Archive for 2013 August

Seamus Heaney: The main thing is to write for the joy of it

The New York Times gives half its front page to Seamus Heaney on the occasion of his death, and deservedly so, but my favorite remembrance comes from Ojai's lost poet, Robert Peake, gone to London and good for him, and good for beginning the memory of a poet with, yes, one of his poems:

Then I knew him in the flesh
out there on the tarmac among the cars,
wintered hard and sharp as a blackthorn bush.

His voice eddying with the vowels of all rivers
came back to me, though he did not speak yet,
a voice like a prosecutor’s or a singer’s,

cunning, narcotic, mimic, definite
as a steel nib’s downstroke, quick and clean,
and suddenly he hit a litter basket

with his stick, saying, ‘your obligation
is not discharged by any common rite.
What you do you must do on your own.

The main thing is to write
for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust
that imagines its haven like your hands at night

dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast.
You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous.
Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest,

so ready for the sackcloth and the ashes.
Let go, let fly, forget.
You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.’

It was as if I had stepped free into space
alone with nothing that I had not known
already. Raindrops blew in my face (Opened Ground, 244-245)

Yes. Step forward. Thank you Robert, and thank you Seamus, for striking your note. 



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The Rim fire near Yosmite: Disaster, restoration, or — ?

Haven't posted on the Rim Fire, which has been burning for nearly two weeks on the western slope of the Sierras, not far from Yosemite National Park. Big destructive fires trouble me, and the conventional wisdom on wildfire is that climate change will make matters worse, and, frankly, that's part of the reason I didn't rush to post on this one — didn't want to go down that road blindly.

As the fire continued to burn, a prominent forest advocate, Chad Hanson, came forward with an essay in Earth Island Journal in which he argues that, contrary to those sort of fears, this kind of "high-intensity" fire is exactly what the Sierra and its wild creatures and plants need. To wit:

The fire, which is currently [301,000] acres in size and covers portions of the Stanislaus National Forest and the northwestern corner of Yosemite National Park, has been consistently described as “catastrophic”, “destructive”, and “devastating.” One story featured a quote from a local man who said he expected “nothing to be left”. However, if we can, for a moment, set aside the fear, the panic, and the decades of misunderstanding about wildland fires in our forests, it turns out that the facts differ dramatically from the popular misconceptions. The Rim fire is a good thing for the health of the forest ecosystem. It is not devastation, or loss. It is ecological restoration.

Hanson has a point. The forest ecology of California depends on fire, and always has, and those who understand it, as the Native Americans did, see it less as fearful than useful. Or even beautiful. Here's a description of a fire sweeping up from the foothills into forests by John Muir, who stopped on a journey into the Kaweah in the Southern Sierra to admire the work being done.

(Thanks to Harold Wood and the John Muir Exhibit for tracking down this quote from Our National Parks)

I met a great fire, and as fire is the master scourge and controller of the distribution of trees, I stopped to watch it and learn what I could of its works and ways with the giants [Giant Sequoia]. It came racing up the steep chaparral-covered slopes of the East Fork cañon with passionate enthusiasm in a broad cataract of flames, now bending down low to feed on the green bushes, devouring acres of them at a breath, now towering high in the air as if looking abroad to choose a way, then stooping to feed again, the lurid flapping surges and the smoke and terrible rushing and roaring hiding all that is gentle and orderly in the work. But as soon as the deep forest was reached the ungovernable flood became calm like a torrent entering a lake, creeping and spreading beneath the trees where the ground was level or sloped gently, slowly nibbling the cake of compressed needles and scales with flames an inch high, rising here and there to a foot or two on dry twigs and clumps of small bushes and brome grass

But in that passage Muir subtly makes a distinction between a ground fire, which doesn't threaten great old sequoias, and a crown fire in the tops of the trees, which travels fast, and can destroy any kind of tree, according to the experts. The not-good fires the experts feared have come to us today.

Maggie Stevens gives us just Nine Scary Facts about Rim Fire, in a fast Buzzfeed-style explainer for Mother Jones, and yes, it's scary. Tens of thousands of acres burning, and every indication that this is connected to the fact that this has been the driest year in recorded history in California. Tom Swetnam, a fire expert at the University of Arizona, has a talk on this subject from April of this year, in which he includes a graph of spring temperatures in the Western U.S., showing a huge spike in recent years. 

