So Vast a View You Will Never Forget

Sierra Crest Lone PineSide by side in eastern California lie a desert valley of long summers and two snow-capped mountain ranges of long winters . . . The Sierra Nevada borders this valley on the west. To the east rises another steep-fronted mountain block, the White-Inyo Mountains. The highest peaks of both ranges stand well over 14,000 feet. Two miles below them lies a 90-mile long, trough-shaped valley – our Deepest Valley, for nowhere in the Americas is such a valley bounded on both sides by such towering peaks.

The Deepest Valley is a land of much wonder and mystery. It also holds tales of great tenacity and courage.

If you barely glance at the valley as you whiz through, it may strike you as bleak and barren. But if you take the time to see and to hear, you may find it has silence and order and space and a regal beauty. It teems with life; you need but know how to look for it.

– Genny Smith, Deepest Valley: Guide to Owens Valley, its roadsides and mountain trails.

She’ll never be as well-known as John Muir, but Californian author and conservationist Genny Smith, who died March 4th, deserves equal if not greater accolades. “Genny wasn’t a big woman,” The Sheet staff reporter Mike Bodine wrote March 9, “but she halted an entire road from being built.” Genny led a group, starting in the 1950s, to stop the construction of what was then called the Minaret Summit Highway, a road that local boosters in the Central Valley desired to improve accessibility and commerce with “rich markets to the East,” according to the National Park Service, whose Devil’s Postpile National Monument would have been negatively impacted. But it never saw the light of day. Genny and others opposed the road for 27 years. Her letter-writing campaign got all the way to the top. California’s Secretary of Resources Norman “Ike” Livermore Jr. agreed that the highway would have harmed soil, vegetation, fish and wildlife. Then in 1972 “then-Governor Ronald Reagan announced after a pack trip through Middle Fork Valley, that the road would not be built,” wrote Bodine.

Deepest Valley Book CoverBut it’s Genny’s books that seem to contain a fuller picture of her humanity – her gentle encouragement to get outside and learn something new, her generosity in sharing all she could. Take her guidebooks in hand and she will not only give you good directions on how to find a roadside delight like a volcanic crater, an Ice Age lake or the path of a glacier’s journey, but she’ll let you in on what you’re looking at, with accessible, friendly language to bring every reptile, rock, granite peak, fish, mammal and ancient tree to life. Genny’s writing has a point of view, too: “Long ago John Muir and his friends advocated that the Sierra not be remade in the image of the Alps, with tramways, highways, railroads and resorts throughout the mountains, but that some of the Sierra remain a unique American wilderness . . . we need wild places not only for ourselves but because wild things are on this earth along with us.” Though full of scientific and cultural information, most of Genny’s writing simply promotes  exploration and messing around: “Desert wandering is great fun. You need not go far, the open country invites you to go every direction your fancy pleases; landmarks keep you from becoming lost.”

She reminds us that everywhere we look is evidence of the long-ago, such as the folding of land with rocks as old as 600 million years, as well as the more recent Ice Age remnant lakes. Genny revered the Valley and its people, even the difficult history of the subjugation of Native Americans, the water wars between the Valley and the city of Los Angeles, or the the Manzanar War Relocation camp where 10,000 Japanese Americans and legal Japanese residents were falsely accused of disloyalty and betrayal and imprisoned during World War II.

Genny Smith Mammoth BookI used Genny’s books like bibles while writing my short story collection Cover This Country Like Snow. You almost don’t require a map with Genny in the car. Peggy Gray’s  illustrations are so well-done you can pull off the side of Highway 395 and pick out each peak, learning the origin of their names. Genny included the most distinguished biologists, geologists, climatologists and other researchers in her books and when the editions needed updating, she partnered with talented editors that ensured the accuracy and enjoyability of these pithy, but not weighted down volumes. Light enough for a backpack, Genny’s books are musts any time we visit the Owens Valley.

I met Genny a couple of years ago at an event on the shores of Mono Lake. She sat in the shade of a tent where a celebration of the Public Trust Doctrine was taking place. I thanked her for her books and asked her about her writing practice. She replied that her poor health prevented her from writing any longer. I was so moved by that, for I know the pain that comes over me when I do not write. It’s unfair, I thought, such a great writer unable to undertake her craft any longer. I told Genny about my own work and how challenging it all is, but how necessary it was to my well-being. She understood. I wanted her to continue leading me, guiding me with her optimistic writing that seems to exhort us all to do what you can, this is ours to love and live upon, fight for these things we care about, our brother creatures, both plant and animal and assume responsibility for their welfare.

