Tag Archives: Writing

Help my new desert journalism project


As of Thursday 1/23 4:00 pm.

I’m working with the startup Beacon to launch a desert journalism campaign, and we need your help.

Executive summary? If at least 50 48  47 people chip in $5 a month by February 8, I get  to dig up more important, unreported stories about the North American deserts.

Beacon’s an interesting platform. It’s a subscription-funded journalism project. Subscribers choose a Beacon writer to fund, with subscriptions starting at $5 a month (with lower monthly prices if you buy more than a few months at once). The writer gets the bulk of that money: about 3/4s, after overhead. And when you fund a writer, you can read everything else on Beacon as part of your subscription.

Right now that means that if you back me, you can also read the work of 65 reporters writing on topics ranging from environmental health to Somalian piracy. (I’ll be in good company. Great journos already onboard include science writer Arikia Millikan, envirojourno Amy Westervelt from the SF Bay Area, and my old colleague Molly McCluskey.)

In exchange for your support, I’ll write a story a week on issues affecting the North American deserts, from Idaho to Sinaloa to Texas to my backyard here in the Mojave. There are some opportunities for interactivity I’m still learning about which may be fun. And Beacon has put together some tastefully designed t-shirts for people who subscribe at the highest support levels.

So read the pitch, watch the video, subscribe if you are inclined (and thank you), and please feel free to share this with people  you think may find it of interest. Thanks!

desert journalism

The desert journalist at work, theoretically

Update on Coyote Crossing


It’s been quieter here than I think it ever has been, with the possible exception of the summer of 2008 after I closed this blog and before I opened this blog. Oh, and November 2006 was pretty much dead around here, as I recall. But still, I posted one photo all last month here, and that’s close to a record of taciturnitude.

There’s been a reason for the quiet, and now there’s another one.

The reason is that I’ve been writing anywhere from 2 to 5 posts a day for KCET during the week, and that’s taken a lot of my writing energy.
The now there’s another reason is that I’ve just joined PZ as co-blogger at Pharyngula.

The third reason, now that I come to think of it, is that there’s been all kinds of stuff to look at in my yard, like:

2012-09-05 13.13.13

There is also the fact that I have determined to plow through the revisions to the existing Joshua tree book chapters I’ve written and finish the book. I got a huge amount of writing done in the year and a half I was in LA, and got much guidance from my wonderful writer’s group there, and subsequent events have made it clear to me that I got off down the wrong path a bit, so there are a few dozen hours in the next two or three months I’ll need to spend fixing things and getting the book ready to ship.

So I can’t honestly say there’s going to be a whole lot going on here any time soon, but that doesn’t mean you don’t get to read new stuff of mine almost every day if you want to. Check out the above links for KCET and Pharyngula, and don’t forget you can find me on Twitter and Facebook and sort of at Google Plus, though it’s spammy as fuck over there lately.

I’m not saying this place is closing down. It might be. Or I might find a hundred things I suddenly need to share here that don’t fit at KCET or Pharyngula. But for now the paid gigs take precedence. Come on over to either place and say hello.

About me

What is selfhood? I begin to realize, these days, that I cannot actually define myself. I begin to realize, these days, that I have so far done the opposite. I subtract everything from the universe that i know is not me, and declare the remainder myself. I am not defining myself so much as defining what is not me.

This approach is flawed.

We’d like to think the boundary between each self and everything else is razor-sharp. The notion that my skin transsects the universe is comforting. Me, or not-me: a simple dichotomous key. It is easy to keep track of.

A decade ago my dog and I found a little cove on a deserted Pacific beach. He was always a little afraid of surf, but on this particular day the roiling water intrigued him and he danced in the foam, a little. The sky was slate gray, a fog in the air, and the cherty cliff that backed up the cove bore a sheen of condensation. We sat in the sand and watched the waves. He is gone now and no one else was there. Is the memory wholly within me now? I am its sole keeper, after all; a “me” large enough to contain souls long dead, a planet-covering of ocean, cliffs of Miocene mud pressed into rock crumbling back into mud. Three decades ago a friend and I walked through Buffalo’s decaying streets to the harbor. Container ships rolled silent past us, close enough that we could see the fine tendrils on their barnacles. He has been dead a quarter century, and I am the sole proprietor of that walk. Do I contain it?

