This winter turned out to be a very good year for precipitation in the state of California, as experts working with the California Department of Water Resources kind of predicted last fall. This means that right now, in July of 2019, the John Muir Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail through the High Sierra from the Mt. Whitney area to the Yosemite Wilderness is buried under deep snow everywhere above 11,000 feet. That means for most of over 150 miles the trail cannot be seen by walkers except in the tracks of those who have gone before, if they have gone before. This means rookie thru-hikers on the trail right now are “post-holing” — walking in heavy snow day after day and often before dawn through miles of snow, working up to the passes of Forester, Glen, Pinchot, Mather, Muir, Silver and more, but (for me at least) Mather especially haunts the memory.
This means getting lost, probably, and slushing down snowy slopes, and taking a deep breath before deep stream crossings at places like Evolution Creek. It means risking having a snow bridge over icemelt collapse and drop you into a torrent, as sadly happened in that era to a great wilderness ranger. For a lot of people, including the notorious Cheryl Strayed, back in 1995, it means skipping the Sierra entirely. And yes, as someone who walked those snowy passes and scary ridges in 1995, it was dangerous. Somewhat. Hard to say. On Mather Pass, for example, it’s so wet and steep and chaotic that it’s unclear if it’s safer trying to follow the trail switchbacking across the cliff face or going down a snowy face where you’re not likely to fall far.
But it’s such a great adventure, and so so beautiful. I’ve been following and loving all sorts of posts from Instagram hikers this year, I admit, and encouraging excited but nervous hikers to go for the Sierra, despite the risks. It’s a once in a lifetime adventure. Enough — even seen vicariously — to take your breath away.
It’s truly a different world up there, and I’m so happy to have seen it in its virgin glory. This one’s from Nick_Hikes, in the Cottonwood Pass area (near Whitney) in the underappreciated southern Sierra.
This (below) is the western side of the Whitney Crest, I believe, with the walls of Mt Hitchcock looming awesomely to the south and west. From ElizabethAnn128.
Denizens of the southern Sierra will probably recognize Rae Lakes in this picture, but have you ever seen it more spectacularly depicted (despite an apparent lack of processing) by Jon Schwarze?
I think you can see how thrilling it is to be up there on top of California in the adventures of people posting from the trail this week, such as adventuresofdotdot, from the top of Muir Pass at dawn:
Soul-making is like any other imaginative activity. It requires crafting, just as does politics, agriculture, the arts, love relations, war, or the winning of any natural resource. What is given won’t get us through; something must be made of it.
From The Dream and the Underworld, by James Hillman, a deeply informed exploration of the depths of the dream, the uses and abuses of dreaming. He suggests the elusive and barely glimpsed quality of the dream is the dream’s way to stay free, and avoid the knowing thinking self. The dream has its own reasons, in other words, its own methods. You have to work with it to understand yourself, and where you stand in the universe.
An enthralling book for dreamers curious to explore the link between dreaming, the soul, and consciousness.
This book was recommended reading for the marvelous, wonderful, strange, enthralling Great Mother Conference for 2019, which I was fortunate to attend with many other wonderful people.
Extraordinary times deserve extraordinary writing. Elizabeth Breunig rises to the occasion, speaking of the two heroic young men, Riley Howell and Kendrick Castiloo, who died attacking school shooters, saving lives, living up to their moment.
From the Washington Post:
You can determine the excesses of an era by its martyrs. Essential to the story of a martyr is that they did not wish to die but rather chose or accepted death over some unacceptable alternative. The alternative — the thing being selected against — contains the fervor of the age, and it signs its name in the blood of martyrs.
You won’t be sorry if you read the whole thing.
News from around the Ojai Valley
- Published: Friday, 22 March 2019 08:48
From David Wallace-Wells’ just published The Uninhabitable Earth:
“Over the last few years, as the planet’s own environmental rhythms have seemed to grow more fatalistic, skeptics have found themselves arguing not that climate change isn’t happening, since extreme weather has made that undeniable, but that its causes are unclear — suggesting that the changes we are seeing are the result of natural cycles rather than human activities and interventions. It is a very strange argument; if the planet is warming at a terrifying pace and on a horrifying scale, it should transparently concern us more, rather than less, that the warming is beyond our control, possibly even our comprehension.”
