The falcon flew low and fast over Strawberry Rock, an outcropping high above the Rio Brazos Valley, just east of Chama, New Mexico.
We were sharing a picnic with good friends in a pine copse rooted in rough sandstone and marveling over the clear blue horizon, when the small raptor shot past; its backswept wings and breakneck speed were its only identifiable features.
As it stretched out and banked west, the falcon's swift form was highlighted against the quartzite face of the Brazos Cliffs, glowing in the midday sun; it then hurtled down the dark green valley, following the silvery flow west toward the Rio Chama.
That shutter-click of a moment seemed suspended in time. Like our vacation, a lifting up and out, a release.
Yet at some point the falcon had to wing home, and so did we, though our pace was a bit more sedate. A day later we were rolling along U.S. 64 across northwestern New Mexico, straight through the state's oil-and-gas patch in the San Juan River watershed.
The region contains the nation's second largest gas reserves, a play that has gone through a series of booms and busts since the 1920s, but it has been experiencing a decline of late. The small towns along our route bear the marks of this economic withering -- idled rigs, banged up pickups, pitted roadbeds, and dusty stores with little on the shelves. Even the relatively bustling Farmington, which received a substantial infusion of American Reinvestment and Recovery Act dollars to repave an extensive portion of U.S. 64, has not been able to generate enough new work to break out of its doldrums.
That's why so many are looking for salvation in two words: Mancos Shale. The formation, which extends from New Mexico into portions of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, is buried about a mile beneath the surface. Estimated to contain upwards of six billion barrels of oil, approximately one-third of which lies within New Mexico, the untapped resource is being touted as a godsend for the recession-hit area.
You're out in the desert, in your local botanic garden, or sitting in your eccentric neighbor's oddly landscaped yard. You take a step backward and feel a sharp pain in your calf. You turn: a plant with swollen stems and sharp spines has invaded your personal space, puncturing your skin. You suppress a curse, opting for something milder. "Stupid cactus!"
But is it a cactus? Maybe not.
Every great story needs a great journalist.
Every complex environmental issue needs a skilled reporter to help the public understand who the central players are, and why these conflicting interests are duking it out in the legislature, through the courts, and across the media.
Every brawl as heated and brutal as the water fights that routinely erupt around the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta needs a Mike Taugher.
From 2000 to 2012, Taugher, who died while snorkeling off Maui on Saturday, July 27, covered this battle royal for the heart and soul of the Golden State -- where water is power.
During those years as an investigative reporter for the Contra Costa Times, Taugher probed, parsed, and interpreted the oft-crazy politics that shaped the flow of water from the Sierra snowpack to the San Francisco Bay, from the upper reaches of the state's key rivers through the Delta and into the State Water Project that channeled millions of acre feet annually south to thirsty Angelenos.
Excerpted from the author's forthcoming book on Joshua trees.
I should probably say before we go any farther that I am what the literature people call an unreliable narrator. Relating information about Joshua trees in a neutral, dispassionate, objective fashion is not something I can honestly claim to do. I am biased in favor of the trees' existence. I am biased in favor of their presence within a few minutes' walk of wherever it is I happen to be standing. What I tell you about them will necessarily be colored by that favorable outlook.
Last Friday I paid a visit to the impressive Becoming Los Angeles exhibit at the L.A. County Natural History Museum in Exposition Park. The brand new permanent exhibit tells the story of how a region that was once a collection of coastal and riparian Native American villages transformed into one of the world's largest metropolitan areas in the span of some 232 years. One of the thoughts that lingered in my mind after I left the museum was the ecological impact of the man-made, built environment that was created here.
I often say to friends (especially those that also grew up here, after randomly running into them in public or discovering mutual acquaintances), "Los Angeles is really a small town -- it just happens to have a lot of concrete."
And do we have a lot of concrete. What we city dwellers consider the urban environment is, in actuality, a paved layer that we exist upon: A man-made surface of concrete, cement, masonry, and asphalt, intended to cover and conceal the natural surface at every opportunity, the sight of dirt be gone at all costs. If the planet is comprised of a core, a mantle and a crust, then humankind has created its own stratum atop the crust: "The layer."
Los Padres National Forest is one of the top places in America considered "too wild to drill," according to a new report from The Wilderness Society. It highlights a dozen of the nation's most unique landscapes that it says are threatened by oil and gas drilling.
