Seeking nature in Denver: thoughts on nature writing in the 21st century.

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In downtown Denver last week, enveloped in civilized concrete canyons, I grew lonesome for wild places. So on a Saturday evening, I decided to go looking for nature. Not in the great out of doors, but just around the corner from the Grand Hyatt, in Barnes and Noble—perhaps the most iconic and popular of national brick-and-mortar booksellers.

Nature is not easy to find in Barnes and Noble. There were shelves full of Romance Novels, Gothic Romance Novels, Young Adult Gothic Romance Novels Thrillers, books on how to grow your business, become a happier person, travel to London or Madagascar. Automobiles, History, Biography. An astronauts guide to living on Earth. Dan Brown. Stephen King. Anne Rice.
Nature in B&NxxIt took persistent wandering, but finally, in an obscure corner of the first floor, a lone, 30-inch-wide section of a bookshelf bore the label “Nature.” It was right next to two sections of books on dogs, and one section of books on “Pets”, and around the corner from five sections of “Photography”. We won’t enumerate the “Cooking” sections.
Twenty years ago Bill McKibben warned us that the End of Nature was neigh. Here was undeniable proof that, at least, in Barnes and Noble, he was right. The featured “nature book”? “Sagebrush Rebel: Reagan’s Battle with Environmental Extremists, and Why it Matters Today.” Sagebrush+Rebel+July+8
I looked for familiar writers and titles: Carson’s Silent Spring. Anything by Barry Lopez. Aldo Leopold. Terry Tempest Williams. Eaarth. The Monkey Wrench Gang. Instead, the shelf was inhabited by “The Wonderful World of Nature (Disney Press), “Savage Nature”, and Nature Bible. (“Kids can head out into the woods or off to camp with a full-text International Children’s Bible® translation that helps them enjoy the wonder of God’s creation.”) There were Michael Pollan books. Several tomes on how to write about nature. An anthology or two. A few stalwarts –Barbara Kingsolver, Emerson, Thoreau, and, yes, Bill McKibben spiced the shelves. They seemed almost embarrassed by their company.
For “Nature” to be banished to the distant corner of this iconic bookseller reflects our collective disenchantment with the subject. We fret about the global economy. Syria. Hunger. The rise of Swine Flu and the return of Polio. How much dog hair is there on the sofa? And has anyone hacked into my American Express account. Nature seems remote and irrelevant..
How did we get to this point?
There is the now-dogmatic recognition that children don’t get out much anymore. Legions of books and essays address “Nature Deficit Disorder” and warn of its dire consequences. There is considerable truth to this. Students (mostly First-years) in my ES 120 class at Whitman enjoy our excursions not only because they learn about water supply, the sins of dams, and the advantages of wind turbines, but also because each foray into the out of doors provides physical, if not mental, contact with dogs, cats, sheep, goats, horses, and cattle—all of which are pet-able. Yesterday, at a visit to Upper Dry Creek Ranch – a local raiser of grass-fed beef, lamb, and goat–all 24 students flocked to the animals when they should have been listening to a talk by our hosts, ranchers Robert and Cheryl Cosner. I really should have castigated my crew, but to be honest, they needed the contact with fur more than the lecture.
This deficit of contact with Nature, and its writing, might lead to a greater demand for books, or even videos, about “Nature.” But that’s not what I found back there in the far corner of Barnes and Noble.
While we have an instinctive hunger for contact with nature, we are also highly conflicted about the inherent dangers posed by The Wild, and hyper aware that humans are at fault for the loss of too many species, and the cause of to much pain.
There is also the fear of letting one’s children play in the woods, or marshes, or tall prairie grass. It arises not so much from concern about an ambush by cougars or wolves, or even Lyme-disease-bearing deer ticks, but from fear that some passing human predator will snatch our children. From this concern, which is not truly about nature, children absorb the sense that Outside is a Dangerous Place, without understanding the true basis of concern, in much the same way that my horse knows when I am afraid or unsure, without really knowing why.
