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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Utah river journal

Day 1: travel

J. and I meet at a free climbers' camp near Moab, and though I don't climb – the very idea of hanging off that red monolith in the distance makes my heart beat fast – I like the climbing culture. There are probably 30 people here and last night everything was silent, a handful of fires burning under the stars, the bobbing headlamps of some stragglers coming off the approach in the dark. I slept in a cocoon of warmth and happiness and woke this morning to the bright blue skies of a desert spring, flowers unfurling in the morning sun, a man strumming a guitar beneath a juniper. J. has left to meet some friends for a kayaking trip to the north and I'm leaving soon to drive south and meet another group of friends on the banks of the San Juan River. Our paths intersect where they can, sleeping on a bed of dirt under the stars, and I love it. I love it all.

I dreamt last night that I climbed a tree – a very large, very gnarled old tree. I hung from a branch with my arms and legs wrapped around it like a sloth. I hung for a long time; for months maybe. Time passed in a gloomy gray light with no distinction between day and night. One day, I made the choice to swing my arms up in the kind of all-or-nothing move that a climber makes to reach a just-out-of-grasp fingerhold. I can't recall now whether I fell or climbed higher.



Day 2: river

A river is a living thing, a vein pumping the muddy blood of the desert. Early in the spring of a year with little snow, we hardly have to dip our paddles into it except to steer. We drift downstream, watching the landscape change from sandy floodplains crawling with cottonwoods to undulating hills of red sand to sheer canyon walls pocked with shadows and studded with sage. Across it all, the sky is tugged like a sheet snapped tight. We are on river-time now; dream-time.

It feels like the most natural thing in the world to float down this river with friends, surprising stock-still herons in the shallows, trailing my fingers in the water. But I can't help knowing that the tamarisk choking the banks aren't supposed to be there; that the dam upstream allowing more people to live in this scorched country has tamed the spring floods and prevented the river from reaching its natural floodplain, an area once farmed by ancient people now blowing dry with tumbleweeds, another non-native plant. But what's native, anyway? Everything comes from someplace else, and most things move on after they pass through here.

We climb high above the river to an ancient cliff dwelling, to the stone rooms and windows of the ancestral Puebloans, the Anasazi. The ones who left. We find potshards and thousand-year-old corncobs gnawed clean, and – tucked away in a secret alcove away from prying eyes and potential vandals – a piece of skin placed gingerly on a rock, with a lone stitch that's withstood centuries of wind and sand. A scrap of fabric from another world, another time. It humbles me. 






Day 3: rock

Even in March, the desert is a land of extremes. At night the water turns to pans of ice, and I curl in my sleeping bag with my hands jammed between my legs, waiting for the kiss of sunlight. And then in a blink it's afternoon and we're scrambling for shade beneath a blazing sky.

The desert is defined by water, by the river devouring the land. Yet twenty minutes of walking later it's as if such a thing never existed, and you're in a canyon so dry it cracks your lips and crumbles at your touch. Each rock is as distinct as a snowflake. In places it's hard and smooth, strata of glass and molten rock poured over grainy substrate, sensuous tendrils of black and red. In places it's terraced, so many layers in a single vertical foot that to look up at the towering walls is to comprehend millions of layers. Alone, each is flaky and unsubstantial, but together they comprise monuments.

Elsewhere, the canyon walls are dripping with an alkaline water that builds into coral-like globules, nubs of stalagmites sprouting from the earth. Sometimes the rock is green, tinted by minerals or slimed by algae. In places it's crumbled into billions of pebbles, each a different color and shape; and in places it's been pulverized to sand, sometimes white, sometimes red. Under certain overhangs, the rock is gray and rotting, and stepping beneath it is like walking on the dry ash of a fire that's burnt out and gotten cold.

