Category Archives: Life Out of Balance

Why western American landscape photography matters

John K. Hillers, Mesa at Zuni Pueblo, ca. 1875

Cameron Walker writes in a recent issue of High Country News,

Recently, I asked Martha Sandweiss, a Princeton University historian and author of Print the Legend: Photography and the American West, why people are so attracted to Western photographs — hoping, really, that I’d learn something more about myself.

Photography, she said, became a way of reframing the country after the Civil War. “The West was a place beyond history, during a time when recent history was really painful,” Sandweiss said. Many landscape photographers kept their cameras trained on the wilderness and its prospects, often omitting the West’s history and people to create a powerful illusion of a place where only the future mattered. “There’s this intense desire to imagine the West as our last great hope.”

To Sandweiss and Walker, the West in landscape photography is a place beyond history, a place where only the future matters, the West as our last great hope.  I agree.  Placing this position on one side, say, the positive side, we have the other position that Western landscape photography displaced a painful past (Civil War in this case), created an illusion and omitted actual history (relocating Indians, extermination of vast herds of buffalo, hollowing out natural resources).  Both sides fit together although we repress the pain, illusion and facts in favor of a place beyond history.  Look at the following three photographs, continue reading and let me explain.

Ansel Adams, Tetons and the Snake River, Wyoming, 1942

Jeff Lynch, Palo Duro Canyon, Texas, 2011

Montucky of Montana Outdoors, Cool, clear water, 2011

In the three photographs of Ansel Adams, Jeff Lynch and Montucky, each has captured a western landscape in pure form, without human artifice intruding — no church spires, courthouses, schools or bridges.  As we wander into these Wests, I submit that we want to leave behind those objects that change the terrain — automobile, antennas, roads.  Further, if we seek to preserve these pure forms, we must leave behind the ideologies of exploitation, over-consumption and race.  We may desire preservation, but the ongoing drive of the machine into the West can hardly be slowed down, much less stopped, as population expands.  We may want to leave behind the ideologies and terrain-changing objects and, though difficult, it is not impossible.

I do not view nature in these photographs as a cropping or harvesting opportunity and they are not presented as such by the artists.  I see rivers, streams, trees and mountains that are in themselves moving and living things, having the same molecular and atomic substance that make up my flesh, bones and hair.  Different arrangements for a time, the land and me, but substantially the same.  These three photographs give rise, I believe, to humanity’s kinship with the earth and invite gentle, ethical occupation of the land.  When I move into these Wests I do not want to construct a Monticello, but rather fit my home and hearth into the line and contour of the earth as in John K. Hillers, Mesa at Zuni Pueblo, seen above.

Leaving artifice behind, slowing the machine and having kinship with the earth in thought and deed has been tried before, and the dream has died ten-thousand times and it will die again.  Sand Creek and Ludlow coexist with the Rockies as backdrop in our history — blood and beauty.  Nonetheless, every vignette of western landscape offers the dream again, a chance to move on past the pain of history and into the wild without the machine.  Art museums, galleries and photographic books elicit a response in the viewer that there is a purity of form beyond the city, in all landscapes, all regions.  As a special art, western American landscape photography matters because it renews again and again what has been torn in our history.  We build upon beauty momentarily captured on film and not what has been shattered in history.  Western landscape photography can help us transcend what has terribly gone wrong.  As a result, I submit, we will take lighter loads and bigger hearts in our wagons when we migrate West next time.

It is all there in the photographs, beyond the lens of Adams, Lynch and Montucky.  They point the way.  Can you not see it?

* * *

Not all people that view landscape photography of the West will see renewal or lessen their impact on the land.  The West is still seen as ripe for exploitation and extraction.  New lamentations are writ everyday in the West and many of them are never heard, yet they are always seen — on film.

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Notes:

Cameron Walker, January 24, 2011, High Country News, interviews Martha Sandweiss, “Depth Afield: Why is the Western Image so Appealing?”

Mesa at Zuni Pueblo from James L. Enyeart, Land, Sky, and All That is Within: Visionary Photographers in the Southwest, Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1998.

Additional comment, February 2, 2011.  Caralee Woods of Kanab, Utah, sent this by e-mail and I post it as another example of the appeal of the western image.

Caralee Woods, Paria River, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah, 2010.

