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August 21, 2005

Luna llena

The more I learn about the desert fires, the bleaker my outlook becomes. I have spent the last weeks immersed in scientific studies, talking to wildlife biologists and range ecologists, reading about the history of fires and the politics among land managers and local resource extractors, watching as a record number of acres of desert land is irrevocably altered, and I become convinced the world is ending.

I had thought, when I started to write my little book on the Joshua tree, that it would be a simple, straightforward paean to a species I admire so well. I spent years observing, learning, growing to love this tree. For nearly a decade I would scold myself that I should get off my ass and write. Seven, eight years passed. Four thousand words, maybe five, were all I had to show for that span of time.

And then April came, and I finally got nine chapters of the book drafted with ten more mapped out, and then the world changed. The largest fires ever to scorch the Mojave and Sonoran deserts happened within two months this summer, and the summer is not yet over. Nearly a million acres burned already, some of the fires the largest the desert has seen in 10,000 years, and the summer is not over.

Matthew and I watched twin thunderstorms roll past us on Cima Dome last month. Lightning struck to our north and south. One of the strikes caught, off to the North in the Kingston Range. Only the vicissitudes of wind direction kept those strikes from hitting the Dome, whose Joshua tree forest is readier to burn than the brush of Wild Horse Mesa or Mormon Mountain. Both of those places burned catastrophically within the last month.

And if the Dome escapes the fires this year, we can only relax until the next wet winter. And other places will burn: Wee Thump, or Dolan Springs, or the Pakoon. And where the land burns, the invasive red brome then grows, fueling more fires. It is a juggernath. I asked one scientist whether he thought we would see the extinction of the Mojave and Sonoran deserts in this century. He was reluctant to give me a definitive yes. There might be something we could do to stop the process, he said. He didn't know what. Nothing that had been tried so far had worked, he said. Now. he said, is the time to start trying things we don't think will work.

Far from being a pleasant diversion, a writing exercise, pretty words to evoke lovely landscapes, my book is becoming an elegy. I've worried whether my writing would bring people to fragile places, burden the desert with sightseers. Now I fear that readers will never be able to viisit the places I describe. Some of the landscapes I've written about have already been destroyed, and more will follow each year. I am not writing a guide for travellers: I am writing an obituary.

Amid this I read an exhortation to downplay this "side issue" because, as the writer put it, "[W]hen Democrats regain power, choice, the environment, worker's rights - the whole gamut - will be protected."

Never mind that if you were to try single out an individual human as posing the greatest threat to the landscapes I prematurely mourn, that person might well be Harry Reid. Never mind the arrogance, the sheer self-centeredness of the tone. It is the parochialism of the statement that knocks the wind out of me. Yeah, he sees the unraveling of the global suite of ecosystems, the erosion of species and the accelerating pulses of disruption. But that's not as important as a dominance battle between two factions of a tiny elite of one species of primates without whom the earth would, unequivocally, be better off.

I have spent many hours these past weeks staying the hell away from my computer. Not reading. Trying not to think about my book. Wishing I could submit, wholly and without regret, to the temptations of misanthropy.

I prune trees instead.

I worked on the live oak behind our house today, cutting the low-hanging branches on which I've been hitting my head back to higher-trending forks. I fretted these last years about Sudden Oak Death, but that scourge may pass without much damage. This year's crop of acorns is healthy, and the fox squirrels will plant new trees thoughout my yard. I agonize when I have to pull them though I have killed more coast live oaks than most people I know.

Yesterday it was the shrubs. Becky hacked away at an aromatic sage that had completely grown over our path, and I fed ten-foot butterfly-bush stems into the chipper-shredder. We piled up two cubic meters of branches and leaves, and the engine reduced them to a quarter that volume. They will make compost to feed the soil. This is an accomplishment I can claim, perhaps my most durable: a manuring of five thousand square feet.