Spring temperatures are really important in forests. If you have a warmer spring, the snow melts, and the water runs off, the fuels dry out, and the forests dry out, and wildfires occur. You can see this in the records, ever since l985, and 2012 really smashed the record of warm springs set in l910. Incidentally, in l910 we had enormous wildfires in the Western states, with more than a million acres burned in the Rocky Mountains, and more than eighty people killed. 

Does Hanson accept this? Not really. He speaks of the importance of snag forest habitat for biodiversity, mentioning the black-backed woodpecker evolved to hunt for beetle larvae in burned forests, but scoffs at the end that we are seeing a fundamental change. 

These are species that have evolved to depend upon the many habitat features in snag forest — habitat that cannot be created by any other means. Further, high-intensity fire is not increasing currently, according to most studies (and contrary to widespread assumptions), and our forests are getting wetter, not drier (according to every study that has empirically investigated this question), so we cannot afford to be cavalier and assume that there will be more fire in the future, despite fire suppression efforts.  We will need to purposefully allow more fires to burn, especially in the more remote forests.

He ignores spring temperatures, and the fact that as the climate warms, the Sierra will receive more water as rain and less as snow, evidently assuming that all "wetness" is equal.  

So, there is no ecological reason to fear or lament fires like the Rim fire, especially in an era of ongoing fire deficit. 

Or: "All is for the best, in this best of all [ecologically] possible worlds, as Pangloss said. Sort of. 


Really? Wish I could be so doubtless. The experts polled by Wired paint a more nuanced picture.

Some parts of Yosemite may be radically altered, entering entire new ecological states. Yet others may be restored to historical conditions that prevailed for for thousands of years from the last Ice Age’s end until the 19th century, when short-sighted fire management disrupted natural fire cycles and transformed the landscape.

In certain areas, “you could absolutely consider it a rebooting, getting the system back to the way it used to be,” said fire ecologist Andrea Thode of Northern Arizona University. “But where there’s a high-severity fire in a system that wasn’t used to having high-severity fires, you’re creating a new system.”

But the possibility that this is not an unmitigated disaster does allow me to appreciate artist friend Barbara Medaille's painting of fire (posted recently on fb) called Crowning


So that's something. The Rim Fire's awesomeness cannot be doubted. 

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Remembering the March on Washington: Dylan and Baez

The 50th anniversary remembrance of Dr. King‘s famous March on Washington raised some questions. Kevin Drum (and Chris Matthews) wondered why the Republican party, despite much effort, could not find a single speaker willing to be associated with Dr. King, the great black man who spoke for justice and equality.

And ever-thoughtful Randy Lewis for the Los Angeles Times’ pop music blog wondered why no singers or musicians comparable in stature to Bob Dylan and Joan Baez back in the day could be found on the dias.

Good questions both. Reminds this listener of what Joan Baez said about the first song she and Dylan sang that day, When the Ship Comes In, In a 2005 documentary about Dylan, No Direction Home, directed by Martin Scorcese, Baez said that it came out of an episode when a nice hotel (where she had been booked) wouldn’t give Dylan a room because he looked scruffy. He stormed off and wrote the song in a single night. In a rage, she added, but he turned that to good use in the lyrics:

A song will lift

As the mainsail shifts

And the boat drifts on to the shoreline

And the sun will respect

Every face on the deck

The hour that the ship comes in

Then the sands will roll

Out a carpet of gold

For your weary toes to be a-touchin’

And the ship’s wise men

Will remind you once again

That the whole wide world is watchin’

In the documentary Dylan said he had no idea he wrote an anthem with “Blowin’ in the Wind.”  If true, that means that anthems (and great turns of phrase, like “the whole world is watching,” a chant from the demonstrations and police riot in Chicago in l968), came naturally to him, that dang genius. 

Despite the crude recording and staging, his performance with Baez and other folks singers that day before hundreds of thousands of people is quite moving. And i’ts amazing that he had just written these tough songs, one on tour with civil rights marchers in the South, some of which he hadn’t even recorded. 

