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All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West by David Gessner. WW. Norton and Co. New York. 2015. 354 pp.

To look at the rise in twentieth century environmentalism in the West, David Gessner chooses two formidable voices: Wallace Stegner, novelist who penned the Pulitzer- winning Angle of Repose, essayist and coiner of that most memorable of descriptorsof the West, the “geography of hope”; and Edward Abbey, the merry prankster author of numerous novels including most famously the Monkey Wrench Gang and the formative memoir Desert Solitaire.9780393089998_300

As Gessner ranges across the West in search of iconic locations these two authors have lived in and written about, he uses excerpts from their writings as well as extensive interviews with experts as well as people who knew one or the other as friends and colleagues. It’s a huge journey, starting at Edward Abbey’s childhood Pennsylvania, then dipping down for a visit to Wendell Berry in Kentucky who knew them both, then on to Saskatchewan where Wallace Stegner spent many of his most important childhood years. Then Gessner takes the reader deeply “Out West”, visiting ecological high spots which were critical to each writer’s world view, from Arches and Glen Canyon to Stanford and the University of New Mexico.

There is certainly a lot of meat to digest in this book. Gessner obviously did his homework and he brings the two characters into sharp relief, both personally and in how they inspired future Western environmentalists. Some may have chosen Abbey’s model of “monkey wrenching”, working outside the box by physically trying to stop odious development (think sugar in gas tanks). Others may be drawn to Stegner’s moderated voice, a call to work within the system by describing in heartfelt but restrained writings about what our country stood to lose by that development.

While Gessner presents the two in a “compare and contrast” mode (Stegner the “sticker”, Abbey the firebrand). It seems to me a slightly wacky stretch that emphasizes their personal temperaments and styles rather than what overarching truths they tell that sets them apart as two of the greatest voices for preservation of western wilds. Of course they are—it’s just that they make such strange bedfellows. The book seems to unnecessarily overreach to point out their differences—I take away “button-downed” Stegner vs. “wildman” Edward Abbey, neither especially enviable characters. I’d rather revere them both for their common passion for the West and their lifelong devotion to its preservation.

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Part of the year we live in a small Sonoran Desert age-restricted (55+) community. There are no boom boxes masquerading as cars, no outdoor rock concerts, no jake-brake-using diesel trucks. Little happens after dark. Everybody goes home and goes to bed. Contrary to popular myth, older people don’t blast their TVs, stereos or electric organs. When the power went out last week it took us a while to notice what was missing…sounds like the refrigerator running and the a.c. blowing. It was lovely, in an eerie sort of way.

Still, even here, the world in all its naked noisiness, all too frequently jars the quiet.

A10s from the Davis/Monthan website

A10s from the Davis/Monthan website

We live within miles of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Their mission? “Deploy, employ, support, and sustain attack airpower in support of Combatant Commanders anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice. Train the finest attack pilots for the Combat Air Forces. Provide every member of Team D-M with responsive, tailored, mission-focused base support.” (http://www.dm.af.mil/index.asp). That translates into a lot of overhead noise (sometimes exceptionally loud) as mysterious unseeable objects hurdle by overhead. I guess I’m supposed to feel safe.

152nd Fighter Squadron  Air National Guard Tucson

152nd Fighter Squadron
Air National Guard Tucson

Adjoining D-M is the 162d Fighter Wing (162 FW) of the Arizona Air National Guard, stationed at Tucson Air National Guard Base, Arizona. They’re a premier training facility where air force pilots from around the world have come to train including from mid-eastern countries like Israel, Jordan, the United Arab Emigrates and Turkey as well as Thailand, Denmark, Sweden, Chile, Italy, Taiwan, Portugal and others. And yes, when they practice It’s Loud.

Then there are assorted helicopters at all hours of the day and night. Tucson Metro Police as well as Pima County Sheriffs are out there scanning for drug smugglers, runaway convicts and other assorted other n’r-do-wells. Oh and to keep up on accidents and traffic we’ve got the local TV stations. OK so we live less than thirty miles south of Tucson, and only forty miles north of Nogales and Mexico. So I know I have to accept big city and border issues noise.

sound levels  courtesy of Wikipdian

sound levels
courtesy of Wikipdian

Still, it’s those blasted leaf blowers and lawn mowers that can truly lay me low. We live in a very well kept, greenly landscaped community which requires a veritable battalion of gardeners to keep it pristine. While I appreciate the almost compulsive striving for neatness, when they start blowing at my back door at 6:30 am, count me out. I’m not alone: “The World Health Organization recommends general daytime outdoor noise levels of 55 dBA* or less, but 45 dBA to meet sleep criteria (3). Thus, even a 65-decibel leaf blower would be 100 times too loud** to allow healthful sleep (which often takes place during daytime hours for night workers and others). Noise can impair sleep even when the sleeper is not awakened. Acoustics experts say blower noise is especially irritating because of its particular pitch, the changing amplitude, and the lack of control by the hearer. (my emphasis added). (http://www.nonoise.org/quietnet/cqs/leafblow.htm

Hear, Hear. I hope.

