Shaun G. deconstructs BrightSource’s latest plea to modify its agreement with the state of California over the Ivanpah solar power plant. In the process, he offers a stunning overlay showing how much of Yosemite Valley the project would fill.
Below are two satellite images, courtesy Google Earth, of different pieces of the Ivanpah Valley. Both photos show land at around 3,000 feet in elevation, at a resolution equivalent to 1,500 feet up.
One of the photos is of land whose wilderness habitat value was important enough that in 1994 Congress designated it part of the Mojave National Preserve.
The other shows land deemed “heavily impacted by human use” by the developer who wants to build a massive solar generating facility thereon.
Can you guess which is which? Feel free to click through to the Flickr site to see the higher-resolution versions if you think that’ll help.
In the meantime, I’m off to Death Valley first thing in the morning for a meeting, and then Sunday afternoon I hope to swing by the proposed solar generating site to get some photos from six or fewer feet above the ground. See you all Monday.
Looking for “Sierra Club Desert Committee,” I find this page which has a list of unrestored open-pit mines in the California desert. With this photo:
is this accompanying text:
Molycor[p] Mine, San Bernardino County
Another non-gold open pit mine. They mine “rare earths” near Clark Mountain by Mountain Pass off I-15. In addition to the pit hazard, Molycor has released radioactive waste into nearby Ivanpah Dry Lake.
For those of you just joining us, I spent the summer breathing the dust off Ivanpah Dry Lake. I knew about the mine: it’s hard to miss. But I hadn’t heard about the radwaste dumping. A bit more Googling brings us to Great Basin Resource Watch, which says:
In 1977, a major pipeline break spilled more than 2 million gallons of radioactive water onto public land on the Ivanpah Playa. Yet San Bernadino County recently approved Molycorp’s request to expand the mine and the company is in the process of getting the necessary operating permits. GBMW and other groups have appealed the county’s decision.
I head back there on Wednesday.
In Adam Hochschild’s book The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin, Hochschild describes a conversation with Alexander Vologodsky, a Russian physicist. Vologodsky had noticed an abandoned settlement as a youth in the extreme north of Siberia, and found that the settlement was the remains of a prison labor construction project. Stalin had been looking at a map, noticed a blank spot on the Arctic coast between the mouths of the Yenisei and Ob rivers, and decided he wanted a railroad built connecting the two rivers — across 800 miles of tundra. As Hochschild relates:
“As far as [Vologodsky] can figure out, there was no logical reason to build this long and expensive railroad — particularly in the famine-ridden, ravaged, exhausted USSR of 1948… The Soviet Union is famous for grand public works projects that turn out not to work; but this Arctic railway, said Vologodsky, was ‘the acme of the absurd.’
“In the frantic haste to satisfy Stalin’s orders, Vologodsky said, when construction began in 1948, ‘they were laying the tracks at the same time as they were surveying.’ The terrain was a builder’s nightmare: below ground was rock-hard permafrost; on top of this lay six feet of snow in winter, and, in the summer, vast bogs that swallowed up ties, tracks, and equipment. Although the work force of prisoners reached as high as one hundred thousand, in five years they succeeded in laying tracks over little more than half the route.
“Today, thinking of this waste of resources and human life, it seems easy to condemn the folly of this railroad. But listening to Vologodsky talk, it occurred to me that in other parts of the world, when such projects reach their aim, we often honor them as great feats of engineering or symbols of national grandeur. The Pyramids, the First Transcontinental Railroad, the Panama Canal. Between these efforts and something like Stalin’s Arctic railway, where do you draw the moral dividing line? It is not always easy.”
The passage has stayed with me since I read it a decade ago. The Arctic Railway, which ended construction on Stalin’s death, is a useful absurdum to which one can reductio a whole lot of development proposals. The tragic story emphasizes the importance of the practice described by the jargony phrase “ground-truthing,” almost always an effective counter to grand development plans decreed by fiat, whether that fiat comes from a dictator or a bureaucracy or — even — a well-meaning environmentalist.
David Brower learned this lesson in the early 1960s when he bargained away the irreplaceable Glen Canyon in a meeting room somewhere, then actually went out and belatedly ground-truthed his act by visiting the place. He had the best of intentions: saving Dinosaur National Monument from a dam. It worked. The Yampa is still free-flowing and beautiful. It was a victory Brower regretted for the rest of his life.
