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

One Room to Rule Them All


Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger looking at the map board in the Project Operations Center in Sacramento. Photo Courtesy of the Water Education Foundation.

“…you need water. Whatever it costs you have to pay it. It’s like oil today. If you have to have oil, you’ve got to pay for it. What’s the value of oil? What’s the value of water? If you’re crossing the desert and you haven’t got a bottle of water, and there’s no water anyplace in sight and someone comes along and says, ‘I’ll sell you two spoonfuls of water for ten dollars,’ you’ll pay for it. The same is true in California.” Edmund G. “Pat” Brown (b. 1905 – d. 1996), Governor of California from 1959-1967, in an interview he gave in 1979. Quoted in Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner.

Thirty years ago in his seminal book Cadillac Desert, author Marc Reisner described California’s State Water Project Operations Center as a room in which a “hydrologic ballet” took place to move water from north to south, a distance twice the length of Pennsylvania. At the Water Resources building in Sacramento, he noted the Univac computers were “punched and fed floppy disks by a team of programmers.” Univac, whose machines filled entire rooms, was the same company the United States Air Force used to operate the ground guidance computers for its Titan Missile program.

I wanted to see what had changed since 1986, so my Nature Conservancy team and I took a tour of the facilities last fall. For one, the State Water Project now shares a building called the “Joint Operations Center” with a host of other state and federal agencies, including the Bureau of Reclamation’s Central Valley Project (the other big water project in the state, servicing the San Joaquin Valley farmers, who receive about five of the seven million acre-feet of water that the project delivers), the California Nevada River Forecast Center, the National Weather Service and the Flood Control Center. You could pass this nondescript building a thousand times and never know the powerful data sets and computer models being used to predict flood risk, river levels, snow pack, aviation weather and extreme storm events. You would also never know that in this three-story brick building the oversight of dozens of dams, reservoirs, and power plants is all possible through remote control of myriad knobs, gates, canals and valves. The Joint Operations Center is probably the most important place in California. But given that California grows half of all produce, nuts and fruits in the United States, is home to transformative biotechnology and aerospace industries, and has created the computing and materials innovations that have revolutionized technology – one could argue that the Joint Operations Center is one of the most important buildings in the world. For none of the things we take for granted, be it an iPhone or a handful of almonds, is made without water. Yet the Joint Operations Center is miles from downtown Sacramento next to a Walmart and a Chipotle.

MapBoard Project Operations Center

California on its side, showing the state’s facilities that comprise the State Water Project. Courtesy of the Water Education Foundation.

The tour guides said we could see where the state’s water project is controlled, and so we followed them into a small conference room with a few windows looking into the Project Operations Center where a couple of people worked that afternoon. No photos allowed. Also, our guide said, pointing to a closed set of vinyl blinds, “there’s window into the federal side. We can’t show you that.”

Despite our disappointment, we appreciated gazing into the Project Operations Center, especially the decidedly analog map board, which former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger loved as a dramatic setting for some of his press conferences, according to our guide. While not as sophisticated as a Hollywood touch-screen monitor seen in television shows like CSI and Hawaii Five-O, where images on a computer can be transferred to a glass wall display with a single touch, it is nonetheless impressive. Running the entire length of the control room, the map board traces the path of what would be the longest river in California– if it were natural. According to the state, in an average year about 47 percent of the water goes to “environmental water”, about 11 percent goes to cities and 42 percent goes to farms.

The State Water Project begins at Lake Oroville in Northern California, the location of the tallest dam in the United States and the world’s eighth largest dam, and runs through about 700 miles of aqueducts, encompassing 34 reservoirs and more than a dozen pumping stations, to terminate at Lake Perris, another human-engineered lake, in Riverside County. With nine power plants, the operators in the control center move water and control hydropower output based on loads to the system. They wheel and deal, purchasing and selling power day and night like Wall Street traders. Only I cannot imagine Leonardo DiCaprio ever playing the role of a state water trader talking about power purchases and sales in a room with green and yellow lights akin to a 1980s board game of Battleship.


The State Water Project, built in the 1960s-1970s, is the nation’s largest water development project, delivering 2.5 million acre-feet of water per year. One acre-foot covers a football field in one foot of water. Courtesy of Maven’s Notebook.

But why does the state need to buy power when they have hydropower plants that can create power? Because moving water down to Southern California has one obstacle – a mountain range. The Tehachapi Mountains are right in the middle of the path where the water must travel to reach the city of Los Angeles. The A.D. Edmonston Pumping Plant must raise the water up nearly 2,000 feet. To some engineers, according to Reisner, the pumping is “the ultimate triumph, the most splendid snub nature has ever received: a sizable river of water running uphill.”