This produces, I think, a sort of approach-avoidance conundrum. Yes, nature is beautiful. But it is dangerous, too. Maybe better not to go there.
And like everyone, I am unlikely to read about subjects that cause personal emotional pain. Nothing does this better than reading about Nature’s plight. Any book or article about elephants will either remind me that they are being poached and that their lives are full of pain and suffering. Because I already know this, if I read about happy lives of elephants, I tend to think of the piece as a Pollyanna-ish and inaccurate. If I read about wolves, there are often ranchers stalking them, or the return of hunting to excessive levels. Better to stick with stories of dogs (two sections). Or sink into the storied, fictional oblivion of The Road, since we seem to be inexorably moving in that direction, or Twilight, where the threats are mythic, and wolves are, too.
As Bill McKibben observed in The End of Nature, the true Wild has vanished, as mythic now as the Twilight wolves. The planet is no longer in charge. We are.
So what to do about that destitute shelf titled “Nature”?
When I was a child, my mother took me on long “walks in the woods” where we shared a happy sense of wonder and aesthetics, and she kept me safe. We can all do this, and the more one-on-one the time spent, the more enriching the experience. Taking a whole class on a hike, or a whole boy scout troupe, or a gaggle of 20 campers is preferable to no outside time at all, but it is hard to focus everyone’s attention on just one thing, hard to avoid the siren call of the iPhone and text messages (If only frogs and dung beetles and mergansers could text!) and learn to Just Listen, and to make that a practice.
photo-2Traditional “Nature Writing”, from Aldo Leopold to Terry Tempest Williams, generally presents descriptions of lovely places and charismatic animals – which seem curiously irrelevant–or foreboding tales of loss. Drowning polar bears. Dying bees. Orcas ridden with PCBs. One student in my ES 120 class, wrestling with depression over the state of the planet and everything on it, asked to substitute something more cheerful in place of the remorseless reading list of How Awful Things Are and Will Become.
It is very hard to find readings that work. Information relevant to us, now, on the brink of the perilous 21st century. But I believe there is a future for nature and nature writing. Not to find only the cheery. But instead, to tell relevant stories about resilience and connections. Restoration” and resilience are comparatively new. Only in the last two decades have we been serious about restoring what we have torn up for two centuries. And the idea of grooming fields and forests to encourage a resilient, adaptable natural world is newer still.
The reality is that the very nature of nature has changed. To write about the old world of wild nature is nostalgic; at best only tattered remnants remain, and those are shrinking fast. It is critical to save, restore, and expand what we can of Wild Nature But to survive, Nature Writing, as well as nature, needs to adapt. This need not be the apocryphal, or even the apocalyptical era, of the End of Nature. It can be the beginning of a nature-human partnership. Perhaps a harnessed nature. Or a wild adapted to humans, rather than overwhelmed by it. A resilient, adapted nature, which may be the only nature that can survive the next millennium.
Is this a loss? In my mind, yes. But not as much in my students minds, who tend to se nature as an extension of their social selves, and a continuum rather that the frontier mindset of humans and wild, Us and Them.
What might this new, more uplifting, literature look like?
We might build it upon E.O. Wilson’s concept of Biophilia–the need for humans to connect with nature. We could express our thoughts in sustainable woodlands, and forests that are adapting, however awkwardly, to a shifting climate. We could accept, to some degree, the idea proposed by students in my Environmental Studies class that invasive species are really “neo-natives” that WE have to adapt to. (Are zebra mussels clogging your dam? We, then, just take the dam OUT, and they won’t be a problem, and then, voila, you are managing for the neo-native population…. (I think zebra mussels are telling us something that perhaps we don’t want to hear.)
This idea of writing about resilience and adapting species is not native to my own perceptions of Nature. But it is native to the coming generations. If we are to save the Nature section in Barnes and Noble from extinction, the time for action is now!