Which is not to overlook MLK and his incomparable “I have a dream” speech, available not in video but in a transcript, with so many memorable turns of phrase, such as:

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

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“The eye of Michelle Bachman will be hitting Florida in a few hours…”

Gotta love those who can make it all funny…like the folks at Climate Name Change: 

Thank you

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Quakes strike fracked oil reserve in Ireland, Gov Says

Here's some news about fracking and earthquakes in Ireland:

The largest earthquakes since 1843 have been confirmed by the British Geological Survey in the same area of the Irish Sea that suffered tremors directly linked to shale gas fracking.

The two quakes occurred on Sunday morning with a magnitude 3.2 ML earthquake recorded at 10.58am, preceded by a magnitude 2.4 ML foreshock at 6.37am in the same location off the Fylde Coast, 25km west of Fleetwood, Lancashire.

Seismologists at the British Geological Survey confirmed today that both earthquakes were the largest to have occurred in the Irish Sea since a series of three tremors, with magnitudes ranging from 3.8 to 5, were recorded in March 1843.

To translate from the scientific/newspaperese: This is an area that almost never had earthquakes, and now after fracking they're happening frequently. 

To be fair, these aren't big quakes: 

One report described how the largest earthquake “felt as a low frequency swaying. Very short duration, no more than a second or two”, and another added: “sat at the computer, and the desk shook, an my stomach moved (a mild feeling like you get on a roller coaster just before a drop)”. 

Another report received by the British Geological Survey described: “it felt like the whole house moved south to north for a second and then I looked around and saw a large artificial tree shaking”, and another added: “sofa shook and keys were swinging in the door was sitting on chair which had vibrations going through it as well”.

But here's the really amazing part. The government found a link between the practice of fracking and the occurence of earthquakes, and ordered the company to stop fracking. (Well, almost.) 

In November 2011, the UK Government threatened to call a halt to controversial gas drilling in the area after independent geology reports confirmed a series of earthquakes the previous summer were linked to shale gas extraction.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) had warned gas company Cuadrilla Resources to follow the report recommendations, which connected fracking to two earth tremors that shook the Lancashire coastline in May.

Geologists reported the epicentre of one 1.5 magnitude quake on May 27 was within 500 yards of the well of the fracking operation and the second 2.3 tremor on April 1 originated less than two miles away.

The report “The Geo-mechanical Study of Bowland Shale Seismicity” claimed that there was little risk of future seismic events reoccurring in the Bowland Basin but proposed a series of mitigation measures in case of any future seismic activity.

This report was released after Cuadrilla was ordered to be fully open with the community about all the report findings.

Then the government ordered the oil company to be completely transparent in its operations! Given that the great state of California does not currently regulate fracking on its lands, it's kind of jaw-dropping. 

Here's a pic from a story about fracking on the North Coast of Ireland from veteran environmental reporter Geoffrey Lean:  


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Is it over for the blockbuster movie in Hollywood?

Back in June, director Steven Spielberg — who helped launch the mega blockbuster in Hollywood –surprised insiders by predicting that the era of the franchise/merchandizing movie was drawing to a close. 

As recounted by the acerbic Timothy Egan, in the NY Times:

Steven Spielberg, who nearly invented the summer blockbuster with “Jaws,” was ruminating about the future at a University of Southern California forum in June, with his old friend George Lucas.

“There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen of these mega-budgeted movies are going to go crashing into the ground,” he said at the time, “and that’s going to change the paradigm again.”

Well, it happened. At least a half-dozen of the biggest blimps, some costing $200 million or more, fell out of the sky this summer. But will a dose of capitalistic creative destruction stop Hollywood from making so many bad movies? Probably not. The bloated smash-em-ups — by one estimate, 129,000 people died in the final battle scene of the insipid Superman movie — still make money overseas, an incentive to keep manufacturing generic garbage. With “Fast and Furious 6” and “Iron Man 3” doing big numbers, this summer is boffo!

