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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Heading Home: the South and Southwest by Rail

Petrochemical corridor, Louisiana ("Cancer Alley")

After a marvelous college-roommate reunion, I boarded Amtrak's Crescent route in Greenville, South Carolina (home of the Swamp Rabbit Trail, which I bicycled along the Reedy River) and headed for New Orleans in a long day of riding the rails. The Crescent here traverses the cradle of two distinctly American phenomena: folk music of gospel, jazz, blues, country; and the Civil Rights Movement, both amply represented in the small and large towns I passed through this day.

Which set me to wondering about the connection between art and tragedy. In town after town, the legacy of slavery and poverty seemed intertwined with epochal musicians. Coincidence? Or the bitter yet beautiful fruits of struggle?

In several stops we were at the curiously nondescript depot of Atlanta, Georgia, hometown of Martin Luther King, Jr., who would challenge the entire nation in his speeches and marches. The nearby village of Villa Rica was the birthplace of Thomas Dorsey, the father of gospel music, whose Take my Hand, Precious Lord was sung at the funerals of both MLK and Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Soon we entered Alabama, the first stop of Anniston being the site where a bus packed with black and white Freedom Riders was firebombed in the summer of 1961. Then came Birmingham,  Read More 

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Across a Continent--by Rail

Country Lane, Iowa

What a quandary presented itself early this summer. I love my biennial reunion of college roommates; we graduated from Yale 50 years ago. But I hate getting from California back to the East Coast, site of our get-togethers. All can agree that airplane travel since 9/11 is no fun: long lines, removing a ridiculous list of clothing articles, more long lines, cramped seats in flying boxes of metal 40,000 feet above the ground (which has never seemed an entirely good idea to me), during which time you face yet more lines if you require a restroom.

And that’s when everything works out. On my return flight two years ago from the reunion, a storm grounded flights out of my Dallas connection, leaving me and several thousand frustrated travelers scrambling to nab overnight hotel rooms and alternate flights the next day (all on our own efforts and own dime, of course, since storms are an “Act of God”). Yikes.

This summer I found a solution to my quandary. A mode of travel that eliminates security clearances and lines anywhere in the process, gives you nothing but spacious and comfortable quarters, and permits you unexcelled viewing of the entire vast, diverse country we are privileged to call home. All at little or no expense above airlines, and but a modest additional investment in time. I took a train. Read More 

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Kayaking After John Muir's Ghost

On the Sacramento River, Fall

Three recent kayaking trips have echoed an incredible water feat of John Muir 140 years ago, and I found myself wondering if I might catch a glimpse of the old fellow’s ghost. Muir is typically remembered for his mountaineering feats in the Sierra Nevada, reflected in his most enduring quotes (“One day’s exposure to mountains is better than cartloads of books,” and “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.”). Yet he was as devoted to water as rocks, and had as many adventures on water (and ice) as on dry land.

The fall of 1877 is a good example. After leading botanists Asa Gray of Harvard and Joseph Hooker of Great Britain (Charles Darwin’s closest friend) on a botanizing expedition to Mt. Shasta, Muir stayed at prominent northern California rancher John Bidwell’s mansion in Chico. Ever restless, Muir wondered if Bidwell’s carpenter might fashion a craft to carry him down the nearby Sacramento River (California’s largest, both in volume and length).

Thus began a week’s solo journey on the great river, covering the 195 miles to the growing city of Sacramento, below which it flows into the Delta formed by its confluence with the San Joaquin River flowing north from central California. The winter rains had not yet begun in earnest, so the river was dotted by numerous snags, the remains of large trees that had toppled into the river from the crumbling banks. These obstacles were (and are) insidious, pulling your craft toward them and the ever-present danger of capsizing. Muir navigated the dangers and christened his little craft “Snagjumper.”

When my buddy Al and I pushed into the Sacramento west of Chico this past fall, the winter rains had already begun,  Read More 

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The Laggard, Part 1: A Difficult First Step

Connecting with the oldest energy source

Laggard: one who moves or responds slowly, sluggishly, hence falling behind an acceptable pace

That would be me. Inexcusably slow responding to the gravest threat confronting humanity in its 200,000 years on the earth. Sluggish in both practice and understanding regarding the effects of fossil fuel combustion on the planet.

Let’s take the practice part, first. A biology faculty colleague had installed an early version of solar panels atop his roof two decades ago. Good idea, I thought. Should do it. Didn’t. A decade ago a family in our Cohousing community fronted a loan to purchase solar panels for the community. Great idea! I didn’t pitch in to make it easier or more extensive.

All around our part of town, solar panels sprouted on rooftops, nearly one a block. Good idea. Somehow never got around to it.

Recently I took to visiting my old high school friend Gary, who lives not far south of me in California’s Silicon Valley. He was kind enough to produce the cover for a book I was writing about John Muir. One visit, he proudly displayed solar panels atop his garage, and patiently explained that paying off the loan to purchase the panels cost less than his monthly savings on his electricity bill. And in time the payments would cease. Duh?! Not too long thereafter I reunited with another high school friend, who powered his home with solar panels and drove a hybrid gas/electric Chevy.

So last month, I finally  Read More 

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Sea Caves and Kelp Forests of Santa Cruz Island

Santa Cruz Island cliffs west of Scorpion Harbor, with Anacapa in the distance

Absolute dark above and below, behind and to the sides. The only light, and it glowed strong, came from the narrow entrance to the Santa Cruz Island sea cave, some 30 feet behind me. The kayak rocked gently as waves washed into the cave, traveled to the back, and broke quietly against what sounded like a small beach. I feathered the paddle and turned myself about, to look out the entrance.