The Season of Fog

Most people call it Winter. Here in Walla Walla, we call it The Fog. We live in a topographic bowl, huddled against the Blue Mountains to the east, the Horse Heaven Hills to the south, and the Palouse to the north. As with most things that are over-protected, this works to our disadvantage. Cold air sinks. It ponds in Walla Walla, where there is really no exit from the basin. Meteorologists speak of The Inversion. We have other names.
This morning was the first time this fall that I’ve found The Fog lurking outside my bedroom window. Our fog comes not on little cat feet, but more like a cat burglar, testing its entry points silently at night, checking to see if there are any valuables in sight, and robbing you of your morning sun. The Fog does provide some advantages. You focus on things that are close. You see details because you really can’t see much else. You hear sounds because they offer the best access to the world beyond about 100 feet. It is an entirely different sort of existence, and one that is valid and valuable in its own right.
Ultimately, today, it will clear. Already the sun has won the battle. If I look straight up, there is blue sky. To the east, a welcome golden glow warms the sky. These are visions I’ll have to remember as the fog thickens in the coming months. Today, it’s like a Fog Drill. Remember to look up. Remember the sun is there. Remember that some day, despite congressional inaction, April will come, which here is not the cruelest month, but the Month When The Sun Returns.
It’s a good life-lesson for all those days when I feel slightly overwhelmed, when the responsibilities, memories, and fears that rim my life trap too much stagnant air, too many heavy emotions. Look up. April will come.
Of course, there’s another, more immediate, way out of the fog. This is why so many people in Walla Walla have taken up skiing. Mountaintops rise from The Fog like little islands of normality in a sea of gloom. For the price of a two hour drive, and the inconvenience of applying chains to your car, you can escape the chilly oppressive grayness and bask in a carefree, sunny landscape where glistening white offers respite from murky gray. Up is good. Of course, sooner of later, you’ve got to come down.
So, we have to remember that The Season of Fog is just that, a season. The sun will come back. By July, we’ll be wishing for a little of fog’s humid coolness. But today, The Season of Fog has arrived. Here in Walla Walla, we are hoping it’s a short one.

Today’s good news!

Slide01XIn Walla Walla, it’s sprinkling just enough to make a horse’s back wet. The Federal Government shutdown has closed the areas I’d planned to take Snip on a long ride tomorrow, and the GSA photo contest just cratered because the new corporate sponsor closed its doors and laid off all its employees yesterday morning–of course with no prior notice to them. So it’s time for some cheery good news. And I have some!
First, gasoline prices are down.
Second, and even better, coffee prices have dropped, and with the best coffee crop on record, and the growing practice of shipping beans in great big containers, rather than teeny burlap sacks, the downward price spiral is likely to continue. (Perhaps some day, we will fill the supertankers with coffee beans rather than oil!)
But best of all, we don’t have to lie awake at night worrying about Yellowstone blowing up and burying Kansas beneath a gazillion feet of volcanic ash.
Now, maybe you have other things that keep you awake late into the night. But as a geologist, I know that Yellowstone supervolcano erupted 1.85 million, 1.2 million, and 640,000 years ago. Do the math. Any minute now, she could blow. (At least, with the National Parks closed now, there would be no tourist fatalities.) (Perhaps this is what the Republicans were thinking of when they closed down the government. That, and ditching the IRS, but that’s another story.)
So, imagine my relief to learn this morning that New Research (Yes, funded by the now-comatose National Science Foundation) reveals that Yellowstone is unlikely to erupt anytime soon.
According to a new analyses by the Univ of Oregon’s Ilya N. Bindeman, and grad student Dana Drew, Yellowstone is reaching, or has reached, the end of its eruptive cycle. (The story is complicated, involving hafnium isotopes and tiny, recycled zircons, and uses Picabo volcano, Yellowstone’s 10.6 – 6 million year-old, older sibling,buried beneath basalts near Twin Falls–as a model.) The bottom line: these huge supervolcanoes generate their lavas and explosive ash by melting the lower crust. Yellowstone has pretty much used up all this material, and it is unlikely to erupt again.
What Bindeman and colleagues DO suggest is that the Yellowstone hotspot will likely next erupt in Montana. But not for a million years or so. We can all rest easily now. (Unless you live in Butte.)
And come to think of it, since Yellowstone is reaching the end of its useful cycle, perhaps the National Park Service should sell the property while its real estate values are high. One more way to cut the deficit. We have a million years to reinvest in the next Yellowstone National Park.

