When the rains don’t come

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA sprightly woman 70-years-young walked into my office a year ago.  I’d grown used to the constant interruptions that came with working at a healthy conservation non-profit in a vibrant Colorado farm town on the edge of the wild Rockies.  People had their opinions, their questions, and above all, their unsolicited suggestions.  As the communications coordinator, my job was to listen to everybody who wanted to talk. To say, yes, you’re right, that is a good idea.  Or, yes, that is a reasonable concern.  Or, sure, I’ll have a cookie.

I had already pegged this particular community member as one of the isn’t-our-town-the-best-town-in-all-the-world contingent–but I hadn’t expected her to also be a part of the even more extreme shit’s-going-down-sometime-soon-so-we-better-prepare-for-it-here-and-now crew.  She’d brought in a flyer for an event she was organizing that week at the art center: an evening of community discussion about how we can prepare.  Just what she was thinking we needed to prepare for, I wasn’t sure.  Systematic collapse, I supposed.  I didn’t go to the event to find out.

I tend to scoff at apocalyptic talk.  It sounds a little too much like Revelations.  Besides the gay thing, that final book of the Bible was probably one of the larger contributing factors to my exodus from Christianity.  Blood and ash, really?  Burning skies?  The living dead?  Horsemen of death?! No thanks.

Last year, though, western Colorado, like much of the country, was being hit by a very severe drought.  Farmers had to harvest their hay early and sell their livestock.  The forests turned into tinder.  Driving the five-hours east to Denver, I felt as though I could have lit any hillside ablaze with a single match.  Anybody could start a maelstrom.  I heard reports of fires, big ones, and saw their smoke drift in from around the state.  Whole neighborhoods burned, whole mountainsides.  Many of the fires began from the most mundane sources: a chain bouncing along the road, a broken muffler, even somebody’s target-practice bullets.  Wildfire gets a lot more real when anything and everything could burn.

The reservoirs, which had been overly full from a big snow winter the year prior, were now running on empty.  Having grown up in the Midwest, going to school up on the Great Lakes, living as an adult in Alaska and Montana, for the first time in my life, I lived somewhere where the water was running out.  Fortunately, my small town has access to a few reliable springs that flow out from the base of the West Elk peaks that rise to an elevation of 12,000 feet just a few miles east of town.  Even if the river ran dry (which it did by August) with the little surface water diverted into the irrigation canals which were slowly forced to shut off one by one, the town still had its municipal supply of water.  And our valley, unlike more populated, lower-lying areas in the southwest United States, only needed one good snow year to top off our reservoirs once again.  Even so, it was a drought.  Not the end of the world.

Apocalyptic PlanetToward the end of the summer, I volunteered for a local writer’s book reading.  Craig Child’s book, titled Apocalyptic Planet, is “a field guide to the everending earth.”  In the book, as well as at the reading, Craig shared a series of natural history stories from around the world, places where Craig dug into the past of each respective place and gave the audience a deep and often disturbingly violent story of upheaval and change.  It turns out that the planet is dynamic.  It is constantly turning over, reshaping itself.  In the book, he points out that according to our current understanding of the globe, humans arose as a species, and our civilizations with us, during a particularly pleasant time to be on Earth.  Sure, there is still cataclysm, but there have been greater floods, bigger impacts, drier droughts than what humans have known in our short time on the planet. Instead of using these stories as justifications to continue our course of global change, however, Craig carefully constructs the feeling that the balance we’ve got right now is something we probably shouldn’t choose to throw to the wind.  We are living in a world finely balanced, but this particular global climate state is more of a rarity than we might have imagined, and more easily lost than we might guess.

Since reading his book and hearing Craig speak, I’ve heard other people talking about the long-time perspective as well–and not in the most cheery ways.  Particularly out west, there’s reason to be concerned about water.   My friend and fellow small-town resident, radio producer Julia Kumari-Drapkin, recently produced a piece for This American Lifes global warming episode.  The whole episode is spot-on, more about the dialogue of climate change than the current science of it.  Julia’s piece in particular is both captivating and a little bit heart-breaking.  The story delves into last year’s drought in Colorado and the struggle scientists have to give news they don’t think people want to hear.