Ridiculous, I agree, and yet the half-digested bread I ate an hour ago, wholly contained within my skin for a time, is no more part of me than the cargo on those remembered container ships was part of the ships. Some few of the bread’s atoms will stay in my body for months or years. Is this body me? This hair, these nails? They grow and are cut away month after month, but I remain. A breath will pass out of this body in a second, the calcium in my bones in a few years. A candle flame a minute old contains none of the matter it did when it was lit. What is the flame? Not a thing. A specific process occurring in a specific region of the universe. It is easy enough to say where the flame is, or to describe its characteristics. But to define what that flame is, in a way that distinguishes it from all other flames?

Three and a half billion years ago in the thin fetorous scum that wet this planet chemistry folded in on itself and became biology. A cell split in two, then four, and then ten quadrillion living things emerged, diversifying in turn, bacteria absorbed into other cells to become mitochondria and nuclei and other organelles, those host cells teaming up to form living tissue, tissue joining with tissue to form organisms. A billion years ago some of those organisms began to perceive the universe, or at least that part of it that surrounded them. Biology folded in on itself to form the rudiments of sentience. Some time later came another fold: a handful of organisms began to perceive themselves perceiving the universe. The universe folded in on itself and formed selves.

I am an example of an emergent property of organisms with a sufficiently complex central nervous system. And this is still no definition, but merely a capsule history. Not even a flame: merely a spark in a long, slow conflagration, a literal banked fire, the whole clade of aerobic lifeforms of which I am an insignificant member.

It is not a coincidence that as I ponder what exactly it is I am these last weeks I have not been sleeping much, though in which direction the causality runs I am not entirely sure. In the creosote and Joshua trees the questions seem less pressing. I may not know what I am but I know whatever I am is thirsty and has sore feet, and then the coyotes distract my attention even from that much. I cease to think about myself and become a lizard, a trilobite, a central nervous system attuned to light and temperature and sound and not given overmuch to whinging metaphysics. In the city that dissolution is denied me. I ruminate. I run past events over in my mind. I exercise myself over insults yet to come. Someone once loved who pretends I do not exist, or an anticipated difficulty made more difficult by anticipation, and I lay alert and skinless as the helicopters wheel over the hills.

When dreams come they predictably take me — home, I was going to say, but it is no more. I dream of the Bay Area where I lived for longer than some of my friends have been alive, and yet there are aspects of other places mixed in, Niagara Falls and tidal basins and mountains that never rose out of any plain on earth. This is another tack people choose to define themselves: the where and what, the occupation and residence, the relationships and loves and possessions, to define “me” by listing what is “mine.” An object lesson, my own “me”: everything that was “mine” four years ago, in whatever sense of the word you choose, is “mine” no longer. A troublesome pronoun, that, ambiguous and prone to misinterpretation, used to denote relationship (my spouse), custodianship (my dog), ownership (my garden), responsibility (my job), membership (my community), and some odd hybrid of ownership and identity (my heart). The question “who are you?” is answered as often as not with a bullet-pointed list of “mines,” and yet I remain more or less who I was despite losing almost everything on that list in the last two years.

It is a question more easily avoided than answered, and were I in the desert right now — asleep, more than likely — I would. The boundary between me and not-me resists resolution, one state fading into the other an atom at a time, as the thin universal matrix fades slowly into Planet Earth, bit by exospheric bit. Hard vacuum outside, and then imperceptibly the temperature of your ablative shield begins to rise. Where does the atmosphere end and interplanetary space begin? Where does the candle flame verge into what is merely heated air? You may as well choose an arbitrary line. Each of us a fold into which the self-awareness of the universe is inexorably drawn. All of us events without event horizons. Soon enough the fabric of the universe will anneal itself of the aperture that is me, entropy fulfilled and order restored, and the question of what I am will lose what little meaning it has.



Citrus flower hangs heavy in rain-washed air.
Restless parrots argue over palmfruit,
their brilliant green tails flashes against the lapis sky.
Coyolxauhqui’s round white face
watches over all from above the temple.

Xolotl’s blood drips on the parched soil.
He watches each drop fall, his bright star in the west
following the sun toward the ocean.

His vessel heavy, his blade worn,
Xolotl regards the traffic on Alvarado Street.
This blood, this sacrifice
that in Mictlan could raise the dead from their dry bones
here falls lifeless to the pavement
splatters the low and whitewashed wall of cinderblock
between the parking lot and the 99 cent store.

He carries the dead to their eternal home
he guards the sun in its transit of hell each night
and longing for Xochiquetzal ruler of artistry and joy,
the precious pleasure-flower goddess, her headband of green feathers
brilliant in his home’s remembered sunlight,
Xolotl again takes his long blade,
scrapes wash-water from the laundromat window.