One of the survivors of the "summer of the big dud" that Egan describes is World War Z, which was extensively rewritten with a surprising third act that actually lowers the stakes. Script doctor Daniel Lindelof explained to New York's Vulture blog, admitting that he went for this only after a previous effort, expensively shot, fell flat: 

Hollywood’s gigantism, Lindelof points out, is practically algorithmic—and the effect tendrils all the way down to the storytelling level. When ever-larger sums are spent to make and market ever-fewer, ever-bigger movies, and those movies are aimed at Imax screens, then world-­shattering comic-book I.P. and gigantic special effects are expected, with larger-than-life characters wielding those effects. No one necessarily asks for it; it just kind of happens. It’s what Lindelof calls Story Gravity, and dealing with it—whether that means resisting it or simply surfing it skillfully—is the great challenge of writing this new breed of tentpole blockbuster. The question used to be: How do we top ourselves? The new one seems to be: How do we stop ourselves?

“Once you spend more than $100 million on a movie, you have to save the world,” explains Lindelof. “And when you start there, and basically say, I have to construct a MacGuffin based on if they shut off this, or they close this portal, or they deactivate this bomb, or they come up with this cure, it will save the world—you are very limited in terms of how you execute that. And in many ways, you can become a slave to it and, again, I make no excuses, I’m just saying you kind of have to start there. In the old days, it was just as satisfying that all Superman has to do was basically save Lois from this earthquake in California. The stakes in that movie are that the San Andreas Fault line opens up and half of California is going to fall in the ocean. That felt big enough, but there is a sense of bigger, better, faster, seen it before, done that.”

“It sounds sort of hacky and defensive to say, [but it’s] almost inescapable,” he continues. “It’s almost impossible to, for example, not have a final set piece where the fate of the free world is at stake."

Or, as Ryan Britt pointed out for a famous SF franchise, Tor:

The trailer for Star Trek Into Darkness is the new poster child for what can only be called the Big Franchise Film Epidemic. It presents a “story” which doesn’t seem remotely different from The Dark Knight Rises, or for that matter, Skyfall. Earth is under attack from a major asshole who is going to destroy everything the good guys hold dear and nothing will be the same anymore now that major asshole has blown everything up. (Remember how this also happened in the last Star Trek movie?) The bad guy is almost always going to be an English guy who is an awesome actor. If you can’t get Tom Hardy, get Tom Hiddleston. Or, if you’ve got the big J.J. Abrams guns, get Benedict Cumberbatch. If your main good guy is already English, find someone with a different accent. Is Javier Bardem around?

Skyfall, The Dark Knight Rises, and The Avengers are all eerily similar in structure.

It's not over for the franchises, as long as studios can make hundreds of millions of dollars pedaling forgettable battles to millions of non-English speakers (see Pacific Rim). But it's killing the business back here at home among the people who used to love movies for the insight they offered into heroism. 


Most interesting aspect of Pacific Rim was a backstory depicting a little girl in an industrial space standing up to an enormous monster terrorizing the city…very much like the jeopardized little girl character in The Host, an infinitely more imaginative (and funny!) monster movie from South Korea. 

The host

Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post piles on:

The summer of 2013 might be remembered best as the Season of the
Collapsing Tentpoles. As mega-budget spectacles such as “White House
Down,” “The Lone Ranger” and “After Earth” fell apart at the box office,
little engines that could — one with a name that was literally “Mud” —
proved they could not only survive the competition, but thrive.

True that: Mud has been the most successful of indy pics so far this year, bringing in $21.4 million. One critic described it as "Tennessee Williams lite," and it's been a delight for those of us who like old-fashioned movies, even if it has more gunplay than Williams would ever want to see.

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Are these clouds for me? (Sharman Russell)

This may be the most touching prose I've ever seen on Facebook, and of all subjects, it's about the natural world! An act of generosity from a pure writer who has published many books, including a recently wonderful one on Pantheism. But if you look, you'll see it's more than that:

Where an arroyo meets the dirt road, I stop
and look for tracks. A few feet up the stream bed is a nice set of
bobcat prints. There’s no mistaking that roundness, the leading toe, and
size of the front and back feet. I also see a fox print,
or maybe a small coyote. Foxes are on my mind since I saw three earlier
in the day, probably a mother and two kits who ran so quickly into the
brush I spent a few minutes questioning what I had seen. Foxes are rarer
since an outbreak of rabies some years ago. Was that a fox or a wish?