Brower’s lesson seems to have been lost on at least one person charged with preserving his legacy. Last year, the current editor of the Earth Island Journal, Jason Mark, charged dismissively that opposition to opening up desert wilderness to renewable energy project development is NIMBYism, and “fueling climate change.”
“…it’s hard not to think that some local activists have their priorities misplaced. One conservationist told Lewis, ‘No opening of any wilderness areas in this state to any energy corridors ever. Absolutely not.’
“According to Amy Atwood, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity: ‘It’s hard to see which Western constituency could possibly support this.’
“Well, how about a constituency that recognizes that climate change is already dangerously altering Western ecosystems, contributing to droughts, wildfires, and shrinking and shifting habitats?”
We have to destroy the wilderness to save it, Mark would seem to be saying.
Or take renewable energy activist Gar Lipow’s odd rant in comments on a post in the online magazine Grist, responding to desert protection activists concerned about careless “renewable” development:
“Yeah, let’s stay pure.
“Lets burn more coal -cause we can’t put up one acre of mirrors in the desert.
“Let’s drill oil off the coasts of California and Florida because we are too pure to put wind generators offshore where a couple of Senators have to look at them.
“Let 1 in 4 children in Harlem continue to suffer asthma caused by fossil fuels so that we don’t have besmirch the purity of Wolverine and Stopgreenpath. I hope those snowy white garments you wear don’t get stained by splatters from all the people you will trample if you win what you are asking for.”
Lipow’s comment really has it all: the straw-children, the conflation of habitat preservation with scenery, the Cheneyan accusation that the opponents’ environmental concern is a matter of “personal purity,” and a literal “bloody shirt” threat besides. (An explanation of just what effect transmission lines in the desert would have on the diesel exhaust that chokes kids in Harlem? That Lipow does not provide.)
Here’s the thing. The Glen Canyon Dam provides renewable energy too, and yet I don’t see too many “big picture” enviros like Mark and Lipow self-righteously demanding new dams be put up on free-flowing rivers. Big hydro is a cost-effective source of huge amounts of electricity, and new large dams could conceivably replace a significant amount of fossil-fuel-generated power. Why aren’t enviros demanding new dams, and spattering fishermen and river rafters with the figurative blood of their straw victims? Hochschild’s question about drawing lines would seem relevant here. Where, exactly, is the line between a new Glen Canyon Dam on the wild river of your choice, on the one hand, and paving 689,910 times as much desert as Lipow sneers about on the other?
The line, I suggest, is entirely in the minds of people who talk the way the above-quoted environmentalists do. The fact is, reactions like those offered by Mark and Lipow are fueled by a combination of ignorance of, and apathy toward, the actual groundtruthable reality in the desert. As Hochschild put it later in “Unquiet Ghost”:
“We are back again at the issue raised by the finger on the map. I want a railroad, there. Because it’s good for humanity. Or, perhaps, because I want it there.”
Those who would save the planet at the cost of the desert look at maps like this
and put their fingers on the map right on that sunny blank spot. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it would seem that the functional difference between the Mojave Desert and Glen Canyon is not in the value of the habitat to its wildlife, nor in the efficiency of power generation in each locale, but simply in the fact that most environmentalists don’t give a shit about the Mojave Desert.
The thing is, even if enviros don’t ground-truth their decisions about the Mojave Desert, the developers do, lest they sink their own metaphorical railroad ties in bogs. As a result, there are other, more useful maps of the areas proposed for solar development. Here’s a fragment of one, obtained from this site (hat tip to Larry Hogue):
That’s 1.3 square miles of the Ivanpah Valley, about a third of the planned Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System. The developers hired someone to walk every square foot of their project site to note what would be displaced. Those little colored dots, which turn out to be numbers if you look closely, are tortoise-related sites. The brown and black numbers mark burrows or other sign. The green numbers are places where live tortoises were found by the surveyors. The red numbers mark the location of found carcasses. Four times as many carcasses as live torts seen, in part because dead tortoises aren’t as good at hiding as live ones, and in part because tortoises are dying off from a contagious respiratory infection and heightened predation and general habitat disruption.
