Tag Archives: Books

Could green kill the desert?

Biologist Bruce M. Pavlik, author of The California Deserts: An Ecological Rediscovery, which I’m working my way through this week, has a great piece in the Los Angeles Times on Big Solar vs. the deserts.

The costs of industrializing the biologically rich California deserts will be measured in terms of species extinction, ecosystem degradation and the perpetuation of human self-deception.

We know better than to rush. A cautious, informed and integrated approach will secure sustainable, clean energy without sacrificing the future of these precious lands.

Read the rest.

Best field guide ever

I don’t do paid reviews of books nor other products, and I think bloggers who do are unethical — whether they disclose that the review is paid or not. I say this because I’m about to rant about how amazingly cool iBird Explorer Plus is, to the point where people might start to wonder. In fact, I didn’t even get a review copy: I paid full retail.

I used to fantasize about having a field guide that took advantage of high tech data storage and retrieval wizardry. Imagine: a hand-held, interactive and searchable database field guide, with range maps, identifying information, sound, and sharp images both drawn and photographed. (When I used to daydream about such a thing it generally weighed five pounds and was about the size of a standard box of Kleenex.)

I have that field guide now.

iBird Explorer browse screeniBird Explorer Plus, an application for the Apple iPhone, is a database of 891 North American bird species. (There’s a Windows Mobile version, Winged Explorer, which I haven’t seen, and a handful of smaller regional versions for the iPhone.)  You fire up the application and — after a splash screen displayed while the app loads — you find yourself at the browse window. You can select any of the 891 species, scrolling through the long alphabetical list, or you can hit the “search” button at the bottom and bring up the interactive key.

iBird Explorer key screen If you know that the bird in question is a swallow, say, or a wren, and you’re just not sure which one, you can enter some of the word in that text field at the top to narrow down your choices. You can then select known information from the fields below, which include location by state, general shape of the bird (is it hawk-shaped or duck-shaped or wren-shaped, and so forth), size, habitat (coast, desert, etc.), whether or not the bird frequents feeders, patterns and coloration of the suspect’s plumage, bill shape and size, and family. With each selection, the app narrows down the list of possibilities. Given the size of the database and the number of entries, the app processes your selections relatively quickly.

iBird Explorer individual species treatment The individual species accounts are well-designed if, for obvious reasons of data conservation, a bit cursory. Each individual page has links to succinct and well-organized species information, a more extensive treatment of the species on the web, range maps, a photo to complement the drawing, a list of similar species and — coolest of all for people like me who tend to bird by ear — recordings of each bird’s voice. These recordings are clear enough, and loud enough, that you could use them to attract birds of the appropriate species — and the software provides a reminder about the ethical implications of doing just that. The sound page also features a list of similar-sounding birds, if appropriate, and you can hear each similar recording without leaving the page.

iBird Explorer range map screen The guide has been compiled by the committed birders at whatbird.com, and they show their experience in the birding community by assuming they’re going to get flak for inaccuracies, die-hard ornithophiles picking nits of varying size over rangemaps and descriptions, descriptions of behavior, and the like. They’ve already heard from birders that the app doesn’t provide enough detail on seasonal variations in plumage, for instance. This is where the concept of the app really shines: the purchase price includes a lifetime subscription to updates, and the developers promise to incorporate users’ criticisms to make the app more and more useful with each iteration. Personally, I’d like to see the developers make use of the iPhone’s GPS functionality and calendar, so that one could rule out goshawks and cardinals when one’s phone happens to be in the Mojave and Scott’s orioles if it’s winter in the Mojave. Even better, the app could use those functions and flag species as “uncommon,” “occasional vagrant,” and “hurry up and call the Audubon Society hotline.”

This app is brilliant, and it’ll get better. It’s a clever use of the iPhone’s technology that will actually increase people’s knowledge of, and appreciation for, the planet they’re on. How often does that happen? I suspect that there will be people who’ll buy the iPhone (or iPod touch) solely to use this app, and I have trouble saying that’s a completely bad idea.