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Pronghorn sunbursts

N. Scott Momaday

One morning on the high plains of Wyoming I saw several pronghorns in the distance.  They were moving very slowly at an angle away from me, and they were almost invisible in the tall brown and yellow grass.  They ambled along in their own wilderness dimension of time, as if no notion of flight could ever come upon them.  But I remembered once having seen a frightened buck on the run, how the white rosette of its rump seemed to hang for the smallest fraction of time at the top of each frantic bound — like a succession of sunbursts against the purple hills.

— N. Scott Momaday, The Way to Rainy Mountain, p. 19.

* * *

In the early seventies, between Clayton and Springer, New Mexico, Charles Fairweather and I drove fast to the Sangre de Cristos for our yearly getaway with several other friends who had already made camp.  We came up out of the roadbed onto a small hill and to the right, off the highway about 200 feet, were several pronghorn.  Charles quickly stopped the car and pulled out his deer rifle.  Charles, I said, let the pronghorn be.  Besides, it would be poaching if you shot him.  He was a good man, but impulsive at times.  He re-sheathed his weapon without a word and drove on to camp.

* * *

Between Snyder and Post, Texas, large ranches abound.  On one ranch, the Covered S, I saw pronghorn graze five years ago.  In the last four years, with the placement of wind mills for power and an extensive clearing of brush, I see no pronghorn.  They grazed in pastures on either side of highway.  This holiday, as we traveled to Lubbock, I looked intently onto the eastern pasture of the Covered S, hoping to see white rump in brown and yellow grass.  I saw none on either day we passed the Covered S.  I counted plenty of oil wells, but no antelope.

* * *

In the Journals of Lewis and Clark, they reported that antelope would rub themselves against sagebrush in order to perfume themselves.

* * *

Pronghorn at Red Rock, Idaho (J. Purdue photographer)

 

 

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Naturalist quote of day: Aldo Leopold on danger of not owning a farm

There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm.  One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.

To avoid the first danger, one should plant a garden, preferably where there is no grocer to confuse the issue.

To avoid the second, he should lay a split of good oak on the andirons, preferably where there is no furnace, and let it warm his shins while a February blizzard tosses the trees outside.

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (1949)

 

Winter by Joseph Fleck (Taos Art Museum and Fechin House)

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Notes:

Painting of Joseph Fleck associated with the Taos Art Museum and Fechin House.

See also Taos Painter Joseph Fleck.

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The other side of nature

The other side of nature. A rather intense blizzard, Christmas time, Texas High Plains, 2009.

We turn our heads, even raise our hand to eye so as to blind us to the other side of nature — fierce cold.

Winter storms force cattle to turn their backsides to the wind and drift — drift until warm temperatures encounter their travel.  But during the worst of blizzards, cattle bunch into box canyons, fences and fast-flowing streams that terminate their travel, even their lives.  The worst of western blizzards came in 1888, destroying like a monster from Hades the free range of the American West that never arose again.

The photograph inserted shows the blizzard of 2009 that stranded motorists and brought out the National Guard to the Texas High Plains.  Brenda and I drove through the storm.  Livestock perished, not like 1888, but many perished despite the efforts of cattlemen and helicopters dropping hay from the heavens, manna for cattle.  We put chains on the pickup in Roscoe and took them off in Slaton, slowly making our way to Lubbock, then Santa Fe.

I drive at least two times, sometimes four times a week, between Mingus, Texas, and Abilene, a journey of 87.2 miles from my ranch house to Cisco College.  As I travel, I see good and warm things, but I also see a tableau of death, regardless of cold Winter or warm Spring.  I do not write about the tooth and claw — only one post in a year have I written about the other side of nature — because it is most unpleasant and I have been taught by my family to look the other way, grit my teeth, bow my back and work on, carry on, even pick up sticks and rocks from the corral to forget and cover the other side of nature, raising a hand to the eye.

I was taught by my family to keep death and blood away, the least semblance of pain is to be endured against happiness and pleasure receding too quickly in our lives.  I learned in college that my family’s philosophy was stoicism, remembering vaguely the word, but daily that conduct.  I write this blog about nature and how she covers us second by second, year by year, like a quilt on a cold winter’s night, a softness and heaviness at the same time, installing comfort into our harried house.  The warmth erases pain and anguish.  But, there is another side that we all must endure.