Of men and Mussels

Red-sided shiner: a mussel step-parent.

Red-sided shiner: a mussel step-parent.

One of the best things about Environmental Studies 120 is the field excursions. Each Thursday we venture to some environmentally relevant site—some depressing, others inspiring. Ice Harbor Dam. Hanford. River restoration projects.

Last week my 24 students and I descended upon the tribal lamprey and mussel restoration laboratory located at the Walla Walla Community College Water Center.

This tidy, high-ceilinged room of recirculating pumps, water filters, and clear, blue fish tanks, each bearing a single, lonely minnow that kept company with its reflection, would hardly seem a place for epiphany.

But it was.

The students, who have been practically brainwash about the lore and value of lamprey, had hoped to see one. But there were no adults this time of year. Instead, they got a quick peak at a batch of tiny, nocturnal lamprey larva who all liked to be in the dark and would be traumatized if enough light was let into their tank for a clear view. Students were disappointed. Lamprey lost some of their glamor.

“And over here,” said Alexa Maine, fisheries biologist and tour guide, “is our brood mussel. She is a brown pearlshell mussel. Her name is Lucy.” Alexa pointed to a clear tank that contained what liked like a white coffee cup with a dark mussel shell propped up inside. The shell exuded a network of delicate filaments that waved with each of Lucy’s watery exhalations.

“How long do mussels live?” one student asked, probably hoping that the answer would be pretty ordinary and we could all go home.

“About 200 years.” Alexa said.

You could have heard a pin drop, and Lucy’s exhalations seemed palpable.

Two Hundred Years?!! We were hooked. These small, unprepossessing, innocuous , ugly brown shellfish lived long enough that some might have actually seen the real live Lewis and Clark wade through their streams.

Mussels, it turns out, are not only long-lived, but also play important roles in the early lives of lamprey and salmon. They filter algae and remove contaminants from streams. (You wouldn’t want to eat a really old mussel”, Alexa noted. “They’ve been filtering and concentrating pollutants for a very long time.” ) They transform industrial fertilizers into ecosystem/fish-friendly and tasty nutrients. Lucy’s species, Margaritifera margaritifera, the brown pearlshell mussel, is the longest lived. Others, that may live only 75 – 100 years, include Anodonta –a lighter colored and slightly larger mollusk.

But mussels are vanishing. A shellfish survey compiled over the last 15 years of walking river bottoms on the Umatilla Reservation, (CTUIR) has found only 73 (seventy three) Margaritifera mussels (the dark brown, long lived species) in the entire river. There may be others in the headwaters of tributaries. No-one knows.

So the tribal (CTUIR—Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation) program at the Water Center is an effort to change this. To bring mussels back, along with their companion species—lamprey. Lucy was evidently fertilized by another, unknown male (Single mothers should not be disparaged.) Her every exhalation now pumps out eggs that will grow rapidly to a tiny larva. Those tiny larvae will use the clamping power of their shells to attach themselves to fish—generally to its gills. In the real world, the fish would transport them to new places, sites where a future mussel colony might flourish. There is more adventure in a young mussel’s life than you might imagine.

But here in the lab, instead of their preferred host–a juvenile salmon–the mussel larvae will be offered a much more limited ride on a lonesome dace or red-sided shiner in a blue aquarium tank. Then, after 6 or 7 months, they will drop off the fish, and establish a new home in a gravelly or sandy stream bottom. Conveniently, this timing also lets them exit their quarters before the host salmon gets serious about its migration to the Pacific. At least the baby mussels who hitch a blue-aquarium-bound-ride on a dace or shiner have little to worry about in this respect.

To count only 73 of these long-lived mussels in an entire river, from head to mouth, is appalling. It suggests –or maybe demonstrates — that we are not paying attention to the little things that hold our ecosystems together. Hopefully, that is changing, thanks to the Umatilla Reservation tribal fisheries. I’m rooting for all of Lucy’s descendants.

The ancients among us

Umatilla tribal member and fisheries biologist Aaron Jackson measures an adult lamprey that is migrating over Three Miles Falls on the Umatilla River.

