Archive for 2009 September

Stink-Eye from a Deer


The Federal government took control of Yosemite Valley in 1890, the second chapter of The National Parks documentary reminds us, and prohibited all hunting.

So it’s been twenty or more generations since a deer in Yosemite Valley has encountered a human with the intent to kill. They have less fear of us than we have of bubonic plague. 

It's almost like a kind of arrogance. Look at this guy! I'm just trying to get back to the valley after a trip up Yosemite Falls and out to Eagle Rock. He's hanging out on the trail, with no particular place to go, but no interest in getting out of my way. 

Swear to God, this deer is giving me what local saint Kim Maxwell likes to call "the stink eye" of total disdain and disinterest. Tell me I'm wrong…

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Overheard in Bakersfield (new edition)

According to the Internet, there already is an Overheard in Bakersfield site, but the only comment on the site is the subhhead — “It’s not THAT bad.”

Well, I am here briefly today to report that in fact there is a lot of good dialogue to be overheard at the In-and-Out in Bakersfield.

This is partly a test of blogging-by-phone, which hundreds of millions of others perhaps have already accomplished via Twitter perhaps…but nonetheless I still think it's enjoyable and fair to engaging in quiet overhearing in a public space. 

People so often speak so concisely!

A little girl, perhaps four or five, looking at her dad’s hand:

It’s so cracked…

A charismatic young guy, Latino, short but good-looking, who told his buddies that his mother had fallen in to a really deep depression after his older brother had been incarcerated. Like two years.


Earlier he had kiddingly confronted a buddy who I guess was complaining about something:

Why you cry?

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Battle of the Climate Headlines: Wa-Po vs. WSJ

From the Washington Post, yesterday:

New Analysis Brings Dire Forecast Of 6.3-Degree Temperature Increase

Climate researchers now predict the planet will warm by 6.3 degrees
Fahrenheit by the end of the century even if the world's leaders
fulfill their most ambitious climate pledges, a much faster and broader
scale of change than forecast just two years ago, according to a report released Thursday by the United Nations Environment Program.

From the Wall Street Journal, today:

Leaders Drop Climate Deadlines

Prospects for securing a global agreement this year to attack climate
change dimmed Friday, as the Group of 20 largest economies asked their
finance ministers for a "range of possible options" to finance
deployment of technology to curb greenhouse gases, but dropped demands
that a final proposal be drafted before the world climate summit in
Copenhagen in December.

Regardless of the climactic trends, the political trend is all too obvious.

Doesn't put our species in a good light, to  do nothing as the world melts.

Guess that's obvious — sorry.

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A Hymn to the Parks (behind the scenes with Ken Burns)

Those who like "behind the scenes" type looks will enjoy a profile of Ken Burns' friend and documentary co-writer, Dayton Duncan, available through The Pennsylvania Gazette. The research Duncan and Burns brought to the subject of the national parks impresses. Here's Duncan on John Muir's persuasive powers:

“John Muir was an eloquent person, but the reason that those early parks were created was not his eloquence; it was because the railroad lobby was working the halls of Congress. They thought, ‘Here’s a scenic attraction that will help our ridership,’ and eventually they said, ‘and maybe we can control what goes on inside the park and make even more money.’” 

Hmmm…be interesting to see how that attitude plays in Muir's stomping grounds. 

Check back Monday morning — I'll report on just that, from Yosemite National Park, where they have scheduled a public showing, with a couple of local experts to answer questions. 

Here's the sawmill where Muir worked in Yosemite, from the doc: 

John's sawmill

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A Greatness to the American Spirit: Forever Wild

From Terry Tempest Williams, these are the words that open a new documentary on the Wilderness Act, Forever Wild:

If there is a greatness to the American spirit, a spirit aligned with freedom and faith, surely its origins are to be found in the expanse of landscapes that have nurtured us…. Raw, wild beauty is a deeply held American value. It is its own declaration of independence. Equality is experienced through humility. Liberty is expressed through the simple act of wandering.

Amen to that. And amen to the doc itself, which shows the extraordinary-yet-undramatic heroism of a few individuals who brought vast landscapes of  beauty beyond measure under the protection of law. It’s inspiring to see how much a handful of people can accomplish, and it’s also a reminder of how powerful beauty itself can be.

Seemingly beauty can’t speak for itself…or can it?

John Krist, of the Ventura County Star, on the fortieth anniversary of the Wilderness Act, put it quite well a few years ago, calling it “the most striking example of legislative eloquence in the past century,” and quoting its famous first sentence:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.