There is an extraction, a debt, that inevitably must be paid.  As I drive the 87.2 miles to Abilene and back to Mingus, I see, even hear the debt being paid in blood and tissue.  How many deer, raccoons, skunks, possums, coyotes, dogs, cats, field mice, ravens, hawks, snakes, fox, moths and monarch butterflies can I continue to see killed along the roads?  I see the remains; I am even a part of making the remains.  The only debt I hear paid is the lovely monarch butterfly that hits my windshield, leaving a yellow stain that I cannot wash off until the day ends.  The monarch strikes my windshield and I cringe.  I think, quite often, that my salary, forcing my travel to Abilene, is not worth the agony and groans that I feel and emit as I see and hear the other side of nature.

I write of horses prancing, birds singing, dogs playing and armadillos browsing with slow gait, rooting and eating contentedly.  Then, why write this post, why bring up the other side of nature?  Death and blood and stench of flesh?  I’m not sure, but to bring up the other side of nature seems to balance my exuberance downward.  Downward to the way-things-are and away from illusion, closer to truth.  My work is affected.  As I drive the interstate to Abilene I see the panic of deer running across the road, jumping the fence to safety, to daily heaven.  I walk into class to lecture and the gravitas of it all weighs me down to essentials:  why are we here, what are we doing, what are the models we want to imitate, what are the models we wish to avoid?  I don’t waste time for I am doing my best to answer those questions for that day.

As I come back home to Mingus, I think:  I am here to groom my horse, play with my dog, feed my cats, tend my pastures, grow plants for monarchs to feed upon, protect the deer in my domain and love my life and wife.  Taking my hand from my eyes, I see life as gift once more as it is balanced against the other side.

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Notes:

I often have Brenda read my stuff before I publish it.  She read this and said, “Very good, but very heavy.  They’re going to say you haven’t had your anti-depressant.”   We laughed.  She understood what I was trying to say in the post.  I told her that I have been wanting to write this post for a long time.  One of the reasons I support wildlife corridors is the death I see on my travels to Abilene.  There’s a place along Baird Hill that needs protection.  I see drivers trying to avoid the wildlife.  Many succeed in avoiding the critters.  Drivers aren’t all talking on the cell phone.

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Tickling the belly of buffalo: no more

[When I lived in Amarillo, Texas, from 1966-1990, I gazed upon the landscapes of the Panhandle-Plains and saw distances and life in those distances.  Not barren, not unlivable, but inhabited.  Sandhills Crane, burrowing owls, sagebrush, mesquite, cool waters of the Prairie Dog Fork of the Red River, geese, Mallards, mule deer, white-tailed deer and the Barbary Sheep of the Palo Duro Canyon.  I hiked into the edges of vast ranches and found campsites of cowboys and Kiowa tribes, they not-knowing, the owners that I was even there, lightly I trod.

In the midst of all this wandering, I taught at Amarillo College and I impelled my students in anthropology to sketch corn-grinding sites in the canyons for practice and awe.

Somewhere along the way of field trips and hikes, I came across Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. He died fighting a prairie fire.  Here is an excerpt about the Silphium of the Aster family.  It is more than a plant cut under the progress of road.  It is the canary in a cage in a mine, deep into the earth.

From the University of Texas, http://gargravarr.cc.utexas.edu/chrisj/leopold-quotes.html This excerpt is from Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac.  Other excerpts are included at this website.]

Every July I watch eagerly a certain country graveyard that I pass in driving to and from my farm. It is time for a prairie birthday, and in one corner of this graveyard lives a surviving celebrant of that once important event.

It is an ordinary graveyard, bordered by the usual spruces, and studded with the usual pink granite or white marble headstones, each with the usual Sunday bouquet of red or pink geraniums. It is extraordinary only in being triangular instead of square, and in harboring, within the sharp angle of its fence, a pin-point remnant of the native prairie on which the graveyard was established in the 1840’s. Heretofore unreachable by sythe or mower, this yard-square relic of original Wisconsin gives birth, each July, to a man-high stalk of compass plant or cutleaf Silphium, spangled with saucer-sized yellow blooms resembling sunflowers. It is the sole remnant of this plant along this highway, and perhaps the sole remnant in the western half of our county. What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked.

