On The Twentieth Anniversary of the Massacre of Srebrenica: Failings Both Societal and Personal

Boys Footbath Esma Danijel Sanel Mehmed US Flag 2003 Salih and Cockatiel Sanel

Joe and I had invited the four Bosnian boys that beautiful autumn weekend in 2003 for a pizza and slumber party at our modest apartment in Pacifica, California, in the San Francisco Bay Area. We figured their mother Esma needed a break. Our place, cheaply furnished and cramped, had a gorgeous feature – the living room window faced the Pacific Ocean and it was possible to see dolphins and whales with the naked eye.  When the second youngest, Sanel, saw the unobstructed view, the first time he had ever seen this sea, or any other for that matter, he exclaimed,

“The Pacific Ocean – it’s beautiful!”

It was a scene I never wanted to forget, the four boys we were tutoring, all sitting in a row on our second-hand couch, goofy grins spreading across their faces. The oldest, Daniel, sat with his feet planted in a bath that bubbled warm water about his toes while his three brothers – Salih, Sanel and Mehmed – jabbed one another with their elbows and snickered while I searched for my camera. When I finally found it and snapped their photo, Daniel had passed the bath to Sanel and the four of them had settled down to watch a movie we had rented from Blockbuster. They had none of the self-conscious “this is for girls” bias that American boys would have had. They all wanted their turn to relax and treat themselves to a sudsy tub of water. And they deserved it.

Esma and her boys had arrived from Bosnia in 1999 as refugees. Mohammed, Esma’s husband and the boys’ father, had died in the war in Bosnia and by all accounts was a well-respected man in his small village. One of the case workers for the family told me he was “really something.” Though we never knew exactly how he died, what we did know was this – Esma was a stranger to the United States, she was 29 years old, and she had four boys who needed to learn English, go to school, and acclimate to Oakland. For Esma’s part, she needed to fill out endless paperwork, obtain health care and above all, earn enough money for rent and groceries. It seemed impossible. Refugee Transitions, a nonprofit serving the Bay Area’s refugees with critical and pragmatic adjustment services, matched the boys with Joe and me and then we embarked on weekly sessions to teach them English. Soon we were including them in our own lives. After a while they became like family, so much so that our friends and parents would ask us, “How are your Bosnian boys?” I believed they would be safer and would have more opportunity in the United States. We dedicated ourselves to ensuring that would be the case.

Now, as we mark the 20th anniversary of the massacre at Srebrenica (today’s New York Times published a moving opinion piece by Seema Jilani; 60 Minutes and Bob Simon’s report from 1999 is heart-wrenching), where more than 7,000 men and boys were slaughtered by Serbian forces in the countryside, I am still trying to reconcile if we failed Esma and her boys. Or indeed, how much we failed.

The boys learned English within their first six months and by the conclusion of their first year in the U.S. were not all that hard to distinguish from California-raised kids, what with their blond hair, blue eyes and gangsta swagger and rap lyric knowledge that helped them fit in and find protection in the Oakland public school system.

Esma’s progress learning English was understandably slower, but she communicated the essentials with us very well, even finding the courage to call us on the telephone when she needed help.

Eventually we stopped teaching them English and transitioned to on-call consultations for a variety of tasks that are difficult even for U.S. citizens, let alone refugees. For example, I negotiated a low-interest loan and sales price on a sporty red Honda Civic on Esma’s behalf, which, if you know me, is not exactly my strength – a salesman can typically walk all over me. But in this instance, the two used car men mistook my frequent departure from the sales trailer as disgust with their initial offer. In truth, I was calling Joe to see if he thought it was a good idea for me to buy the car on our credit card and have Esma pay me back; Joe talked me out of it, and boy do I appreciate his more level head. Joe said that it was important for Esma to establish her own line of credit. Every time I returned to the trailer the salesmen lowered the price, the interest rate, or both.

Joe took the boys to buy shoes, filled out the required forms for the family’s green cards, welfare checks, then the welfare-to-work program, and many other official documents that Esma could not read. I got Sanel into the San Francisco Zoo’s summer camp, Joe got Daniel into an outdoor education camp and we picked up the boys from time to time to expose them to places outside their school and city. Esma had met someone new, so we wanted to give her time alone without the kids around. We helped the boys with their homework, gave them advice about their futures and took them to baseball games. As the boys grew older, they became testy and irritable, cooped up as they were in the two bedroom apartment. Though I thought they were good-hearted children, they got into trouble often. We blamed the school – one of the roughest in the country where students formed gangs and picked on the boys until they found older boys to protect them.

Joe and I often discussed whether what we were doing was actually helping them given that they could only afford Oakland. The older boys often mused about returning to Bosnia where they remembered friends and family in their village. It was ironic, Joe and I thought, that Oakland’s violence, homicides and bullying in the schools could be worse than a country torn apart by ethnic cleansing. It seemed that Americans, who had given a limited number of slots for Bosnian refugees, weren’t doing that great of a job making sure the refugees were successful once they were on American soil. But since only the two oldest boys had any real memories of Bosnia, we figured that at least in America two of the four could create their own destiny. The other two would need to work harder to move forward.

About five years after we met the family, Joe and I moved to Boston. We drove to Oakland on our last morning to say goodbye to our Bosnian boys.

“We will never see you again,” Esma wailed. I threw my arms around her shoulders in a lame effort to console her.

“Of course you’ll see us again. We will write and call and visit you,” I said. Esma, whose face was streaked by tears she could not control, as well as the reluctant smiles of the four boys all lined up on the shaded sidewalk in front of their apartment building, remain like a dusty postcard in my memory. Esma had been right.

The family soon moved to Idaho where their cousins had found jobs amongst a small community of other Bosnians. For a few years we sent holiday cards and messages through MySpace. Then our annual cards were returned. We seemed to have lost track of them. Then one day a letter arrived, the return address a prison in Idaho. The second oldest, Salih, had beaten a man, nearly to death, and was serving a sentence for aggravated battery. He begged us to write to him. I searched for Daniel’s name and a mug shot came up, but I was not certain if it was an internet prank or something factual. I failed to find the other boys on social media. According to a legal forum website, Salih was deported by the state of Idaho in 2012 or thereabouts. Salih posted to the site: “I lived in USA ever since i was 5 and now 23…KInda confused..Deported to Bosnia. I was never told an time lenght of deportation or what i could do to re-enter. my whole family is back there. Can anyone find out for how long i was removed… please email. Thank you.”