The news, in our particular case, was about the droughts of the future, the droughts that the climate models are predicting, the droughts exacerbated by anthropogenic (human-made) climate change.  What the climatologists are beginning to tell the public is that the drought of 2012 could look like an average year within a decade or two.  These future droughts look eerily similar to the  sort of droughts that Craig chronicles in his book, the ones that have been marked in the recent geologic record across the western United States.  We’re not talking about the dust bowl.  We’re talking about droughts that last centuries.  Droughts when there are no good snow years–for three hundred years.  Reach even farther back in the geologic record, and we are talking about droughts that are very difficult to imagine: thousand-year-droughts, that then, aren’t really droughts, but instead a complete shift in climate regimes.  Think large dune complexes in Nebraska, dry grasslands in Minnesota, think a whole lot of desert everywhere west.

This NASA climate model video of projected rainfall changes particularly struck close-to-home.  I recently moved from Colorado to the central Sierras in California to work on a restoration crew in Yosemite National Park.  The long-term precipitation outlook for California and the southwest looks grim.  I get to spend my time out in the high alpine of the Sierras, restoring habitat for rare species like the Yosemite Toad and other sovereign creatures.  And yet, what will happen to them when the big drought hits?  What will happen to these entire ecosystems?  Then there are the people: what will happen to the cities of the Southwest?  To the agriculture of western Colorado?  To the springs at the base of the West Elks?

No one knows what will happen, but one thing for certain is that change is inevitable.  What sort of change, well, I suppose we still have some say in the matter.  I’m going to keep restoring habitat.  And I’m going to keep demanding my government to curb greenhouse gases.  As Bill McKibben is warning in his current Do The Math campaign, climate change is beyond each of our own individual control.  If we are going to curb carbon, it’s going to be a global effort.

We cannot stop change.  In fact, no “balance” on this planet will ever be permanent.  This dynamic world is constantly shifting from one form to another.  Rather than accelerating global change, toward any number of possible future conditions while preparing for collapse, but I’d rather fight hard to hold onto what we’ve got for as long as we can keep it.

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The Sea Hold

Rebecca West’s collection of Carl Sandburg poetry found me while I was wandering through the shelves of the Wawona Library.  How do books wait for you, and then pounce like that?  His words spread out like the plains where he’s from: collections of so many small sights, settled in together among the low hills, until, after a long while, your eyes and ears recognize the lines of the much larger body, the grand, the beautiful, the sublime.

***

“The Sea Hold” – Carl Sandburg

The sea is large.

The Sea hold on a leg of land in the Chesapeake hugs an early sunset and a last morning star over the oyster beds and the late clam boats of lonely men.

Five white houses on a half-mile strip of land . . . five white dice rolled from a tube.

Not so long ago . . . the sea was large . . .And to-day the sea has lost nothing . . .  it keeps all.

I am a loon about the sea.
I make so many sea songs, I cry so many sea cries, I forget so many sea songs and sea cries.

I am a loon about the sea.
So are five men I had a fish fry with once in a tar-paper shack trembling in a sand storm.
The sea knows more about them than they know themselves.
They know only how the sea hugs and will not let go.

The sea is large.
The sea must know more than any of us.

***

The month of May found me, and so I have been writing, writing, writing, calling it my self-sponsored artist-in-residency, here in Yosemite National Park.  I just finished an essay I’ve been trying to write for the last two years.  It’s about Chicago, Sandburg’s Chicago.  I sent it off to a magazine.  We’ll see.  Pete’s job has begun, working as a Wilderness Ranger here in Wawona.  My job begins in a week, when I will join a restoration crew as we restore the Yosemite Wilderness.  I feel new.

***

The opening to “Potato Blossom Songs and Jigs” – Carl Sandburg

Rum tiddy um,
tiddy um,
tiddy um tum tum.
My knees are loose-like, my feet want to sling their selves . . .

***

One voice tells me to stop.  That I have nothing to share.  Another voice tells me I have stories.  And a third says that if you offer one well-composed sentence, that’s something.