Genny knew her life was compromised, she could no longer hike, drive or walk very well on her own. She looked me in the eye and said, “It’s up to you to write now.” I didn’t want to take the helm from her then and don’t feel right assuming it now.

What I will do, what we can all do –  let’s share her enthusiasm, let’s take her advice:

“Try sitting on your bumper sometime, your car backed up against the wall of the Sierra, taking in a full circle of incredible country, and you may begin to feel the magic.” Genny’s absolutely right, it’s so vast a view, you will never forget.

Read more about and by the amazing Genny:


Genny’s essay on Mono Lake

Her Books


For My Young & Young-at-Heart Readers


Photo by Joe McCrossen

As kids, my sister Carol and I loved to sing silly poems and songs – “There’s a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea” and “I’m a Pink Toothbrush” were favorites on long road trips in our Chevrolet S-10 Blazer from the Owens Valley to San Diego. And who didn’t love the fun couplets from Dr. Seuss, which made perfect sense to our eager minds? To this day I’d like to try green eggs, but maybe with a tofu ham substitute.

This poem is dedicated to all of my friends and families, their children and grandchildren, and to the young-at-heart. Carol and I wrote it together, inspired by a photo Joe and I took from Taxiway Bravo at Concord Airport one autumn day, spotting a hawk atop a sock. Many of us pilots take off, cruise, descend, and land near hawks. We always pray they don’t fly into our propellers. They are fearless, they are always exciting to see up close. They are our airport friends. 

I hope you enjoy the poem. Read it to someone out loud and let Carol and I know if it merits a giggle or two. And please, if you have a line that would strengthen it, or a line we ought to remove, let us know! 

Hawk On A Sock 

There’s a hawk,

There, on the orange sock.

From the cockpit I can see it,

It is a red-tailed hawk.

There’s a hawk, see it, on the sock, see it.

An orange sock, a sock beneath a hawk.


The sock is full of air,

It blows in from the west,

The hawk’s feathers keep him warm

Even when he is away from his nest.


The wind at the airport is blowing, blowing, blowing.

I ask my passenger – where are you going?

“To town,” he says, “to town to buy a rock.”

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Somewhere around here’s a rock, right? Photo by Author.


“A rock,” I say, “you want to buy a rock?”

“Yes, a rock, I must buy a rock,

A rock to add to my stock.”

“But most rocks are free, I must point out.

The rock you seek is gold, no doubt.”

“No, not gold,” he says, “I want a special kind of rock.”

“What do you do with a special rock,

The rock you’ll add to your stock?”

“Well,” he says, “I need this rock,

I need this rock for my best friend,

My best friend the Hawk.”

“That hawk, the hawk that’s on that sock?”

“Yes, the hawk that’s on that sock.

His name is Mister Tick-Tock.”

“Tick-tock, like a clock?” I inquire.

“Tick-tock, like a clock.

My hawk tells time

Without a watch.

He calls ‘Wake up!’ when it’s Nine.”

“You wake at nine, isn’t that late?”

“I suppose it is, my hawk’s third-rate.

So about my rock, what do you think of slate?

A hawk likes to decorate.”

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Are these rocks too big? Photo by Author.

“Wait, the hawk likes to decorate?” I ask.

“As of late, yes, he decorates. He’s trying to attract a mate.”

“He’s decorating his nest so a mate might come.  And his mate might wake me up at Eight.”

“His mate won’t want slate, that’s rather dull! What other fantastical rocks could you cull?”

“Quartz, amethyst, aquamarine, just make it small, you know what I mean.

We must not risk weighing down the plane you see.”

So off they went to town to find the stone. In the rock shop they did find one golden brown.

Tiger’s Eye, small enough don’t you know, to fit in the beak of the Buteo.

And when they gave it to the hawk, the one on the orange sock,

the hawk named Mister Tick-Tock,

well, the bird nodded his best,

to say a special thanks, then

flew off with a happy heart, flew away to his nest.

There, he found his mate,

and from that time on,

everyone was up,

up at the crack of dawn.

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Concord Buchanan Airport, KCCR. Photo by Author.

A Real Writer: Two Minds

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Jack London’s desk. Glen Ellen, California. Photo by the author.