Today the ghosts of Srebrenica raise the question of how ethnic cleansing could take place in the modern era, on a continent marking the origin of so many of our American ancestors. How did the United Nations, NATO and the United States let the carnage happen?

We failed the former Yugoslavia. And I can’t help but feeling that I failed my four Bosnian boys, too. Surely there was more I could have done to show them the best of America. But they did not die in a massacre, I remind myself. They had their chances to start again, flawed as the chances may have been.

I just hope Salih and Daniel remember the Pacific Ocean, the wilderness of the Sierra and the simple pleasures of a foot bath, their brothers laughing and tickling them, angling for their turn to soak their feet thousands and thousands of miles away from the killing fields.

Visit the Mariposa Grove Before it Closes for Two Years – Only 4 Weekends Left!

And I’ve been to the groves of Sequoia Big Trees, 

Where beauty and grandeur combine,

Grand Temples of Nature for worship and ease,

Enchanting, Inspiring, Sublime!

– From The Big Trees of California by Galen Clark

Published 1907

The Mariposa Grove is located at the south entrance of Yosemite National Park and contains the largest stand of giant sequoias in the park.

The Mariposa Grove is located at the south entrance of Yosemite National Park and contains the largest stand of giant sequoias in the park. Photo by the author.

I cry every time I visit the Mariposa Grove. The forest of Giant Sequoias, our planet’s largest living things, surround me with a feeling so sacred I practically want to throw my arms above my head while prostrating myself and whispering – because the grove is like a temple or a cathedral, shouting hardly seems appropriate – “We’re not worthy!”

Protected more than 150 years ago by a president who never even set foot in the Sierra Nevada, President Abraham Lincoln set the Mariposa Grove and the Yosemite Valley aside as one of the world’s first protected areas – for all Californians, for all time. When the grove and the valley were made into a unit of the newly formed National Park Service 125 years ago, even more Americans and global citizens came to see the bounty of nature’s glacial-carved offerings.

I remember Yosemite Superintendent Don Neubacher telling a gathering of Yosemite supporters in 2011 that he often chose not to wear his Park Service uniform so that visitors, not knowing who he was, might share what they really thought about the park. He had been strolling around Glacier Point, and many visitors had asked him to take their photograph, including a group of women from Cleveland who made him do several takes in case any of them had closed their eyes in the pictures. Neubacher then ran across a woman in a dreamy trance, her gaze resting on Half Dome. She told Neubacher what a wonderful time she was having, that she was visiting from Germany, and that she couldn’t get over the vista before her. That’s wonderful, Neubacher said. I saved my entire life to come here, the woman added. That struck a chord with Neubacher, who can still be taken aback by the lengths to which people will go to see Yosemite.

The stories in the needles, the bark, the cones, the seeds of the Mariposa Grove, are what get me – for this is the birthplace of conservation, land protection, the national park movement, the environmental cause and the power of people to change the course of our planet.

The fate of all giant sequoia trees could have been thus: Lithograph of the stump and trunk of a giant sequoia from the Calaveras Grove near Yosemite showing a group of 32 people dancing on the stump.

The fate of all giant sequoia trees could have been thus: Lithograph of the stump and trunk of a giant sequoia from the Calaveras Grove near Yosemite showing a group of 32 people dancing on the stump. Photo by the author, taken from Seed of the Future by Dayton Duncan.

Take Galen Clark – a hapless widow and father of five who in 1853 traveled alone from Philadelphia to California to make some money in the goldfields; he hoped to send a substantial sum back to his children. Unsuccessful in striking gold, he kept camps for a mining company. He was nearly penniless and destitute and on top of that he became so ill with a respiratory ailment that he was given practically no chance of survival.

Following the publication of the Mariposa Gazette’s article on Yosemite by James Mason Hutchings, Clark accompanied a group of men to see the Valley for themselves. Clark, like any visitor today, found Half Dome’s height a true wonder. But he liked the meadows near present day Wawona even more. He filed an agricultural claim in 1856 and built his own station to welcome travelers weary from the spine-crushing stagecoach rides.

Galen Clark claimed Yosemite had cured him. Thanks to Clark, Yosemite is protected for all time.

Galen Clark claimed Yosemite had cured him. Thanks to Clark, Yosemite is protected for all time. Photo by the author, taken from Seed of the Future by Dayton Duncan.

But Clark’s health declined precipitously as his lungs hemorrhaged; Clark figured he had little time left, so he set out to make the best of it and walked without a hat and without any shoes in order to improve his blood flow. Instead of getting worse, he got better and one year later stumbled upon more than 500 Giant Sequoia trees. Timber harvesters were on the move, eager to fell the spectacular trees. Clark dedicated the remainder of his life to saving the big trees near his cabin. Clark counted every single tree and made measurements of their circumference as part of a scientific baseline inventory. He called the stand of trees the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees in honor of the county where they stood. Abhorring attention, he tore down a sign that friends attached to one of the trees, “Galen Clark Tree.” Clark was the first appointed “ranger” after the area was saved from development and lumber harvesters. He later befriended a botanist and budding writer on his first visit to the Mariposa Grove – John Muir. Galen Clark died at the age of 96, having infected many a traveler with the passion of the big trees, including Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Galen Clark is part of a long line of people who stood up for nature. That legacy continues. Thanks to a public-private partnership between the National Park Service and Yosemite Conservancy, the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias will be restored in order to safeguard these irreplaceable trees and improve our ability to not only go on protecting them, but to enjoy them in the way that Galen Clark would have appreciated – with reverence and gratitude for their majesty and miracle of survival. Unfortunately, the Mariposa Grove is also a place where one can study how we used to think natural resources ought to be managed. We built asphalt roads and parking lots near the Giant Sequoias’ root systems, we drove tourist trams on routes so narrow that the tram cars sometimes scraped the sides of the trees and we failed to prepare for the crowds, many of whom missed the meaning and educational opportunities within the Grove.