It felt good, being sheltered within this basaltic rock that had erupted out of the sea floor off the California Coast in the Miocene, 20 million years ago. Protected. I liked the sound of the ocean lapping quietly against the rock all around me. I liked the dark. It all—especially the quiet—reminded me of being in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, on a snowy November weekday five years ago. As the flakes began to fall about me, I sheltered within the burned-out cavity comprising half the trunk of a tree 25 feet wide and 200 feet tall. Sitting there within a creature over a thousand years old, munching on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, alone on the hilltop as I watched the snow drift down outside, I also felt sheltered. Safe. Part of something that had been going on for a long time.

But the best part of the many sea caves along the edge of Santa Cruz Island off the coast of southern California is emerging from them into the daylight. The world seems to explode around you. Oh yes, the sky is that gorgeous blue, isn’t it? The ocean’s surface dances green  Read More 

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John Muir's Legacy: a history of the American environmental movement

The stark choice facing humanity: creation or destruction?

Part 8. Two Paths, and a Choice

Six months after the Paris climate conference, little seemed to be happening. With the exception of Greenpeace and 350.org, most environmental groups were curiously quiet. They pressed ahead with fundraising, as always; they published their magazines with glossy photos; but in truth gave little sign that a critical moment in human history was upon us.

In contrast, the significance of Paris spurred considerable pushback from Big Oil, Big Coal, and Big Mining. Most observable activity post-Paris originated from fossil fuel corporations pressing vigorously ahead to cash in as much of their reserves as they could before any restrictions might be applied.

Shareholder meetings of Exxon and Chevron in May of 2016 saw the lopsided defeat of resolutions presented by climate activist investors. Chevron CEO John Watson emphatically rejected  Read More 

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John Muir's Legacy: a history of the American environmental movement.

Not a victory, but a start--barely

Part 7. Hope Blossoms: Paris, December 2015

The 2014 U.N. climate conference had asked the world’s nations to submit by October, 2015 their pledges (INDCs, Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, to form the platform of the much-anticipated December, 2015 climate summit in Paris. These pledges would be a test of how seriously the world’s leaders were listening to the data and predictions of virtually every scientific body in the world, and the pleas of climate change activists.

In the scientific and environmental establishment, at least, the 2015 summit was considered the last opportunity to craft an international consensus that would avert global catastrophe. Optimism was not widespread, given the utter failure to reach such agreement in every other preceding summit. Klein’s hoped-for mass movement had not mushroomed in the year since her book’s publication, nor were there any signs of Pope Francis’ hoped-for “ecological conversion” occurring throughout the world.  Read More 

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John Muir's Legacy: a history of the American environmental movement.

The author of environmental encyclical Laudato Si'

Part 6. Dawn of Hope 2015: Pope Francis’ Encyclical

Cardinal Bergoglio’s choice of Francis as his apostolic name set the tone for his papacy, reminding all of the 13th century friar who wrote canticles to “Brother Sun and Sister Moon” and talked to songbirds and wolves. The name also presaged the contents of his summer 2015 encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’. Certainly the document, an official church teaching, had been the subject of debate for months before its issuance. Environmentalists worldwide eagerly awaited it; conservative Catholics, particularly in America, denounced it in advance, sternly advising Francis to “stick to religion, and we’ll stick to politics,” in the words of Republican (and Catholic) then-Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner.

When the encyclical finally arrived in June 2015, it proved to be everything that had been hoped and feared—and more. Francis’ analysis was thorough and in depth; the proposed solutions ranged from the theoretical to the practical, sparing no institution or entrenched power. The document was radical, and spawned a torrent of shocked criticism Read More 

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John Muir's Legacy: a history of the American environmental movement.

The target of the Sierra Club's invigorated "Beyond Coal" fight

Part 5. Clarity 2012-2014: Sierra Club, 350.org, Naomi Klein

The confusion and dismay characterizing the environmental movement in the first decade of the new century gradually yielded in the several years following 2012 to clarity on the depth of the crisis and a general approach to its possible resolution. Partly this was just due to the devastating climate-change scenarios being projected; the coming world they foresaw was so terrifying, so clearly unacceptable, that a positive response was wrung out of the dismay. Partly the emerging clarity was due to the increasing attention that the newly assertive scientific world demanded from governmental leaders and policy-makers. The attention of the world was, finally, being caught by those chronicling climate change and its consequences.

Another source of attention was a series of long-running confrontations pitting peasants and indigenous peoples against extractive operations, which peaked in 2013. Because these skirmishes usually result in road blockades (by either the protesters or the authorities), the phenomenon has been labeled “Blockadia...not a specific location on a map but rather  Read More 

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John Muir's Legacy: a history of the American environmental movement.

Earth, newly imperilled

Part 4. Confusion and Dismay 2000-2012: “Is Earth F**ked?”

In June of 1988 the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, James Hansen, testified before a congressional hearing that the earth’s climate was threatened by a buildup of heat-trapping “greenhouse gases” in the atmosphere. The phenomenon was not newly-discovered; for several decades climatologists at Hawaii’s Moana Loa Observatory had tracked steadily rising concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and many scientists had warned of its effect on atmospheric temperatures. By 1988 sufficient data was available to make a credible case (to scientists, at least) that “greenhouse gases” were changing climate with serious, deleterious consequences to humanity.

Thus was engaged the most serious threat to the continuation of the human presence on earth that our species has encountered in its 200,000-year tenure on the planet. The response would not be encouraging. Read More 

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