This year I found the Silphium in first bloom on 24 July, a week later than usual; during the last six years the average date was 15 July.

When I passed the graveyard again on 3 August, the fence had been removed by a road crew, and the Silphium cut. It is easy now to predict the future; for a few years my Silphium will try in vain to rise above the mowing machine, and then it will die. With it will die the prairie epoch.

The Highway Department says that 100,000 cars pass yearly over this route during the three summer months when the Silphium is in bloom. In them must ride at least 100,000 people who have ‘taken’ what is called history, and perhaps 25,000 who have ‘taken’ what is called botany. Yet I doubt whether a dozen have seen the Silphium, and of these hardly one will notice its demise. If I were to tell a preacher of the adjoining church that the road crew has been burning history books in his cemetery, under the guise of mowing weeds, he would be amazed and uncomprehending. How could a weed be a book?

This is one little episode in the funeral of the native flora, which in turn is one episode in the funeral of the floras of the world. Mechanized man, oblivious of floras, is proud of his progress in cleaning up the landscape on which, willy-nilly, he must live out his days. It might be wise to prohibit at once all teaching of real botany and real history, lest some future citizen suffer qualms about the floristic price of his good life.

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Notes:

All photographs of the plants, courtesy of Lady Bird Johnson Center for Plants in Texas.

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Of Boo and Belle

My friend, Crystal Church, and her family in Hermleigh, Texas, have had to put down (tainted words, a flight away from what happens) their Australian Shepherd, Boo, and their thirty-year-old horse, Belle.  They will be buried together since the two of them hung out together, conversing through the fence for years.  Boo has had mini-strokes over the last few days and Belle cannot make it through the winter on the Rolling Plains, northwest of Sweetwater, Texas, with sharp wind and ice.  The veterinary has probably come out to their ranch already by the time I write this post and brought an end to the pain these two beautiful creatures have endured of late.

When I read my e-mail this morning, Crystal wrote me about this bad day and was there anything I could write or say to help?  There was nothing I could say or write, but I tried.  My friend, Caralee Woods of Kanab, Utah, once told me upon the death of her adopted dog-companion, Bruno:  He went away so as to make room for others.  That’s about the best that can be said of this bad day for Crystal and it does not ease the heart like seeing Boo and Belle, conversing through a west Texas fence, spirits smiling.

I’m not so sure that we are stronger in our broken places.

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Notes:

Crystal’s e-mail at Cisco College where she teaches speech is crystal.church@cisco.edu.

3:30 p.m. I just talked to Crystal and Boo and Belle are gone.  The vet came out at 2:00 p.m.

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A quick post to readers and subscribers

This week I have been setting up classes, face-to-face and online, for two campuses.

I’ve not been able to post for Sage to Meadow.  I shall shortly.

More about my schedule and events later.

I’ve been working on my instructional website Chez Tejas Thinkery.

Life slightly out of balance.  You know the feeling.

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Ivanpah is Us

The Ivanpah Valley in Nevada and California is us.  I mean you and me:  us.

A corporation wants to bulldoze the valley and construct solar energy complexes to provide California with a “green” source of energy: solar energy.

The valley, dry as it is, is not dry, but holds the habitat of tortoise, kangaroo rat, lizards and sidewinders (beautiful dancing snakes, but be careful).

These creatures will be displaced.  There is slated to be a relocation of these sentient beings by biologists when the permits are granted.  There will be a digging up of tortoises from their burrows and they will be relocated elsewhere!  Within a year, one-half of those tortoises relocated will die.

This sounds a lot like displacing human populations in the Nineteenth Century.  Do you remember reservations?  Moving hunting grounds for gold and silver?  Say, the American Indian?

Ah, that’s history, that’s the Mojave Desert, fit for nothing, build Solar Complexes!  On with it!

Who speaks for the tortoise, the cholla, the lizard?  I do.  Chris Clarke does and hundreds of thousands of citizens that want not only the solar complex at Ivanpah terminated, but also want our over consumption and greed-lined behavior to come to an end.  The tortoise waves its head and seeks a friend.  A mate.  That will come to and end if this project continues.

The Ivanpah is us.  If we allow corporations and the government to use bulldozers upon that sacred land, then it is us that the bulldozers grind.  The Ivanpah is us.

