Climate nihilism

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.


camp: with Bill deBuys, Northern New Mexico
I am the last generation to be born and raised on cheap energy with the promise of a better life.
I am the first generation slated to be poorer and die sooner than my parents.
I drive past clear cuts, open pits of coal, landfills, smokestacks belching black clouds into the air. I am seduced by the vision of industry, impressed by the sheer magnitude of the changes we have made on this land. I don’t want a world without city-sized industrial fortresses or Superfund sites, because then I would have nothing left to fight.
I know we’re past the point of saving the planet. I hope we’re past the point of saving ourselves. I’ve always wanted to watch the apocalypse.
I like the idea of fighting a losing battle. Winning is black and white, its narrative a simple recollection of events. The story of losing requires nuance, character, tragedy. I’ve always found the Trojans a more compelling people, Hector a better hero than Achilles. Valor and heroism are determined not by how many victories you win, but by how your defeat finally occurs.
I find the world a more beautiful place with such clear imperfections. I like the causes, but no the effects. I find smokestacks terrifyingly beautiful, but not dissolving coral reefs. I see moral contradiction written on every landscape.
I know industrial capitalism is killing the planet. I don’t want industrial capitalism to go away because I want to see this awful comedy play out until the bitter, bloody end.
I’m tired of being sad and too numb to be angry. Some days, all I want is a house with a garden and lot of books so I can come home to someone I love and put all the frustration and passion and uncertainty I have into loving them, before we make dinner together and ignore the fire raging all around us.
Advertisements

Letter to a human 10,000 years from now

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.


camp: Back of Beyond, the Known Universe, Utah
Dear person ten thousand years from now,
Today it rained in the morning. The rocks around me are red-orange, made of sand stuck together, forming ridges and shelves as far as I can see. Here, I walk on my feet and sometimes my hands. The rain adds uncertainty to the land, so I slide twenty feet down bare rock faces, not able to control my speed, barely able to change direction. I almost fall into puddles of orange water pooled in the rock. I walk up sandstone ledges arranged like a staircase, each step a different width, half of them breaking off as soon as I put my weight on them. I let the shape of the rock guide me, abandoning the concept of efficiency. I want to move north, but the rock that way is too steep, and I risk falling, sliding down into a canyon three hundred feet deep. Instead, I go west, finding level ground, rocks that curve upward gradually, gentle enough to walk on.
I wonder if you still go outside, if you see the sky with clouds and with sun. I wonder if it still rains in the desert. I wonder if these canyons, sheer rock faces plunging down hundreds of feet, are still here or anywhere. I wonder if they’ve all been filled with trash or something radioactive, something with a half-life greater than the time between my death and your birth.
I hope you know what it is to be wet, to be cold, to feel so hot there’s sweat dripping off of you back and you can barely stand to smell yourself. I hope you’ve been hurt, feared for your life, known that one misstep might cause you to fall into an abyss, hopelessly trying to fly on your way down. I hope you’ve climbed on top of something and felt free to scream knowing no one can hear you.
I hope you’ve been alive, and been human.
love,
Rachel

Tracking in the desert

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.


camp: Back of Beyond, the Known Universe, Utah
In the washes, there are sets of four-toed tracks compacting the dust, no longer than a nickel, made sometime before the rain this morning.
I feel the crunch of soil compacting under my show, step after step as I create a new trail across the desert and I feel guilty for all the fun I’m having.
There is a conversation taking place behind me, four people who used to be in my shoes telling each other stories whose words I can’t make out.
Tracking is a lot like journalism. You’re given pieces of information but left to piece them together, decide what’s relevant, and decipher meaning. You start casting a wide net, gathering as much data as you can. You write down anything you can, ask as many questions as you can think of. You get close, get obsessed, caught up in trying to find the story. You try angles, test theories, try to stay unbiased. Not every government project is hiding a larger social problem. Not every track with four toes and the perfect x above the metacarpal pad is a wolf track. You learn from everything imaginable, and your biases guide what you follow and where you choose to go. There are stories etched deep in every landscape if you look hard enough.
Today, following those coyote tracks, I found myself in a trance. It’s almost meditative, the inquisitive silence punctuated by gasps as you look down to see a print so clearly defined you could frame it and sell it as art. I got on all fours, trying out gaits, trying to decipher what I was seeing. I know the names—direct register walk, trot, lope—but I have so little practice picking them out in the sand. I want to be a better student, spend more time drawing and journaling and seeing everything the land has to teach me. But I like what Craig said today—try so hard to pay attention and you miss things. All of our minds wander. I’m no less holy or motivated because Ke$ha is stuck in my head, because I’m spending half of my walk across the canyonlands worrying about civil engineering. And those things that snap me out of my self-centered thoughts, the things that slap me across the face and make me sit up and pay attention—those are the things I want to learn about. And more of the than not, they’re tracks.