How slowly do you have to move to learn the shapes and colors of a landscape, to memorize its names and absorb its mysteries? Here, I think, it would take forever: a lifetime of lifetimes. Even at our leisurely downstream pace, we miss much. Walking, I can see more, but sometimes I think the only way to see anything at all is to stop moving. When I'm still, I see two birds couple in midair, almost violently, and I don't know whether they've fought or made love. They freefall together for a brief moment and break apart before they fall to the earth. 



 


Day 4: wind

More extremes: This time, wind. Last night was much warmer but windy, and this morning's blue sky was swiftly replaced by a soft-gray cover of clouds. Made it four miles through the biggest rapid of the trip before getting slammed with wind. Absolutely pummeled. The kayak and canoe could've pushed on, but the raft was getting nowhere. We pulled off and ate lunch huddled next to a rock while watching the wind blow whitecaps upstream. Then we found a flat-ish spot and killed four hours drinking whiskey, putting up a giant tarp and abandoning it, sitting a cave, drinking more, getting silly and wondering if we'd be forced to spend the night there. Luckily, just before dark the wind died down and we scrambled to pack the boats and shove off. Made it a mile before getting slammed with another wall of wind. It's good to be out with four other guides – when we need to get shit done or make decisions, there is no mucking about. That night, our boats were unpacked, camp set up, fire crackling and dinner cooked in under 40 minutes. Our faces and hands are raw with wind-burn. There is sand in my teeth and up my nose. Tomorrow we'll make an early start to get off the river. 




Day 5: home

Back home in Colorado, a red-wind terror sweeps the valley, knocking branches of trees and whipping freshly-plowed fields into the sky. The sky is red with Utah sand, kicked up hundreds of miles away and now sticking to our windshields, traveling on currents of air across state boundaries. Utah follows me home; the desert won't let me go so easily.

So this is spring in this part of the world. Dry and violent, a kiss of fire. Tomorrow, I will plant peas, and I think I'll stay home for a while. 


Thursday, April 10, 2014

suffering and beauty.

 
One night, driving along the dark ribbon of Highway 550, I see movement. The movement becomes a shape; the shape a deer. A doe, struggling to stand and move out of the road. She rises halfway and her back legs crumple to the ground. She is broken. I'm at a dead stop now; don't know what to do, can't find the switch to put my hazards on, fumbling clumsily with one eye on the deer and the other on the headlights swiftly approaching in my rearview mirror. I drive forward, hoping that someone behind me has a gun to put her out of her misery. Suffering is the one thing I cannot bear to contemplate too deeply. When I arrive at the hot springs, I decide, I'll tell someone, ask what they would've done, ask to use the phone. Who should I call? The sheriff? There are so many deer around here.

There is no blood in the road. None.

At the desk of the hot springs, the woman who takes my $10 is beautiful and disinterested. She's talking to a co-worker; neither of them look at my face. For the second time this night, I am uncertain. It's light in here, and warm. The cold dark road is so distant it feels like it may not have been real.

I wish I carried a rifle.

I step outside again, naked, prancing across the cold ground like a deer myself, then ease into the steaming pool. There are two old men sitting at its ledge. A couple embracing. A woman talking to no one who says she's from a city and marvels aloud at the stars, which are indeed magnificent. So many bright pinpricks of light. I wonder who I could approach about the deer, but weighing my options, each seems too awkward and so I float on my back instead, submerging my ears into the silence of the pool.

I think, likely, that she will drag herself off the road and be killed by coyotes. That's not such a bad end. Then I think of all the other cars speeding down that dark road at 60 miles an hour and realize she will probably be hit again; that she will die slowly, her blood seeping onto the roadside, watching without comprehension as loud, bright machines roar past with no regard for her pain.

I think about the time I moved to Vermont and saw a dead doe and her fawn, 20 feet apart on the side of the highway. It seemed a bad omen for starting over in a new place. I cried for miles, wondering which died first and which, struck by grief, wandered nearby until it too was killed.

I think about my dog, who was struck by a car one night while I was out partying. I wasn't there, but I've relived the scene in my mind over and over again. He didn't die right away. He waited on the cold table of the vet's office until they could reach me at a bar across the state and get my permission for strangers to put him down.

