Building a good fire is a matter of balance. Bright flames are cheerful, but if your intent is to keep one side of you tolerably warm, your fire must neither be too efficient nor too wasteful. You must stack your firewood loosely enough that air can flow through freely, but not too loosely. Each burning log heats the burning logs nearest it. Too much space between them and the fire will slacken. Too little and the fuel keeps its heat to itself. On a desert night like this, a cold one in March 2005, you want to coax the fire to share every bit of warmth it can.
For the tenth time I poke at my little campfire and think about my father.
Desert kit foxes are in trouble, facing threats from industrial development of their habitat to a deadly outbreak of distemper that's killing untold numbers of foxes. This week, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) filed to list the fox as a Threatened species under the California Endangered Species Act (CalESA), a move that if successful would afford the fox a bit of protection from development of its habitat.
A Laguna Beach-based marine life rescue group has seen such an increase in the number of severely dehydrated and malnourished sea lion pups this season that the organization is calling it an epidemic.
The Pacific Marine Mammal Center rescued a dozen sea lions Saturday, a record for the nonprofit in a single day, according to the group's head of development, Melissa Sciacca.
"It's absolutely in crisis mode in our center," Sciacca said.
Eighty-six marine mammals are now being treated there, she said, adding that all but two are sea lions, Sciacca said.
"We haven't had this number of animals in 15 years," Sciacca said. It was a particularly rainy "El Nino" year in 1998.
Most of the sea lion pups are coming ashore severely malnourished and dehydrated, Sciacca said. The problem has reached "epidemic proportions" along the Orange County coast, she said.
"One of the foundational principles of the U.S. Forest Service is water," observed Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell in an interview with me in mid-February. His observation was made in reference to the impact of the Clean Water Act on and importance to watershed management within the national forests. His insight is now a matter of heightened concern as a shifting climate alters the levels of precipitation across the country.
But to understand the hydrological challenges of our immediate present, and the drier future they may presage, it is critical to recognize the implicit thrust of Tidwell's comment: history matters.
No one better understood the power of water to define life in the American west than the 19th-century activists and scientists who articulated the need for the creation of the national forests. They predicated their arguments on a close reading of the land and the tight ecological relationship they believed existed between upstream watersheds and downstream economies.
On climate change, the Obama administration seems to be finding its voice.
That was not always the case: because President Obama was not about to let climate change disrupt his second-term chances, during his first term he sat quietly as Republicans vociferously attacked anyone trying to construct an effective climate-change policy for the nation.
These assaults, Anthony Leiserowitz of Yale's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies told Bill Moyers recently, were part of a larger "disinformation campaign" that the fossil-fuel industry has funded: "I mean, they're very happy, thank you very much, with the status quo," delighted with the results of their actions "to get people to believe that the experts do not agree."
Among those who deferred was the Obama administration, and that's still true to some extent. In mid-February more than 40,000 climate activists rallied around the White House as part of the nation's largest such fossil-free rally ever, but the president was a no-show. Instead, he was on a Florida golf course, shooting a sunny round with oil-and-gas executives.
This tone-deaf moment aside, off the links President Obama and the executive branch are starting to speak about the urgent need to protect life on Earth.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced this month that it had designated critical habitat for a plant called the Coachella Valley milk-vetch, which grows in sandy soil along the north edge of its namesake valley between Cabazon and Indio. About 9,600 acres of lands are covered in the final designation, mainly checkerboarded along washes and wind-blown sand corridors. The designation comes after 15 years of legal argument since the foot-tall plant was first added to the endangered species list in 1998.
If the critical habitat designation was based solely on science, there would probably be about 20,000 acres included, but even the slim level of protection afforded by that designation was fought hard by real estate developers in the Coachella Valley. And if it seems to you you've heard the word "milk-vetch" come up in other desert environmental issues, you're remembering right.
It was as if Bill McKibben orchestrated it.
Mere days before the galvanizing founder of 350.org led more than 40,000 climate activists to rally around the White House in opposition to the controversial Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline, the General Accounting Office (GAO) released a report explicitly detailing the fiscal challenges that climate change is bringing to the United States.
Implicitly the report also makes a compelling case that a lethargic White House and Congress are largely responsible this mess.
Here's how I drove to LAX this morning: the 10 to the 57 to the 60; the 60 to the 605 to the 105. Your route across the Southland may be different, but I suspect you can see mine in your mind's eye, a cartography of movement through space. Those digits, and the freeways they represent, are also how we identify ourselves in this place over time.
Joan Didion once compared Angelenos' high-speed navigation to the 19th-century rivermen who ran the Mississippi and the Missouri, those wet western highways that were every bit as tricky and snagged as the 101 or the 405.
Her comparison works in another sense, for the earlier west to which she refers also came to be dominated by numbers. Not simply those associated with a six-shooter or a 20-mule-team, crucial though those technologies were to the murderous pacification of the region and the commercial exploitation of its mineral riches. It was also defined by raw data that some diligent discoverers generated and which ultimately reframed their generation's mental map of the west.
With Louis Sahagun's devastating article this weekend in the Los Angeles Times, the outside world learned what those of us in Joshua Tree have known for some time: our bobcats are being trapped and killed for the profit of a very few people. But what the Times article didn't say was that bobcat trapping in California as a whole is an archaic practice based on bad science, which should have been made illegal long ago.