Today, trees such as the Fallen Monarch, the Bachelor and Three Graces and the Grizzly Giant, still stand (or in the case of the Monarch, lie down) in the Mariposa Grove. But you’ll have to go soon. The Park will close most of the grove for the next two years so that a critical habitat restoration and visitor experience project can get underway (you will still be able to access the Outer Loop Trail by foot or horseback using trails from Wawona and Fish Camp; the upper grove includes the fallen Wawona Tunnel Tree, Telescope Tree, and the Mariposa Grove Museum.)

It is essential that we support the Park Service’s closure in order to give the trees a fighting chance against the march of time and a climate that’s heating up. When the restoration is complete, the Mariposa Grove will tell its stories even more effectively and create a sanctuary from our daily anxieties and fears. Inside the quiet of the forest, we will not only remember Galen Clark and John Muir, but also the men and women who restored the forest, and the public and private capital that made it happen. Gifts of $10 as well as gifts of millions bring us all together to repair the damage done.

We have made many mistakes when it comes to preserving the heritage of the plants and animals that share this planet, but we also have the power to do something about it. That, the big trees may well agree, makes us worthy.

Eating Salad in Pittsburgh: Q & A With Environmental Historian Kevin Brown

Kevin's been documenting the management of the Devils Hole pupfish, which number less than 100 and survive just below this fence in a limestone cavern some 20 feet across. Photo by Kristine Zeigler.

Kevin’s been documenting the management of the Devils Hole pupfish, which number less than 100 and survive just below this fence in a limestone cavern some 20 feet across. Photo by Kristine Zeigler.

Introduction by Owens River Girl

With California in the fourth year of drought and Governor Jerry Brown mandating 25 percent reductions in water use, it seems everyone is trying to understand how we get enough water. For the Devils Hole pupfish out in the Mojave Desert, this is nothing new. What is new, is that this one fish’s story might actually save us all, in the end. At least I think so. And not just Californians, either, but anyone who eats lettuce, strawberries, almonds, rice, corn, oranges and avocados. According to the California Department of Food & Agriculture, the Golden State produces nearly half of all US-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables, which are consumed all over the world.

So what’s a fish got to do with the broader water crisis? In the Amargosa Valley in southern Nevada near the California border, Kevin Brown is documenting the management history of the Devils Hole pupfish (Cyprinodon diabolis), a diminutive yet eye-catching cobalt-blue fish that may be able to teach us a thing or two about connections. For example, the connection between water we cannot see (that flows underneath the ground) and water that we can see (the water that flows on the surface, like creeks and rivers).

The Devils Hole pupfish has hung on for ten’s of thousands of years despite the terrible odds against it; the fish, which number less than 100 (though their population can swell to some 300 depending on the season), are totally isolated from their pupfish relatives, they live in an ancient pool only 10 by 20 feet across and their home inside a limestone cavern has limited amounts of oxygen. What’s more, they eat and make new pupfish in an even smaller space atop a natural rock ledge just beneath the water’s surface where they nibble on algae and diatoms as well as lay eggs. I like to think of this shelf as a welcoming counter in a diner combined with a daycare facility – the fish can come by for a cup of coffee and some pancakes, then drop off their kids (eggs) to be raised by the nice folks at the nursery!

The pupfish are accustomed to battles and have starred in their own David and Goliath story. In 1976 the fish was pitted against a nearby agribusiness in a Supreme Court case that illuminated the groundwater and surface water connection. The farm had drilled several wells to provide more water for its alfalfa crop and in so doing caused the water levels in Devils Hole to fall so far that the pupfish’s very existence was at stake. If the shelf were to be exposed to air, the pupfish diner would close down and the nursery would be finished; the pupfish’s already narrow margin of survivability would be eliminated. The groundwater beneath California’s Central Valley is now at the heart of the matter when it comes to the state’s drought; groundwater represents our savings account, and now that we’ve run out of snow, we have to spend out of our future. Even 60 Minutes covered the groundwater issue, and kudos to CBS for its elegant depiction of the connection between groundwater and surface water.

There is much mystery at Devils Hole. The cave is so deep no one knows where the bottom is; two trespassing divers died trying to find it, which is why the site is fenced. Beneath the surface of the small pool, labyrinths of subterranean chambers are unmapped. But the cave’s underwater passages are so interconnected with the rest of the planet that earthquakes and tsunamis half a world away can cause waves for the pupfish and have even been caught on video!

Kevin Brown, a New Jersey native and graduate of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, is writing the Devils Hole pupfish’s story for the National Park Service and the American Society for Environmental History. Kevin received his masters and Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh; since graduating he has been a journalist as well as a grocer, making him the perfect person to frame the pupfish’s predicament and to connect eating a salad in Pittsburgh to the water beneath the earth out here in California.

Researcher and historian Kevin Brown at Badwater Basin in January 2015.

Researcher and historian Kevin Brown at Badwater Basin in January 2015.

A Q&A With Kevin Brown

  1. What did you want to be when you grew up (when you were 10)?

For a long time, I wanted to be a letter carrier.

  1. What do you want to be when you grow up now?

Carl Hubbs, the prominent ichthyologist that gave Cyprinodon the nickname “pupfish” once wrote to a colleague that he wished he could live several lives simultaneously because there was too much that he wanted to learn and study. I (humbly) feel the same way.

The last two projects I’ve worked on (my dissertation and the Devils Hole project) have been about foresters and biologists – both groups of people who get to spend time working outside on issues with which I’m fascinated. It sometimes seems cruel that I get a chance to write about these professions while being cooped up inside! If I could follow Hubbs in wishing to live another live at the same time, I think I’d become an ecologist.

  1. In which subjects did you excel as a student in high school?

If I excelled at anything in high school it was racing the 3200 meters. Sadly, it did not help my writing!

  1. Name a book or an author that convinced you to go into resource protection. What about it resonated with you?

Nature’s Metropolis, by William Cronon, is a classic of environmental history that made me want to understand more about how humans have related to (and reshaped) nature. It is not actually about conservation – if anything, it is more about exploitation – but it is nonetheless an intellectually inspiring work.