That’s one good thing about tracks. They stay there. You can admire
them for long minutes, imagining the animal who passed by, feeling the
tangible presence of a bobcat, a wild cat, short-tailed, ear-tufted,
delicately spotted, charismatic.

It’s another gift, the world showering us with gifts, the tail of a fox, tracks in the sand, clouds in the sky.

Are these clouds for me?


I feel the need to fall in love with the world, to forge that
relationship ever more strongly. But maybe I don’t have to work so hard.
Maybe the world is already in love, giving me these gifts all the time,
calling out all the time. I have thought nature indifferent to one more
human, to any human, but maybe the reverse is true. The world calls
out: take this. Take this. And this. And this. Don’t turn away.

From the inimitable Sharman Russell, a writer, thinker, and teacher. Thank you Sharman! 

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On the Road — in drawings by Paul Rogers

The beauty and power of On the Road has little or nothing to do with its plot, and everything to do with writer Jack Kerouac's desire to transmit directly to the reader his experience of the raw wild beauty of the American land and its people. Illustrator Paul Rogers has launched a long-term project to illustrate the book, with a drawing from every page, and, for a Saturday, how better to re-experience the shock of its directness, its neediness, its writerly fireworks. 

In no particular order, some fav drawings from the scrolls


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The plan to set off earthquakes on the San Andreas Fault

Published this week a story in the VCReporter on fracking and earthquakes. Much of this story is specific to Ventura County, but the opening I think is pretty darn universal. (Certainly for Californians it's memorable.) Think it's almost a "once upon a time" story, although of a scientific sort. 

From the days when we thought engineering, and geoengineering, could solve all our problems. 

The U.S. Army had a problem, a big problem: 165,000 gallons of some of the deadliest war materials known to man, including napalm, chlorine gas, mustard gas and sarin, a nerve gas developed by the Nazis, tiny doses of which can kill in minutes. After stockpiling these weapons of destruction for decades in its Rocky Mountain Arsenal near Denver, the government decided the time had come to dispose of the hazardous wastes but didn’t know how.

The solution? In l961, authorities drilled a well 12,000 feet deep, far below any aquifer, and over the next five years pumped hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic wastes into a cavity in the rock miles beneath the surface.

One problem: Not long after the pumping began, Denver and nearby suburbs began to experience swarms of earthquakes. Most of them were quite small, less than 3 in magnitude, but in a region that rarely experiences earthquakes, 1,300 earthquakes in four years raised questions. Then, in August 1967, a significant earthquake — magnitude 5.3 — shook the city of Denver and the nearby suburb of Commerce, with damages that totaled over $1 million.

The Army stopped pumping the toxic wastes into the injection well. Geologists discovered the liquids had been pumped into an existing fault deep in the “basement” rock. The fault had begun to lose strength and slip, even after the pumping stopped. 

For city officials, this was alarming, but geologists were intrigued to discover it was possible to trigger earthquakes along existing fault lines, and a team of scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey soon launched into an experiment in an oil field with known earthquake faults in Rangely, Colo. The goal? To learn what volume of fluid pressures were required to trigger earthquakes, and to see if seismic activity could be stimulated and then brought to a halt. The experiment worked, on a small scale, and encouraging results were reported in the journal Science in March of 1976.

“We may ultimately be able to control the timing and size of major earthquakes,” the team, led by C.B. Raleigh and J.H. Healy, speculated. They suggested drilling wells along the San Andreas Fault, and injecting water to release seismic pressures with little earthquakes. They hoped in this way to prevent the legendary “Big One,” an earthquake comparable to the massive and ruinous l906 San Francisco earthquake, which has a 3 percent to 30 percent chance of occurring in the next 30 years in California.

 “They actually proposed this idea, to drill wells and pump in water and trigger small earthquakes along the San Andreas,” said William Bilodeau, who chairs the geology department at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks. “And they got fairly far along in the planning process and then people began to say, ‘Wait a minute — what happens if we set off a really big earthquake? What’s the [legal] liability?’ ”


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Californians: Not so dumb after all

California's electrical use vs. the rest of the country, per capita:

[chart from the US Energy Information Administration]

Most analysts credit the state's aggressive push for green energy, insulation, and the other efficiency measures. After all, the state has some of the highest prices in the country. But some wonks disagree

Don't they always? 

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