One of the most compelling aspects of The Uninhabitable Earth turns out to be the fact that the text includes no illustrating pictures or graphs or anything of that sort, be it artistic or scientific.
It is worth mentioning that the New York magazine version of story Wallace-Wells first told back in July 2017 did have imaginative (not scientific) graphics, swhich were memorable if controversial among some.
But none of that in this book. Nada. Zilch. Not one image in the entire volume.
So, to honor that essayistic apprach, I think I’ll include some memorable qutoes while reading this — without illustration. [p31, from the introduction, which is called “Cascades.”]
(No “Death by Powerpoint” presentation here.)
Worth Mentioning: for a great podcast version of this, “the biggest stry in the world,” see David Roberts of Vox’s interview of David Wallace-Wells, author of this um terrifying book.
A couple of years ago I worked hard on a story about a hugely important study from Daniel Swain et al on the all-too-likely re-occurence of the Great California Flood. For personal reasons nothing came of my story, but eventually the news did break in a big (Los Angeles Times) and accessible (Science Friday) sort of way, and that’s great.
But from my perspective, the underlying lesson of Swain’s important study (which is actually bolstered by a great deal of other research on how our climate in California is becoming more extreme, both in terms of heat and drought and in terms of rain and snow) is that the “normal” world we have become accustomed to over the decades of our lives…is going away. May be gone already.
This crucial and not-understood fact came out in a compelling conversation between David Wallace-Wells on his new book, The Uninhabitable Earth, and David Roberts, the excellent climate and energy analyst from Vox.
Here’s the back and forth:
Wallace-Wells: This [our climate] is not a new normal. We’re entering into a long time period where nothing will ever be the same, everything will always be changing.
Roberts: A permanent loss of normal. I think that’s the way to put it.
And here’s the podcast (with Roberts sitting in for Ezra Klein). My highest rec:
And here’s the chart version from Swain’s study, written up here on his blog:
This week a Dutch cartoonist with beauty dramatized a horrifying new study warning of “the collapse of nature.”
Yes, that statement seems extreme, but the art contextualizes it as form of suicide. Or even worse, as a form of ecocide-suicide.
First our species exterminates the insects, and then their decline unravels nature.
The study, freely available from the Biological Conservation journal, warns that this decline “may lead to the extinction of 40% of the world’s insect species over the next few decades.”
The very first genus threatened with extinction, according to the study? “Butterflies.”
This brings to mind the monarch butterfly, perhaps the best-known of all butterflies, the insect with the most astonishing migration in all the world. No matter how many times you’ve heard the story, it’s astonishing. The monarch travels annually from Mexico all the way to the far north. It’s a journey that can at its extremes encompass four or even five generations.
But the news from California is not good. The western population of this spectacular, iconic, and evolutionarily brilliant creature is in freefall. It’s fallen, according to the Xerces Society. from an estimated 1.2 million twenty years ago to approximately 30,000 this year. That’s down about 86%.
For a magazine I’m attempting to localize this story, and I must say I’m getting pushback. A fifth-generation farmer I talked to said he hasn’t seen it in his work. A veteran science writer reports on a methodological complaint about the analysis.This analysis reached its estimate by looking at papers reporting on insect declines, but did not do an overall cross-section study on a location.
For The Atlantic, Ed Yong reports:
For those reasons, it’s hard to take the widely quoted numbers from Sánchez-Bayo and Wyckhuys’s review as gospel. They say that 41 percent of insect species are declining and that global numbers are falling by 2.5 percent a year, but “they’re trying to quantify things that we really can’t quantify at this point,” says Michelle Trautwein from the California Academy of Sciences. “I understand the desire to put numbers to these things to facilitate the conversation, but I would say all of those are built on mountains of unknown facts.”