  1. What is the most important environmental book of all time? Why?

It is hard to not say Sand County Almanac, right?

  1. Describe what you are working on this year with regard to the Devils Hole pupfish?

The Devils Hole pupfish, which lives in a disjunct part of Death Valley National Park, has been critically endangered, extensively managed, and fought over for some 45 years. The National Park Service contracted with the American Society for Environmental History to produce an environmental history of the recovery effort for this species. This 2 ½ year project will give biologists a sense of “where we have been” in Devils Hole pupfish management while also setting this species in the context of a changing American West.

  1. What surprised you about your work, what about it was unexpected?

I am continually amazed how the Devils Hole pupfish – living in one of the smallest vertebrate habitats in the world – has over the last fifty years become so wrapped up in some of the big issues of our time: water development fights, the rise of the “sagebrush rebellion,” and endangered species politics. When you visit Devils Hole – at the end of miles of dirt roads – it seems isolated. It is anything but.

  1. Why should anyone care about such a small animal?

People have been asking this question for a long time. As a historian I am fascinated by the diversity of answers. Often times, the answer about why we should care – or indeed, whether – has revolved not only around an abstract ethical or moral conclusion but the particular context and moment in which the question is asked. Those who made bumper stickers in the 1970s reading “Kill the Pupfish” likely had no personal animus against these tiny fish, but saw their protection as a potential threat to their economic interest. On the other hand, the biologists and managers who made “Save the Pupfish!” bumper stickers relied on a range of arguments, stretching from ones suggesting that research about the pupfish might someday improve human lives, to others that completely decentered humans from the story. To the question, “Why should we care about the pupfish?” they would retort, “Why the hell should the pupfish care about you!”

  1. What difference can one person make, if any?

The history of the Devils Hole pupfish suggests that one person can’t make much of a difference. What it does tell us, however, is that many people working together can. Carl Hubbs may have argued for setting aside Devils Hole as part of Death Valley National Monument, but it never would have happened without the dedication of many, many others. I think that is an instructive lesson for many other political and environmental battles.

  1. So do you live in Death Valley?

I live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for the time being. The last 15 months of work on this project have given me a wonderful opportunity to visit and work in the west. I expect I’ll follow Horace Greeley’s advice sometime soon and “go west” more permanently.

A Q&A With Fearless Hiking Momma Carol Underhill

Carol Underhill and her son explore our nation's natural treasures nearly every week!

Carol Underhill and her son explore our nation’s natural treasures nearly every week!

Tell me about growing up in Bishop. What has stayed with you? In Bishop we roamed free around our neighborhood, rode bikes and horses, played in creeks, flew kites, and went camping in our backyards. I also remember kayaking with Dad, looking for old bottles and other treasures in the desert with Mom, and doing a lot of “fishing”- which for me was wandering around with a fishing pole but not wanting to actually catch – and thus have to touch – a fish. What has stayed with me? All of it.

Where do you live now? What do you love about it? What would you change? We live in Victorville, California. I love the location – we are in the high desert with its marvelous mild climate and are in close proximity to the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains (where I work for the United States Forest Service). And if that isn’t enough, the beach is 1.5 hours away. And of course I’m within a couple of hours of Bishop and the glorious Eastern Sierra. But unlike Bishop, we have all the amenities like shopping, restaurants, international airports. But, still, most of our county is glorious wide open space. It’s the best of all worlds. I would change how others think about the desert. To most people it is a place through which to drive, it’s a chore, it’s a blank spot on the map between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. But if you take the time to get off Interstate 15 and explore the desert’s dirt roads and trails, it’s really quite beautiful. Check out my website for more desert beauty here.

You are raising a young son. What’s your parenting philosophy? What do you most want him to know? To experience? To appreciate?

Well, you learn pretty quickly that any philosophy you thought you had will certainly be tested and may just get thrown out the window when your 2-year-old is having a tantrum in the check-out line at the grocery store. I swore that my kid would never do such a thing, I would raise them to mind me. Well, guess what, kids just do things like that. The only thing I’ve found that helped was either getting a baby sitter and going to the store alone, or Cheetos. When in doubt, give your kid a Cheeto. Seriously, my husband and I try to be good role models, love our son unconditionally, and just be flexible, realistic, and go with the flow. I want my son to appreciate our close-knit family and of course the natural world around him.

When you were ten years old, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Zoo Keeper – I took a week-long class at the San Diego Zoo, and one at Sea World the following summer. I realized pretty quickly that to be this you’d have to clean up a lot of animal poop, and it didn’t seem so glamorous after that.

At present, what do you want to be when you grow up?

Public Affairs Officer for a National Forest or National Park.

Which books have made an impact on who you are today? What about them resonated with you?

Ed Abbey – Desert Solitaire – I read this book after my first season working with the Forest Service and it solidified my decision to want to work as Park Ranger, or similar job, with a land management agency. I wanted to have a job and a career that matched up with my passion in life, and that is enjoying and helping to protect the natural world.

What is the most important environmental book of all time? Why?

Aldo Leopold – Sand County Almanac. Leopold’s idea of a “land ethic,” or a responsible relationship existing between people and the land they inhabit, is at the very core of all environmentalism. If you believe in the relationship and its importance, everything else will follow.

What are you focused on today?

Raising my son, having fun in the great outdoors, and advancing my career.

Which environmental issues have you most concerned?

Our kids are growing up indoors, in front of screens and don’t spend as much time outside as previous generations. They are growing more and more disconnected to the natural world. Kids these days do not know where their water comes from when they turn on the tap. They don’t know where they get their food. They don’t know the importance of clean air. All of this needs to change if our planet is going to survive.

Of which achievement are you most proud?

It’s the little things – when my son points out manzanita or creosote bushes to me when we’re hiking. When I see my son and my Mom and Dad hiking in the desert together. When a visitor thanks me for the information I give them and says they had a great time on the trail I recommended. When I’m alone in my house and I look around at everything my husband and I have provided for our family. I’m proud of all of it.

What is your favorite animal?

I’ve never met an animal I didn’t like. But if I had to choose just one favorite, I’d choose a cat. We have four cats and they help me de-stress when they lay on my lap and purr. And I love it when they do silly things like chase their tails or streak across the room for no reason at all. They’re cute and very entertaining.