Umatilla tribal member and fisheries biologist Aaron Jackson measures an adult lamprey that is migrating over Three Miles Falls on the Umatilla River.

One of the most uncharismatic animals in the Pacific Northwest also ranks among the most remarkable and most threatened. The Pacific Lamprey (Lampetra tridentate)– is one of the most ancient fish on the planet. And its dwindling numbers are about to vanish from our rivers.

The adult Pacific lamprey grows to about two feet in length. It is an unremarkable, boring, olive-drab green-brown. It has holes in its head/neck that function as gills, and although technically a fish, it lacks scales or bone. It makes do with a slick, mucusy skin and soft, flexible cartilage. This native fish has remained virtually unchanged since it first appeared in the Devonian period, 360 million years ago. The Pacific Northwest was then a string of volcanic islands far from Idaho’s shore. The continent has changed radically. The Pacific lamprey has not. It is as ancient as the fabled Coelacanth. Yet we know little about these natives.

Pacific lamprey are parasitic feeders in the ocean But unlike their rapacious and destructive cousins –the east-coast-based sea lamprey that is invasive into the Great Lakes–Pacific lamprey never kill their host fish. They feed briefly, and then drop off and swim free, attaching again only when they need more sustenance.

These ancient, seemingly drab fish share the anadramous lifestyle of more glamorous salmon. Pacific lampreys spawn in fresh water. The newly hatched lamprey spend up to seven years as larvae, feeding on algae while they rear in our streams. Then, like salmon, the young lamprey migrate to the sea. But once they get there, we don’t really know where they go. Fishermen in Hawaii have reported finding them on tuna they caught near the Big Island. Pacific lamprey may hitch rides far into the ocean. Or they may seek fish more endemic to coastal waters. We are just not sure. We don’t know how long Pacific lamprey remain in the Pacific before returning far upstream to spawn in the headwaters, though it would seem to be a year or two. But even if you are hitching a ride on the tuna express, it takes a long time to get to Hawaii and back.

The downfall of lamprey comes in their migration upstream. Salmon can navigate the rushing waters of fish ladders. Lamprey cannot. Instead of swimming up the ladder, lamprey must use their circular mouths to attach to the concrete sides via suction, and literally inch their way up the ladder. But when they encounter one of the thousands of right-angle bends in the ladder, they simply cannot get their mouths into a configuration to loosen on one side and re-attach on the other around the 90-degree bend. Pacific lamprey cannot make the turn. They are swept back down the fish ladder, and like Sisyphus, must try again. Eventually, they simply run out of energy and die. (Lamprey do not eat during their upstream migration. They rely on the fat they have stored up over their time in the ocean. Once their fat reserves are gone, they are done.)

This year we have a record run of Fall Chinook and Steelhead.—and more wild fish than hatchery. As of today, 1,300,000 fall Chinook salmon have navigated upstream through Bonneville Dam. (Yes, that’s one million three hundred thousand.) and 24,000 lamprey made it as far as Bonneville’s fish counting window. McNary Dam, 150 miles upstream, counted about 500,000 Chinook. And 1500 lamprey. On the Snake River, once a lamprey stronghold, only 19 Pacific lamprey were able to crawl past the Lower Granite Dam fish counter’s bright lights (lamprey are nocturnal, and passing through a counting window’s lights is traumatic.) and rushing water, 300 miles from the Pacific.

These ancient, elongate, odd, and now rare fish are important to PNW tribes and tribal culture. They provide important food sources for young salmonids, and many other components of PNW headwater streams. And while we are starting to recover wild salmon, we are loosing the much-needed lamprey.

The Corps of Engineers is slowly modifying some of its fish ladders-installing rounded metal flanges at sharp corners so lamprey can inch around the bends. The tribes are starting rearing programs, and programs to collect lamprey at Columbia River dams and truck them upstream to tributaries for their final celebratory spawn. (Lamprey are not as fussy as salmon about returning to their natal stream to spawn.) There is hope that we can save this remarkable, ancient, ancestral fish. I’m rooting for them.


