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All the Land to Hold Us: A Novel. Rick Bass. Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt. New York. 2013. 324 pp.

In 1970 Charles Reich wrote the runaway bestseller, The Greening of America. It was all about hippies and the new age coming and people living in peace and harmony. OK, that’s a slightly cynical synopsis but that’s how my pseudo-sophisticatedly 19-year-old self responded to it. He was talking about me (at least my cohort), and he seemed painfully naive to me, even then. But I doggedly persevered to the brutal end, 433 pages later. No lightbulbs went off; no aha moments. Oh geez, I thought then, When will I learn to stop reading when a book just isn’t working for me?

Well, about 10 years ago, as I began to see the arc of my life moving beyond its zenith, I started to drop novels if they didn’t move me within the first ten pages. Some even sooner. I embraced the idea that life is short and there are so many books to read…why read those that don’t speak to me?

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The Cover’s Great!

Recently I saw Rick Bass’ All the Land to Hold Us was a finalist for the 2013 Orion Award for fiction. I figured it would be my chance to read the five starred must-read Bass, a hero in literary and environmental circles.

And I tried, I promise I tried desperately, to embrace this book, despite its tempo (painfully slow), its characters (unlikeable and unlikely), its narrative arc (I’m still not sure where I ended up.) But I soldiered on through 324 pages of salt miners, and oil and gas people and rogue elephants, even a lily-white (literally) sorta-heroine who cooks her naked self to skin cancer scavenging for valuable fossils at the edge of the Permian Basin. She thought it was her ticket out of that nowheresville named Odessa, Texas.

That part—that Welcome to Odessa, Nowheresville part—I could definitely grab onto. But the glowing reviews, most using the word “lush” at some point or other, made me ask, “Yeah, but have you ever Seen West Texas?” This is the heart of the problem I had with this book. No desert is lush: Lush is reserved, to me, for luxurious, almost overwhelming vegetation, and if writing is lush, it needs to include a lot of plants, not just paragraph long, intricately woven, “throw every word you’ve got at it” descriptive writing. Bass goes out of his way to point out exactly how Not Lush West Texas is even as the descriptions of stark salt flats and rocky geological strata fill page after page.

I was particularly taken aback by a comparisons to Faulkner. Faulkner’s prose fit his Mississippi kudtzu-strangled ruined-plantation landscape. Bass’ West Texas, not so much.

The other characterization, magical realism, doesn’t work either. Surreal gets closer but it’s still hard to integrate giant puppets (even if there is a redux of the earlier elephant) with fundamentalist small town life that it felt to me, too often, like I was reading two books that the author was told to convert to one.

Honestly I wish I liked this book. I believe I’m exactly the demographic Bass is aiming for. And yes, I agree there is sometimes exceptional writing. But nothing matches. The location, the characters, the story line, they don’t make sense together. In fact even its nod toward environmental issues associated with oil and gas development seems to come too late with too little.

Wow, I guess Mr. Bass really did hit a nerve with me. That, in and of itself, is quite the accomplishment for any novel set in West Texas.

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Today we took a quick trip to Madera Canyon’s Santa Rita Lodging birding area—a group of covered roadside benches just perfect for relaxed birdwatching. Adjacent to a small grassy field holding about fifteen nearby numbered bird feeders all in a row and designed to attract different birds—we less adventurous (or time-pressed) birders can come up with some great quick spots. Although Madera Creek isn’t running (we’ve had about 20% of normal rainfall) and both the oaks and sycamores look pretty peaked, this is a time for migration through and coming home for many bird species. In less than an hour we saw flocks of lesser goldfinches, broad billed and black chinned hummingbirds, wild turkeys, a black headed grosbeak and, probably most spectacularly, a lazuli bunting. Not bad for some essentially drive-by birdwatching.

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Beauty is not a word one associates with contemporary art and literature. In fact, beauty is something of a pariah in esthetics generally. The ugly the grotesque the brutal the bizarre have cache. If art follows life, it does seem quaint to talk about beauty in this age of political upheaval, cultural relativism, raging consumerism, rampant technology, environmental tragedy.