By law, all live tortoises on a site to be developed must be relocated to intact habitat. The two dozen live tortoises found on the Ivanpah SEGS site will need to be moved uphill, toward Clark Mountain. There they’d rub elbows with a whole lot more tortoises relocated from the immediately adjacent Ivanpah Airport. One problem with tortoise relocation is that it spreads that respiratory disease. Another is that disoriented tortoises, relocated away from a territory they may have known for decades, are easy prey for coyotes, a fact that shut down the US Army’s relocation program at Fort Irwin last year. (The proposal for Ivanpah SEGS tortoise relocation uses the same target tortoise density as Fort Irwin’s plan.)
That’s just one of several threatened species on the site, and we’re only discussing one big solar thermal site in dozens proposed in the American desert. And yet any hesitation desert habitat advocates express to scraping away the soil, denuding habitat, and building massive industrial facilities to generate solar thermal power is criticized as obstructionist. Meanwhile, big hydroelectric, which also offers a theoretically carbon-neutral source of electrical power, is opposed by those same critics simply because it destroys habitat, with neither hemming nor hawing about regrettable sacrifice and cost-benefit and dire emergencies and wheezing fourth-graders.
Which raises the question: why is a fish more valuable than a tortoise? Before we put our fingers on the map and say “there,” I’d like to hear an answer to that.
It all fell apart this year, the affected exoskeleton I’d thought of as my life: the garden and the art, the home, the writing. There was a moment this summer it all sank in. I had been Becky’s husband, the one who walked with Zeke out of the house painted orange with the agaves out front, the one who hiked in the East Bay hills and wrote facile snark and tossed-off poetry on his blog, and all of it gone.
All of it, and I spent the summer taking that in, cowering beneath the creosote, wincing at each incoming phone call.
Nabokov said that “transformation from larva to pupa or from pupa to butterfly is not a particularly pleasant process for the subject involved.” The caterpillar at least has the consolation of eventual flight.
It is not all bleakness, by any means. I am loved and I love. I have redressed past wrongs, made amends long overdue. And even in bleakness there is solace, the honesty of stony ground and cholla.
The problem is distinguishing between the honest bleak and the bleakness driven by inward illness, in me and in others. I have sought out those who would undermine my heart, found the ring of truth in their declarations of my worthlessness. It is a subtle distinction this year. This year I have improved the lives of some I love by leaving them.
This year I most desired solitude when others’ absence left me battered by ghosts. This year I felt desolate in close company, walked away from friends to seek the companionship of moss-covered stones.
I am getting too old for this.
A month before Zeke died, or two, I helped him up onto our bed and lay there with him drowsing for an afternoon. I dreamed that again the other day and woke disconcerted, two years downstream and his absence not at all assuaged by time’s flowing. I can layer it over with the new, but it has healed as much as it will, his grave still glaring in me though I have not laid eyes on it for months.
Left out of my discussion yesterday of the big solar thermal proposal for the Ivanpah Valley—because I didn’t find out about it until just now—was the fact that the site that would be bulldozed for construction of the Ivanpah Solar Generating Station is of significant botanical importance.
As James M. Andre, Director of the University of California’s Granite Mountains Desert Research Center, says in his article “Will We Know What We Lost?”, in the December 2008 issue of Desert Report:
The nearly 10,000-acre Ivanpah solar energy development project, located in San Bernardino County near the California-Nevada Border, is (at the time of this article) close to approval and implementation. Prior to project surveys at Ivanpah Valley, there existed no database or herbarium records of rare plants in the footprint of the project. Results of project surveys there, however, documented 11 CNPS-listed rare plant taxa, including 80% of the known California occurrences of Asclepias nyctaginifolia.
