets and swimming pools

The signs of nail salons and the signs of urgent care facilities
curbs cars and concrete,
territory contested by feral dogs
and adolescent men,
county lines and area codes

all of it entombed in silt and sand;
from buried asphaltum it came, and unto
buried asphaltum it will return,

and the ghosts of dire wolves will stalk the surface.

 

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Some folks may have the luxury by Chris Clarke http://coyot.es/crossing/2016/03/30/some-folks-may-have-the-luxury/ http://coyot.es/crossing/2016/03/30/some-folks-may-have-the-luxury/#comments Thu, 31 Mar 2016 02:34:25 +0000 http://coyot.es/crossing/?p=4164

Some folks may have the luxury to hold out for “the perfect.” But a lot of Americans are hurting right now and they can’t wait for that.

— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) March 30, 2016

Some folks may have the luxury
to remember what Kissinger did.
Some folks may have the luxury
to be too far removed
from some othered authenticity
to forget the artists rounded up into the stadium,
the young women thrown out
of helicopter doors above the ocean,
their newborns newly adopted by junta families.

Some folks may have the luxury
of the barrier of maquila shanties,
heat waves fetid off the border creeks
to block their vision of the value in the Imperfect Now.

Some folks may have the luxury
of empathy.

Some folks may have the luxury
to be consigned to extinction
by Saudi princes, Honduran generals
for declaring
that they are hurting right now.

Some folks may have the luxury
of Workfare.

Some folks may have the luxury
of historical memory.

Some folks may have the luxury
of sight.

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Planting the saguaro by Chris Clarke http://coyot.es/crossing/2016/03/27/planting-the-saguaro/ http://coyot.es/crossing/2016/03/27/planting-the-saguaro/#comments Mon, 28 Mar 2016 02:05:07 +0000 http://coyot.es/crossing/?p=4159 img_7944

I planted a saguaro cactus in the front yard today, with a little help, or at least companionship, from my dog Heart. I don’t remember how long I’ve had the cactus. It’s been at least 10 years since I bought it in a fancy cactus nursery in Berkeley, though it might’ve been 12 years.

That’s a long time to spend in a small terra-cotta pot, I’ve been thinking for the last couple weeks, especially for a plant that has the capability of growing 40 feet tall and weighing several tons.

So I planted it today, or we did, and now it can stretch its roots out into the soil 10 feet from the front door of my house. It’s far enough away from where people walk, with no overhanging eaves or overhead power lines to make it unhappy in 40 or 50 years.

I don’t own the place, so I can’t be sure I’ll see it grow for even one tenth that time. I’m not sure that really matters. All I can think of is those cramped roots now free to delve the Mojave soil.

I anthropomorphize. I shall continue. 10 years in a 10 inch terra-cotta pot seems like a Geneva Convention violation. When I bought the thing I had imagined planting it in my Bay Area yard, but it only took a moment for my better self to disabuse me of that idea. A cold winter full of rain and soggy clay soil, and that saguaro would’ve been dead nine years ago. Or maybe 11.

My yard is out of the saguaro’s native range, but they do just fine hereabouts. They’ll probably do better here in 50 years than they do now. If this little baby saguaro, 20 years old at most, makes it through the next couple of years and starts growing, and enjoys a century of life, maybe the last decade of confinement will seem worth it.

Of course, whatever story the saguaro tells in the course of its life will have nothing to do with me. It endured the confinement, and now it’s no longer confined, and my feelings about the whole thing matter not at all. The saguaro has more important things to do than reassure me that it looks back with fondness on its time in the too-small clay pot.

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Return to Ivanpah by Chris Clarke http://coyot.es/crossing/2016/02/10/return-to-ivanpah/ http://coyot.es/crossing/2016/02/10/return-to-ivanpah/#comments Thu, 11 Feb 2016 03:34:25 +0000 http://coyot.es/crossing/?p=4147 ivanpahSEGS

 

I hadn’t been back since they built it, since they denuded six square miles of old-growth desert, shredded ancient cacti and yuccas for a project with an expected functional lifespan shorter than my own remaining life expectancy.