Available through the iTunes store, the full version of iBird Explorer costs $19.99.

I wish they’d stop printing books I want to read

Cover of book

…especially given that I have no income.

This one sounds good:

Every scientific study confirms that global warming will cause the amount of water in the Colorado River to decline, yet because we already use every drop, there is none to spare. To fill reservoirs takes surplus water and there is no surplus. Within a couple of decades, the Colorado River system will have too little water to maintain two large reservoirs even half full, requiring us to sacrifice Lake Powell in favor of Lake Mead. But don’t expect to hear it from the US Bureau of Reclamation: it continues to deny the significance of global warming, promising that there will always be plenty of water in the Colorado River and its reservoirs, the moral and scientific equivalent of the promises of the Corps of Engineers that the levees would protect New Orleans. Why do we have federal water agencies that we cannot trust?

James Lawrence Powell, on his book Dead Pool: Lake Powell, Global Warming, and the Future of Water in the West

Reviewing Dead Pool, The Salt Lake Tribune made the following observations:

For eight years under George W. Bush, the Bureau of Reclamation has refused to acknowledge the effects that global warming is having and will yet have on the Colorado, in spite of record temperatures and the recent 500-year drought that nearly brought Lake Powell to its knees. Instead, the bureau continues to use only data from the last century, the first half of which was one of the wettest periods in the known history of the Colorado. According to Bush’s BOR, in 2050 Lake Powell, which reflects the health of the river as a whole, will stand at 3,660 feet, just 40 feet below full pool.

Studies done by climate scientists suggest an entirely different future. Recent tree-ring studies have shown that the true multicentury average flow of the river is well below that used by the BOR. They also show periods when river flow, even without the effects of global warming, was lower than that experienced in our 500-year drought.

When one adds to this natural variability and drought-prone history even a conservative estimate of projected global warming effects, the results are devastating. Current estimates of how much the flow of the Colorado might be reduced range between 6 and 30 percent. Using just a 10-percent figure, and accepting the bureau’s own estimates of increased demand and new draws such as the Lake Powell pipeline, Powell gives a harrowing scenario in which Lake Powell drops to “dead pool” by 2022, rendering projects such as the pipeline useless almost as soon as they become operational.

But far scarier is the possibility that in this time frame the effects of the devastation of the Colorado due to overuse and reduced flow could well render life in today’s desert megacities such as Phoenix and Las Vegas impossible. What Powell’s book shows is that global warming is without any stretch of imagination capable of rendering life in western America unrecognizable not in our grandchildren’s lifetime but in ours.

I’m gonna have to work my review copy mojo, looks like. Hope I made sure to move my wand to the storage locker.

Kirk Douglas Talks About Lonely Are The Brave

At a party in the early 1960s someone handed Kirk Douglas a copy of Ed Abbey’s novel The Brave Cowboy, recommending Douglas read it. Douglas liked the book enough to option it, and hired Dalton Trumbo to write the screenplay of what became the 1962 sleeper western Lonely Are the Brave.

It’s a sweet movie that could never be made today for a number of reasons, probably chief among them the root idealism of the flawed main character Jack Burns. The ending is an ambiguous downer. A significant subplot involves the principled stand one of the major characters takes to aid undocumented border-crossers. The one cop possessed of any competence or virtue (played by Walter Matthau) is hamstrung by the thugs and buffoons that make up his subordinates. Modern audiences unaccustomed to points of view that don’t include smirks might find the movie a bit naive. Burns, a character who appeared in several of Abbey’s subsequent novels, rides into “Duke City” (a thinly veiled Albuquerque) to help a friend who’s been arrested for helping “illegals.” (That was Trumbo’s idea: in the novel, the crime was draft resistance.) Burns’ plan is to get himself arrested, find his friend in the lockup, then bust both of them out and head for the hills. The conflict between Burns and his friend over whether that’s at all a good idea is a mirror of the through-story: Burns is a man a hundred years out of date, unfit for the 20th Century urban West.