But—democratically speaking—is not beauty in the eye of the beholder? The great nineteenth century lyric poet John Keats gave beauty its most ethereal meaning, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”.

Finally, art is said to mirror nature. Nature can certainly be brutal, cruel, ugly, in human terms. But in the eyes of many, nature is also full of beauty, plain and simple beauty. In fact the kind of beauty that also attracts insects and birds, no strings attached. A beauty that is beyond ecology, beyond human construct. Well, maybe within a human construct that opens our minds to an infinity of mental mirrors reflecting our long evolutionary inheritance, emerging as we did as a species when the only truth was nature.

And somehow after a million years of inhabiting earth we humans can still find beauty in nature, even desert beauty in a parched land of thorns and spines, heat and dust. And some of us we will even agree with John Keats—beauty is after all truth. SRE (All photos © SR Euston)

 

 

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Arizona is dry. After parched Nevada, the second driest state. But it has a great river.

That river begins with freshets in the Colorado Rockies, is infused by New Mexico rivers, carves  great canyons in Utah, reluctantly accepts Glen Canyon Dam, then revived,  goes about its  great geological task, uncovering the incandescent  sandstone glories of the Grand Canyon.

Then there is the Santa Cruz. A puny sort of non-river in southeastern Arizona looking mostly like a road in the sand.

It wasn’t always so. Spanish missionaries, Mexican settlers, the Mormon Battalion, Anglo developers—they found a river flowing, small but life giving with cottonwoods,  riparian pools, grassy wilds, from its headwaters near Patagonia, dipping into Mexico, flowing free, meeting the Gila River as it  rolled on to join the Colorado at Yuma. The river flowed through early Tucson, watered the lands at Mission San Xavier, provided for irrigation.

The Colorado still glistens below the Grand Canyon. The Gila River still has some wild upstream stretches. But the little Santa Cruz is nearing extinction. Ground water pumping continues, the water table drops, the drought plagued watershed is filled with mines and houses and cattle. To use a watery analogy, the glass by now is far less than half full. But for optimists there’s a hopeful exception—a cottonwood shaded flowing stretch below Nogales that is replenished with clean effluent  from an international  waste treatment plant—technology for once in service of the environment.

The exceptions always give one hope. Here is a mesquite-cottonwood riparian refuge, an exceptional birding environment offering walks, photography and a semblance of the old Santa Cruz. One easy access point to all this is at Tumacacori National Historic Park.

Recently southern Arizona got its first rains since mid-December. After the rain, a good inch and a half, the Santa Cruz River bed at Green Valley was braided with silver meandering streams, under the eye of the rain drenched, snow touched sky Island peaks of the Santa Rita Mountains. For a moment, this river was flowing.The photography offered a few fleeting chances.  Maybe even an environmental pessimist can find hope.

The following photographs move back and forth between cottonwoods and placid river in the upper, semi-restored,  stretch at Tumacacori, and the evanescent apperance after early March rains of  a shinning but rushing and muddy stream near the Continental Road Bridge in Green Valley, taken mostly in black and white.   SRE

 

IMG_1955 - Version 2

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North Shore Promotion  courtesy of Salton Sea Museum

North Shore Promotion
courtesy of Salton Sea Museum

In the 1950s and 60s the Salton Sea was a favorite resort destination for Southern Californians who boated, swam and fished at its seaside resorts. Desi Arnaz and Dwight Eisenhower golfed there; Guy Lombardo and Frank Sinatra raced boats.

Guy Lombardo, Jerry Lewis and Frank Sinatra at the Salton Sea photo courtesy of the Salton Sea Museum

Guy Lombardo, Jerry Lewis and Frank Sinatra at the Salton Sea
photo courtesy of the Salton Sea Museum

But alarms raised about pollutants caused recreation to plummet and in 1976 and 1977 two tropical storms, both “100 year storms”, followed by seven years of increased rainfall, flooded the resorts and vacation homes, leaving veritable “ghost towns” behind.