What is on your travel bucket list?

North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Lassen National Park, Crater Lake National Park, and Olympic National Park. Hiking the whole length of the John Muir Trail.

What is your favorite natural feature in the Owens Valley?

Mount Tom – it is the background to my best childhood memories.

What gets you up in the morning?

My son, he usually wakes me up with his giggles.

What difference can one person make, if any?

A person can make a difference, the trick is finding what you’re best at and sticking with it.

What do you know now that you wished you had known as a young adult?

To not care about what others think about you – just be yourself.

What advice would you give to someone interested in protecting the planet?

Do what you do well and is your passion, and then also teach a child how you’re protecting the planet so it will be in good hands after you go.

Does art and literature have a place in conservation and environmental protection? Why?

Absolutely – photographs by Ansel Adams and paintings by Thomas Moran inspired folks to protect this nation’s public lands in the first place. Also great nature photographs and writing are what inspire most people to go out and explore, and they also help lend appreciation for areas you may not ever visit.

What would you tell other families who want to get outside more, take their kids hiking/camping/climbing/fishing, but don’t know where to start?

Just go! Don’t think too much about it. And definitely don’t wait until your kids are older. It’s really quite easy to take babies on camping and hiking adventures – just put them in a carrier and go. Baby won’t stop crying? Go outside. Works every time. Now once they start walking and putting things in their mouths, it gets a little trickier, so I suggest taking another adult with you to help you keep an eye on them. Always keep a daypack packed with everything you need – diapers, wipes, small trash bags, sweatshirts, hats, sunglasses, sunscreen, pacifiers, water, snacks – in your vehicle so you can go whenever you have the chance. For inspiration look up information on your local county, state and national parks, botanical gardens, arboretums, visitor and nature centers, lakes/reservoirs, beaches, zoos, and rail-to-trails.

I’ve met so many people who are afraid of taking their babies outside, but from my experience a rocking chair in your living room has greater potential to hurt your child than anything does in nature. Just take the same precautions you do when you go outside yourself – check the weather forecast, tell someone where you are going and what time you expect to be back, and take a friend.

I recommend every parent buy three items: a comfy front baby carrier, a backpack for use when your baby starts to be able to hold their head up on their own, and a Bob/Jeep/or comparable stroller that can handle dirt roads/trails. These will make getting outside easier for you and your little one.
The planet we depend on depends on us.

The planet we depend on depends on us.

A Checklist For the Writing Life

All pilots and surgeons use checklists, so can writers!

All pilots and surgeons use checklists, so can writers!

Every writer – be they young or mature, just starting out or grizzled with experience and publication – needs a checklist. Like a proficient pilot or cautious surgeon, use of a checklist ensures that you do not forget important details before setting out to fly an airplane, cut your patient open or embark on your writing life.

☐ Throw out all the rules about writing. Especially “Write what you know;” “Write from 4:30 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. before the kids wake up;” and “Write every day without fail.” Poet William Matthews once gave me a gift – in response to my question about the supposed importance of writing every day, he said it was more helpful to do what works for you than to write each day. “I do not write every single day, but I like to write almost every day,” he said. He added, “I wish I wrote every day, but I don’t always get to it.” I sighed and ran up to hug and thank him for relieving me of the pain and suffering I caused myself through my guilty conscience about not writing each and every day. Okay, I did not really run up and hug him. But I should have. He died a couple of years after I met him. What I have since learned is that William Matthews could no more impart a specific routine of disciplined structure for my own writing practice, as could the ghost of Jane Austen. We must all create our own business of the writing life, if that is what we are called to do. And peace be upon you if you do not feel the incessant gravity of sitting down to record what you see, to tell a story or to develop a plot that is thickening inside of you. You are lucky indeed.

☐ Seek coaches and teachers everywhere, form a team. Never settle for just one. I have had many creative writing, English and literature teachers. I marveled at how several were so tuned in to my needs as a student and yet others were completely tone-deaf to my position in life. I worried that I had to enjoy each class and lecture and become chummy with the other students, even when those students were not very good writers or very charitable human beings in general. I thought I had to give them as much attention as I would my own voice and trembling finger on the keyboard. I believed I owed them, as if with pen in hand, I had to commit to their success. Then my good friend Sela gave me Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and I found freedom. I realized that I had been holding back, I had shut my creative power down time and again because I thought I was not a real writer, that real writers gained entrance to prestigious Masters of Fine Art programs (MFA) or were published by the time they were 24 years old. I thought I should have been in a writing workshop rather than in a chair of my own. Julia’s book revealed the truth – I could write without a classroom! Without an MFA! I could follow along in Julia’s book, step by easy, loving step, and I could recover my passion and heal myself and write god damn it! Julia and I are close as sisters; she truly set me on a path to possibility. The funny thing is that I don’t even know Julia! That is the beauty of coaches and teachers everywhere. They publish books and blogs, poems and novels, short stories and compendiums of the best advice on writing. You don’t have to know them personally, yet they will become your trusted advisors and mentors, friends and kindred spirits. Most of the best books are available to borrow from your public library. I hereby give you permission to learn to your heart’s content. No need to spend more than $500 on a creative writing class at the University of California or to go into between $30,000 – $70,000 in debt (not counting what you’ll need to eat and pay rent) to do an MFA. You can learn on the cheap. Or you can organize your own writer workshops and facilitate good process and learn through others as well! Click here to see who is on my coaching staff. Your team can be similar or maybe you want to throw in a sumo wrestler, since that is a topic with which you are fascinated. See, you can do whatever you want and no one can stop you! Guilt be gone!

☐ Get yourself a student identification card, and hold on to it – for the rest of your life. You’re never going to be done with becoming a writer, so keep learning, practicing, being patient and loving and focus on how cool it is to be a student. Would you expect a sailor to know how to fly a plane, just because they are good with equipment and reading the winds? There are skills, there are drills, there are lots of things to learn. You are a student of writing. Yet even when you are getting good at it, you still need to practice. Even the best basketball players lift weights and practice their layups, their dunks, their three-point shots. Even Olympic swimmers hire coaches and trainers, eat well and refine their form. And the world’s best musicians do their scales and keep their minds and fingers limber for the performance. So get over yourself that you’re going to be brilliant and that your words will string together with effervescence and verve. They might. They might not. But do keep practicing.