I hadn’t been back. I’d been monitoring the plant’s construction, and then its operation, about as closely as anyone not in the employ of a government agency or energy company. But I couldn’t bring myself to go look.

The valley saved my life not long ago, less than a decade ago, reminded me in the midst of grief and dislocation that there was still beauty to be found among the head-high creosotes and the swooping nighthawks, and then I failed to return the favor. Instead, I heard from people who told me the sacrifice wasn’t all that big. The valley was worthless, they said, or at best a place it was a necessary shame to lose. And I didn’t go back. I didn’t force myself to go back.

And then, yesterday, in the pursuit of a walk and photography session in what will very likely become the Castle Mountains National Monument, I went back. I was well prepared: I took a pit bull. And some coffee, and a friend who likely feels the loss of those six square miles even more keenly than I do, whom circumstances have forced to drive past the fucking thing at frequent intervals.

After a ceremonial first glimpse of the lair of Sauron The Renewable, we went across the valley to Nipton, where I lived for much of 2008, and we ate burritos we’d imported from Barstow and the dog snoozed in the shade of a eucalyptus and we spoke to a long-time resident who hadn’t seen the place yet when I lived there. It was much as I’d left it, except that the restaurant was closed and the town was for sale and my little house looked slightly more inclined toward the ground.

And then, after I walked Heart through what had been my backyard, the three of us headed up the road toward Nevada and over the shoulder of Crescent Peak. The power plant is till intrusive as hell from that remove, and I fought the dangerous impulse to stare into it, blinding even from 15 miles distant.

I yield to no one in my regret that the thing was built, and when I sift through the ruins of the site in 2050 for shards of mirror to build solar cookers I will feel the same way, because I knew the land before the machines came.

But I can report that no matter how egregious, profit-driven and soulless the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System might be, no matter how bereft of clear vision its planners and admirers, no matter how visibly jury-rigged, insensitive and inappropriate the technology, no matter how it slashes the face of the valley like a hit man hired by the urban power companies, no matter how ugly and evil the power plant is, it turns out its power is insufficient to overwhelm the gut-punching beauty of the valley. I belong there, it turns out.

I will be back soon.

At that first glimpse, pulled on the little extension of Nipton Road at that road’s westernmost end, where the Interstate takes a deep breath and plummets headlong toward the state line, I swallowed hard and grabbed my camera, stepped out of the rented F-150. I took a few steps, raised the camera, took the shot above and a few others.

David and Heart sat in the truck, waiting for me to finish so that we could hie for Nipton and eat cold burritos. I tried to think of something sonorous and weighty to say to mark the occasion to the yuccas and the air, but no words came. Instead, I set the camera gently on the ground a few steps behind me, returned to my vantage point, unzipped, and then pissed in the power plant’s direction. It seemed appropriate.

As it happened I was pissing into the wind, which also seemed appropriate.

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Grief by Chris Clarke http://coyot.es/crossing/2016/01/19/grief/ http://coyot.es/crossing/2016/01/19/grief/#comments Wed, 20 Jan 2016 06:49:25 +0000 http://coyot.es/crossing/?p=4143 The realization came this morning. It was not the first time. I busy myself with small crisis after small crisis to stave it off most days, most years.

Today it persisted through noon,  through an afternoon of rain, through a moonlit walk under fresh-washed stars with a joyous dog.

We are losing. We have always been losing, the desert tortoises and the coho salmon and the Lane’s milk-vetch and the few humans who care to think about them. The losses come day by day, and I have taken the short view, fought for one desert valley or one small species at a time.

It is a form of triage, a way to focus one’s effectiveness, but it is also a palliative. A way of focusing on a discrete, winnable battle while the war is lost all around us.

It’s not just the one desert valley you choose to defend, its birds and herps and undocumented wildflowers written off as a sacrifice somehow more acceptable than unplugging your game console. Worlds of unknown species, unknown relationships among species, paved before the scientists get to them because we need those phone chargers ready to go while our phones are in our pockets somewhere else.