A previously unknown type of manzanita, for instance, was recently discovered growing on a ridge above Andre’s Desert Studies Center sitting there unnoticed despite the presence of generations of botanists working below. Andre points out that this sort of thing is likely to be the case on many desert sites slated for development, as the California desert’s flora is, quite frankly, poorly known:
There is a broad misconception among the public (and to some extent among scientists and land managers) that we have completed our floristic inventory of the California desert, and that the remaining hotbeds for botanical discovery are limited to places like Indonesia and the Brazilian Amazon. Yet the California desert is, in fact, one of the remaining floristic frontiers in the United States. Numerous mountain ranges (e.g. Turtles, Dead, and Avawatz Mountains) have fewer than 100 herbarium voucher records currently housed in herbaria. The vast majority of herbarium specimens from the desert region are recorded along paved roads. New, rare, and localized endemics continue to be discovered, noteworthy range extensions are still frequently reported, and distributional limits of common taxa are poorly established. Even in areas of high research focus, such as the University of California’s Granite Mountains Desert Research Center, a new manzanita species was found growing on a ridge overlooking the laboratories below. Clearly, the Jepson Desert Manual represents only a work in progress rather than the final word on floristic diversity and distribution in our desert.
Larry Hogue has been asking whether we’d clearcut forests to put up big solar installations. It’s a fair question! And when we consider the fact that the California desert would seem to be every bit as unexplored, botanically, as a tropical rainforest or coral reef, the question arises: should we even consider paving them to provide power for people who still use incandescent light bulbs, or whose “standby-powered” electronics annually waste the equivalent output of 18 typical electrical power generating stations?
My answer: hell no.
Put your computer and your microwave and your television on a power strip that you turn off or unplug, replace your incandescent lightbulbs with LEDs, and learn how to cope with room temperatures above 72 degrees without turning on the AC, and get your neighbors to do the same, and then, maybe, we can talk about installing some big solar-generating facilities, as long as we focus on appropriate places near population centers, like this project in California’s Central Valley.
Yes, like the President Elect said, it’s gotta be about more than changing a light bulb in your house: industry, transportation and commerce account for 78% of total US power consumption. A lot of the reason for inefficient energy use is structural, in both the building and societal senses. In the household, building codes should be amended to mandate a wall switch that turns off power to all but one wall outlet, so that “standby power” can be cut off at the source easily. (Just plug your clock into the live outlet.) The building materials market is ready to explode with new photovoltaic materials, from tinted windows to siding and sidewalks.
Paving the desert should be the absolute last resort.
The Bureau of Land Management reports that it has received applications for large solar electrical generating projects, around 80 of them, that would cover 689,910 acres of California, almost all of it in the desert.
689,910 acres is a big number, and it’s hard to put into perspective. Past a certain size, land area stats are a little hard to grasp. Two acres, the size of the piece of land my parents had when I was small, that’s an easier area to grasp, mentally: if it was all lawn, you could cover it with a walk-behind power mower, figuring a 12-inch wide swath mown at about three feet per second, in four hours or so.
At that speed, assuming you never took breaks to eat or sleep or stretch your lower back, if you started today you’d get 689,910 acres of lawn mowed sometime in June or July of 2165.
That’s still hard to imagine, and besides there is precious little lawn in the desert. How about comparing the 689,910 acres with familiar places of known area? 689,910 acres, about 1,078 square miles, is more than three times the size of New York City, the five-borough total of which runs to 309 square miles. Sprawling Los Angeles, at 465 square miles contained within its city limits, doesn’t even reach half the size of the pending desert solar projects. Anza Borrego Desert State Park, the second-largest state park in the US, covers approximately 600,000 acres. It is huge, but it covers less land area than these solar projects would.
Put it this way: if you bulldozed every bit of land in the city limits of both Phoenix and Houston—possibly a good idea in and of itself—then put all the pending California Desert solar projects on the land that had been occupied by those cities, you’d have just sixteen square miles left over, which I suppose you would need for employee parking.
Yesterday, in the course of a KCRW Interview featuring Coyote Crosser Larry Hogue, among others, it was pointed out that the staggering acreage covered by these proposals will likely be whittled down, that this is a bit of a land rush that has as much speculation at its root as energy policy planning. It was also pointed out that while current technology for big solar development involves grading the site, destroying all habitat thereon and essentially paving the land with mirrors, that we’ll likely be able, within the next couple years, to install massive photovoltaic fields where the only ground disturbance necessary is the pile-driving of supports for the panels. Oh, and driving the supply trucks and installation machinery from one pole to the next. And running cable between them. And maintaining maintenance access roads.
Paving the desert.