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Last Summer at Ivanpah by Chris Clarke

[Posted by Chris Clarke on August 10, 2010.  Chris Clarke’s Blog is Coyote Crossing: Writing and Photography from the Mojave Desert. This post is reprinted with Chris Clarke’s permission.  I find this composition about Ivanpah Valley to be revelatory from several angles: the pressure to gain new sources of energy erases natural habitats, the failure of citizens to stop the project because of organizational weakness, the retreat of Sierra Club from responsibility because of trade-offs and the force of building new power stations for an over-consumption society.  Government should stop this project. Who speaks for the tortoise? The cholla?  The Hopi have said that life is out of balance.  They try to correct the balance with rituals and dancing.  Life is out of balance when our power needs obliterate the habitat of living things.  Chris Clarke speaks for the wild lands and its plants and creatures just as the Hopi drumbeat seeks to realign the balance.]

Hopi Labyrinth Pictograph

Ivanpah Valley Site of Proposed Solar Power Grid

Ancient desert slated for destruction. Laura Cunningham photo.

There is a story that has haunted me since I first heard it, and it comes to mind often these days. It was in the early 1960s, and the Sierra Club — playing politics in order to save one landscape deemed more important than others — had agreed not to oppose a gigantic dam on the Colorado river upstream from the Grand Canyon. Not long after that deal was struck, author Wallace Stegner suggested to the Sierra Club’s director, David Brower, that the Club had acted in haste. Stegner invited Brower to visit the place the Club had written off as unworthy of protection. Brower did. He was horrified at what he’d done. When I met Dave some three and a half decades later, he was still upset over his failure to protect Glen Canyon from the dam builders.

I’ve often wondered, especially after getting to know Dave a little, what that float trip must have been like for him: to see the cathedrals, the fern seeps dotted with crimson Epilobium, the tortuous slot side canyons and sublime riffles; to know it would all soon be destroyed; to be wracked with knowing that he might have been able to save the place had he more vigorously opposed the plans to destroy it. I’ve thought of that trip, taken back when I was a small child, and I’ve wondered how he must have felt during it.

Sometime in the next couple of weeks, I will be heading to the Ivanpah Valley to find out.

On or around the 15th of September, the developers of the proposed Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System will be granted all the permits they need to proceed with building their nearly 4,000-acre project. As soon as the permits are in hand, the company’s “biologists” —  in much the same sense in which the guy spraying your house for termites is an “entomologist” — will walk the site methodically, shovels in hand, looking for burrows. They will dig up every single desert tortoise they find for relocation. About half of those tortoises will be dead in a year, if similar past projects are any indication. Other animals will be evicted as well: kangaroo rats, burrowing owls, desert woodrats and rattlesnakes, kit foxes, desert horned lizards and badgers. The job will be done in a hurry: legally, no tortoises can be “relocated” after October 15.

And then the bulldozers will come. They will come to rip out the hundred-year-old creosote bushes and thousand-year-old Mojave yucca clumps. They will come to scrape the desert pavement that has been protecting the land from erosion since the Ice Age. They will come to evict the pencil cholla and elegant lupine and the honey mesquite, to blade away almost all of the old-growth creosote desert — though they say they will leave a bit of open soil between the mirrors, a sop to those who’ve asked if they might not leave a few square feet of vegetation here and there as a compromise. That compromise will actually make things worse. Unprotected by desert pavement, those bits and pieces will scour away in the first good wind, will provide harbor to invasive red brome and Sahara mustard, whose seeds will then blow into the adjacent Mojave National Preserve.

When they’re finished, the developers will have installed 173,000 mirrors, each one seven by ten feet, over nearly six square miles of murdered old-growth desert. Those mirrors will focus desert sun on boilers atop three 469-foot towers — taller than the great Pyramid of Cheops. The towers won’t last anywhere near as long as the Pyramid: they have a projected lifespan of twenty or thirty years. But in that time they, along with the mirrors that surround them, will produce a white and hellish glare that even the agencies supporting the project admit will pose a serious hazard to drivers and aviators. The project will almost certainly disable sight-hunting raptors. Night lights on the towers will attract disoriented birds, who will collide with the structures and die.

This stake in the heart of the desert, this new gaping wound that will erode the integrity of the desert for many miles around, this industrial project that even its backers admit will cause serious, unmitigable damage to the environment, this project of an “alternative energy” corporation funded by Chevron and BP and Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs — this is renewable energy.