The doc will serve as the lead-in for Ken Burns’ epochal series on the national parks, running this week. More on that soon, but this one is well worth a look in its own right.

The point is, you don’t have to be famous to preserve wilderness. (Though you do have to work, and plenty hard..) Down here in Ventura  county, friends Alasdair Coyne and Dave White launched an org, Keep the Sespe Wild, that went on to preserve a great deal of the Sespe…and  blessedly so. Here’s another of the wild places saved by ordinary Americans…the Maroon Wilderness. Check it out on Sunday, before the Burns’ series.


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Can’t They See the World’s on Fire?

We haven't even reached the real Santa Ana season yet, and yet the hellish feeling of being trapped in a SoCal with a conflagration at our backs is all too with us these days. Even if it's not true at this moment.

So instead of posting about climate change again (oh gawd) I'm going to post a wistful song about the SoCal wildfire season, just discovered via the often-amazing Aquarium Drunkard, in this case a jaw-droppingly great compilation of early Laurel Canyon rock called L.A. Burnout.

Which includes numerous famous hits — "For the Roses," "L.A. Freeway," and "It Never Rains in California" — but also includes a lot of wonderful songs I missed the first time around, including the Mamas and the Papas' "Safe in My Garden" and Neil Young's "Revolution Blues," which sounds like the Charlie Manson story.

Here's the wistful one:

Safe In My Garden

The chorus seems all too appropriate:

When you go out in the street,
So many hassles with the heat;
No one there can fill your desire.
Cops out with the megaphones,
Telling people stay inside their home.
Man, can't they see the world's on fire?

Somebody take us away…take us away…


When will it never rain in Southern California again?


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SoCal Megadroughts and Megafires: Caused by Climate Change?

On an insufferably hot Santa Ana condition day in SoCal, it’s worth asking if the fire season we face this year is directly linked to the lack of rain we’ve experienced for the last three years, and, more broadly, from the “megadrought” identified by numerous researchers this century.

Here’s what that long-term drought looks like in graphic form. The chart comes from a huge and challenging study by SoCal fire expert Jon Keeley at the USGS, available on his page, called Large, high-intensity fire events in southern California shrublands: debunking the fire-grain age patch model.


Looks pretty ominous doesn’t it? Roughly speaking, a sixty-year drought.

But Keeley, who in the paper points out that decades-long droughts and monster fires have occured in SoCal well before the American way of life took hold on this land, stresses that it’s too soon to say whether or not climate change is responsible for the megadroughts and megafires:

Whether or not these extraordinary droughts and the
fires accompanying them are due to anthropogenically
induced climate change, as may be the case in high
elevation western forests (Westerling et al. 2006), is not
known. We contend that there is a causal
relationship between this drought and the large number
of megafires in recent years, but it is too early to
tell if this drought is part of an anthropogenically driven
climate change induced trajectory of continued drought,
or part of a natural cycle.

Keeley and his co-authors go on to warn that climate change is probably making things worse overall in SoCal, but they certainly defy the cliche of researchers eager to attribute all disasters to global warming.

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Australian Winter Turns Apocalyptic: Global Warming Blamed

Is my headline an exaggeration of reality? 

If you ask a denier site such as Watts Up With That, no doubt they would scoff, and say it's the usual natural variability.

But deniers not only ignore the bad news about global warming obvious to most people on the ground, in places like Sydney and SoCal, they cynically mislead shamefully often.

For instance, in this headline they misquote Bill Patzert of the Jet Propulsion Lab to imply that he questions the reality of global warming, though Patzert has made amply clear to myself and countless other reporters that global warming is a reality of the utmost seriousness, and the author of the post no doubt knows that.

It's sunspots, Watts Up says. Has nothing to do with the atmosphere.

Well, here's a chance to take a look and judge for yourself.

Here's the news from Sydney today, via the BBC:

Australia has experienced its warmest August on record amid soaring winter temperatures.

Climatologists have blamed both the effects of climate change and natural variability.

Australia's Bureau of Meteorology says that August was a "most extraordinary month" with mean temperatures 2.47C above the long-term average.

August in Australia culminated in a record-breaking heat-wave across much of the continent.

In the Queensland town of Bedourie the temperature reached 38.5C. [101F]

Elsewhere, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia have had their warmest winters on record.

That's right: winter.

101.3 doesn't sound so bad…for August. But what if it were February? 

Here's a graph that goes with the story, showing a slight temp trend for Oz winters:


But the irony in the story is found in the caption under the photo at the top of the page: 

Rivers are dry in some areas, and people have been enjoying unusually hot days.