It’s not just the one valley. It’s the forested ridge above, ancient fire-scarred trees cut down to fuel biomass power plants, trees turned to pallets to ship cubic miles of consumer crap to the big box stores where the vernal pools used to be. It’s hundreds of miles of river, once wild and flooding in spring, now slack behind concrete plugs, bereft of fish and watering rich men’s investment export crops. Mountain passes once choked with eagles now industrial landscapes of whirling blades.

We have warmed the deep valleys beneath six miles of sea. We have bred monstrous storms, put plastic in every drop of ocean, thinned the glaciers and slicked the seas. The planet is heating up, and the damage done by deniers is rivaled only by the damage done by those who would remake the world because they fear climate disaster — but not enough to change the way they live.

I live too comfortably myself: I have power and running water 24 hours a day, a lifestyle that is likely unsustainable, a lifestyle that will soon be reserved for the very rich. I would haul my own water on my back if it meant I could see desert tortoises on my 75th birthday. I will not, and that birthday is less than 20 years away.

They are losing, the wild things. They are taking a hit for a team they never joined. We see the damage we’ve done by burning coal to feed our habits, and contrite, we propose to scour forest and desert to feed those habits instead.

And all the while the best and brightest concerned young progressives argue about themselves in comfortable chairs.

Last night, under a quarter moon, the dog and I stood not 50 feet from a trio of coyotes as they sang a counterpoint to the sirens on Route 62. They were mainly unconcerned by our presence, as if they knew we would not be here much longer.

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Certainty is death by Chris Clarke http://coyot.es/crossing/2016/01/15/certainty-is-death/ http://coyot.es/crossing/2016/01/15/certainty-is-death/#comments Sat, 16 Jan 2016 04:50:02 +0000 http://coyot.es/crossing/?p=4140 I told a writerly friend, a couple decades ago, that the only thing interesting enough to write about is doubt.

She asked me if I was sure.

I have been certain about so many different things over the years. Each certainty has in turn fallen away. What was frightening at first has become exhilarating.

Certainty is a shell that surrounds your world view, like a layer of plaster smeared onto a balloon and allowed to dry. It provides an illusory sense of security. It also constricts and confines. It prevents movement and expansion.

And it’s self-healing, once you apply it. The wonks say that the more certain a person is about something — a political conspiracy or a religious tenet or the surpassing danger of genetically modified food or the complete safety of genetically modified food — the more likely that person is to dismiss evidence to the contrary.

No philosophical tendency is immune to this. Which might be why I’ve been accused of being a shill for coal companies and extreme green groups by people responding to the same article.

Any bit of nuance is a threat to certainty. Certainty requires a clean, uncomplicated surface: no speckles of data that don’t quite fit, no tiny fractal eddies of facts that seem to contradict one another. I call it “poikilophobia,” the fear of complexity, from the Greek ποικίλος, meaning “diverse.” Fear of philosophical messiness, of nuance.

A friend sent me a link yesterday to a video about vulnerability. It’s good and you should watch it. And I began to think about how in the common American parlance, the word “vulnerability” has come to mean something along the lines of “feeling bad if people are mean to you.” Same goes for “sensitivity.”

But I think we miss a lot when we cast vulnerability only in that sense of requiring others to tiptoe around your important feelings. We miss out if we are not vulnerable to new information, sensitive to contrary bits of data.

Certain certainties are a necessary baseline for living in the world. I am certain that all people deserve to be treated kindly. I am certain that we as a species are not more important than all the other species in the world combined. I am certain that I wish to limit the harm I cause and I am certain that I wish to be loved. I am certain that all of us furred finned fanged fungal or foliaged multicellular organisms are kin. I am certain that if I drop my phone in the bath I will need a new one.

I am certain that I will rethink some of my certainties before long.

Breaking that shell of plaster lets the light in. How wonderful to feel the breeze on the back of your neck again, to shed a layer of outmoded certainty like a snake its old skin. What dreadful confinement to have everything figured out so tidily, to fit each mindblowing wonder into its little box and to discard those wonders too ungainly to fit.

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Salt Creek by Chris Clarke http://coyot.es/crossing/2016/01/07/salt-creek/ http://coyot.es/crossing/2016/01/07/salt-creek/#comments Fri, 08 Jan 2016 05:17:20 +0000 http://coyot.es/crossing/?p=4137 Breathe.