At Desert Beach photo courtesy of Salton Sea Museum

At Desert Beach
photo courtesy of Salton Sea Museum

Since 1977, a group of dedicated volunteers, the Sea and Desert Interpretive Association, working with CA. State Parks and the Salton Sea Restoration Project have been working to clear up false rumors, address bad publicity and get on with the job of restoration. As the Sea and Desert Association’s brochure states: “There is no evidence of the sea being polluted or having any harmful chemical or sewage. It is said that the Salton Sea is cleaner than Lake Tahoe. While dead fish are not a real pretty sight or smell, we are experiencing  the life cycle in action. The fish remain plentiful and healthy…and the fishing is great.”

Still the Sea faces enormous problems, the major one being quickening salinity rises that are bound to occur once agricultural water runoff dries up. This is slated to begin in earnest in 2017 as the Imperial Valley begins to sell its ag water to San Diego. The plans to mitigate what will obviously be profound if not catastrophic results for the Sea and its avian and fish life, seem, to be either prohibitively expensive or too large scale to be realistic. Still there are promising technologies and potential economic uses for by-products of de-salination.

On February 27, 2014 a new way to generate dollars for restoration was put forward—Barbara Boxer, California’s US Senator and two southern California congressmen, Raul Ruiz and Juan Vargas requested, by formal letter, that the Department of Interior designate the Salton Sea as  a renewable energy development area, making it easier to extendi its geothermal generating capacity beyond the current seven plants, clustered in three facilities. Income from new plants could be directed toward restoring the Sea.

Salton Sea Geothermal Plants photo courtesy of Center for Land Use Interpretation

Salton Sea Geothermal Plants
photo courtesy of Center for Land Use Interpretation

The problems are large; the costs high. But the importance of the Salton Sea as a diverse and very rare mixed ecosystem on the Pacific Flyway makes finding a way toward restoration a high priority—for all of us.

For further information see:

http://seaanddesert.org

http://www.defendersblog.org/2013/07/powering-up-at-the-salton-sea/

http://www.news10.net/story/news/politics/2014/02/27/salton-sea-gets-federal-boost/5881913/

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This is a question I’ve been asking myself every since I arrived thirty years ago. I’ve finally gotten down to “I know it when I see it.”

Of course it’s partially flat out geography. West of the 100th meridian to the Pacific coast was John Wesley Powell’s idea in 1879, the 100th meridian being where there was no longer sufficient rainfall (>20 inches/year) to support large scale agriculture without irrigation. It slices North and South Dakota as well as Nebraska about in half, then heads through western Kansas, across the Oklahoma panhandle and through West Texas to the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, the coast from about San Francisco to the Canadian border gets a lot more than 20 inches of rain. Our own Port Orford averages 80. Still, the dividing line seems good enough to me because I know Seattle and Portland and Eureka are western towns (even though it’s generally raining).

Courtesy of radio-blogs.com

Courtesy of radio-blogs.com

Patricia Limerick adds some of her own characteristics beyond mere geography in Something in the Soil. And the plot thickens. Here are her ten common characteristics, noting that not every place has them all but there is sufficient overlap to “give the whole some conceptual unity.” Here’s my interpretations of her top 10:

1. The West is arid to semi-arid. Still pioneers came from that back east riot of green, and wanted to reproduce it here. Thus massive irrigation and inter-basin water transfer projects.

2. The West has lots of Native Americans. There are sufficient large reservations (as well as casinos) to confirm the Indians haven’t vanished and their culture(s) continue to contribute to the Western mythos.

3. The West shares a border with Mexico (which she labels a third world country) and took a large part of this US region from the Mexicans in a war of conquest. A strong Hispanic strand remains in the culture.

4. The West abuts the Pacific Ocean, making the US a bi-coastal nation, open to influences both from Europe and Asia.

5. The West contains a large amount of public land, most of it administered by the US Forest Service and the US Department of Interior (DOI).

6. Federal ownership, especially DOI, of vast western lands makes the federal government a central and critical player in regional governance and politics.

7. The West has had a long history of economic boom and bust from natural resource extraction industries.

8. The West has fed into its own myth of freedom and adventure. With that has come a heavy reliance on tourism as well as the need to meet mythic expectations.

9. The West serves as the nation’s dumping ground, for everything from toxic waste to troublesome groups of people (think Native Americans, Mormons etc.)