☐ Debate the devil on your shoulder – early and often. The inner voice, that shrill one telling you that you suck, that you being a writer is a crock of crud, that you’ll never get a damn thing published and who do you think you are sitting down to compose even one lousy sentence? That voice is not in charge of the writing operation. But it will try to convince you that it is. So always be on the lookout for Opposite Land, a place you can visit anytime that most critical of voices pipes up. When it says, “You can’t make any money off of this poem!” say “It is possible to make money off this poem.” Or maybe you sneer, “I don’t care about money right now, anyways, nanny, nanny billy goat.” When the red devil on your shoulder says, “Hey, wise guy, what do you say we weasel out of this stupid writing thing you have going on right now and go do something fun instead?” You can reply, “It isn’t stupid, it’s important to me and it is fun, so please go away. Now.” Just come up with the opposite point of view of your inner critic. The endless storyline that you’re not good enough to do this is old, tiresome and banal – and yet it has power and it always will exist. Don’t pretend you don’t hear it. Just reply. Or think of the criticism as a phone call. When you hear the voice, hang up. They will try to call again. You can curse at your critic and tell him off, too. Muck You! Muck off! Go Muck Yourself! Powerful cuss words that rhyme with “muck” feel good when you hurl them at your inner devil.

☐ Read good writing. Devour your predecessors: eat and drink their words like the water, vitamins, protein, complex carbohydrates, dessert, tea and coffee they are. Your fellow writers are your guides, your teachers, your forebears and your intrepid explorers. See what they did. Admire it, criticize it, copy it, try it on for size. Underline their passages, write reviews of their books on Goodreads or Amazon and tell others what you are reading. Need help on where to begin? There are top lists of books published every year in most major newspapers, blogs and websites for public radio, just find a list and pick one book off it and go read it. Or find a list of the top classics and read some (Moby Dick is on mine this year). Or choose a region in the world, say New Orleans, and read three novels set there (I adored Tim Gautreaux’s The Missing). Make up your own list of ten books you’ve always wanted to read and set out on an adventure to do it.

☐ Fitness routine – get one. If you are overweight, suffering from depression, indigestion or an acute illness, writing will bring some relief, but not much. You need to move. Go for a walk before you write. I run like John Irving does, before I even eat, just to clear out my mind’s cobwebs, deal with the nasty voices telling me I suck (damn them, do they ever shut up?) and to see the path. I am an athlete. I write, I fly, I read, I love. I need to be healthy, I need to be free. I need to be calm. We are NOT CALM, you see! We are such an anxiety-ridden culture that we prevent ourselves from growing and enjoying this planet and one another because of all the unhealthful habits we have acquired. Anyone can be an athlete. Find something to do and just try it. Sometimes I turn on electronica or pop hits music in the living room and dance for 30 minutes. I am able to be far more productive once I move. I think it loosens a lot of chemicals in the brain and strengthens all my cell walls so that I breathe better. And I’m much nicer to my husband and my colleagues when I run.

☐ Morning Pages – write three pages of absolutely any old thing. Consider this your warm-up. Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages are a miracle disguised as an easy task. You can write about what’s keeping you up at night, you can make a list of things to get at the store, you might want to describe the objects in your living room, or you can imagine a vacation you’ve always wanted to take. I tend to write about my day, whether it is the one I’ve lived (yesterday) or the one to come (today – tomorrow). The great thing about this ritual, and I’ve been at it for more than ten years, is that you begin with a dirty old garret, one full of tax returns you no longer need, boxes overflowing with mothball-scented sweaters and piles of newspapers from when your team won the World Series. Oh, and there are the National Geographic magazines from the 1970s your parents saved for you. There you are, in front of your computer or journal, and you sweep up the dirt and the stiff, dead insects, the balls of fuzz, and you take a broom and knock out the cobwebs in the corners, and then you fill a debris box to the rim with paper to be recycled (in my imagination there is a company that comes, faithful as the sun rising, to help with this daily task; they deliver bins, provide shredder pick-up service and thrift store donation assistance. Isn’t that nice of them?) Finally, you sprinkle some Murphy Oil Soap on your wooden floors and give them a mopping. When you’re done, the attic’s in order and you are ready for writing, for flying, for managing people, for commuting, for loving your spouse, for whatever it is you need and want to do.

☐ Say no, so that you can say yes. As a young woman, I hardly ever turned down an invitation, whether it was to see a movie, go to the shopping mall with friends, attend a party or help other writers with their own work. I grew to resent the very people I thought I was helping by being their companion or editing their own writing. One night my husband said, “How is spending time with those people helping you with your writing?” Good question. I spent so much time with others, doing what they wanted to do, that I hardly had a free moment to delve into my own creativity. Be as social as you like, but don’t feel you have to do anything with anybody if it means you don’t get what you ultimately want. You are going to need time alone. If you have roommates or a family, write in a library, in a café, or on the bus. Heck, take a tip from Raymond Carver, who used to sit in his driveway, in his car, to write. Find a way. This may be a bit painful for you, especially if you are a people pleaser like I am (though I have made progress and now prioritize putting my own needs ahead of others more and more often). You will need to set a boundary with some people in your life. They may not like it. That is none of your business. Or, they may respect you and love the fact you are following your dream to write more and resent less.

☐ Upload to the Cloud. In the old days I would have said to back up your files. You do not want to lose your manuscript, your Morning Pages, your plans. Also, you don’t want to get to your special writing place and not have access to the very files you need because you forgot the memory stick or saved your story on your personal laptop, but not on your work laptop. With the Cloud (pick your cloud, I use Dropbox and love it) you can access your files on any computer, any device. Don’t put your words at risk of being lost when your motherboard dies.

☐ Make specific plans. Be as disciplined with the business plan for your writing as you are for projects at work. Write up your objectives and how you’ll go about seeing them through and give yourself deadlines. I have found that applying the same business objective setting process to my own writing goals has led to several of my “wishes” becoming reality – I finished a book, taught several workshops, was awarded two writing residencies and submitted to over 200 literary journals. If I had casually hoped to do it all, I doubt I would have done the right things to get the actions rolling in the first place.