Roadkill made me cry even before that.

There in the water, surrounded by lovers and strangers, thinking of suffering and death and whatever implicit roles I've played in both, I stare through the steaming breath of the earth to the mountains and stars beyond and for a moment, the veil lifts. For the space of a breath, I understand that we are small and insignificant. And yet at the same time, it doesn't feel that way. How can this be just another night, one among billions and billions on this spinning planet?




Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Cacti: the West's next cash crop?

When I finally got a hold of John Diener, the busy 62-year-old farmer was en route to his organic broccoli field in central California's San Joaquin Valley. I could picture the scene: a truck bouncing over a dusty track, golden morning sunlight, rows of bright green plants meeting a blue sky.

The vision was idyllic. But this area, one of the nation’s most agriculturally productive, has a problem: in places, the soil is killing the crops it’s meant to grow. Before a maze of irrigation ditches transformed it into an agricultural belt, the San Joaquin Valley was an ancient seabed, a vast stretch of arid soil high in salt, selenium and boron. Now, decades of irrigation and poor drainage have concentrated the naturally-occurring minerals to toxic levels, and the current drought is only exacerbating the problem without rain to drive them deeper into the water table, the soil is growing even less hospitable. "

Even the irrigation water is briny; 57 railroad cars worth of salt are pumped into the valley each day, and environmental concerns prohibit farmers from funneling the wastewater back into rivers and ditches as they once did – meaning the minerals accumulating on their land have nowhere else to go. Roughly 400,000 acres are at risk of becoming unusable because they’re too salty.

Some of his neighbors have taken land out of production, but Diener – who recycles 99 percent of his water and has won national conservation awards – would like to live out his days on the farm his family has worked since the 1920s. “I don’t think of land as a disposable resource,” he says. “I don’t want to sell the farm. So the reality is, what are we going to do to remediate the soil?”

Enter U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist Gary BaƱuelos, who’s built a career of figuring out what grows best in some of the world’s worst soils. (Chernobyl cabbage, anyone?) BaƱuelos says the worst part of the drought for San Joaquin farmers isn’t that there’s not enough water for irrigation, but that there’s not enough water to leach the minerals out. “If you don’t push the salt out of the roots (with water), the molecules migrate toward the surface and bring the salt with them,” he explains. “That’ll eventually kill the plant.”

At least, it kills most plants. But what if there were a plant that thrived in sodium- and selenium-rich soil? One that required very little water and even improved soil conditions by volatilizing selenium – sucking it up and off-gassing it?...

... Read the entire story here:  http://www.hcn.org/blogs/goat/de-salting-the-nations-salad-can-cacti-help-farmers-survive-the-california-drought

Monday, April 7, 2014

Feds and state officials square off on Alaska hunting regs

The morning of Friday, February 21 dawned bright and clear in the rolling boreal forest of the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, east of Fairbanks, Alaska. The temperature topped out at eight below zero.

Earlier in the week, a family of 11 wolves known as the Lost Creek pack loped beyond the preserve’s boundaries as they followed the Fortymile caribou herd, their main food source. Unfortunately for the wolves, the caribou herd’s proximity to a road — a rarity in Alaska — also makes it an important food source for local subsistence villages, and for families from Fairbanks and beyond. So to help ensure food security, the state’s governor-appointed Board of Game bolsters the herd’s numbers by killing some of the wolves that prey on caribou calving grounds.

Board chairman Ted Spraker insists that he doesn't hate wolves. “I think wolves are the most exciting animals in Alaska,” he says. Still, Spraker is bound by a 1994 state law requiring Alaska to manage wildlife to support abundant moose, caribou and deer populations for subsistence hunting, often at the expense of predators.