The Los Padres forest not only provides drinking water to the Santa Barbara area but also is well-known for two iconic animals, said Warren Alford, California regional representative for The Wilderness Society.
"The last [wild] California condor was captured here and became part of a successful reintroduction program," said Alford, "and the last California grizzly bear was captured and killed. And that's just an indication of how wild and how rugged this area is, and it's simply too wild to drill."
Not every wildland fire is a disaster. Not every such blaze burning through pine forests or oak savannas or chaparral-studded foothills merits hyperventilated commentary about its threat to civilization as we know it. Some fires are just fires.
That's easier to say about conflagrations elsewhere, though the recent Yarnell Hill disaster is an obvious exception to this rule -- everyone felt the pain of that tragedy however distant they were from it.
Fires in one's backyard are another matter.
That struck me on my morning walk last week as I watched the sky lighten in the east -- a copper disc rose above the San Jacinto Mountains 50 miles away, its wavering light bounced off the plumes of smoke thrown up by the so-called Mountain Fire near Idyllwild, California.
When I had gone to bed, the fire had consumed maybe 14,000 acres; twelve hours later it had spread to more than 22,000, and its rapid growth was reflected in another sign of the ineluctable link between that place which was burning and my place, which was not. (The fire has since grown to over 27,000 acres). The winds shifted and within hours Mt. Baldy and the foothills above Claremont were wreathed in throat-burning drift smoke. It's hard to miss how integrated we are in this bioregion when the air tastes like charcoal.
Observers of nature are supposed to be dispassionate, to try to refrain from getting attached to individual animals. We all eat, and die, and are eaten in turn, and that's how life is supposed to work. No sense taking sides.
That's not what happened this morning.
Fern Lake. The very name beguiles, with its promise of soft green and cold blue, an alpine tableau high up in Rocky Mountain National Park.
A pacific landscape, one might think, and according to Enos Mills, the park's creative genius, that's how we are supposed to respond to it. After all, establishing such a sanctuary was the central reason why he and others fought for the park's preservation.
"A National Park is an island of safety in this riotous world," he averred in "Your National Parks," published two years after President Woodrow Wilson signed the park into law in 1915. "Splendid forests, the waterfalls that leap in glory, the wild flowers that charm and illuminate the earth, the wild sheep of the sky-line crags, and the beauty of the birds, all have places of refuge which parks provide."
Those humans in greatest need of this respite, Mills declared, were the swelling number of people crowding into early 20th-century cities, a sickly lot who would be invigorated by close contact with nature's salubrious scenery. "Blue Monday did not originate outdoors."
Maybe his claim for the virtues of high-country serenity was what led a gaggle of friends to gather in the park this past June for a long overdue reunion. Perhaps that's why we fixed on a trail called Fern Lake. It seemed to offer peace and quiet.
Peaceful, it was. Quiet, not so much -- this is a voluble crew. Still, we fell silent at the trailhead while reading a notice suggesting that whatever else we might see on the sun-drenched, pine-scented hike, we'd need to adjust our chromatic scale, factoring in more browns, blacks, and grays.
Imagine setting aside several months of your life, free from the rat race, free from the daily commute, free from paying the bills, free from the oppressive bonds of daily commitments, and trading it all for discovery and adventure.
For hundreds of hikers each year, that is the life they choose as they traverse the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, otherwise known as "the PCT," stretching longitudinally mostly through mountain crests along the West Coast from the Mexican border to Canada.
The trail was one of several created by the 1968 National Trails System Act but wasn't fully completed until 1993. As much a product of the hippie-spirited '60s as it is America's tradition of exploration -- from Lewis & Clark's westward expedition to landing on the Moon -- the trail attracts all types of people, but mostly able-bodied folks from their teens to their 30s whose penchant for such dedicated travel is more or less in sync with their respective stage in life.
Anyone is welcome to hike as little or as much of the trail as they please, but those that do the marathon end-to-end trek are known as "thru-hikers," which reveals a subculture of its own. Unlike a mere urban hillside hike, thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail requires physical ability, survival skills and considerable advance preparation.
I encountered a number of PCT hikers during a recent visit to the Owens Valley, where I spent my July Fourth in Independence, CA. The hikers were also there for the holiday, taking a brief hiatus from the trails to partake in the town's annual festivities, which included a parade and a community barbecue.