A real writer writes every day before dawn breaks. One writer arose each day and placed a slice of bread in his toaster, then buttered it and sat on his living room couch to compose a poem every morning.

A real writer has a schedule, namely a grueling one, several hours per day, nonstop, and no one may interrupt the real writer. Not even children or puppies. A real writer is a grump, an academic, a lonely soul misunderstood and gloomy. A real writer has a red house or a stone tower in Pebble Beach. A real writer goes to Martha’s Vineyard for the summer. A real writer travels to Baja, or Cuba, or takes a beat up car down the highways of America. A real writer gets drunk, gets high, sleeps around, and uses all that experience in his fiction.

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I can even write on the Vegas Strip. Photo by the author.

A real writer gets published, writes novels, makes real money off of selling them. Reads from podiums, is paid sums to teach creative writing, travels, and others refer to her as “writer.” When she attends writer conferences, heads turn. Is that her? Her fans quiver and quake.

A real writer doesn’t have a real job with writing squished into the margins. A real writer sits all day and pours her soul on to the computer keyboard. A real writer writes the truth and doesn’t spare anyone’s feelings. A real writer sells their manuscript to a real publisher with a name like Penguin Random House or Vantage. A real writer doesn’t have to raise money for their own project. A real writer sits in Paris, in a cramped garret or a café terrace, and composes brilliant lines. A real writer’s book gets turned into a movie. A real writer does what his inner self wants, and that is to sit in a chair and draft sentences to create images to finalize a narrative. A real writer doesn’t keep getting distracted. A real writer prioritizes the word at all costs.


A real writer calls herself a writer. A real writer is sometimes poor, sometimes rich. A real writer can work full-time and finish many things like stories, like poems, like novels. A real writer can be a decent human being, a doctor, a human resources professional, an insurance salesman, a high school teacher, an immigrant. A real writer spends every day with the word. When she misses a day she is sad, but there is the next day. A real writer writes on the train, on the plane, in a car, in a closet, in secret, and out in the open. A real writer has a computer, a journal, a post-it note. Torture a real writer by denying her a keyboard, or a pen and a piece of paper.

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My desk for a few days at the Mesa Refuge. Tomales Bay, Point Reyes Station, California. Photo by the author.

The word is power. The power is change. The change is history. The word is on Earth, the word is powered by Earth, the word is change, the word is history, the word is changing the Earth, because Earth needs a better Earth. A real writer participates in changing the course of history. On Earth.

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Time’s a ticking. Get writing. Photo by the author.


Wonder Woman is Back


Sally Ride, first American woman in space.

In honor of Wonder Woman opening in just five days, I offer you my own hymn to superheroes drawn from an Owens Valley childhood informed by the liberal wearing of Underoos as both underwear and possibility. Playing in my Underoos led to trying on and practicing the attributes of future identities.  I looked for source material in my teachers and my parents. Which person should I become, which character would suit me best? I watched television shows and Space Shuttle lift-offs for inspiration, I read novels by Judy Blume for guidance. At school I observed Mrs. Keene,  an elementary school teacher that could have been Lynda Carter’s twin sister, for clues.

When I heard about the upcoming premier of the female-directed film with a relatively unknown actress as lead, memories began to surface of who I was when I first fell in love with Wonder Woman: uncertain, scared, yet full of determination that a girl could do what a boy could do. Decades later I know women still have a long ways to go, gender equity is still a challenge. But I’m encouraged that this film is predicted to be a hit with both men and women. It just goes to show that long after we stop wearing Underoos, we all, men and women, continue to need our superheroes.


Wonder Woman Is Back

Wonder Woman is back.

She won’t take no for an answer.


Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman.

I let Mrs. Keene know that I knew she was really Wonder Woman, but she refuses to acknowledge it.

I see right through her disguise – she is not a second-grade teacher, but

a crime-fighting woman unafraid of her cleavage and leotard.


She is knocking on the door of my house and I’m watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood while chasing my little sister around the mobile home, and the dog is barking, trying to get in on the action, and we are also playing hide and seek as well as pretending to go camping before we conduct a repeat of last Sunday’s Easter Egg hunt.

“I don’t have time for this, I’ve already told you I know who you are,” I eke out my speech between inhalations of air.

Mrs. Keene is crying, holding a basket. She is wearing a long dress with an apron. I say to her,

“You look like Laura Ingalls Wilder.”

“I am,” she said.

I could see her dark hair, even though it was tied in a braid with a ribbon from the general store, was the same as my Mrs. Keene.