There is still a chance to save the site, still a chance that a large green group will sue over violations of the National Environmental Policy Act, and stall the project for a month until it’s too late to relocate the tortoises, which would mean no construction on the site before December 31, which would mean no Federal stimulus funding for the project, which— given the fact that this uneconomical project could not happen without massive subsidies — might kill it. It would certainly buy us more time. But such a lawsuit becomes less likely with each passing hour. The large green groups have turned their back on the Ivanpah Valley. The Sierra Club — eager to play Glen-Canyon-style politics forty years after those politics were forever discredited — refuses to oppose the project. Every single Sierra Club member I know who is personally familiar with the Ivanpah Valley steadfastly opposes the solar plant, but the Club has expressly silenced its own activists. The Sierra Club, and the National Resources Defense Council, and The Wilderness Society, and a number of other prominent groups have decided to offer up the Ivanpah Valley as a token of their willingness to cooperate with the energy industry.

The mistake, of course, as has been amply demonstrated so many times, is that such dealing won’t buy the groups any influence.  Ivanpah Valley is merely the first domino to fall. One “acceptable” project after another will follow, on lands the Respectable Greens deem uninteresting: at Ocotillo, in the Amargosa Valley, at Bullard Wash and Palo Verde, in the Granite Mountains. Hundreds of thousands of acres will fall to the bulldozers, a mistake to dwarf the damming of Glen Canyon, and the damage will multiply, will blow off the sites of each project as plumes of dust.

Not long hence — as the projects go wrong, catch fire, break down, prove unprofitable and are abandoned, and as society turns to actual, practicable solutions to climate change — a new generation of people who care about whatever fragments remain of the desert will ask hard questions. They will ask why we did not stop these projects.

They will ask Carl Zichella and Carl Pope and Michael Brune of the Sierra Club: “Where were you when the wild lands needed you?”

They will ask Johanna Wald of NRDC: “What on Earth did you think you would accomplish by trading these places away?”

They will ask Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity: “What did you have to do instead that was more important?”

They will ask you, and they will ask me: “Why did you not throw yourselves on the gears and make this stop?”

I don’t have an answer for that last one.

I do remember a time when it seemed impossible the Berlin Wall would fall, when it would have been absurd to suggest Nelson Mandela might someday be president of South Africa, when it would have been unthinkable to suggest the United States would start to accept same-sex marriages. Change sometimes comes in an eyeblink; I have not yet given up hope. But our time is short.

Sometime soon, in the next couple of weeks, I will head out to the Ivanpah Valley for a night or two, to greet its tortoises and cactus wrens, to photograph its big red-spined barrel cacti, to hike among its cholla and creosote for what may be the last time. I will grieve that I did not do more to preserve the land there and I will be thankful for the opportunity to give it a voice, however ineffective a voice mine may have been. I will celebrate having met the place, a landscape far older and more precious than I can really grasp, at what may turn out to be the very end of its existence.

This never needed to happen.

[This post is a reprint of Chris Clarke’s composition on August 11, 2010.  See Coyote Crossing by Chris Clarke.]

Desert Tortoise at Ivanpah Valley

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Notes:

Permission obtained from Chris Clarke to reproduce his post on my blog, August 11, 2010, by e-mail.

The photograph of the Hopi labyrinth, desert tortoise and simulated solar array are my additions to his post.  The photograph of Ivanpah Valley is attributed to Chris Clarke’s post.

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Yucca Meditation (Parachuting Cats)

Yucca Thoughts

This is Yucca Meditation.  Why yucca?  It’s an abundant succulent on our place here in west Texas and every time I look out from our porch to the southern skies and mesas, I see yuccas.  Yuccas here, yuccas there, yucca yucca everywhere.  I like yucca.  Surrounded by a lot of yucca, I think about many things.  Nothing more, nothing less.

The Pond on Baird Hill

I have written a post on the pond at West Cut on Baird Hill, along Interstate 20, near Abilene, Texas. The pond in the last two years has gone from a vibrant, lush pond of cattails and flora to a grayish-brown receptacle of run-off from nearby inclines.  Though my proof is impressionable and subject to further research, the most likely cause of the pond’s decline is water run-off from construction of power lines above the pond that transfer power from wind farms on the east and north side of Abilene.  I saw the construction crews and they did not run willy-nilly all over the ranch land.  From what I saw, crews behaved as stewards to the land.