The Scream  courtesy of the Edvard Munch Gallery

The Scream
courtesy of the Edvard Munch Gallery

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It’s been a dry 2014 here in the Sonoran Desert, about 0.6 inches of rain. Annual amounts for January through May average about 3.3 inches. So less than 20% of the average rainfall for the first five months of the year. We’ve had one true rain since we arrived in late December.

It’s been hot as blazes the last few days as well, over 100° yesterday. Forecast today was 104° with a front moving through. It was 80° at 5:00 am. But even though the humidity just before dawn was less than 20%, clouds filled the sky and the weather forecasters, ever optimistic in the desert, gave it a 20% chance of rain.

By mid-morning we smelled it—the unique clean dry(?) smell of wettening creosote. Yes! It was raining somewhere within our aromascape. We waited expectantly. I felt a few drops as I ran to close the car windows. Then…nothing.

The desert is a harsh mistress. But nothing caps that amazing smell of desert rain. No matter where it might have fallen.

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It seems like we’d taken every road available to cross southern California—all four interstates (yes we’ve even gone through Vegas on I-15) as well as backroads like State Route 62 through Twenty Nine Palms which we got to by driving through Joshua Tree National Park. While they’ve added distance as well as time to the journeys, the detours have provided ways to see backcountry SoCal that many people never experience.

IMG_2371 - Version 2

The Salton Sea © SR Euston

This trip we chose to return from LA via I-10 through Palm Springs and then head south at Indio. Looking for lunch we ended up at Mecca, a crossing of the roads where we continued south around the eastern side of the Salton Sea on State Route 111.

I’m not sure what I expected but it definitely wasn’t this: a beautifully glistening enormous lake, 228 feet below sea level, the largest in California with a 380 square mile surface compared to Lake Tahoe’s 193. This particular iteration of this inland sea, a sink which has been alternating between flooded and dry for thousands of years, was created by Colorado River overflow flooding which began in 1905 and was finally blocked off in1907.  Since being closed off from the river, the sea now receives water only from a few small rivers; its major source is runoff from the adjacent farmland in the Imperial and Coachella Valleys.  Consequently, salinity rises each year and is now 25% higher than the Pacific Ocean. In 1930 a National Wildlife Refuge was established; in 1955 a state park.

The ecosystem is a study in contrasts and conflicts. On the one hand, the fish, introduced tilapia especially, continue to thrive and the Salton Sea is considered by some to be the most productive fishery in the world. On the other hand, it’s so productive that periodically there are massive die offs, probably the result of overpopulation leading to oxygen depletion. The blazing summer temperatures don’t help either. Evaporation increases the Sea’s salinity and reduces the ability of the water to hold oxygen.

On the third hand, the Salton Sea with its mix of marine, freshwater, desert, wetland and agricultural lands, is considered California’s “Crown Jewel of Avian Biodiversity”, with over 400 species sighted, second only to the Texas Gulf Coast. Several million birds migrate through annually relying on its ready supply of food. On the other (fourth?) hand, major bird die offs have happened periodically, particularly in the 1990s when 170,000 eared grebes, as well as 1000 endangered brown pelicans and 15 to 20% of the white pelican’s western population died, probably from an deadly mix of avian viruses and bacteria.

From the crusty shoreline (which looks a little like Yellowstone’s mineral hot springs) we easily spot white pelicans and black necked stilts. Rather than sand, the beach is made up of millions of fan shaped translucent fish scales and a lot of dead fish.

Shoreline, Salton Sea © AME

Shoreline, Salton Sea © AME

An eerie feeling of abandonment hangs in the air.  Forlorn, almost abandoned.

What’s happening to the Salton Sea?

Next: Salton Sea past, Salton Sea future

For general park information see: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=639 and http://seaanddesert.org/facts.html.

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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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New River ACEC

New River ACEC

We’ve visited the New River (a river which runs north behind the foredunes and tidal zone along about ten miles of the Coos/Curry coast) many times before, both at Floras Lake near where the river begins and at Storm Ranch about five miles north.

Recently we decided to try the other two entrances to this 1100 acre Bureau of Land Management Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC). The New River area has been set aside because of its biodiversity. (It includes sand dunes, pine forest, wetlands, meadows and shrubland as well as an abandoned cranberry bog!) Portions of the foredunes are off limits from March 15 through September 15 to protect nesting snowy plovers. We’ve spotted bald and golden eagles, Aleutian cackling geese, terns and otters.

This time we took the Lost Lake Trail which is accessed just south of Bandon in Laurel Grove. The trail leads to a quiet small lake dotted with lilies and snags and in shallow areas, contains a wetland. The lake is edged with spruce. Beyond the lake the trail continues through steep dunes to the New River.

The second trail we followed was a short one (only one-quarter mile), on the northern side of Four Mile Creek. It passes among large beach homes, through a shrubby archway and a meadow, covered in yellow composites. In winter this can often turn to an impassible wetland. There are huge pieces of redwood driftwood on the eastern side of the river at Four Mile Creek. Perhaps they were stranded when the New River was formed after the Great Flood of 1890.

There are many freshwater lakes separated from the ocean by foredunes and a steep beach around here. Most are the result of migrating sand dunes which close off creeks or valleys, impounding and collecting fresh water behind them. While fairly common on the southern coast, it is always a surprise to come on a lake from whose shore I can hear and often see the ocean.

ALONG THE NEW RIVER

© SR Euston

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