“You’re still you,” I said, but it came out more like a question.

“Yes, I am still me,” she smiled. I looked down and kicked at a pebble on the threshold.

When I returned my gaze –

She was Pippi Longstocking!

Her black braids turned red, taut and horizontal, impossible not to giggle, and so I did,

And she did too.


Pippi Longstocking

“But how, how are you so many different persons?” I shook my head but hopped on one foot, for running and skipping with Pippi was going to be the best way I could spend an afternoon, and I couldn’t wait to get started.

“You want to play with me?” Pippi said. I clapped my hands, nodded, and then I invited her inside. I ran to the fridge to pour her a cup of Hi-C.

“Do you know the greatest traveler there ever was, she went to space?” I yelled from the kitchen.

When I came back to the living room, there she was, astronaut Sally Ride, my little sister and my dog sitting beside her, Pippi gone and Mr. Rogers talking to the red trolley and nothing was wrong in the whole world, all my heroes there in one place, waiting for me.1-mr-rogers-trolley

Try writing a poem like this here.


Hey Superbloomers – Get Out to Desert X by April 30!


Mirage (Mirror House) by Doug Aitken, born 1968. Photo Credit: Sue Pollock.


See the California desert in a whole new way with art in the environment

Making your way to Carrizo Plain National Monument or Joshua Tree National Park for the unprecedented superbloom of wildflowers? Add this trip to your itinerary, and do it soon, before April 30th. Desert X is a free, playful, outdoor display by emerging and established artists that delights the senses as well as tackles tough issues. People are coming from all over the world to see it, and so you may make friends while you’re at it. Click here for information on how to visit the art, both on your own and with organized bus tours.

If you can’t make it in person, you’ll still enjoy these incredible images from my favorite desert rats Sue Pollock and Laura Crane. I invite you to become acquainted with the sacred, mysterious, funny, weird and sublime culture and environment of the California Desert. But first we need to get educated. Scientist Sophie Parker and renewable energy expert Erica Brand are here to help.

Desert 101

The California desert contains a variety of habitats, from sand dunes to palm oases, rock outcroppings to Joshua tree forests. The Coachella Valley is a unique part of the California desert because it lies at a crossroads – one can head to the higher, drier Mojave Desert, or to the lower and more plant-rich Sonoran Desert. But you can also get to the moister Mediterranean-type climate along California’s South Coast from here. Plants and animals from all three places have made their home in the Coachella Valley and some of them are found nowhere else on Earth.

Let’s go view a stunning work of art near a desert wash.



Mirage (Mirror House) by Doug Aitken (born 1968). Located in Palm Springs. Photo Credit: Sue Pollock


Wash My Cares Away

It does rain in the desert! When rain falls in the desert, something magical happens – desert washes come to life. What’s a wash? In some parts of the American Southwest, you’ll hear a wash called arroyo seco – which is Spanish for “dry stream.” In other places it’s a “gulch,” or a dry streambed. But by any name, a wash gives water a place to go. After a storm, a wash can deliver critical products in a way not too dissimilar to a cargo ship coming into Long Beach Harbor. But instead of automobiles from Japan, desert washes deliver pollen and seeds where they need to go. Even animals use the wash to get from the mountain to the desert floor. In this way, washes are nature’s highways for plants and animals.

On to the next stop, sand dunes.

Curves and Zig Zags by Claudia Compte, born 1983. Located in Homme-Adams Park in Palm Desert. Photo Credit: Sue Pollock.

Sand Dune Serenade

So what is a sand dune exactly? Sand dunes are hills that are formed by the wind. Under high winds, the fine sands that collect in washes can become airborne and travel across the valley to land in sand dunes. If you are ever in the Coachella Valley on a very windy day, you will see the sand moving across the roads and through sand transport corridors. Sand dunes are home to unique plants and animals that have adapted to survive in this unique landscape.

But the dunes wouldn’t exist without mountains. The Coachella Valley is nearly surrounded by mountains: The Santa Rosa Mountains to the southwest, the San Jacinto Mountains to the west, the Little San Bernardino Mountains to the east and San Gorgonio Mountain to the north. These mountains block storms and cause them to lose moisture before entering the Coachella Valley. They are the reason this area is a desert. They also shape the Coachella Valley landscape: they create the sand dunes! Rocks from the mountains are pulverized as they travel downstream during large rainfall events, producing the sand and silt that replenish desert washes and sand dunes.