Cleaning up the last of the fallen twigs, I saw the moon rising yesterday over the far hills across Pinole Valley. She was reassuring. Something I love will stay the same. Let the wars rage, the fires burn, let the desert forests become ash before the swirling wind. Let my people die in fear and recrimination. Let a million innocent species end, to compost futilely on a sterile soil. The moon will still swing overhead, waxing as we wane. Even as Earth's slopes increasingly resemble hers, Luna will look down upon them, bathe them in her sweet cold light. That, at least, is reason for some small gratitude.

Mi luna
ha visto tanto
que cuando le canto su plata me acuna
como a los santos
y los prisioneros, los amantes
los locos errantes y los pordioseros
que amamantamos tu luz.

Cuando no hay amigos, pan ni dinero
solo la poesía que flota en el aire sincero
y en las bancas solas
que hay en los parques
que mueren de frío
esperando amores amanezqueros.

Ay mi luna llena, escucha la pena
cuando un hombre canta
al amor que espera
Ay mi luna llena, escucha la pena
cuando un hombre canta
al amor que quiere
Ay mi luna llena, escucha la pena
cuando un hombre canta
al amor que muere
Ay mi luna llena.

(Salvador Cardenal)

Posted by Chris Clarke at August 21, 2005 05:29 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Nice song. Very nice.

It reminds me of a cross between Emmy Lou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, for some reason. I keep waiting to hear Willie Nelson chime in on the chorus.

The desert will not die. The fires will change it, just like meteors, glaciers, and climate have changed it in the past. But it will not die.

It will be different. Just as environments have changed before, so too they will change again. In the San Bernardino Mountains, we will see pine forests change to oak woodlands because of fires grown out-of-control, ironically as a result of decades of fire suppression.

A thousand years ago, that would have been seen as a good thing. There is more food for people in an oak woodland (acorns) than in a pine forest.

People (and the the indirect effects of their presence such as brome grasses) have been causing changes in the desert environment for at least 10,000 years and probably considerably longer.

I suspect those changes will not stop or go away soon, either here or elsewhere.

One thing we need to remember as we consider what a "natural environment" looks like is that the landscape at the time of historic contact was already the product of human intervention over many millennia.

Let us not gnash our teeth and wring our hands, but rather watch and learn as the next version of the landscape unfolds. If we learn well, we might avoid past mistakes. Maybe not. But the desert is bigger than us. Or not.

Mike (awaiting the all-too-predictable responses)

Posted by: Mike Lerch at August 21, 2005 08:34 PM
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One thing we need to remember as we consider what a "natural environment" looks like is that the landscape at the time of historic contact was already the product of human intervention over many millennia. Let us not gnash our teeth and wring our hands, but rather watch and learn as the next version of the landscape unfolds.

It just figures the first note of disagreement would come from someone who knows the Mojave far better than I do.

As you know, Mike, generally I'd be right there with you. But when the dispassionate scientists start talkng in bleak terms about fire cycles of more than 10K years changing to fire cycles of fewer than 20 years, that's, well, big. And I'll cop to liking j trees and saguaros and cryptobiotic crusts more than I like red brome, though that's less than dispassionate of me.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at August 21, 2005 08:45 PM
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postus interruptus?

Posted by: Mike Lerch at August 21, 2005 09:02 PM
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Heh. Nope, just using angle brackets to mean "less than" and thus confusing the HTML gods. Fixed now.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at August 21, 2005 09:15 PM
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I, too, regret the burning of the deserts. I came to love the California deserts quite recently, and was completely charmed by my first view of Joshua trees.

Life is fragile, though, and from a deep time perspective, 20 years and 10,000 years are much the same. Sometimes you have to turn to the rocks for reassurance that beauty can be created even from crushing pressure and mind-bending heat, and that when all seems destroyed, the planet might just be getting started on a spot of reworking. Mosaic Canyon in Death Valley (Tucky mountain) comes to mind as an example of planetary artistry in metamorphic rocks.

