A few days ago I kicked a cactus with my bare right foot. Three dozen spines lodged deeply in my skin: in the ball of my foot, the ends of my toes, in the folds between my toes. I managed to remove about two thirds of them. The rest were driven into my flesh with no protruding ends to pull or scrape away. There they remain.
As I describe in Part 1 of this article, an unprecedented coalition of Native Californian desert tribes and other environmental activists fought the State of California to a standstill 15 years ago on a proposal to dump low-level nuclear waste in Ward Valley, about 20 miles east of Needles. The activists who fought the project had public sympathy on their side and expert political sensibilities. But they had something else on their side as well: science.
How does the past speak to the present? Through any number of stories and the meanings their narrators draw from them and convey to us.
Jim Condon's reflection on his time in the Civilian Conservation Corps is one such example. Like thousands of other young Californians, Condon joined the CCC amid the wounded economy of the early 1930s. The numbers who enrolled with him and the many projects they worked on had a profound impact on the state, due in large part to the aggressive actions of the Forest Service's Regional Forester, Stuart B. Show. He loudly touted the Golden State's many needs and raked in a large percentage of the federal money that flowed through the CCC's coffers.
It was Show's idea to send hundreds of men to help blaze the 800-mile-long Ponderosa Way firebreak running just above the timberline in the Sierra Mountains; he dispatched others to construct the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail (the PCT) that ran north from the Mexican border to the Cascades.
It's an embarrassing admission for a confirmed California desert rat like me, but I've never been to Ward Valley. Not really. Oh, I've crossed the valley near its north end on Interstate 40 dozens of times. I've done the same thing where Route 62 crosses the south end of Ward Valley. But I've never gotten off the highway, never walked out onto the valley floor among the low creosote and yuccas and chollas and just breathed.
There's no particular hurry: Ward Valley's hundreds of square miles of open desert will be there when I get around to visiting. 20 years ago that wasn't a sure thing.
Our carbon footprint is everywhere, in the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and the spaces in which we work and sleep. It fuels all forms of modern transportation -- cars, trucks, trains, buses, planes, and ships -- and its residue makes toxic the air we breathe and the water we drink.
Because there are extraordinary profits to be wrung from exploiting this energy resource, mega-corporations are imploding mountaintops and drilling, fracking, and blasting ever deeper into the earth to tap into these fossilized riches. Those who control their production, distribution, and consumption shape deliberations from town halls to the United Nations.
Extracting ourselves, our communities, and politics from this oil-and-gas juggernaut is not going to be easy. That's why so few immediately will jump at the chance to divest themselves of their investments in such corporations as Exxon or Shell, Valero or BP.
Thanks however to Bill McKibben and the fertile imaginations of folks at 350.org, there is a move afoot to do just that, using divestment as way for us to acknowledge our collective complicity in and accept our shared responsibility for a warming Earth, this imperiled planet.
The president's words scanned well: "We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity." That future, President Obama declared in his inaugural address, required that this nation respond "to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations."
Conceding that "some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science," he affirmed what so many scientists, policymakers, and citizens have long argued -- that we can no longer dismiss the consequences of climate disruption, which include, in the Chief Executive's words, "the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms."
Those are strong words from a president who in his first term did not push Congress to enact legislation that might have helped us better adapt to and mitigate the ramifications of a warming Earth. Perhaps the recent data indicating that 2012 was the ninth hottest year on record, the 36th in a row of above-average temperatures, melted some of his reticence.
If you're one of the millions of people who fear spiders, it might be a bit unsettling to realize that California is full of them -- the desert especially so. From our striking tarantulas with their three-inch leg-spans that wander desert roads in September to the near-ubiquitous black widows hiding under debris, the deserts of California host an astonishing number of spiders -- one or more per square yard in many spots. It's no surprise that of 33 recently-discovered species of trapdoor spiders living in western North America, many -- including one named for U2's frontman Bono -- make their living in the California desert. But their discovery does serve to remind us that our deserts are largely unexplored by biologists, and that we may be losing species before we know they're there.
The news was as bright as the day.
It came in the form of an email that arrived as we sped through the sun-drenched Salinas Valley, flicking past tractors tilling the fertile soil, work crews laying down irrigation pipes, and fields bearing winter crops of kale, red cabbage, and, one sign promised, "romaine lettuce: coming soon!" That exclamation mark was doubled as I scrolled through the much-anticipated announcement that President Obama had signed legislation turning Pinnacles National Monument in the nation's 59th national park. I looked up from the screen and there the new park's signature landform, North Chalone Peak, filling the windshield; it and the rest of the Galiban Mountains dazzled in the crisp blue sky.
For all the Pinnacles' striking beauty, for all its geological significance (its heights comprise the remnants of an ancient volcano), cultural resonance (the Cholone people and others made good use of its upcountry woodlands and riparian habitats), and ecological richness (California condors have been successfully reintroduced here) -- none of these values by themselves were responsible for the initial creation of the national monument in 1908 or its redesignation as a national park in 2013. Both moments required a very human force: politics.
A Dec. 22 video taken of the razed south reserve by Mathew Tekulsky with voiceover by Kris Ohlenkamp, both board members of the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society.
In December, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did what it does best -- it disappointed and deeply so.
With little public notice, it gutted more than 40 acres of thick vegetation along Haskell Creek as it flows through the Sepulveda Basin. Did the Corps believe that no one would care? Or that even if people came upon its hack job that the traumatized terrain would elicit no comment? Or did the agency simply decide to act as it so often has in the past with little regard to the environmental consequences, and the public be damned?
It's make or break time. If we don't get any rain in the desert between now and March, it's not gonna happen. But if enough precipitation leaks over the mountains to give the Mojave Desert a few good showers or a blanket of snow, then we might just see one of the desert's least-understood phenomena take place, as Joshua trees work to create a new generation of themselves.