Last stop – palm oases.

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The Circle of Land Sky by Phillip K. Smith, III born 1972. Located near the Coachella Valley Preserve and Thousand Palms Oasis. Plenty of creosote on view near the artwork. Photo Credit: Laura Crane.


Oasis of My Heart

An oasis can be boiled down to one word: water. A palm oasis exist in places where groundwater is pushed to the surface of the earth. For example, at the Coachella Valley Preserve, the San Andreas Fault is pushing water that would otherwise be underground to the surface.

While southern California may be known for its palm trees, the only palms native to the state are found in small, isolated oases in the Sonoran Desert—including the Coachella Valley. The California Fan Palm (Washington filifera) is found in locations where groundwater is forced towards the surface of the earth as springs and seeps, and the water and trees form a protective oasis habitat where bats, birds, and aquatic species thrive. The giant palm-boring beetle (Dinapate wrightii) lives exclusively in palm oases, and by feeding on older trees, helps keep the oases young and healthy.  The springs at oases are important sources of water for large mammals that move through the Coachella Valley.

Come Back!

Deserts are among the most extreme habitats on Earth and only the well-adapted survive. In the summer, baking sun scorches the earth during the day, and in the winter temperatures plummet. Water and food are scarce, so the desert animals that make their home here must be hardy and adaptable. Water, and the places where it rises to the surface in the desert, provide a lifeline for wildlife and plants that live in the California desert.

Come back and enjoy these magnificent places. The more you learn, the more you’ll want to join up with the desert rats to care for this life-giving land and precious water.

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The Circle of Land Sky by Phillip K. Smith III. Photo Credit: Laura Crane.









Embrace the Drought


Saint Basil, Koreatown, Los Angeles. Photo by the author.

I walked my dog in the receding evening light of Walnut Creek last night, the new 2017 air chilly but refreshing. Resolved to be more mindful, to actually enjoy the manner in which my dog takes his sweet time to do his business, I noticed the sound of rushing water. A rivulet coursed down the road into a slit beneath the sidewalk above which the city stenciled “Drains to Creek.” Though it had rained a fair amount early in the morning, for the moment the skies held back. So what was the sound of so much water all about? I followed the flow of the miniature stream up a gentle slope to its origin – a green garden hose left running. I would have turned it off but for the man with a full head of unkempt curly hair washing his black, flawless Tesla in his driveway.

Lest I give you the impression I live in one of the Bay Area communities often referred to as a bubble or a bastion of leftie, liberal-leaning progressives, I assure you this is the first Tesla I’ve seen in this working class neighborhood comprised of condos, apartments, duplexes and single-family homes peopled by Latinos, South Asians, Caucasians, Eastern Europeans and Russians, among others. Our streets do not have expansive landscaped lawns and gardens, the likes of which were watered even during the height of the drought such as those in Beverly Hills and Woodside. Our community is modest by comparison to that of actors and athletes who were publicly shamed for exceeding their allotted water during California Governor Jerry Brown’s mandatory 25 percent water cutbacks in 2015 (I think these folks were punished enough, but if you want to read about them, click here and here). So when I saw the Tesla, the hose running and the wasted, soapy water draining to the creek, I wanted the man’s name smeared across the news. As quickly as I plotted what I might Tweet about his profligate water consumption, he turned the hose off.

I asked myself, what is a bit of wasted water when it it’s been raining? When the ski resorts are getting tons of snow? When rain is 58 percent of normal and we are more than 50 percent of the way through the water year? Is it that big of a deal, Mr. Tesla’s running hose? Would confronting him really make an impact on how he thought about the drought?

I decided to let it go. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that Mr. Tesla represented everyone, and that everyone has stopped caring about water because everyone thinks the drought is over. Since I was part of this everyone, all my efforts to catalyze a new dialogue, to spark a creative literary response to the thousands of news stories on the drought, and to craft a new whole from the myriad parts, to make sense of our uncertain future, had come to naught.

I was being melodramatic, I know.

But I long for dryness, for more water cutbacks, for more conservation and for more suffering. Because we have not yet learned the lessons of an abundance of aridity.

I realize the folly of my philosophical perspective – I want more drought so that we can improve how we adapt to it and to learn how to really live within our means. Yet I realize that more dry years mean more hardship for ranchers, farmers and some rural towns that ran out of water. It means more animals losing their homes and potentially their ability to survive. It could mean that people and businesses will give up on California. Good, I can hear my Dad saying, let them leave. Too many people here already.