Walking through canyonlands

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.


camp: Back of Beyond, the Known Universe, Utah
Sunrise is hope, renewal spreading across the horizon. I wonder about the wisdom of silence—we’re struck by awe, humbled at these sights. But maybe sounds can acknowledge what we feel when we see the sun. It gives us life, sustains us, feeds our bodies and nourishes our soul. Maybe we should dance, sing, be joyous.
Feet on dirt—crushing, compacting, like boots on snow. Feet on rock—a soft tap, not quite a click. The same genus as heels on a marble floor, but a very different species. Distant cousins. Water ripples in sand. Warm, not hot. A breeze so small you can barely discern direction. Juniper berries and twigs pool in the rock’s indentations. Pieces of crumbled rock are scattered on the slickrock. Moon soil, full of craters. One piece looks like a tortoise, grotesque, half-formed. It’s hotter. My abdomen tingles, my scalp itches. It’s an early warning. Seek cover, get inside. The crypto is like a minefield and those hills aren’t getting any closer.
I love the ripples on the rock. Water is so clear in its presence and absence. It carves over time, folding the surface in on itself, carving lines, curves, stream channels. It’s the face of time, seemingly permanent until you walk across it, and it cracks and crumbles, brittle sand, easier to change than the wet tide flats at the beach.

Fixing grazing policies

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Greenfire, Idaho
I think I know Jon Marvel is right, but I still can’t bring myself to agree with him. Subsidies as a matter of something I pay for have stopped bothering me. But Eric is right—a subsidy makes otherwise marginal land profitable, causing it to be ranched when it shouldn’t be. Ranching already has externalities, so theoretically it should be taxed. But taxes and subsidies get more complicated when the government is the one selling AUMs in the first place. And I don’t want to have to tell people their way of live isn’t viable. I’d rather kill a grassland than look Todd Nash in the eye and tell him the truth. What does that make me?
So maybe the solution is a gradual phase-out. Buy out willing ranchers, push for conservation easements, revoke corporate allotments (because who’s going to lose sleep over J.R. Simplot?) And I’ve just proposed the most politically infeasible solution since Carter tried to cut all those dams from the appropriations bill. But the gradual buy-out, maybe? Why is it so hard to get Congress to act when the economics are so clear? Ok, I know why, but I wish we had more fearlessness in Congress. More idealists—a critical mass so they wouldn’t have to sell out and swap favors to get anything done. More people like Alan Grayson. And god, I wish they would overturn Citizens United. But that won’t fix it. The system is inevitably going to work slowly and inefficiently and that’s ok. But not too stupidly. Maybe the 16thamendment was a bad idea. Maybe the people have too much power. But…grazing. I feel like smaller policy changes—fixing the tax incentives for conservation vs. ranching, allowing smaller cattle numbers to be run, retiring willing allotments—would help speed up a seemingly inevitable tide. Ranchers are growing old and getting out. And I don’t want to see the lifestyle go away, but it doesn’t make sense—economically or environmentally—in the West. Cows should stay east of the 100th meridian and all of us should probably eat less beef.