An introduction

Okay.  The thing you should probably know about me is that, well, I’m balding.  Gasp!  Arghhh!  Hiughhhhhhhh, kerplunph (that was the sound of you passing out and falling to the floor in shock).  Yep.  It’s truth.  And here’s why it matters:

So, it actually doesn’t.  It doesn’t affect my life at all.  I forget about it most the time.  Or if I do remember, it usually involves preparing to spend all day out in the sun, and you only need to burn your scalp once to remember that experience.  Or maybe I just burned my scalp so deeply, it burned right into my brain.  Anyway, I protect it from the sun.  But otherwise, it just isn’t much of a problem.

Until I saw my wedding videos.  Yep, it was the happiest day of my life, I can’t lie.  And not for all those reasons that I rolled my eyes at before I got married.  No, it was being surrounded by so much love.  Nearly all the important people of your whole life, there in one room, smiling with their eyes and their mouths and their ears.  Clapping and cheering!  Crying!  Geesh, it was like I hadn’t really known just how crazy intense love could be (in a non-husbandly way) until my husband and I stood up there in front of all those love-laser eyes.

So while Pete and I were withstanding the pressure-cooker of joy that was the audience of our wedding, all of our audience members only had to withstand the occasional glances of our shiny faces.  Now we can circle back to the problem with the wedding videos: I got to be one of the audience members, and what I saw was not only Pete and my shiny faces, but my shiny scalp, as bright as the snow, a sizeable wafer of cuticle-free crown.  My reaction?  I cringed.  Yiieeeeee.

My bald spot haunted all of the videos, like the baby bump nobody is supposed to notice, or a lazy eye (that’s a whole other introduction I’ll have to give you sometime.).  The first dance video might exhibit the best example of bald-spot-hostage-takeover.  I’ve included it here:

Yeah, I know, right?  That man can dance!  And then there’s me, holding on for dear life.  No, I was so in love, so swimming in the Niagara Falls of love, that I gladly threw myself in the barrel with my husband and so goes 4 minutes.

But back to the bald thing: so, while watching our first dance video, instead of remembering all those happy feelings, I felt the shock and surprise about my bald spot, and it seemed to me that I had a few choices about how I could move forward with those feelings.  I could:

a) shove ’em down real deep and good,

b) make a resolution that it’s enough already, living in this half-world shadow existence of not quite being the man I dream of being, and order my first round of Rogaine, then signing onto WordPress to write an inspirational blogpost about taking control of my life,

c) do nothing (always an option),

d) panic (always an option, though usually the least helpful),

e) determine that my bald spot just doesn’t matter all that much and enjoy the goddamn video for all the happiness that it documents, or

f) not only do e), but realize that, in fact, that bald spot makes the video, because it is a part of who I am, the man that Pete fell in love with.  And that bald spot rests on the peak of the head of the man that fell in love with Pete, the same head on the same man who was a part of the Alex-Pete duo whom the crowd was cheering on.  And the crowd knew that man and loved that man, if not because of the bald spot, then certainly with full inclusion of it.  Pete claims he loves my bald spot.  And so I let him touch it more often than I would prefer.

Guess which option I chose.

Humans can change all sorts of things about ourselves.  Our primeval ancestors, hundreds of thousands of years ago, probably wondered if they were beautiful, mirrors or no, and went about trying to make themselves different.  I know I do.  But my bald spot?  I’m over it.  And, in fact, if all of those people cheering and screaming and crying love me, love my love, then they love my bald spot.  I’m trying to love it too.

in the beginning: a prologue

Tenalian Lake in Lake Clark National Park

Tenalian Lake in Lake Clark National Park

Shit’s messed up. It’s right there in the fine print.  I mean, really. messed. up.  While some optimists are wearing rosy glasses about the reversal of the current mass extinction and the largest environmental group in the world is telling the conservationists to lighten up, that ecosystems aren’t so fragile as we think, I still think we’re losing.  Literally.  We’re losing the biological richness of the earth.

The trick, it seems, in the face of slow-motion catastrophe, is to look that dark truth squarely in the face, grab a hold of it, and make out with it.  And do a really delicious unchoreographed dance with it.  To find joy, to find love, and to find hope, that’s the hard part.  To wonder at the beauty of the world, even as you are staring into sorrow and hate and apathy.  And then to do something.  This is what my friends have taught me.

In the beginning, there was light.  And then there was lots of darkness.  And so much to learn.  And so much to do.  And still so much light.