Take a look at this map the BLM provides of proposals in the California Desert. There’s a site hard up against the east border of the Mojave National Preserve: called the New York Mountains site, the red crosshatched area actually falls in the Lanfair Valley, a bit of extremely marginal ranchland and irreplaceable Joshua tree forest that was jerrymandered out of the Preserve boundaries before final passage of the California Desert Protection Act in 1994. It was excluded from the Preserve because locals raised a stink, fearing the Preserve management would forever change their way of life. Paving the Lanfair Valley with mirrors is apparently a less drastic change for the ranchers than just buying out the grazing rights, as the Preserve would have done.
Or look at the east end of the (789,745-acre) Joshua Tree National Park, at the mouth of that “little” notch in the Park boundary. That’s a valley that has had a few projects planned for it, including a gigantic garbage dump that would have been the final resting place for Los Angeles’ unrecycled aluminum cans and uncomposted disposable diapers. Now it’s contending with a giant solar project, in an area that—like the Lanfair Valley—should by rights now be protected in perpetuity.
A few days ago The Raven and I drove through Ward Valley, west of Needles. I told her how the valley had been the site of a proposed commercial nuclear waste dump, in which so-called “low-level” waste would have been buried in unlined trenches. The project was never approved, due to the efforts of the Mojave and Chemehuevi people and their allies like my friend Phil Klasky. There is now a solar project proposed for Ward Valley as well.
Just south and west of the spot where the city of Las Vegas wants to build a major international airport in the Ivanpah Valley, backers of the proposed Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System would build three heliostat towers, on which more than 3,000 acres of mirrors would concentrate the desert sun. Water heated in the focal points of the mirror arrays would drive turbines, which would generate a peak of 400 megawatts of electrical power. The installation would use up to a hundred acre-feet per year of groundwater. I have not yet been able to determine whether the site would cover some of the tortoise relocation area cited in planning documents for the Ivanpah Airport: at a minimum, tortoises would have to be relocated from both sites and put somewhere else, a process that has recently proven to be pretty much a death sentence for the tortoises.
All told, if the 80 solar installations in the California Desert are built, they’ll produce a peak of 54 gigawatts of electrical power. This would represent a doubling of California’s electrical generating capacity. It’s clear that these projects are not being proposed as part of a sensible energy strategy, with conserved “negawatts” at the forefront of the strategy. As the majority of current generating capacity in California is much closer to urban areas, these new sites would mean a significant additional loss of energy through transmission line inefficiency.
This assault on the desert is, plain and simple, intended to line the pockets of speculators looking to stake a claim in a burgeoning “green” energy field. Big solar may be a sensible idea in a few unusual locations, but in general it represents business as usual for the energy companies.
And the desert pays.
Via the comment thread on this post over at Michael’s place, I found myself clicking over to a thought-provoking essay in The American Scholar on the disadvantages of an elite education. Written by literary critic and former Yale prof. William Deresiewicz, it is a well-argued—if sometimes slightly off the mark—criticism of the increasingly shallow nature of education to be had in the Ivy League.
Deresiewicz argues, among other things, that those who value learning for learning’s sake often find themselves ill at ease in the US’s top-tier schools. He says:
…Yale students think for themselves, but only because they know we want them to. I’ve had many wonderful students at Yale and Columbia, bright, thoughtful, creative kids whom it’s been a pleasure to talk with and learn from. But most of them have seemed content to color within the lines that their education had marked out for them. Only a small minority have seen their education as part of a larger intellectual journey, have approached the work of the mind with a pilgrim soul.
I don’t know whether this is a fair criticism. If it is, it isn’t a phenomenon limited to the elite schools. People who “see their education as part of a larger intellectual journey” aren’t all that thick on the ground in state schools either, from what I can tell. Community colleges seem to have a lot of them, though that may be more a function of student’s ages.
I’m not sure it’s fair to finger schools in general for this state of affairs, though they may do less than they ought to counter it. There isn’t much in American society that rewards learning that is engaged in for its own sake, not as a means to an end. Uncertainty is reviled, a state of being from which one must emerge as quickly as possible. Contradiction is considered unpleasant. Doubt must be resolved at once.