I let my mind drift to forced migration programs. What if the state of California were so dry that we needed to reduce the Golden State’s population and send them somewhere else? Which state or country would want us? Would I go? I decide that as a third-generation Californian and one who respects water, that I should be permitted to stay. After all, I’ve proven my love. I left and I came back.


Not the Poconos. Mount Tom from Bishop, California. Photo by author.

As a thirteen year-old in the eighth grade at Home Street Elementary School in Bishop, California, I could not wait to leave the small rural town for the more sophisticated suburban setting of Lakeside, California. Well, Lakeside may not be any more sophisticated. Its high school – El Capitan – was best known as “El Crapitan” due to its large, pungent agriculture department and rodeo grounds adjacent to the campus. But at least Lakeside was less than 45 minutes from Pacific Beach and the cool surfers and the fighter pilots at Miramar.

Leaving Bishop was a warm-up for leaving California – I attended college on the border of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, just an hour and fifteen minutes from both New York City and Philadelphia. There would be brick buildings, the ghosts of Ben Franklin, George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette and the capital of finance and Broadway theatre close at hand. I waved goodbye to my parents and my sister from the body of the jet at Lindbergh Field, crying while clutching a stuffed animal. But I didn’t cry for the West. I was tired of it. Some weeks later a friend invited me to the mountains of Pennsylvania and that’s when it started – my repatriation. The Poconos, I learned, were not the Sierra.

After college, a weekly paper internship in Philadelphia and two reporting jobs in Washington, D.C., I rounded the corner from McPherson Square to the metro station that would take me back to my shared house in Arlington, Virginia. The afternoon light hit the late spring day at such an angle that I saw, and I swear it’s what my brain told my eyes they were seeing, the horizon, the ocean, the sun setting in the West. It was merely a mirage – perhaps a slant of sun slamming into the asphalt bound earth. It tricked me and I blinked. The water transformed back into pavement and federal office buildings. It was time to get home. To California.

The State of Dry: Eighteen percent of California is in “exceptional” drought, 40 percent is in “extreme” drought and nearly 58 percent is in “severe” drought. Note the only parts of the state that are doing well are in the North. Map courtesy of NDMC-UNL. 

Yesterday the Department of Water Resources performed the first snow survey of 2017. The water content of our state’s snowpack is at 53 percent of average, which the agency feels is decent news considering they prognosticate significant winter storms in the coming weeks. But the U.S. Drought Monitor is concerned that too many warm storms have created more rain than snow. Melting snow is what gives us about one-third of our drinking water. The overall picture is better than last year, but almost 60 percent of the state is still in “severe” or worse drought condition. In most contexts getting 53 out of 100 means a failing grade; 60 out of 100 is a “D.” Yet these scores buoy me enormously.

Perhaps there is still time, time to learn how to embrace the drought, time to figure out how we’ll deal with less water in the future. Or maybe this gives everyone a chance to learn to love the world that the drought creates, rather than merely fearing it and fighting it, shaming one another within it and hoping for more, and generous winter snow storms. The above average kind.


Post-Ecstatic Bear Disorder: Alaska Insomniac Dispatches

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Moraine Creek, Katmai National Preserve

Really, you walked into the river, you approached the bear, you borrowed its fishing site? You clambered up a bluff, only to see a sow and her cubs doing the same thing some yards away? How could a vegetarian like you catch a fish, I mean, don’t you hate the idea of any animal suffering with a hook in its mouth? Honestly, how did you miss the Volkswagen Beetle-sized bear passing behind you, your focus on your new fly fishing skills so all-consuming? How could you abandon that orphaned baby duck? Was the guide right, that only its mother could save it? Why weren’t you mauled, slashed by the dagger claws of bears? Why did they not so much as roar at you?

In this land, the bears and the people pass on the salmon highways like daily commuters on their way to work. None of it looked right. Even as a former employee at a zoological society, I had scarcely been so close to such a dangerous, hulking mammal without the benefit of steel bars and safety latches. I obsessed over all of it and as a result failed to sleep. Instead, I observed my dreams without end, curious about the essential question, “Why was I not more afraid?”