Under former Gov. Tony Knowles — the state’s only Democratic governor since 1990 — predator control efforts like aerial wolf kills effectively ceased. In some places, ungulate populations dropped. “Subsistence opportunities were in shambles,” Spraker recalls. “People in rural parts of the state were suffering.” So in the dozen years since Knowles left office, Alaska has played catch-up, leading to what some conservationists call “a war on wolves and bears” and creating tension between state and federal wildlife officials.

Recently predator control has grown especially lethal. In parts of the state, the Board of Game has authorized the use of artificial light to rouse black bears from their dens and shoot them as they emerge (“spotlighting”), as well as baiting brown bears, increasing bag limits and lengthening the hunting season to months when wolves and coyotes are raising pups. The idea, says Spraker, is to go all-out now so programs can be scaled-back or eliminated once ungulate populations are back up in the future.

Joan Frankevich, Alaska program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, doesn’t particularly care for such practices, but she accepts that the Board has the right to do what it will on Alaska’s 105 million acres of state land. What she does not accept, however, is that the Board has also tried to implement similar regulations in Alaska’s 22 million acres of national preserves....

Read the rest here: http://www.hcn.org/blogs/goat/federal-and-state-officials-square-off-on-alaska-hunting-regs

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Scenes from Paonia and nearby

 

28 Jan. 2014

It occurs to me, lying in bed with the silence of the house pressing around and the moon shining through the curtains, how easily I acclimate to being alone. Jesse is in Peru for six weeks and the solitude comes back as naturally as breathing, which is both reassuring and a little frightening. There are people from other places and other times that I consider good friends, and yet we interact rarely — they're like ships on a sea, summonable if I capsize but mostly just distant lights on my horizon. I go through my days independently, interacting mostly with the people who happen to be here with me in this place, at this time. Our orbits have randomly crossed, and while I'm grateful to walk into the brewery after work and know at least eight people by name, some bitter, cynical part of me can't forget that before long, they'll be gone from this place and so will I. We are all transient and rootless, all following our own paths. Sometimes I have to remind myself that that doesn't make our time here less meaningful.

1 Feb. 2014

Today I drove to Crested Butte, taking the longest of the three possible routes because the other two were blocked by snow. The drive to and from Gunnison was lovely, and the valley up to Crested Butte even more so — worn wooden barns tucked against hillsides, a cloud settling into the muted pink sky, a deepening dusk punctured by the lights of town. I have a drink at the bar where my friend works and talk to an older man, an engineer. Crested Butte is still a little funky and not as gaudy as some Colorado ski towns, but still clearly wealthy, with log beams and pricey boutiques. I am happy that I can drive here for a visit and happier still to come home to a town shaped by people who actually live there. When I'm wakened at night by the whistle of the coal train as it passes through Paonia, I sleepily smile that I live in a place where people still work with their hands in the earth.

8 Feb. 2014

It's been snowing on and off for a week now, a real winter like I haven't had since that one in Vermont — that winter carrying armloads of wood inside, clomping up the stairs in heavy, wet boots, driving up the hill after work and getting out of the car and standing for a moment in the frosted air on the mountaintop, my head tilted to the stars, the night perfectly still. This winter is different — I'm in town, for one thing — but every morning I wake up to a fresh inch or two of snow.

This morning I drink coffee and listen to KVNF as more snow falls outside. There's an old guy named Don doing the Saturday morning children's show, reading a story about going owling in the forest. Don struggles with the broadcasting technology and there's dead air but it's endearing because he's old, and has a sidekick named Wally who keeps saying, 'Yeah, Don. Yeah.' And Pete Seeger died and they play Pete Seeger songs, and then they talk on the phone to an 11-year-old boy and discuss pancakes and sledding and school. The boy gets to shoot .22s for science class. When a baby is born, Don and Wally welcome him or her over the radio and play a song called "You're My Little Potato." Life carries on. The seasons change.