You see this in writing. Doubt as a literary theme has been superceded by snark, or schadenfreude, or something else that doesn’t introduce existential queasiness in the reader. The fact that much of what is important is unknown and perhaps unknowable matters little. Which is of course a longwinded way of rephrasing this thing I used to be fond of declaiming, namely that doubt is the only interesting theme in writing. I wrote that once to my friend Sharon, who promptly asked me if I was sure about that. I wasn’t, and I’m still not, but it sounds good for now.
Contemplation is crucial to the life spent learning, and with few exceptions contemplation is not a team sport, and so this next passage from Deresiewicz’s essay — the one that prompted this post in the first place — comes as little surprise, though it is disheartening nonetheless:
I taught a class several years ago on the literature of friendship. One day we were discussing Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves, which follows a group of friends from childhood to middle age. In high school, one of them falls in love with another boy. He thinks, “To whom can I expose the urgency of my own passion?…There is nobody—here among these grey arches, and moaning pigeons, and cheerful games and tradition and emulation, all so skilfully organised to prevent feeling alone.” A pretty good description of an elite college campus, including the part about never being allowed to feel alone. What did my students think of this, I wanted to know? What does it mean to go to school at a place where you’re never alone? Well, one of them said, I do feel uncomfortable sitting in my room by myself. Even when I have to write a paper, I do it at a friend’s. That same day, as it happened, another student gave a presentation on Emerson’s essay on friendship. Emerson says, he reported, that one of the purposes of friendship is to equip you for solitude. As I was asking my students what they thought that meant, one of them interrupted to say, wait a second, why do you need solitude in the first place? What can you do by yourself that you can’t do with a friend?
I’m a slow learner: until this summer, at nearly half a century of age, I had never lived by myself. I’d been alone often enough, especially in the last few years, but I’d always had spouses or housemates of family members who would be coming back home soon. Solitude was something I went away to get. This summer, solitude was my baseline: in a settlement of thirty people or fewer, none of whom bothered me unless I wanted to be bothered, and with the nearest town 20 miles away and hundreds of square miles of despoblado hard up against my back door, solitude was easy to come by.
That solitudinous summer went hellaciously fast, aside from the excruciatingly slow parts. (Those slow parts took place when I was feeling the lack of company, usually in the aftermath of an argument on the phone or — though our friendship does in general support Emerson’s above contention — in the six or so hours after The Raven’s taillights faded into the Ivanpah Valley dark after a weekend visit had ended.) There were days and days where I didn’t speak a word except to myself, or to the feral cats that grew to trust me a little over the months. If the loneliness ever threatened to crowd out the solitude, all I had to do was walk outside. Is it cheating on the solitude if you count the tarantulas and leopard lizards as companions? I’ll admit I had better conversations with them than I ever have with Harvard MBAs.
It is a privilege, in the senses of fortune and social stratum both, to have had the opportunity to experience solitude like that. If everyone went out to the wilderness for contemplation then there’d be no contemplation possible there. This comes, in fact, perilously close to 19th-century thinking, touting of the wilderness as a resource from which one can extract contemplation and therefore redemption. But what are the alternatives? Paving huge swaths of desert valley to make an airport, so that people might more easily race from one glorified anthill to the next? Wallace Stegner had it right (if unnecessarily gender-specific) in his Wilderness Letter, when he limned one of the consequences “if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed”:
And so that never again can we have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it.
I suppose you could add “ableist” to that gender-specificity criticism above, what with the “vertical,” but I have to concur with the rest. If you’re deprived of the ability to spend time singly, separately and individually, whether by circumstance or through fear of solitude, my hunch is your thinking is gonna suffer. In a less-quoted part of the Wilderness letter, Stegner forwards a passage written by Sherwood Anderson some 90 years ago or so:
I can remember old fellows in my home town speaking feelingly of an evening spent on the big empty plains. It had taken the shrillness out of them. They had learned the trick of quiet.
We have too much of shrillness these days. Shrillness, the flip side of snark, is that aspect of speech that develops when a person has forgotten how to doubt himself, has neglected to ground-truth her fervent and absolute convictions. Unlike passion, unlike anger, unlike the justifiable and healthy spirited defense of all the good and threatened things we cherish, shrillness is brittle and ineffective. “Shrill” is these days mainly used as a gender-laden word, a modifier attached to women with opinions. This is unfortunate. It is also ironic. Shrillness is the voice of privilege threatened, and its range and distribution correspond with those of power.