☐ Go do stuff you like to do. Take yourself to see the ballet, an art exhibit, or merely walk to a park and sit on a bench. Go snorkeling in Hawaii. Watch Minor League baseball. Hike in the backcountry of the Sierra Nevada. Walk your dog. Go to yard sales. Sit in a restaurant and look at each person at the bar. Bring a journal. Write down every sound and sight. Take notes on how people talk. This is about idea generation and celebration of art and being alive. I love watching sci-fi that my friend Regina recommends; losing myself in an episode of Black Mirror is so thrilling that I can hardly wait to try my hand at writing my own sci-fi story! Standing in front of a 19th century American landscape painting of Yosemite or Lake Tahoe, I imagine what those artists would have experienced and how they would have conveyed the grandeur of these iconic California places to their Eastern seaboard family members. Doing stuff gives you ideas and energy. Go do stuff.

☐ Show your writing to other people if you feel like it and want feedback. Otherwise, keep it to yourself and push forward by reading other writers, practicing on your own and revising. No one said you have to get an MFA to write, or that you must get beat up at a writing workshop or that you have to listen to someone who has no idea what it is you’re trying to accomplish. Trust few people with your precious cargo. Listen to those who care enough to help you grow and get better. If you need direction, sign up for a workshop or class. Just remember that you don’t have to do what everyone will say you have to do to your work. Receiving ten people’s worth of feedback on your story can be overwhelming if you are not sure how to revise your next draft in order to please those same ten people. You can’t please them all and it’s not worth trying. You can please yourself and you can listen for common themes. You can refuse to revise a damn thing. You can stick your story in a drawer for six months and then decide.


A Q&A with the Owens Valley’s Best Friend – Mike Prather

Mike Prather sharing his love for, and knowledge of, the bird life at Owens Lake.

A staunch defender of the Owens Valley’s incomparable natural features, former elementary and middle school teacher Mike Prather is a consistent and reliable advocate for nature through his efforts to preserve the Lower Owens River and Owens Lake, among many other places. Born and raised in Sonoma County, Mike’s family introduced him to the great outdoors through trips to their family cabins on Salmon Creek, just north of Bodega Bay, and on the Russian River. He hiked and played among the oaks, streams and redwood forests, and in school pursued his wide-ranging interests in education, botany, biology, ornithology and even fungi. After graduating from Cal State Chico, Mike taught all subjects to fourth through sixth graders in a two-room schoolhouse in Death Valley National Park alongside his wife Nancy, who taught K-3. They later moved to Lone Pine, where they have lived since 1980. Mike and Nancy raised two daughters in Lone Pine and are enjoying being grandparents and active community members.

Owensrivergirl posed some questions to Mike recently. A good friend to all of us working on behalf of safeguarding the lands and waters of our golden state, Mike is fond of quoting a sign he once saw hung on an office wall at National Audubon: “Endless pressure, endlessly applied.” Thanks to his passion for the Owens Valley, Mike is the best friend the two mountain ranges and their deep cradle in between could ever hope to have.

Tell me about your mom and dad.

My mom accepted all of the wild critters that I brought home. Once, while conducting a conversation with our neighbor over the fence, one of my ravens flew and landed on my mother’s head. Mom continued the conversation as if nothing had occurred. My father was the Planning Director for Sonoma County during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s when PG&E was proposing to build the nuclear power plant on Bodega Head. I learned a lot about pressure, politics and lobbying during that time. Our phone rang off the hook with lobbyists with PG&E. My father advocated for the PG&E plant since he worked for the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. He took his lumps and our name is even in the lyrics of the protest ballad of the time, “Ballad of Bodega Head.” About that same time Castle and Cook was developing the Sea Ranch, which eventually led politically to a campaign to protect our California coast and protect access. My father supported the Williamson Act that protects farming and ranch lands. I went with him as he spoke in support of legislation to create Point Reyes National Sea Shore in Marin County. He gave me a book on global warming that he received from a writer in the early 1970’s. I know he valued the environment. I also know that politics stink and I would never want to be a planner and work for others.

When you were ten years old, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Anything that was outside – in Nature.

At present, what do you want to be when you grow up?

A grandfather and to promote and defend Nature.

Which books have made an impact on who you are today? What about them resonated with you?

  • Several of John Muir’s books – the reverence shown for Nature touched me. Climbing to top of a Douglas fir in a windstorm, laying in a hot steam vent mud on Mount Shasta all night in a blizzard to stay alive, enjoying the singing of a Dipper in an ice-covered Merced River in winter moved me.
  • The Wind Birds by Peter Matthiessen – the phenomena of migration and the passing of seasons. Sheer wonder.
  • Desert Wildflowers by Edmond Jaeger. Beautiful black-line illustrations with such informative text by a man who truly knew and loved the California desert.
  • Land of Little Rain by Mary Austin. The best of desert literature and it was written more than 100 years ago right where I live today. Accident?
  • The Man Who Walked Through Time by Colin Fletcher. I read this book after my wife and I backpacked from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River and back. Fletcher’s descriptions of natural sounds and silence and space remain with me.
  • Anything written by Wallace Stegner.
  • Field Guide to Western Birds by Roger Tory Peterson.
  • Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey.

What is the most important environmental book of all time? Why?

The most important environmental book that you write is in your head while growing up and during your time on Earth. It contains the sounds and visions that you experience. The smells and wonders. It is personal and perfect. It’s you.

What projects are you focused on today?

The return of hundreds of thousands of shorebirds and waterfowl to Owens Lake. Working to enhance and protect the habitat for those species. Also working on the restoration of the Lower Owens River riparian ecosystem and recreational paddling trails.

Where did you learn the most in terms of how to get things done on behalf of nature?

When I became active on a regional level with the Sierra Club and became part of a large network of activists my skills grew and were refined. I found many mentors through the Sierra Club Regional Desert Committee – Elden Hughes, Jim Dodson, Cal French, Marge Sill and many others. The Sierra Club sent me to lobbying weeks in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

What awards have you won?