10. Putting all these factors together it’s clear the story of the West is hardly over., and the limits and results of past conquest of people and land continues to show on the landscape and the culture.

Overall while I’m not sure this is the list I would come up with, it seems to work pretty well overall. The underlining of the federal presence and role is a particularly valuable one.

But still I would have to say, simple geography works pretty well. As does, “I know it when I’m there.” It’s definitely “something in the soil.”

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Last week we got news of yet another golf course development project slated for the South Coast. In addition to the “almost done deal” which is the state parks land swap, now there’s another course on the drawing board just north of my little hamlet, Port Orford. It’s to be placed on private land on a lonely stretch of coastal cliff just north of town, overlooking the mouth of Elk River, and across the Sixes to Cape Blanco to the north. Less than ten miles east  of its mouth, the Elk is designated “wild and scenic” and fishermen have pulled salmon from its clear, pristine waters for hundreds of years. Currently the developers of the property, who have old ties with the mega-Bandon Dunes Resort development, hope to have it open by 2016.

I’ve asked “How many are too many golf courses? and received the reply, “If you don’t golf what’s it to you?” Well…it seems to me kind of like office buildings. I don’t need one, yet it appears nobody ever asks how many are too many of those until there are. The jobs offered besides short-term construction are mostly in the service sector. I know that any job is a good job around here; times are tough. I know some say Bandon Dunes has brought opportunity and prosperity to Bandon and that may be true. (Although after yesterday’s emptiness in the downtown shopping area which should be bustling this time of year I wonder.)

But here in Port Orford, we don’t even have Bandon’s three plus blocks of tourist attractions. We’ve got a couple of very nice restaurants, a few excellent galleries, two banks, a grocery store, a great library, and an interesting, small fishing port. As of now we don’t even have our True Value Hardware Store anymore. I’m not sure what visitors will think besides “What the heck do they do around here?” (Hint: It’s not golfing; it costs too much.)

On the bright side, the new course is named Pacific Gales. They sure have gotten the area’s weather right.

HERE’S A BRIEF SLIDESHOW OF OUR ELK RIVER and CAPE BLANCO

All Photos © SR Euston

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At its Corvallis meeting on Wednesday, November 20 the Oregon Parks and Recreation Commission unanimously approved all four motions regarding this action (quoted below from the meeting’s press release http://www.oregon.gov/oprd/Documents/bandon-november-action.pdf):

Motion 1: the Commission finds that the contemplated Bandon Biota exchange meets the “overwhelming public benefit” standard of OAR 736-019-0070(4) and instruct the department to prepare a proposed final order for Commission approval.Motion 2: the Commission finds that the acquisition of Grouse Mountain Ranch meets the acquisition standards in OAR 736-019-0060 and instruct the department to prepare a proposed final order for Commission approval.

Motion 3: the Commission directs the Department to continue good faith efforts to address local community concerns as reflected in the Governor’s letter dated November 19, 2013.

Motion 4: the department will accept additional written testimony until December 6, 2013, regarding the proposed exchange or the proposed Grouse Mountain Ranch acquisition to afford the department the opportunity to consider the comments in preparing the proposed final orders.

Apparently the Bandon Biota’s latest golf course, slated for the Natural Area, is overwhelmingly beneficial to the public. Other pledged land and matching cash for acquisition, lots of cash for a new eastern Oregon State Park, and a promise of gorse removal might have had something to do It. The letter Governor Kitzhaber penned supporting the swap might have also had some impact on the decision.

I admit I couldn’t bring myself to listen to the 2+ hour audio of the meeting. A quick glance through the additional comments received didn’t seem to suggest overwhelming approval from the public, especially those in Grant County, the eastern Oregon locale of the potential new state park. Skimming through the botanist’s report on the natural area vegetation in the swap area, I noticed some interesting maps, two which appeared to  show rare plant distributions (pg. 38 and 39), and another (pg. 44) at least one area of “highest natural resource value. Habitat contains legally protected species.” http://www.oregon.gov/oprd/Documents/bandon-habitat-inventory-20131029.pdf

I also noted that the Governor’s letter was not “cced”  to any elected official or office in Grant County. I doubt State Parks employees are looking forward to addressing Motion 3’s direction to address local community concerns. As far as I can tell, so far nobody’s talked much with anybody out there at all about this idea.