These days, wind farm blades turn and electricity emerges from a green source, renewable and free by all accounts.  Even so, because of transmission lines, a pond declined in health, an impact unintended and unforeseeable.  This brings me to the cats.

Dayak of Borneo

The Dayak of Borneo (Imageshack, Asian Chat)

After World War II, the World Health Organization (WHO) and other similar agencies sought to eradicate the mosquito that carried the plasmodium of malaria.  DDT was the first insecticide applied in regions that had a high incidence of malaria.  In Borneo live the Dayak people, residing in large single homes or long houses of up to 500 people.   After the application of DDT to the mosquito population, malaria was eradicated and the overall quality of life and energy of the tribe dramatically increased.  The tribe’s health had never been so good (1).

Living in the long houses, however, were cockroaches, cats and small lizards — the gecko.  The cockroaches ingested the DDT and the geckos ate the cockroaches.  Normal pattern.  Cats ate the lizards, but the lizards had become lethal weapons through the eating of so many cockroaches laced with DDT.  The cats, unfortunately, all died from eating the lizards.  Not normal.

The unintended consequences of helping the Dayak people eradicate malaria did not stop there.  When the cats died, rats from the surrounding woods invaded the villages, bringing the sylvatic plague through fleas, lice and parasites rats normally vectored.  The Dayak missed their cats greatly.  The Royal Air Force (RAF) and the WHO met the situation in quick order.  The RAF parachuted 14,000 living cats into the villages to eat the rats.  I can see it now:  parachutes with kitty-cats in crates dropping from the skies.  I don’t think they would have harnessed the kitties with little webbings and ripcords, do you?

It doesn’t end there.

In the roofs of the thatched houses lived a small caterpillar that burrowed into the rafters and before the DDT spraying, caused little damage.  Parasites and predators of the little caterpillar had kept the caterpillar population in check, particularly the wasp.  The DDT killed the parasites of the caterpillar, the caterpillar population skyrocketed, burrowing deeper into the rafters of the long houses and single homes, resulting in the collapse of the huts and exposure of the population to the elements before repairs.

The Dayak must of thought the end of the world was near, seeing cats drop out of the sky and houses collapsing.  Oh, the evil WHO!

A Law of Unintended Consequences

DDT has now been discredited and is not used widely, if at all.  The initial application of the chemical was intended for good effect and that was attained, yet the unintended consequences were disastrous for the Dayak, and, we know today, bad for many organisms in the food chain.

The correlation of DDT and the effects of wind farm construction occurs only at the juncture of unintended consequences.  DDT has been completely taken out of most systemic plans for public health.  Wind farms will remain and should remain.  The West Cut Pond on Baird Hill will probably renew itself and ducks will arrive in October and not leave until March.  In comparing the degree of damage by DDT and transmission line construction, there’s no balancing of the equation.  Wind farms should stay.  DDT needs to be tightly regulated.

In the beginning, the application of new technology usually promises much: efficiency, improvement of health and speed (automobile vs. horse and buggy).  The continuing use of technology, however, reveals unintended consequences that may be destructive in a large sense (collapse of long houses) or small.  The decision arises as to whether to keep the technology, drop it entirely or regulate its use.

In my yucca frame of mind, let’s keep parachuting cats to a minimum and be careful, very careful, about the destruction of water habitats.

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Notes:

1.  See Harrison, Tom, 1965, “Operation Cat Drop,” Animals, 5:512-13 as quoted and utilized in the article, C. S. Holling and M. A. Goldberg, “Ecology and Planning,” pp.  78-93, in an anthology by Daniel G. Bates and Susan H. Lees (eds.), Contemporary Anthropology: An Anthology, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.

A blog post similarly composed is Planninga from Nanninga that has a parachuting cat cartoon and commentary on unintended consequences.

See also “Parachuting Cats — A True Story.” The cartoon illustration in the post is from this article.

Malaria cases in the U.  S. are minimal (1,200 cases a year), due to the previous use of DDT.  Malaria, however, appears in central Mexico today and is gradually coming northward to the U. S.  The application of some form of insecticide in the coming decades will be needed to eradicate the vector mosquito.

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