It’s one of my favorite films, and I’m looking forward to the day it’s released in Region 1 DVD format.

I just this evening found a YouTube interview with Kirk Douglas discussing Lonely Are The Brave, which Douglas still calls one of his best movies. It’s an interesting interview, with one major spoiler and a few behind-the-scenes anecdotes, basically a good teaser for the movie.

The first installment is below. If you want more, follow the links to parts two, three, four, five, six and seven. If you want to avoid the spoiler you can skip part five.

The Zeke Book

Those of you buying gifts this month may, he reminded everyone sidelong, want to consider the Zeke Book for dog-loving recipients. Or for animal-loving recipients in general. Especially for those with older pets. I’ve heard from a lot of people that the writing there helped them cope with the stresses involved in loving aging pets, and with the grief of pet loss. But it’s not all down, by any means: Zeke was an engaging and silly and loving guy, and I think that comes across in the book.

If you’ve read and enjoyed the book, or any of my writing about Zeke over the years, please feel free to mention the book on your websites, blogs, livejournals or twitter feeds, or even (gasp!) offline, to friends and family.

And with that said, back to the job search. Thanks!

Walking With Zeke now available in stores

For instance, on Amazon. (Paste those reviews in!)

I still get more money from each direct sale through Lulu than I do if you buy from a retailer, but if you, say, have a store credit you want to use, you can now do so by buying the Zeke book.

If you prefer bricks and mortar, you can special-order through your favorite 3-d bookstore: give them ISBN 978-0-6151-9611-4 or ask them to look for my name and Zeke in Books In Print.

(This entry, being promotion of my offline writing, doesn’t count as a blog post.)


I have for the last few weeks been in possession of the new The Selected Letters of Wallace Stegner, edited by son Page Stegner. I have been working through the book since, given the vagaries of work and stresses domestic and otherwise.

I should say that reading it is hardly work: it’s a delight, the epistles of a man who was uncommonly gracious to friend and occasional foe alike. Stegner’s letters are thoughtful both in their content and its delivery. The rhythm the man brought to what, in other hands, would have been simple workaday correspondence is remarkable. His letters sing.

It has reminded me that I’ve often thought that many aspiring writers would do well to pay more attention to cadence. One of the best tricks I learned early on was to read my writing aloud. Not only will you tend to stumble in speaking the text where a reader would in reading it, but the cadence, if you listen for it, jumps out at you.

It was while reading Stegner that I first consciously noticed my habit, while reading well-crafted prose, of near-singing the words in my head. An editor for a few years then, I was accustomed to breaking up unwieldy sentences, to finding the short stark statements buried within and freeing them, panning the bright sharp nuggets from endless expanses of gray placer gravel. I was an environmental editor. I should have known better, given the one true lesson of the science of ecology, than to think that was all there was to editing for cadence. Context is everything. It was the long, unbroken river’s flow that put those nuggets where they were supposed to be.

I still break up the long sentences while editing, though these days I mainly edit my own text. As often as not I will look on either side of the new short sentence for two that can be blended. Or three. There are writers who can make a long staccato chain ring but I am not, strictly speaking, one of them. I need the smooth passages between the rapids.

Stegner was a master of cadence, that music generated by the smooth friction of adjoining sentences. It showed in his polemical writing as well as in his fiction. Here’s a paragraph from his famed “Wilderness Letter,” sent to David Pesonen at UC Berkeley in 1960 when Pesonen was helping to craft federal wilderness protection policies, and later much-anthologized:

I am not moved by the argument that those wilderness areas which have already been exposed to grazing or mining are already deflowered, and so might as well be “harvested.” For mining I cannot say much good except that its operations are generally short-lived. The extractable wealth is taken and the shafts, the tailings, and the ruins left, and in a dry country such as the American West the wounds men make in the earth do not quickly heal. Still, they are only wounds; they aren’t absolutely mortal. Better a wounded wilderness than none at all. And as for grazing, if it is strictly controlled so that it does not destroy the ground cover, damage the ecology, or compete with the wildlife it is in itself nothing that need conflict with the wilderness feeling or the validity of the wilderness experience. I have known enough range cattle to recognize them as wild animals; and the people who herd them have, in the wilderness context, the dignity of rareness; they belong on the frontier, moreover, and have a look of rightness. The invasion they make on the virgin country is a sort of invasion that is as old as Neolithic man, and they can, in moderation, even emphasize a man’s feeling of belonging to the natural world. Under surveillance, they can belong; under control, they need not deface or mar. I do not believe that in wilderness areas where grazing has never been permitted, it should be permitted; but I do not believe either that an otherwise untouched wilderness should be eliminated from the preservation plan because of limited existing uses such as grazing which are in consonance with the frontier condition and image.

Read this paragraph aloud. Set aside for now the quibbling with the phrasing, the mid-twentieth century archaisms of gender in simple noun or inapt metaphor, the range politics long-supplanted by new science. (Stegner was a thoughtful and generous soul, and while he resisted what he saw as trends he would likely have written this paragraph differently today.) Pay attention instead to the rhythm of each clause, each sentence, the rests and pauses. A sentence of 43 syllables leads, followed by one half as long but still complex, and then another with 46 syllables. Then comes a lull in the tall breakers: a sentence of 14 syllables, with one of 12 after that. The rhythm within the longer sentences is lively and complex, a dance of iamb and dactyl, trochee and anapest conjoined, a burbling stream of meaning. That fourth sentence accentuates the nuance. Two distinct clauses, each worthy of bracketing with capital and period, six syllables and then eight, and say each of them aloud again: the second’s rhythm matches the first, with an unstressed syllable added on either end. Stegner has provided the relief from the long stretches, but softened it so that the change is not so abrupt.

How much of this cadence was deliberate, and how much just flowed from his fingers through the typewriter onto the paper, set without margins for economy’s sake? Who knows? It was almost certainly some of each, part careful blue-pencil work, part first-draft inspiration, a drawing of music into the lungs and breathing it out in sentences.

John McPhee is another writer to whose work cadence seems to come as naturally as breathing.  Look at the first paragraphs of Rising From The Plains:

This is about high-country geology and a Rocky Mountain regional geologist. I raise that semaphore here at the start so no one will feel misled by an opening passage in which a slim young woman who is not in any sense a geologist steps down from a train in Rawlins, Wyoming, in order to go north by stagecoach into country that was still very much the Old West. She arrived in the Autumn of 1905, when she was twenty-three. Her hair was so blond it looked white. In Massachusetts, a few months before, she had graduated from Wellesley College and had been awarded a Phi Beta Kappa key, which now hung from a chain around her neck. Her field was classical studies. In addition to her skills in Latin and Greek, she could handle a horse expertly, but never had she made a journey into a region so remote as the one that lay before her.

“Meanwhile, Rawlins surprised her: Rawlins, where shootings had once been so frequent that there seemed to be — as citizens put it — “a man for breakfast every morning”; Rawlins, halfway across a state that was spending far more per annum than to support its nineteen-year-old university. She had expected a “backward” town, a “frontier” town, a street full of badmen like Big Nose George, the road agent, the plunderer of stagecoaches, who signed his hidden treasure maps “B.N. George.” Instead, this October evening, she was met at the station by a lackey with a handcart, who wheeled her luggage to the Ferris Hotel. A bellboy took over, his chest a constellation of buttons. The place was three stories high, and cozy with steam heat. The lights were electric. There were lace curtains. What does it matter, she reflected, if the pitchers lack spouts?

There is so much to appreciate in that passage: the alternation of long and short sentences, the feeling of momentum building in sentences like the first two in paragraph two, and artful landing in the short simple declaratives that follow.

It is writing that nearly begs to be read aloud.

It is music.