Final Commission approval is slated to be considered at its next meeting, February 5, 2014 in the Salem area.

Want to get involved? You’ve got until December 6. Email at: oprd.publiccomment@state.or.us

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In mid-September an early autumn storm loaded with copious moisture from a Pacific typhoon roared over the Oregon Coast. Rain was heavy, five to ten inches, with 70 mph winds on the capes, dangerous seas worthy of Winslow Homer, and 23′ breakers.

Often the most impressive displays of oceanic fury follow shortly after Pacific storms move eastward. As the cold front passed, we headed for Shore Acres State Park, near Coos Bay. Shore Acres is the place for storm watchers on the south and central Oregon Coast, and that is our destination, our pilgrimage to see the salty essence of oceanic power.

At the park, a trail leads through sitka spruce towards the grassy cliff and to numerous viewing angles. We first hear the bombardment, water thundering shoreward before reaching the cliff. A few steps further, and we see a great plume of water climbing 50′ vertically, rising almost to the cliff top in a powerful crescendo, until gravity brings down a  frothy white plume that splashes the roiling surf below and coats my camera lens with salt spray.

The surf  for a few moments is quiet. A momentary lull. But a new wave of big breakers then rolls in from the deep ocean, breaking near shore or against the cliffs, one after another, five or ten in a row, roaring like a cannonade, reverberating across the headlands, only finally muffled by the silence of the deep forest.

My photographs taken that day give only a few dimensions of the reality. The camera clicked and clicked, slowing as the computer tried to process so much intense light. Many wave pictures are now taken with a slow shutter, thus blurring and smoothing what is really wild and chaotic action. The fast shutter of these pictures emphasizes that wildness and chaos. But it’s the viewer who must anticipate the almost terrifying audible dimension of crashing water, the taste of salt spray, the smell of brine and damp forest, in fact all the senses and emotions when confronting such spellbinding nature as a Pacific storm. A photograph can only suggest.  SRE

SHORE ACRES STATE PARK

AFTER THE STORM

all images © SR Euston

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Yesterday was the first day of autumn. Our Alberta family members reported beautiful yellow trees in their park. Thursday’s harvest moon was spectacular in Northern California according to our nature-loving middle child. Our youngest said it was raining in Berkeley, a typical fall day there. Just like here.

Two falls ago we were in New England where the leaves were in full display. Yellows, oranges, reds. A magnificent canvas painted across the Berkshire hills.

Watercolor Autumn © SR Euston

Watercolor Autumn
© SR Euston

But all is not well in leaf land. According to a 23-year study of the Harvard, MA Forest, fall colors now arrive three to five days later, correlating with the 2° Fahrenheit rise in average Northeast temperatures.

So what? The leaves will just start changing later. Except…leaves also change color based on day length. It’s the combination of shortening days and turning colder nights that alert the trees they need to begin preparing for the long winter ahead by ceasing to create sugars with the green chlorophyll in their leaves. As the green fades, the underlying yellow pigment begins to show through. Ultimately the leaves dry and fall.

Not so with the red pigment, anthocyanin, which is actually produced as a result of cool nights and sunny days. As those conditions change, the most noticeably affected may be the glorious bright red sugar maple. Not only may they no longer be in suitable habitat as the climate changes, they’ll like produce fewer of their signature red autumn leaves.

Not only is this a heartbreaking loss for those who relish a red sugar-maple-colored fall, it’s not great economic news for the leaf-peeping tourist trade in a swath across the Midwest to the Northeast and south to the Piedmont, an estimated $25 billion per year economic engine.

Guess climate alteration isn’t just for polar bears and ice caps anymore. Seen any good leave change recently? Seems we’ll need to grab the chance while we still can.

Autumn Leaves © SR Euston

Autumn Leaves
© SR Euston

For more info see: http://biology.appstate.edu/fall-colors/will-global-climate-change-affect-fall-colors

and: http://des.nh.gov/organization/commissioner/pip/factsheets/ard/documents/ard-25.pdf

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