Still, “our approach shouldn’t be to downplay these findings to console ourselves,” Trautwein adds. “I don’t see real danger in overstating the possible severity of insect decline, but there is real danger in underestimating how bad things really are. These studies aren’t perfect, but we’d be wise to heed this warning now instead of waiting for cleaner studies.”
Hmmm. From a rudimentary windshield survey of driving in California friends and I would say that the sheer number of insects is vastly reduced.
Should we not be alarmed because the perfect study has yet to be published? Maybe I need to find someone in California who is attempting to look at this question.
In December, the scientist who — probably more than any other individual — brought ocean acidification to the attention of the world, Ken Caldeira, gave a named lecture to the huge science conference known as the AGU (officially, the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union). He spoke on the legacy of Carl Sagan, and as transcribed today on his blog, pointed out that during his life Sagan did look at the central question posed by climate change: how long can we expect to enjoy the benefits of this lovely planet? Are we doomed to fatally foul our planetary nest?
Despite his influence and his learning, Caldeira speaks in an unpretentious, calm, and informal manner. He wondered out loud:
How hard is it to destroy modern civilization? — This shows up in the global change discussion a lot. There’s a lot of people who think that global warming is an existential threat to modern civilization. And other people think we’re going to just muddle through. And it’s going to be a cost on society. It will be an existential for some people who lose their livelihood or lose their lives, but as a civilization it’s a challenge but not an existential threat. I tend to be on that side of things.
This was interesting, but not very motivating to me, well versed in climate issues, but weary of their overwhelming heaviness. But in answer to a question, speaking of Carl Sagan, Caldiera quoted a thought from the French existentialist Camus (writing in “The Myth of Sisyphus”) that put this struggle in a more helpful context. He pointed out that to Camus, Sisyphus embodied the absurdity of human life on earth, but also the commitment of humans to the struggle. In the essay Camus focused on that moment after Sisyphus has rolled and pushed and sweated the stone to the summit, only to watch as it again tumbles down the mountain.
It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me [Camus writes]…. I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step towards the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks towards the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock. […]
I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. The universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Caldeira rephrases this message for our time this way:
…we are heavily culturally influenced. Camus, who Sagan was reading, had written about imagining Sisyphus as happy pushing that stone up the hill. And that you wonder about the people who built the Nortre Dame cathedral as a multi-generational project that was aspirational towards some idea of permanence. Are these are sort of serfs working on this thing and just because they need to get money for food or did this gave people meaning to people to lug these stones and build Notre Dame. We can get collective me out of a project that would be positive for all of humanity and that in a way this sort of economics and even evolutionary theory emphasizing self-interest and narrow personal gain ….
I think a lot of us are motivated by approval of our peers, by wanting a feeling of meaning in our lives and so on. And not everything we do is narrowly self-interested. And maybe if in our culture we tried to emphasize more doing things for the public good that maybe more people would start doing things for the public good.
In its think-y way, this example inspires. Of course the struggle seems overwhelming, exhausting, and futile, But seen in a social context, the struggle is what gives our lives meaning. This painting from Sandro Chia, in the Museum of Modern Art, expresses this idea memorably I think:
It’s Sisyphus’s work and he’s accepted it: in Camus’s words, describing his heroism: “His rock is his thing.”
We all have our own rocks. Perhaps today climate stabilizing is our culture’s rock.
From Saul Bellow, in an essay from 1975, published in Critical Inquiry:
“We are in a state of radical distraction,” he writes in “A World Too Much with Us,” an essay for the journal Critical Inquiry, in 1975, the same year Humboldt’s Gift appears. “I don’t see how we can be blind to the political character of our so-called ‘consumer’ societies. Each of us stands in the middle of things, exposed to the great public noise…All minds are preoccupied with terror, crime, the instability of cities, the future of nations, crumbling empires, foundering currencies, the poisoning of nature…To recite the list is itself unsettling.” (T.S. Eliot could no longer read the daily paper, Bellow writes. “It was too exciting.”)
Pic from the NYTimes review, showing Bellow on the subway in that same year of 1975.