The wisdom of an old dog.

MeeshaDieselYesterday, while sorting through (and discarding) old files, I found Meesha’s Humane Society adoption papers. They were dated March 6, 1999, her temporary name was “Murphy” and she was an estimated 6 months old. Even back then, she was deliberate and well-organized–both qualities that I lack. We have complimented each-other well during the years.

Today, she moves slowly, each step measured by its need. There are the medications of canine old age–Rimadyl and tramadol–to control pain and ensure sound sleep. But each morning she’s there to greet me with a hearty tail-wag. And when I return from work, she admonishes me for my absence. Every day, every moment are treasures for us both. She views Diesel as a nice, though somewhat addled, buffoon. I am more her staff than her owner. In Meesha’s mind (and mine) there has always been the question of who owns who.

Meesha often has the upper hand. She is, for example, quite clear about when it is time to go to bed. This applies not just to her, but to me as well. (Diesel is a lost cause in this respect. He would chase frisbees all night if he could and she has simply given up the hope of ever getting him organized.) The nightly routine begins almost on the dot of 9 PM with a demand for her evening pills which she thinks of as treats because they are concealed in cheese. (This is perhaps the only instance of my out-witting her.) There is a different, squeaky noise that says “I need to go out.” By 10 PM the squeaks have changed into louder squeaks and mutterings — a demand to turn out the lights and Go To Bed. This rarely actually happens until after 11, but in Meesha there is always optimism that her staff will learn new habits.

And in her persistent optimism, there’s something to be learned. Persistent optimism is perhaps our best path to motivate change, both on small scales and large. I really DO go to bed earlier than I would without the squeaks and mutterings from the vicinity of the dog bed. Maybe some day I’ll experiment with going to bed by 10. Or 9. And this applies to bigger scales as well. We have seen it in the past-perhaps best exemplified by the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s and especially Martin Luther King. (I Have a Dream comes to mind.) (I am pretty sure Meesha could envision herself on the podium at the Lincoln Memorial addressing the throng, too.)

What we seem to lack today is a Meesha with the vision and the correct squeaks and mutterings to move us toward an optimistic future. One in which rising temperatures, rising seas, rising floods, and rising poverty recede. This is far more complex a task than getting me to bed before 10 PM. To expect one unifying voice is perhaps too much to ask. But we can listen to, and become, small voices. Meesha is willing to provide lessons to anyone who’s interested.

Seeking imperfection

Fledgling great horned owl--a fellow fan of imperfection.

Fledgling great horned owl–a fellow fan of imperfection.

I live in an enviable setting–a remodeled farm house amid a grove of cottonwoods and maples, surrounded by the rolling open wheat and alfalfa fields of Washington’s Palouse. The landscape bespeaks freedom. Room to run, to stroll, to escape the everyday cares of work. Yet except for the grove of towering trees that are entering their dotage years, I am more confined here than I would be in downtown Walla Walla. Or Seattle. Or maybe even Manhattan.

Across the road, where alfalfa and wheat stretch to the skyline, discipline rules. No weeds contaminate these crops, though an occasional, ambitious kochia or Russian thistle raises a defiant green head above a uniformly tawny wheatfield. Crops, understandably, must be pure to be profitable. This purity is achieved through chemicals, and therein lies the problem, at least for me.

Although my neighbors might happily provide permission to walk their farmland access roads, I would prefer to get my morning exercise in a more herbicide and pesticide-free setting. Their perfectly groomed, weed-free monocultures are profitable, but not habitable.

So, instead, the dogs and I amble around in the little cottonwood grove, which we share with barn owls, great-horned owls, red-tailed hawks, kestrals, magpies, flickers, brewers blackbirds, starlings, robins, and a few chickadees. The cottonwood grove is not well managed. It includes a few locust trees and big silver maples, neither of which are native. Limbs have fallen on the ground, or dangle, partly broken. The trees are undisciplined. Above all, they are imperfect. But they provide habitat for a huge variety of birds, rodents, and of course, a woman and her dogs. Diversity is hardly rampant here, but there’s a lot more of it than you’ll find across the road.