  • The National Audubon Society ‘William Dutcher Award’ (2013) for work on Owens Lake habitat.
  • The Audubon California Chapter Volunteer Award for ‘Outstanding Service’ (2009).
  • The Range of Light Group (Toiyabe Chapter) ‘2006 Andrea Lawrence Lifetime Achievement Award.’
  • The Sierra Club ‘Ye Olde Bottle Award’ (2003) for work on water and land issues in the Owens Valley.
  • United States Geological Survey award for completing over 50 Breeding Bird Surveys.

Of which achievement are you most proud?

  • Shaping the 1991 Inyo County-Los Angeles Long-term Water Agreement.
  • Re-watering 62 miles of the Lower Owens River on December 6, 2006.
  • Enhancing and protecting habitat for hundreds of thousands of shorebirds and waterfowl through my work writing portions of the Owens Lake Master Project with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
  • Adding 1.5 million acres to Death Valley National Park and 800,000 acres of wilderness to Inyo County through my ten years of advocacy and participation in the creation of the 1994 California Desert Protection Act.

What is your favorite animal?

All birds – they fly.

What is on your travel bucket list?

The Far North in Alaska and Canada where my shorebird friends nest each year. I have only ever been able to spend time with them ‘in passing.’

I would like to return to Australia and see the rest of it – Western Australia.

Describe a time when you felt like your task was hopeless, yet you persevered.

  • Countless times over 30 years while working on water and land issues in opposition to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP). Agreed-to timelines missed with callousness. Revisionist reading of legal agreements regarding groundwater pumping in the Owens Valley and for returning water to the Lower Owens River. Being told with a smile by LADWP, “Litigation is cheaper than water.” (In other words, “Sue us.”)
  • Working to control and reverse the onslaught of off-road vehicles on our wild lands.
  • Failing to win support in the Owens Valley and Los Angeles for a conservation easement on LADWP lands in Inyo and Mono counties. Twice…

What is your favorite natural feature in the Owens Valley?

Driving into Lone Pine on Hwy 136 from Death Valley where you cross the Owens River, see the Alabama Hills ahead and the Mount Whitney Crest towering in the distance. I enjoy the ‘Big Picture’ – the wholeness.

Where is the best place to eat in the Owens Valley?

  • Seasons Restaurant in Lone Pine for dinner.
  • Still Life Café in Independence (French) – be prepared to spend three hours at the table. An experience.
  • Merry-Go-Round for Chinese in Lone Pine.

What gets you up in the morning?

The world excites me. Each day I want to get up and see what’s happening and what I can do. I like to seek solutions.

Do things seem better to you or worse with regard to the planet’s health? Do you ever get depressed about the state of the Earth (climate change, species extinction, development, energy use, poverty, etc.?)?

I truly think that overall we are in trouble. I try not to think about it that much, however, or I wouldn’t get out of bed. There are good things happening, but the demands for resources, for energy, for water, for space, for food are staggering. We must do better in our vision and efficiencies.

If my mind goes there then there is no point in continuing. I have two daughters, two grandchildren. I sincerely love people and want improvement. I’m not finished yet.

What difference can one person make, if any?

There is no measure of what one person might accomplish. That is all I need to know. I do focus locally on my community and region.

What do you know now that you wished you had known as a young adult?

Patience, better listening in order to understand all the points of view, focus, build bridges – don’t burn them.

What advice would you give to someone interested in protecting the planet?

Go for it! Now! The Earth and all of us who ride it together need you.

Does art and literature have a place in conservation and environmental protection? Why?

Yes. Artists can create unique works in many kinds of media that allow others to come to understand things in different ways and points of view. Throughout time artists and writers have contributed in priceless ways to the betterment of society and our Earth.

The Most Cherished Treasure in My Heroes Collection

Rim Fire

The Rim fire, California’s third largest in history, burned more than 250,000 acres, an area eight times the city of San Francisco. The fire threatened the City of San Francisco’s water supply and compromised power. Irreplaceable giant sequoias in nearby Yosemite National Park could have been lost were it not for the firefighting battle waged by hundreds. Photo: Stanislaus National Forest.

Carol and me Beneath Mount Tom, Bishop Creek.

Since I was a young girl growing up in the Eastern Sierra, I have collected heroes in all sorts of categories — teachers, poets, business people, Girl Scout leaders, disc jockeys at 91X in San Diego and pop singers, just to name a few. But one collection stands out above all others – those who save animals, trees and the people with whom they share this planet. I cherish my hero collections — dog, cat, and farm animal rescue groups; writers who tackled toxics in the environment and changed the very products we use in our homes (It is difficult to imagine fathers in the 1950s spraying DDT on their front lawns); and biologists and attorneys who observe the death of a place, like Mono Lake, due to excessive water withdrawals by a city far away, and then devise a way to save it.

But the centerpiece of my hero collection is my sister Carol. She is a self-taught naturalist of the finest order, an amateur photographer who sees what we all pass by or dismiss: lichen growing on granite, the pointed tips like mice tails peeking out from pine cones and each dew drop on every California poppy. Lucky for all of us living in drought-drenched California, Carol is a level head in a wildfire, which unfortunately for the Western United States, are occurring more and more often.

Frightened residents, broadcast news anchors, bloggers, newspaper reporters and public officials hear Carol’s voice on the line when they need information on road closures, fire location and number of acres burned. The vital information Carol provides allows the firefighting crews to do their job effectively and to adhere to the number one rule: all firefighters go home to their families at the day’s end.

Carol is also a terrific writer. She recently published an important essay on what many people never hear about – what is it actually like to fight a fire?  Units of men and women do everything they can to protect lives and in the course of their duty save structures, houses, ranches, animals and water supply. What is extraordinary about firefighters is that they do all this without knowing who they are saving. Even more, their mission is fraught with conflicts between uncontrollable and often unknowable conditions in the atmosphere and on the ground (the deadly combination of steep, inaccessible terrain and mercurial, unpredictable wind speed and direction), yet they pursue their goal with ferocious ambition and selflessness.

Read Carol’s essay and let her know how valuable she is in responding to catastrophe in the comments section below.  She has been my hero for nearly 40 years. Add her to your own hero collection. You’ll be glad you did.