It is killed by contemplation. Solitude extinguishes it.
The valley here runs south to north. At sunset the shadow of the Clark and Ivanpah mountains creeps across the valley floor, a second hand marking the time in yards. From where I sit, a mile up the washed-out road to the Lucy Grays, I watch the shadow advance.
It is an odd perspective. From up here, two-thirds of the way up the east side of the valley and six miles from the dry lake, the shadow seems abrupt: a distinct terminator between sunlit and shadowed land. When the shadow arrives in a few minutes, though, it is hard to tell just when it begins. Up close, the line between shadow and light is near-impossible to pin down. I am sitting in full sun, and then after some time I notice that the sun is not quite so bright. A quarter of the sun’s disk has dropped behind the ridge, then half, but what remains above still shines brightly. It seems as though the sun will never set, Zeno’s tortoise there in the sky moving half the distance between it and the ridgeline, then half the remainder, then half of what’s left after that.
A sudden breeze raises the skin on the back of my neck. The sun is now a brilliant pinpoint atop Clark Mountain. The sun is now fully behind Clark Mountain, but the sky is still brilliant where the sun was a moment ago. I am fully in the mountain’s shade here, the light from the sky alone enough to cast my shadow within the shadow.
A man confronting loss and mid-life crisis retreats to the desert to work, to confront his demons: my stay in this valley has been predictable, has been clichéd. It has been five months since I moved into this little house beside the railroad tracks, and what I expected to get out of my time here I no longer remember. I have written, though not enough. I have hiked the hills and creosote flats here, though not enough. I have slept under the stars, but nowhere even close to enough.
I have spent three consecutive summer days without leaving the house, turned inward and grieving. I’ve trudged eight miles in triple-digit temperatures and laughed at my own giddiness. I have spent a month sleeping in three-hour shifts on the floor beneath the ceiling fan. I have argued on the phone and cursed the passing trains for drowning out words I didn’t want to hear. I have been cruel to people I’ve loved half my life. I have found glimmers of solace in old friendships. I have exulted in this valley and resented its remoteness. I have spent night after night trying to read with moths and flies and stingless wasps covering each illuminated page. I have been jolted out of sleep by those same insects as they land on my eyelids in the dark. I have watched a hundred sunsets, coming earlier and earlier each day.
I have watched the thunderstorms scud across the valley below me, smelled the acrid lightning, seen the stripes of renewed green where the storms passed two weeks ago and fed the creosote.
I have learned nothing, aside from a few facts.
These days the nighttime temperature is close to freezing and I huddle thankfully beneath my comforter, but I still have trouble sleeping. My last cup of coffee may have been twelve hours ago, or longer, and yet I lie awake my heart racing, mind running full tilt in its exercise wheel, relaxed but taut. The other night it was coyotes, singing an uncharacteristically prolonged chorus — 45 minutes, as opposed to the usual three. I didn’t know they ever sang that long, and then a passing train silenced them at 3:15 am.
They did not sing last night but I lay awake anyway, wondering at the pull this valley has had on me. I hiked with a friend in Wee Thump yesterday and our conversation played again and again in my mind, her gasp at the pink and backlit clouds as we drove down Big Tiger Wash and back into the Ivanpah Valley. No matter how distracted I have been these last months by my own internal turmoil, coming into the valley that way at sunset has filled my chest. I lose myself in the yucca and the slanted light.
This is my last week in this little house, and I pack my few belongings here a little at a time. I will spend December in Los Angeles with The Raven and after that, it all depends. I will have to make a living, somehow. Easier to find a job in Tucson from Los Angeles than from here. Easier to pitch stories to magazines from, well, just about anywhere. It takes me five minutes to upload five hundred words, from here, and sometimes it takes two or three tries.
It’s a strange thing. I spent my first months here enmired in leaving, aslog in my past’s tar pits. The last few weeks my eyes have been pointed forward, though I still track asphaltum on the kitchen floor. At some point in the last five months I went from shadow into dim sunlight, but I’ll be damned if I can point out when.