Kvichak River, Bristol Bay, Alaska

In a room between the Alaska and the Aleutian Ranges, with their thousands of ponds, lakes, creeks, rivers, hills and mountains buffering me against the chaos of vehicle traffic, crowded rapid transit cars and the press of people in my normal life in the San Francisco Bay Area, my brain did not accept that any of this was real. The endless light honeyed the conversations among new acquaintances, coating us in its amber embrace. Soon those acquaintances seemed like family. The sneaking silhouettes of DeHavilland Beaver single engine floatplanes waited like uncles at the docks, eager to reveal more of southwestern Alaska each morning. No, none of it felt real. Instead, I felt like a character in a fairy tale, a woman who met the eagle, the salmon and the bear, and never was the same.2016-07-19 22.33.52.jpg

Crosswind, Inbound for Pothole, Katmai National Preserve

Outside the lodge a mere 20-minute flight away, the kame and kettle topography of Katmai National Preserve undulates and expands across the horizon, mounds of earth alternating with water-filled depressions. It’s as though a heated discussion between the retreating sheets of ice and the dirt below it was settled through compromise – the glaciers depart, but they leave proof they were here. We land in a pothole, which in any other state would be called a lake, or at the least, a big pond.

The Forty-Ninth State

For all the breathless sensation, I know Alaska is not innocent, nor am I. I use oil, gasoline, minerals and forest products from Alaska. American government built the Alaska pipeline and most of the roads. With the temperature increasing, glaciers are melting. Alaska, then, is a platform for understanding, for researching the Arctic, whose melting ice will open shipping lanes for increased use of more natural resources. Polar bears are pouring into Arctic villages like Kaktovik in unprecedented numbers, looking for food because the ice is melting their hunting stations too fast and at too rapid a rate.

But it’s not all doom and darkness. We don’t always mess things up.

Nushagak and Kvichak Watersheds, 150 Nautical Miles Southwest of Anchorage

The most important environmental catastrophe those of us in the lower-48 have never heard about is the Pebble Mine. Why? Because it has not yet happened. One of the world’s largest copper, gold and molybdenum mineral deposits lies here in Bristol Bay, home of the largest remaining wild salmon runs on Earth. Had development moved ahead, a visitor would see the largest open pit mine in North America, covering some seven square miles and burrowing down to a depth nearly as deep as the Grand Canyon. But people got together, learned together, and crafted goals together. Coalitions of nonprofit groups, Native communities, as well as state and federal government agencies, conducted scientific analyses and drew up economic plans that included preserving traditional ways of life as well as the wildlife upon which they depend. One nonprofit leader told me that in the beginning, some of Bristol Bay’s residents were not as concerned about the future. A mine, after all, offered the promise of jobs. But after a trip to see a similar operation in British Columbia, their tune changed. I don’t want to see my lands and people ruined like that, the Native elder reportedly said.

Anchorage International Airport, Gate B8

My colleague Brian and I stood on the jet bridge preparing to board our return flight from Anchorage through Seattle and back to San Francisco. We told each other story after story of our bear encounters. An elderly couple wearing tourist shirts from Seward leaned in and said, “Sounds like you had quite the adventure, we didn’t see any bears at all!” We must have sounded like public television nature show narrators. How lucky I felt at that moment. We had seen so many bears we lost count, we had been so close as to touch them in some cases, we had felt adrenaline and exhilaration in our veins and been high and floating on the heightened awareness of our bodies in proximity to such powerful animals. Perhaps this was addiction.

Walnut Creek, California

I have returned to the lower-48, where my regular circadian California sunlight and night skies have eliminated my sleep deprivation but not my obsessive ursine dreams. It seems I have settled back into previous, predictable patterns, but it is clear that my heart has not. It seeks and hunts and is filled with a sonorous sorrow and regret, but regret for what? All I know is that I am changed, I am new, I am free in a way that my photos and words fail to describe. I am by turns bitter and serene, with so many memories lying on my tongue, an exquisite sugar. What now? What am I supposed to do with my new person? I self-diagnose my condition, noting that my mind lingers in another state, far from California. I relive every counterfactual – each bear attack that never happened. I imagine the bear ripping out my intestines, as opposed to extracting the ruby-jeweled salmon eggs of the sockeye in the river.

I am the opposite of traumatized. I am ecstatic. I am yearning and believing. I turn to a little book a dear friend gave to me in which Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk, writes that understanding leads to love leads to change.

This pilgrim to the north will attend to her post-ecstatic bear disorder, but knows there is no cure. Not that she wants one.2016-07-19 09.12.55-1.jpg