Probably that was the work of some photo editor back in London, who for some reason felt compelled to obscure the nightmarish scene that was Sydney today.

Here's what Sydney really looked like, according to resident Tomhide via Flickr.



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El Nino or El Fizzle?

This year’s boy child is looking considerably less robust than advertised just three months ago. From a typically excellent story by Rob Krier in the San Diego Union Tribune:

Anyone counting on El Niño to wipe out California’s drought this winter may be counting chickens long before they’ve hatched.

Long-range forecasters are less and less bullish about El Niño, a
global atmospheric condition that could bring extra precipitation to
San Diego County.

Most of them say the odds still slightly favor a wetter-than-normal
rainfall season in California, which could use a drenching after three
straight years of drought. But the fledgling El Niño is showing signs
of losing steam.

Gary Robbins, a science writer for the Orange County Register, had a chat about it with Bill Patzert, SoCal’s leading forecaster, who called this year’s boychild “El Fizzle.” Patzert told him, via email:

“At this time, it is a long shot for this El Nino to expand and
intensify into the fall and elevate the present weak to moderate El
Niño episode to a stronger event. For comparison, the
August 21, 1997, TOPEX/Poseidon image of the macho 1997-1998 El Nino is
included here. In size and intensity it dwarfs the present conditions.”

For the meteorologically challenged, Patzert sent along a couple of images from the TOPEX/Poseidon satellites he’s been working with for years.

Here’s the Pacific today, with a mild band of warming across the equator:


And here’s the Pacific back in the summer of 97-98, the last monster boychild:


It’s a real shame for Ventura County. Not only are we dangerously dry, but we actually now have the capacity to shore a great deal of water, to help through drought times…if it would every really rain.

Speaking of which, here’s the conclusion to an extremely thoughtful story about California water politics by Timm Herdt in the Ventura County Star, a week or so ago:

Something else that’s changed is the ability of Southern California
water agencies to store water. Because of that, they would be able to
get maximum benefit from a system capable of delivering more water
during wet years, even if it did not divert additional fresh water from
the delta during dry or normal rainfall years.

[Donald] Kendall notes that the Calleguas [Water District for Ventura County] has spent $9 million on a groundwater
storage project capable of holding 300,000 acre-feet of water, but it’s
never been more than one-third filled. “Now they’re telling us, ‘We
don’t have any winter water for you to store.’ ”

The bills being negotiated by the conference committee would create
a Delta Stewardship Council that would be empowered to make decisions
about new conveyance systems. The hope is to take such decisions out of
the realm of politics and into the realm of science instead.

Kendall said the only hope for a solution is a plan that does not reignite all the old wars.

“If they can come up with a plan that doesn’t smack of North-South
politics, I’ll be cautiously optimistic,” he said. “We’d be very happy.”

Herdt’s story was written before the collapse of negotiations in Sacramento. Legislators were trying to agree on a “Delta fix.” Unless the Governor calls a special session, it won’t happen this year. Sigh.

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An Unrepentant Realist: Rackstraw Downes

Perhaps the most interesting name amongst the list of MacArthur Fellows — aka official geniuses — announced today is the realist painter Rackstraw Downes, known for his exacting portrayal of unbeautiful landscapes.

Interesting to yours truly because if art is about opening our eyes to see afresh, what better means that to show us exactly what we see but refuse to look at?

Peter Schjeldahl has a typically brilliant and unusually effusive review available, fortunately, through the New Yorker site here. The whole piece is recommended, but here's the first paragraph:

Rackstraw Downes, the veteran painter of landscapes and urban places, is
a realist esteemed by people, including me, who normally have scant use
for realism in art. His current show, of work from 1999 to 2004, at the
new Betty Cuningham Gallery, is powerful in quiet, stubborn ways. The
subjects include a viaduct in Harlem, a flood-monitoring station on the
Rio Grande, a Texas desert, electrical substations in that desert, and
metal ductwork in a large, dark attic. The look of the pictures, most
of them panoramas, is luminous but taciturn: just the facts. Their
surfaces are fine crusts of dry, oil-starved pigment, applied in sober
little strokes and patches. The tonality is so uniform that the color,
though extremely varied, turns almost monochrome in memory. “I want to
paint exactly the way something is,” Downes said to me recently. “If
that means dulling down the green, then dull it down. Find the beauty
in that.” The pressure of scrutiny in his pictures yields a revelation
not only of how the world looks but of how the eye—unaided by
photography, which Downes pointedly never uses—toils to behold it.

And here's a painting called "In the High Island oil field, late afternoon, March."

In the High Island oil field by rackstraw downes

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