Wednesday, April 23, 2014


After four dusty days spent slithering through slot canyons and scrambling over boulders in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, this morning’s walk is notably refreshing. Steve Defa, a 59-year-old psychotherapist from Escalante, Utah, is leading me up a sandy wash shaded by big ponderosa pines and smaller pinyons. The air is fragrant with pine needles and sage after last night’s rain; the air pleasantly cool.

After a mile or so, we emerge into the canyon country for which the monument is known. Sandstone walls pocked with shadows and studded with green rise on either side. “This is backpacking heaven,” Defa says of his 1.9 million-acre backyard. “There’s more here than a person will ever get to in a lifetime.”

Soon, though, he picks up a tar ball the size of a brussels sprout and rolls it in his hand. I notice a young conifer bent sideways from a flood, its upper branches looking like they’ve been dipped in tar. Plants growing in the wash are black and brittle. “This is where it really begins,” Defa tells me, ducking under some bare willows. An acrid smell creeps into the fresh morning air; it smells like hot summer days of my childhood, when the new asphalt poured into cracks in the pavement became soft and gooey and I’d poke it with a stick.

A quarter-mile more and we come to an eight-inch layer of crude, dried to the consistency of warm asphalt and mixed with gravel and rocks. The layer extends four miles up Little Valley Wash, varying in depth and composition as it meanders across the landscape like a greasy black snake. Similar scenes can be found in three nearby washes, all of which drain into the Escalante River – a tributary of the Colorado – and all of which spill down from Death Ridge, a plateau on which Houston-based Citation Oil operates 19 wells. ...

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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?...

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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....

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