Putting plastic squares on a fence

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Lava Lake, Idaho
context: We spent a week on the property of Lava Lake Lamb, a sustainable sheep ranch that’s trying to do research on wildlife migration through their land. We had just come from Nevada, where we listened to anti-grazing activist Jon Marvel describe the problems fences pose for wildlife migration. He told us that anytime we saw a fence in the west, we should tear it down. But as part of our work for Lava Lake Lamb, we helped them make their fences more “wildlife-friendly”.
So we put up plastic squares along fences that Jon Marvel says shouldn’t be there to stop sage grouse that he wants listed as endangered from hitting them. I don’t mind fences out here—it all looks the same to me; fences are part of the landscape as I’ve come to see it. But fences keep wildlife from moving, and I realize I’ve stopped looking at sagebrush as wild and started assuming grazing when I see it. I worry about the plastic—so many biologically pervasive toxins in them, molecules that get inside you and stick, invisibly, until you try to reproduce or are diagnosed with cancer. But I doubt those small squares will disrupt many endocrine systems. Is this what it means to see landscapes whole? To see the scars too, to always have a rejoinder starting with, “But…” whenever a solution is proposed? Can I go back to Moab senior year, when I didn’t know cattle grazed on public lands and the desert was just beautiful, even at Hidden Splendor*? Driving in Nevada, I look out the window and I see Harry Reid, gold mining, Los Alamos, the Manhattan Project, Hiroshima in September 1945, Owens Valley, the Superfund site list, cyanide, cows and climate change. Is there an off switch for this vision? Will I ever be able to see a sunrise unaffected again?
Oh, hyperbole. And yet, with everything I know, it’s still beautiful out here. Finding beauty in a broken world…almost easier, in a way. The contrast is starker. Or maybe it’s that things seem more beautiful because they’re broken—imperfect, yet still present. You acknowledge the imperfection and you work to make it whole. You put tiny white plastic squares on barbed wire fences, and they shudder like tree leaves in the breeze.

*Hidden Splendor is a site in the middle of nowhere—the San Rafael Swell in southeastern Utah. It’s where much of the uranium for the Manhattan Project was extracted, and the old mine shafts are still there. It’s also possibly the most gorgeous place I’ve ever been.


Pando Clone and conservation

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Pando Clone, Fish Lake National Forest, Utah
context: The Pando Clone is a giant stand of genetically identical aspen trees, making it the largest organism on earth. It’s also declining steeply due to disease and climate change (warmer winters mean that parasitic organisms which used to be killed off survive the winter to prey on the trees). We were divided into two groups—art and science. As part of the art group, I spent half a day wandering around taking pictures of the trees.
Aspen trees are gorgeous, especially now when the leaves are starting to turn. I’m so glad I got to see and photograph that and spend a day relaxing somewhere so beautiful. Is it bad that seeing beauty like this makes me care more about restoration? It’s such a stark contrast with yesterday, where we saw trampled streams and cowpies everywhere. The healthy trees here are beautiful, striking, even worthy of a postage stamp. But sometimes, what’s right ecologically doesn’t look as impressive aesthetically. So many exotic species were introduced because someone thought they would look better. How can we get people to care about more than appearance? How can we fight for the endangered dung beetles and seaweeds of the world when everyone’s focused on polar bears and tigers? I’m biased towards those charismatic megafauna just as much as everyone else, but I’m not even sure about ecological roles. I suspect large mammals generally play fairly key ecological roles, so perhaps our focus on them isn’t entirely misguided. But I don’t know that for a fact. Either way, they need research and money and habitat and PR, so maybe a public concerned about baby polar bears is better than a public indifferent o eubacteria or rare Amazonian lichens. But I want to believe we have more options than that. I want to get people to care about everything and the whole ecosystem, more than the sum of its parts. I want them to care because these things matter, not because they’re beautiful or they have potential for pharmaceutical research. But isn’t any kind of caring better than apathy? I’m not even sure why I care anymore, except a vague notion that my life depends on a planet in balance. I’m starting to think that balance is more subjective than I thought. I see balance in enclosures, but not the whole forest. Balance in the US, but not Brazil. How much balance do we need? How many functioning ecosystems? Is it ok to sacrifice the rest once we get there? In August, I would have shouted, “NO!” Now, I say no quietly, a bit hesitant. So many things I don’t know…