A reading

I’m putting together a collection of poetry to make available for sale — I will of course let all of you know when it’s finished so that you can rush to buy several copies for each of your friends — and I found one I wrote some time ago, entitled “Everything Ending in My Sin.” Liked the sound of it read aloud. Thought I’d share.



This pebble in my boot, when it was one
still with its mother rock, cooled over tens
of centuries: a batholith. Bright grew
the flakes of muscovite, bright grew the pale
discolored quartz, each grain an infinite
fine tetrahedral tesselation, it
rose out of the depth of earth buoyant,
a yearning isostasy, then was stripped
of its crust-cover by dull-rasped storm.
At length outcropped, massive and without fault,
the rock began at once to decompose.
Frost-riven, wind-and water-worn, in turn
summer sun-scalded and ground down by ice,
mother rock failed. A craze, not half as wide
as spider strands, but still a root-purchase.
The mosses’ fierce and ravening grasp, the clench
of desert aster’s roots ratcheted, prised
apart by microscopic increment
rock from the monolith. Melt and refreeze:
ice put its Archimedean back against
the wall, strained quietly for centuries.
A thousand years, ten thousand, and the break:
Rockfall. A stony flinch, echoing gasp
as earth released its hold on earth, falling,
fracturing, a scattering of shards
and shrapnel. Storms to file the edges smooth,
an eon’s iterations, boulders rent
to cobbles, cobbles to stones,
shard-sanded scraps of stone a pediment
gravel apron mantling the mountain,
until the whole assemblage, self-entombed,
fuses itself, forms a conglomerate
core of some unborn range. This pebble in
my boot a scion of lands lost, a seed
of landscapes not yet made. This reddened heel
a blistered point of contact where my life
meets the much longer life of pulsing rock
falling, rising, its crests a mile above
and frequency unfathomably long.


[Time to haul this one out of the archives, what with all the targazing I’ve done the last couple days.]


“What is it that sets us apart,” she asked,
“from sunset or sierra?
What is the line between ourselves
and the terrain from which we come?”

He thought he knew, but something in her eyes
transfixed him in a way he knew too well.
Deep and dark and wet they stuck him fast.

In parts of California, long ago,
impressive monsters ambled in the hills:
placid armored sloths two people tall,
cats with teeth as long as boning knives,
dogs the size of bears. Now and again,
a glint of water tempted them, or else
a furry piece of meat held strangely still,
and only after the imprudent pounce
would the tar entomb them.
Now, the graduate students pick their bones.

When the land thus asserts your membership
in the vast assemblage of dust and bark,
of feather, fur and rock in which we live,
it’s best not to struggle overmuch.
The land is patient, yet insistent.
Fighting off the tar will muss your hair.
Paleontologists an era hence
will find your clothes awry. Embarrassing!
Far better just to let oneself be swallowed
in all-consuming pitch, placidly slurped
into the balm of Quaternary ages.

That’s what her eyes felt like, he thought;
a sudden lack of individual
identity: nothing sets us apart
one from the other, nor from the land around.

Desert Pavement

lava desert pavement

This wind is a tide. Plant your footsoles on the earth: the wind will scour the sand out from underneath, send you toppling backward into the holes it digs beneath your heels. It is relentless. It is patient. Sandgrain after wind-driven sandgrain blasts the surface, wearing down rock, dislodging in turn other grains of sand.

Outside the desert, plants hold the soil in place with a net of roots. Atop this lava flow only the most resolute of plants survive, the red-spined Ferocactus and gray Atriplex hymenelytra, Mojave yuccas a few decades old and wizened. They stay far apart. Between them the surface of the earth is bare, a few wisps of annual grasses the only adornment, and those blown away nearly as readily as the sand.

The tide-wind digs out holes beneath each rock. Each pebble, each fist-sized crag of basalt moves in the wind. A little to the left; the wind carries away sand beneath it to the right. The rock tilts into the new-dug hole, and the wind scours the open sand on the other side. Each rock grinds itself into the soil. The wind works hardest on those that still rise above their neighbors. Sand smooths away the sharp lines, the corners and apices.

Each year or two the rains come and spend themselves against the earth. Where rain hits sand it flings it upward, roughens the soil so that the wind can work it. Where rain hits rock the rock absorbs the blow.

Wind and rain favor the rock. At length the desert paves itself, a tight and fragile skin, small rocks interlocking each one with its neighbors. All else is stripped away. Anything the wind can scour, anything the rain can drown is stripped away.

Last week I stood serene atop an old lava flow in the company of Atriplex and Ferocactus. I envied them their tenure. I envied them their tenacity. I would have stayed there with them permanently, were it possible: stayed to watch the winters pass into springs, to watch the rocks smooth and dwindle under the stream of sand.