As any ecologist knows, diversity and imperfection are the engines that drive evolution. That drive survival. Plenty of data argue that disciplined agricultural monocultures are detrimental to both. What I’ve learned from my time in the imperfect grove is that imperfection is inviting. Aesthetic. Intriguing. Even mysterious. That it has tremendous advantages over the perfect for almost everything.

And I’m hoping that includes me. Perhaps those qualities that I see, and that my peers may see, as imperfections, might actually be advantages. OK, there are plenty of physical flaws. We won’t go into those. But quietness to the point of reclusiveness? Maybe. A penchant for collecting saddles? A reluctance to eradicate all the spiders that have made the exterior of my house their homes? The list goes on. Who knows.

What I do know is that I am happier in the grove of imperfection. It’s more interesting. I have more friends there. It’s my preferred habitat. Bring it on.

The Storm

Storm Last Chance Road It was like living in the 1930’s. Or maybe Lawrence of Arabia. Last evening a storm rode into town atop a ferocious wave of wind and dust. It’s the third such storm in two years. They appear with bands of wind-stripped clouds far transcending the normal –but still ominous– mammatus clouds of more usual cumulo-nimbus.
This storm, like the previous one only two weeks ago, had a wall of wheat-field dust and 70 mph winds as its advance scouts. Then a sudden down-pour, just sufficient to clean off the dust that it had spread on cars, pickups, houses, horses, and cows. Then stillness.
The temperature dropped from 93 to 73 in about three minutes.
But unlike most “cold-front” storms, this on brought only temporary respite from the heat. Today the temperatures will climb back into the high 80s. Tomorrow the 90s.
Tuesday night more storms are forecast.
Is this the new climate? Thunderstorms that are dust-storms in disguise? Or dust-storms that pose as thunder-storm cells? The seasonal transition from summer to fall, from hot to cool, seems difficult this year. Change is never easy. In a climate-challlenged time, it may be more difficult than ever.
Storm Last Chance Road

The feeling of Empty

I live what mManti La Sal Abajos Deep Canyon from Road 95AXXxx-3583ost people would consider a full and fulfilling life. A three-year-long, and counting, teaching gig at a prestigous college. A nice house in the country. A horse to train and ride. Two great dogs. Serious work in photography. The list goes on.

And yet, I feel empty and uninspired, and I struggle each day to do simple things, and mostly, to find purpose. A mission. Something to produce that is larger than I am. Perhaps I’m reaching an age where legacy counts, and yet there is nothing lasting that I have built. What is worse, each time I try to find purpose I run up against a wall. There seems no purpose, and no energy available for any worthy cause, whether doing the dishes or saving the planet.

I am lost in depression’s fog, and despite Zoloft and another pill that I cannot spell, and perhaps don’t want to admit to taking, there seems no door or window to let in a beam of light to follow.

The world in general seems following the same path. (This doesn’t help me one bit.) Global Warming. Rising seas. Acid oceans. Deafened whales. Extinctions. Death. Next door, my neighbor /landlord has a lovely border collie that he keeps in a horse-stall, without affection or companionship. Tippy barks and cries all night. It is not good for sleep.

So the search for some tiny beam of light, something just leaking through the bottom of the door jam or filtering through the curtains, some path to follow that can lead me, lead us, out of a dreary existence that seems destined for another Cormack McCarthy novel, goes on. We  (I) have too long dwelt on woe. It would be nice to work on some positive vision. some more evanescent destiny.

I think my greatest block, the thing that keeps the doors chained tightly shut, the light extinguished, is fear more than depression. The idea of taking on the world’s problems, of mounting some degree of criticism, or of finding that new path into the dark woods (Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey) creates a dark, tight knot in my stomach, a reason to back away from action, a reason to embrace the lethal status quo. Depression and fear are the chicken and the egg. Hard to say which comes first. Or last.

It is time to move forward — not yet to slay dragons, but to draw back the window curtain, to peer under the door or through the keyhole, and see what lies beyond as a vision of light.  Something small but positive. Something to leave for others, even if it is only a path.