The same rains that encouraged the fire's fuel also created the spectacular show of wildflowers last spring, and that too was beautiful -- and by deep time reconing, no more ephemeral. Last April, my friends and I picked our way up several canyons on the east side of Owens Valley, and even those who claimed to be uninterested in the wildflowers were trying not to step on the profusion of tiny blooms.

One must celebrate the gifts given, try to amend the foolishness of people, and not grieve too much the passing of ephemeral beauty.

Posted by: Karen at August 21, 2005 09:55 PM
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seester! you said it better than I could...

Posted by: Mike Lerch at August 21, 2005 10:04 PM
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En la luna hay algo que sufre,
Y que seca, llorando, las lagrimas

(Jimenez? I don't remember any more. -- I'm sorry, Chris. I know what it's like to lose a beloved landscape to stupid, idiotic, infantile, self-defeating greed, having watched most of the Northwest forests destroyed over the course of my lifetime. Then they plant some scrubby little trees over the litter of slash and call it a restored forest. Like putting rouge on a corpse and calling it alive.)

Posted by: dale at August 21, 2005 10:14 PM
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For anyone who says that ecological areas can't die or be permanently changed to something else:

Ireland was once a place of deep, dark, old-growth forests.

So was Greece.

And the Sahara was once a lush jungle.

To say that well, because these things happened in the past if it happens again it won't be an ecological catastrophe - this is the stock line from conservatives all my life, against any sort of environmental protection: species have gone extinct throughout history, so what if we lose a spotted owl or red wolf compared to profits^h^h^h jobs, we mean jobs! - is to take a false position of detachment. The species you save may be your own - but if it isn't, so what? Humanity is not an island, apathy is death.

Posted by: bellatrys at August 22, 2005 03:55 AM
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...Mortals pretending to be eternal gods, dismissing the death of species as unworthy of mourning from an imagined vantage point on some hypothetical mount Olympus...are not my kin in anything but DNA.

Posted by: bellatrys at August 22, 2005 03:58 AM
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bellatrys, I read at the Lavender Museum in Provence that lavender used to cover the Sahara. One day we'll say that about France, too.

Meanwhile, I just wish someone would figure out the biological enemy of stinging nettle and unleash it in my garden.

Posted by: KathyF at August 22, 2005 05:00 AM
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I agree with you, bellatrys, but I should say that Mike is not one who usually has a conservative point of view. He's a (former?) Green Party activist, and an anthropologist who's spent his career in the Mojave. He's thus better qualified to talk about the rate and scope of biotic change in the desert than am I.

But I do disagree mildly with him here, and I'll say more on that after I get back from taking Zeke to the vet so that she can sew up the wounds our neighbors' fucking asshole dog made in his face last night.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at August 22, 2005 08:36 AM
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Oh, poor Zeke!

On the other point... One part of me takes the very long view, and sees change as inevitable, and even finds a certain degree of comfort in envisioning a world in which weeds grow up through the pavement of cities and the asphalt of highways. So from that perspective, I can temper my dismay with the belief that life does go on.

But the other side, my smaller, briefer-in-time side, mourns the loss of even little things like individual people or animals or small places that were special. When that then looks at whole species, or ecologies, or larger regions or ways of life, then it does become overwhelming.

In the generalities, I do not worry so much about the resiliance of life or the planet. But I do regret and resist the loss of the smaller parts of the whole -- they may be succeeded by other creatures or niche-fillers, but the whole will not be exactly the same. That there are hundreds of thousands of people does not make a friend less special, and this is true for species and places as well. I can mourn the fall of an oak in my yard, while recognizing that oaks as a species are not threatened.

But it's hard, especially when you get the feeling that both the whole and the parts are inadequately valued by those with the power to make a large-scale difference.

Posted by: Rana at August 22, 2005 11:16 AM
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What you said in that last graf of yours is pretty much the reason why Jake Sigg the native plants maven told me he takes great comfort in his other passion, astronomy: "Even if we fuck things up completely here, the stars are still there."

Posted by: Ron at August 22, 2005 10:58 PM
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