Thus, the largest energy user in the state, as it turns out, is the state. The water project needs anywhere from four to eight billion kilowatt hours per year to pump water; the State Water Project produces almost six billion kilowatt hours per year. Any surplus power is sold, while any required power is purchased from other sources. Power purchases are made when power is less expensive (for example, not during a hot spell when power usage is high and everyone’s running their air conditioner). Some of the power used is regained when the water runs downhill. There’s a lot of addition, subtraction and algebra involved. The bottom line – “In the West, it is said, water flows uphill toward money,” wrote Reisner in his introduction.

Our tour lasted several hours and included time with the snow survey office, the people who inspect the levees in the Sacramento River Delta region and the personnel who gather to coordinate during an emergency flood response. These individuals collaborate to share information in order to save lives, as the state has a history of catastrophic floods that have destroyed farms, cities and injured and killed people. Between the power purchasing and selling, the National Weather Service and the river and flood forecasting, these desks must be staffed around the clock every day of the year.

We now know that California’s water systems were conceived, designed and built during wet years when rain and snow were plentiful. Yet researchers who study the long pattern of climate in this part of the world suggest that drought is not a one-time catastrophe or emergency. It’s normal and part of life in the arid West. The ridge of high pressure keeping precipitation out, and pleasant, unseasonably warm weather in California, reminds us that drought is never far from our hearts. Perhaps, as California publisher Lindsie Bear said to me recently, we do not live in a semi-desert, a place lacking in rain. We live in a climate with an abundance of dryness.

Back at the Joint Operations Center, yellow lights indicate that a pump is offline, power sales ramp up, the National Weather Service updates its informative Facebook page and computer weather models run all night trying to figure out what kind of El Niño event we might experience. I just hope the Chipotle stays open late when the graveyard shift employees get hungry.

Collect Those Minutes

As the year draws to a close, I am grateful for words, Mojave Desert skies, brown bears, baptisteries, golden grape leaves, war heroes, eagles, canyons, colleagues, family, and for endearing and enduring friends. Here’s my new friend, Charles Finn, whose musings on just how certain we can be in this life lift me up. Charles is the editor of the High Desert Journal and recently published Wild Delicate Seconds: 29 Wildlife Encounters – purchase it here .

Memoir of a Raven

Time is running out and I admit I wasted my afflictions. But there’s nothing like drinking out of a fresh grizzly print to confirm that your life is on the right track. So I remind you that the days come and go, but mostly they go – it’s the minutes you must collect. The armature of your life will drag you along even as the plowshare of the days turns its one long furrow into forever. My advice is to keep pace. Don’t let up. As confused as you might be in life, as conflicted, in death there is no doubt.

Find an elk carcass and look inside.

No confusion there. I love the world for this, for the certainty that exists in us all.

~ Charles Finn

Charles Finn Raven

Travel and Death- A Normandy Poem

Normandy American Cemetery, Coleville-sur-Mer. Photo by Author.

Normandy American Cemetery, Coleville-sur-Mer. Photo by Author.

To go to another continent, to face your nationality, your origin, your culture, your frame of reference, is to encounter yourself, perhaps for the first time.

Also –

Dying and packing a suitcase are the same.

Traveling abroad and death are understood only by those that undertake the obstacles of finding one’s way in another language, with unfamiliar maps, with your best guess.

Like that twilight drive years ago, away from a body in a Pennsylvania hospital, paying a parking meter, as we did, returning home without their father, without her husband, without their brother, without my future father-in-law.

I remember stepping upon unknown earth.

I trespassed onto the grounds of heartache.

I sidestepped explosives, my feet found delicate phrasing,

I placed the weight of my sorrow on toes that somehow withstood the pressure.

I blinked for days – sunlight raw, unbearable, out of place.

Our view the day before – false hope.

The next – folly in that view.

But back to where I stand this day, years later:

Nine-thousand crosses, 41 sets of brothers, even dogs in the foxholes,

American Cemetery of Colleville-sur-Mer. Photo by Author.

American Cemetery of Colleville-sur-Mer. Photo by Author.

blown to new kingdoms and rooms with windows looking out to gardens,

where words, routes, the way out, lead to the object of desire.

The map, the one-way ticket, the lamp, a curvilinear road, mild air, rays of day’s illumination, a manuscript, a book of hours.

One minute here, in your country, knowing all that you know.