14 February 2014

Walking to Joanna's house on a February night, carrying a jar of wine in my coat pocket, it feels suddenly like spring — a mild weekend coming in. The moon is nearly full and the streets are quiet, houses glowing from behind curtains. Faraway, a dog barks. Melting snow drips off a rooftop. Below the street, fresh snowmelt gushes through a sewer. How can such an ordinary night be so beautiful? Bare branches; grainy snow giving way to bare ground; a smell of wet soil and cold water in the air. Sometimes I love this place too much.

One Sunday in February

I've come to the edge of the San Juan mountains to stay in a friend's cabin for the weekend, and the snow is nearly gone, the landscape brown and soft. This is my dream: To not know or care what the date is; to wake up and sit outside on the steps of a cabin with a book and coffee in a hand-thrown mug; to feel the air on my face and hear, maybe, the rushing of water or of wind; to see the birds and the mountains, or maybe the sea. If this could be my morning at least one day a week, Lord, I will not complain about the other six. I will be happy.

Let this be my Sunday; let this be my church: morning sun, cold air, birds and a cup of strong coffee.

"And I will be to her a wall of fire all around, declares the Lord. And I will be the glory in her midst."
--Zechariah, 2:5



Friday, March 28, 2014

the in-between places.


"How much time does it take for place to seep in, for the here to quell the longing for the there?" -Rebecca Durham

Sometimes I ask how I have come to love this place, this stark, open land, sagebrush stabbed into its sandy soil, cracks and fissures splitting the earth. Coming from the rich and fertile coasts, where everything grows wild and green, where we bend to yank weeds from the ground — how did the people who came here before give that up for a place where every tendril of life must be coaxed from the earth, where the only plants are gnarled and stunted; brittle bits of life that thumb their nose at excess and fertility? Why did they stop moving and say, Here. This is the place.

There is no explaining why places like this get under our skin — not quite desert, not quite mountains, just a wild, lonely in-between. In in a time when the most hospitable places have been flattened under a sea of asphalt or privatized by the wealthy, I wonder whether these expanses appear less like wasteland and more like refuges. If our circumstances cause us to see not desolation but possibility.

I think briefly that must be so, and then I wonder again about the people who came here before. There's more to it. There's something in our soul that yearns for this.



Thursday, March 13, 2014

Water rights bill pits ski industry against conservationists

Update: the House passed HR 3189 on Thursday, March 13.


The German philosopher with the impressively bushy mustache, Friedrich Nietzsche, said that all things are subject to interpretation. Had he lived in the Western U.S., he might have tacked on a clause: “Especially when it comes to water policy.”
  A House bill to be voted on this week hammers his point home, with policy experts, conservation groups, the U.S. Forest Service and the ski industry each reaching different conclusions about the potential consequences of HR 3189, the “Water Rights Protection Act.” The bill seeks to prevent the federal government from imposing cond­itions on water rights owned by public land leaseholders. Opponents contend it would also weaken federal agencies’ ability to conserve stream flows for wildlife and recreation.

American Rivers, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and some 60 other conservation groups say the bill's broad language opens the door for ranchers, ski resorts, municipalities and others who own water rights on public land to bypass federal environmental laws and deplete rivers. By shifting management from federal to state or local control, the bill could undermine stream flow requirements mandated by the Endangered Species Act, or Fish and Wildlife measures that help fish pass over dams, the groups say.

“This bill is written way too broadly,” says Matt Niemerski, Western water policy director for Washington, D.C.-based American Rivers. “It would undermine efforts to improve the health of rivers and public lands, and force federal agencies to put private water use ahead of public uses, like wildlife, fishing or boating.”

Introduced last year by Representatives Scott Tipton, R-Colo., and Jared Polis, D-Colo., the legislation sprung from a seemingly simple disagreement between the U.S. Forest Service and a handful of Colorado ski resorts. It’s since bloomed into a complex web of accusations and interpretations that’s entangled river advocates, the ski industry, the Interior Department and Big Ag. ...

...Read the rest of the story here: http://www.hcn.org/blogs/goat/water-rights-bill-pits-ski-industry-against-conservationists
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