Strands of gray-green Ramalina lichen, torn treetop lace, fall at my feet. I crane my neck backward, scan the sky. Only the swaying spruce and Douglas fir, the crash of surf seven hundred fifty feet below, the distant peeping calls of bald eagles.

I would drape myself in western sword fern, weave for myself a beard of moss and liverwort, exhale mist and sneeze sea spray. I would curl myself into the fallen hemlock, insinuate myself into the vertical root walls of downed cedar, I would send my component amoeboid cells to ease into the landscape whole.

The impossible blue green sea, and bright eyes pop out of it. I slip on algae-slicked rock, fall hard. Instructions from the world: sit here. Orange sea star sleeps at sunset.

Woodpecker drums on mushroom-scented snag. Staircases of white bracket fungus. Logs sawn to clear the trail: the smell of my grandfather’s workbench. Peer close at the disheveling bark.

It is the lichen’s lesson, and the kelp’s: hold fast. Hold fast.

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Pleiades by Chris Clarke http://coyot.es/crossing/2015/11/08/pleiades/ http://coyot.es/crossing/2015/11/08/pleiades/#comments Mon, 09 Nov 2015 05:42:23 +0000 http://coyot.es/crossing/?p=4130 IMG_7061small

There’s a thin haze on the sky tonight, so I can only see the Pleiades through my peripheral vision.

The fall constellations are parading again. The Pleiades rise in the east, and then an hour or so later the head and horns of Taurus, and Orion after another hour, and Orion’s dog after that.

When I first started spending nights in the Mojave Desert, 20 years ago almost, I used those four constellations as a clock. Well, three if you’re a traditionalist who counts the Pleiades as part of Taurus. I would have the fire started and the first beer cracked as the Pleiades rose over the ridge of Kessler Peak on an October evening, and me and my fourth beer would cozy in my sleeping bag as Canis Major bounded up over that same ridge three hours later, as the embers of my little fire crackled and hissed.

I used to sit by those fires and feel as though I had just awakened from an improbable dream, unrealistic adventures of riding trains underwater and spending whole meetings talking about spreadsheets, and waking only at long intervals to find myself at fireside in the Mojave, watching the ice crystals grow in my water bottle.

I used to wonder what it would be like not to descend back into that sleepwalking through cities.

On Monday mornings these days I haul myself out of bed at 4:00 am, and Sirius shines directly overhead as I load the dog in the car. I drop her off at a friend’s house and drive westward toward where Orion sets behind Black Lava Butte. It has taken some doing, but I no longer sleepwalk.

 

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Would you say that syringe was made of filk? by Chris Clarke http://coyot.es/crossing/2015/10/20/would-you-say-that-syringe-was-made-of-filk/ http://coyot.es/crossing/2015/10/20/would-you-say-that-syringe-was-made-of-filk/#comments Wed, 21 Oct 2015 03:49:56 +0000 http://coyot.es/crossing/?p=4127 When you come to outer space with me
Oh, our destination’s gonna be
A planet with huge, parasitic mammals
Proboscises where their foreheads should be

They will pierce our skulls in a hurry
Blend our brains and suck out the slurry
When we’re taken out by the furry with the syringe on top
Watch that syringe and see how it glistens
We’d be safe if only we’d listened
Far beyond the aid of physicians and our eyes will pop!

Their eyes are yellow, their suction tubes brown
And stuck to our heads like a tether
With fur so soft that it looks like down
Though it’s definitely hair and not feather

We’ll just stand there shakin’ and blinkin’
On beyond the point where we’re thinkin’
Till we’re spent and it’s finished drinkin’ and it lets us drop
Oh that horrifying furry with the syringe on the top!

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Cynicism by Chris Clarke http://coyot.es/crossing/2015/10/03/cynicism-2/ http://coyot.es/crossing/2015/10/03/cynicism-2/#comments Sun, 04 Oct 2015 03:20:20 +0000 http://coyot.es/crossing/?p=4124 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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