It struck me then that for all their armor, for all their bristling spines and thorns and bitter saponin glycosides, the plants were vulnerable. Had my feet grown roots into the lava, had I sunk taps into the desert to sip a quart a month and watch the sun, I would have been as vulnerable. I would have watched helpless as the Sahara mustard filled the spaces between the yuccas, dried and caught fire. I would have watched the brome tinge the earth a deeper red. I would have watched ten thousand sunsets and a storm of new industry scathing the desert wilderness. Though I cannot stay here with them I can at least move to defend them, I thought, and then there in that desiccated place came a sodden realization: because I can, I must.

Bit by bit it gets stripped away, all of it. All that I was stripped slow away by the tide wind, and what is left? This desert and my obligation to it, our only armor the coals of old fires long ago gone cold and black, a paved and broken skin to parry the wind.

On Writing

Jeneane Sessum notes a trend:

The old OLD pay for writers when I started out 25 years ago was $1 a word. During the dot-com era I was averaging $3 a word. At other times, the average compensation has fallen in the middle. For web content, I’ve made anywhere from $250 a page to $2,000 a page.

These last two weeks I’ve been checking out a few sources for writing work, and what I found was more depressing than I even imagined.

Responding to a dozen craigslist postings and 5 elance.com postings yielded four relevant replies.

The first, a woman who uses elance to outsource writing work to folks in India. I was, she explained, overqualified for the kind of work (and pay) she was offering. I did the math. It was pennies a word. She said I was overqualified. I have to think she’s right.

The next was a social media blogging gig, two posts per day minimum, with pay of $200/month, preceded by a testing period where hundreds of interested applicants would compete to get this primo gig. To the company’s credit, they offered $100 for the testing period.

Next I tried another online micro-job site that posts small jobs requiring a tiny bit (and nothing more) of human intelligence. Sample writing work there? 1000 word product guides. Pay: $5.00.  In 1986 I would have made about $1,000 for that job. In 1999 I would have made $3,000 for that job. Today, some one will do it — maybe not well, but they’ll do it and search optimize it — for five bucks.

I’ve been checking out the employment ads myself, having narrowed down my search for employment to rather a limited geographical area: somewhere between Salt Lake City, San Diego, and El Paso. Somewhere in that small region, I started out thinking to myself, there will be an environmental non-profit that needs its newsletter edited. Or, more likely, written, edited, and typeset.

So far Craigslist hasn’t brought forward any such opportunities. But were I to decide I wanted to work with a Search Engine Optimization firm, churning out near-identical prose pieces on travel and cooking and technology and entertainment, I could be raking in, according to some of these offers, two bucks for a thousand words.

I watch the newspapers going under. Five years ago, I would have walked into a daily’s office and said “Hi. I’m a former Knight-Ridder garden writer, syndicated cross-country for years. Gimme some freelance work,” and I bet I’d have gotten some by the second cold call. Last week the Los Angeles Times pulled the plug on its Local and California news section, and the LA Times is a dreadnought newspaper. Friends who write a garden column in Another City (unidentified here because I wouldn’t be surprised if their readership reads this) have had their column repurposed to “handy household hints,” a.k.a service journalism, the sixth stage in the Kubler-Rossian death of a newspaper. Things are bleak in the newspaper column biz. It may be that the Barstow Desert Dispatch needs a garden writer (Monday: water. Tuesday: water.) but I’m not counting on it.

The hype being bandied about by bloggers is that blogging will replace the daily newspaper. This might be true, and that scares me. Can I get a show of hands? When’s the last time you found a blog that had consistent coverage of local news, well, anywhere? You do get some state-or regionally focused blogs, like frinstance Aunt B. Big cities get blogs like Gothamist and LAist. Those of you in Lincoln, Nebraska will find out about road construction bonds… how? The police blotter in Redding, California will be published where?

Something similar is happening to writing. The overnight democratization of writing via blogs has had undeniably good effects: people are expressing themselves, and that’s a good thing. But what kind of writing does blogging teach you to do? People have had very kind things to say about my writing over the years, but here’s the thing: to the degree I write well, my past editors get the credit. Editing is, at its best, mentoring: a sequence of “what did you mean to say here?” and “is this the best word choice?” and “huh? I can’t make heads nor tails of this paragraph” that serves to help you see what you writing actually says, rather than what you meant it to say.