The next, your shins peeling, like shedding snake skin.

Your journey is concluding, you are different now.

Yet so few know what it is,

inside your skin and scales.

Only the sojourners,

truth be told,

as it is revealed in both a passage and a loss,

walk with you now.

They walk with you, inside you, in the oxygen, in the detritus of what you exhale.

These souls now accompany us into the place of regret,

whispers on a long plane ride.

An endless walk.

In London, the subterranean chambers marked Way Out.

We, those who have lost, those who have traveled away,

look for the placard –

Way Home.

Vierville-sur-Mer - Omaha Beach. Photo by Author.

Vierville-sur-Mer – Omaha Beach. Photo by Author.

Armistice Day display and Poppy Appeal outside Westminster Abbey. Photo by Joe McCrossen.

Armistice Day display and Poppy Appeal outside Westminster Abbey. Photo by Joe McCrossen.

Saving Nature Means Saving Ourselves From Myth of Work and Life in Balance

Finding balance shouldn’t be about negotiating a tightrope. Photo by Susie Shoaf.

By Kristine Zeigler & Lynn Lozier, The Nature Conservancy in California 

This week the Wall Street Journal dedicated an entire section to the issue of women and equity in the workplace. It seems every day more research is published about women’s lack of progress in obtaining executive leadership roles and what factors may be to blame. Work-life balance comes up a lot as a barrier to more women entering the top management positions in companies.

At our workplace, The Nature Conservancy in California, both men and women at a recent work-life balance workshop reported feeling overworked, exhausted, burnt out and unsupported in many ways.

The workshop could have been a bummer. Employees mentioned a host of anxieties and worries, including their aging parents, their limited time with their children, their wish to have children, (or their decision not to have them), as well as their obsession with work to the point where they slept very little. Yet they also spoke of their fondest hope – that they could shape their future even when faced with difficulties such as illness in their families or financial hardships. Honesty was on the table. So was goodwill.

One outcome of the salon is that the notion that “work-life balance” is a myth and frankly, not a useful metaphor. It suggests a teeter-totter or a fulcrum. Too much weight on one side and you fall off – failing at one part of your life and out of the game. Given our shared passion for The Nature Conservancy’s mission to preserve lands and waters all over the world, we are not even sure it’s fair to say that our dedication to nature and our commitment to our personal lives are all that different from one another.

So we settled on a new paradigm to replace “work-life balance:” equilibrium. One way to define equilibrium is as an adjustment between opposing or divergent influences or elements. Natural systems, including the human body, are full of dynamic functions that adjust to change and maintain equilibrium. Saturation and scarcity harmonize in systems – one influence waxes and another wanes. Things are “tuned” as you go along and function is sustained, be it the forest, the ocean, or the body.

Equilibrium also describes a mental state that is calm and stable. It speaks of poise. No matter what is going on in the world around you – anxious colleagues, deadlines, family conflicts, ill parents or children in need – there is a place within the heart and the mind that can be a place to rest – like a hammock, not a tightrope. Finding breath and finding the center of oneself, letting one part of the body be saturated by peacefulness, may be the most radical chemical and biological reaction of all.

The Nature Conservancy needs its employees to be at their best. Much is at stake, from rapid land development, climate change, and depleting fisheries, to unprecedented and catastrophic drought in much of the West. Animals are going to go extinct and coastlines are going to erode. Homes, businesses, even our very health, is on the line. Our time is now; the planet needs us. So, seeking equilibrium in ourselves could be the winning formula for restoring it in nature. Nature depends on us, as much as we depend on it. We owe it to ourselves and to our colleagues to reach for and sustain equilibrium.

Above all, it is critical that we forgive ourselves and adapt at those times when one part of our lives looms large at the expense of another. There is no perfect balance or proportion at any given moment. It’s a dynamic.  The key is to be adaptive and maintain your own equilibrium. Perhaps approaching things this way can be calming.

Coastal wetlands may give us the best metaphor yet. Mangroves get tattered and beaten up after a storm, but they absorb and dissipate destructive forces while providing nursery grounds for myriad young marine life. They are resilient. So are we.

Despite the storms of our lives, we can find calm and be our very best selves inside the office or at home with our families. The plants, animals and people on this planet need us to do just that.

Kristine Zeigler is the Director of Philanthropy for The Nature Conservancy in California and is one of five female members of a nine-person Leadership Team.

Lynn Lozier is the ConservationTrack Program Director in the Conservation Investments Department at The Nature Conservancy in California. She is also a coach and trainer in teamwork and team leadership.