Imagine the reaction you’d get from the typical blog owner if you said his/her second paragraph made no sense whatsoever. For all the vaunted “self-correcting nature” of the blog world, there isn’t much self-correction when it comes to the actual drafting and redrafting of your standard blog post.

Sturgeon’s Law applies, here as in most other things. The good news is that the existence of millions of blogs subject to Sturgeon’s Law means that there are still hundreds of thousands of blogs potentially worth reading.

The bad news is that the popular conception of writing seems to be tending toward the mean of that skewed distribution rather than the median, which is why the Search Engine Optimization people can offer folks two cents a word to write hand-crafted stealth spam comments and insta-blurbs that read as if constructed by way of Mad Libs. They’re offering what that stuff’s worth.

“The fish are missing. They are gone.”

The coho run in Lagunitas Creek has crashed. From the San Francisco Chronicle:

The lack of rain this winter has contributed to what fisheries biologists say is, so far, the worst return of coho salmon in the recorded history of Marin County’s Lagunitas Creek watershed, one of California’s most critical ecosystems for the endangered fish.

The Lagunitas coho run is the heart of the ecosystem on Mount Tamalpais, the Bay Area’s emblemic peak. It was surprisingly healthy for a run so close to a major urban area. The coho were beautiful and strong.

I have sat here for some time tonight trying to find words in me to describe how I’m feeling at reading this news. No luck. The best I can do is reprint some words I wrote 12 years ago. They’re below the fold.

Continue reading

Ripley Desert Woodland

Snow remains this afternoon, thin glazed patches underneath the junipers. Ravens fly in pairs through the Western Mojave sky. A pair approaches, not seeing us behind a stand of juniper and Joshua. First one and then the other double-takes, stumbles in mid-air.

Their wingbeats are loud enough to echo off the low Neenach hills. It’s not as quiet as I’ve gotten used to, but it will do. The ground is sodden. It must have been a few inches of snow fell here last week, drifting under the junipers, turning the alluvial silt and gravel to mud as it melted.

Juniper and Joshua on the valley floor: a taste of the Pleistocene Mojave. We passed the Gorman grove on our way here, burned to the ground a decade or so ago. Stump sprouts already studded that field when I stopped three years ago. That’s the westernmost stand of Joshua trees, and the story is they rode there on the San Andreas fault, escaped the confines of the Mojave Desert with sly, tectonic patience. Their closest fellows that I know of are fourteen miles east, about a 70,000-year trip along the fault. This seems wrong. I need to ramble in the hills between, see if I can find a closer grove. Perhaps there were such, fallen in the last century to the plow and the torch.

Or perhaps the fault had little to do with it. The locals did plant trees, here and there, pre-contact. They are forever confounding the wildlife biologists, those pre-Columbian desert natives, planting groves of desert palms and carrying disjunct populations of tortoises into the Black Mountains.

The ravens work the Aqueduct route back and forth, searching for roadkill and drowned jackrabbits. The Raven searches in me. I have been in a deep funk these last days, out of place in the city and sifting through the ashes of who I was once, hoping for a stray ember to blow on. We came up here to see if it would help. She watches me as I watch the landscape.

Had I but water and bread, I would stay here happily for weeks.

A hundred years ago this whole valley was clothed in forest, aromatic juniper and Joshua dagger-armed, and coyotes slept fat on beds of desert forest duff. They lope across dangerous highways now, brave the guns of angry ranchers. One passed here recently, its tracks sunk deep in the sodden ground.

Coyote print

More than nine-tenths of the Antelope Valley’s forest is gone; more than ninety-nine hundredths. Fallen to the plow and the torch. A bare spot near here was dry-farmed in the 1930s and then left alone. Nothing but rabbitbrush has grown back since then.

Juniper and Joshua on the valley floor. A packrat midden sits four feet off the ground in a stout crooked elbow of juniper. Sage sparrows flit noisily between the yucca stems.

Much of the remaining forest is for sale, ready to be subdivided into ranchettes.

The Raven searches in me. Old terrains shift along scarred faults, slide by increment to places unanticipated. The ground is sodden and records our passage.

Elysian Park

I miss the certainty I had back then.
I miss the knowing all of it, the keen,
the ardent hewing to my heart’s clear path.
Old men slow-shamble in the liquor aisle,
sigh Russian imprecations baleful, soft
under their smog-choked breath. This shortest day
ends soon, the sun resigned. This is the life
I have these days, the slow awakening
and tethered dreams, heart tied to ghosts and soul
enervated, searching these tawny hills
for beating hearts there, under the chamise.
I saw a hawk above Elysian Park,
two hundred feet or more, and all the world
below it scurried heedless to some end.