This past week I completed Section E of the Pacific Crest Trail, which goes for about 112 miles from Agua Dulce (north of Los Angeles) to an exit off Hwy 58 (north of Mojave). Man is it a tough section. Here's my fave picture. After hiking for approximately twelve miles with approximately 1-2 liters of water (long story -- not all my fault) through the harsh, barren, burned Tehachapi Mountains I I came, wonder of all wonders, across a water stop, complete with a box full of water bottles in a burned tree.
I was so relieved -- and so grateful to trail saints Larry and Daniel (who left an identifying sign).
Still, the effort appears to have gotten to me. I'm happy to have completed this section --but now I kind of wonder how I did it.
Part of what the Ojai Chautauqua tries to do every couple of months is bring out information regarding complex topics, which is what I tried to do in part as a moderator this past Sunday for a panel on fracking.
What did we learn? Well, here's one item, from Kimberly Rivers story in the Ojai Valley News this yesterday.
In contrast to Anne Kallas' story in the Ventura County Star, mentioned last time, this time Rivers doesn't find a consensus in the panel around a need for transparency.
She focuses more on the geology, and on the increased volume of wastewater.
A couple of excerpts. One, we get a close-up look at the geology from a UCSB geophysicist named Craig Nicholson, who was the first guy I wanted on the panel, a real honest-to-God scientist:
Nicholson pointed out that because of California's many faults, the rocks are already fractured quite a bit -- actually reducing the need to use processes like fracking, which break the rock to get the oil out.
"Because of the natural fractures that already occur in California, fracking has never been a major component of producing oil and gas in California," Nicholson said.
[Nicholson said] fracking has increased in the last ten to fifteen years.
"California geology is way more complicated than other parts of the country where fracking is used. California always has more problems."
[I'm standing: Craig is seated four chairs away from me, second to the far left]
Over the last four or so months I put together a panel on fracking for the Ojai Chautauqua, a centrist group that holds public forums/discussions on controversial issues at the Ojai Valley Inn. (Think I'm beginning to learn how to do it: This is the third such panel I put together this year, and the second I moderated.)
What happened? General agreement among panelists: more transparency please.
One of the panelists, a former petroleum engineer named Don Clarke, who has been touring the country for the Obama administration and the National Academy of Sciences on the subject of induced seismicity and fracking/injection wells, introduced a concept he picked up in Canada -- the Social License to Operate. Meaning that oil companies need the consent of the governed, essentially, and if the process is convoluted or mysterious and the findings alarming, then the license may not be granted. (It's more specific than that: check out the link -- but the point is a local permit is not enough.)
Here's the story from the Ventura County Star. Funny to me the way I am quoted, but not inaccurate, I must admit.
[OJAI, Calif. - The word fracking has become a red flag for people concerned about one of the practices of oil-well stimulation, according to Kit Stolz, moderator for the Ojai Chautauqua: The Future of Fracking.
“How do we deal with such a complicated issue?” Stolz asked a panel of five speakers with various ties to the oil industry on Sunday at the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa.
The panelists agreed on the need for greater openness on the part of oil companies about the process of extracting oil from the ground.
“There is a deep mistrust of oil companies. If (fracking) is safe, then let’s find out more about it. What chemicals are they using? By building transparency we hope to lower the temperature,” said Henry Stern, a legislative aide to state Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills. Pavley sponsored the highly criticized Senate Bill 4, which Stern helped write.
Senate Bill 4, in part, calls for extensive scientific analysis of fracking by the California Department of Natural Resources. The bill requires greater oversight of various oil extraction practices, as well as more regulation of wells, including permitting and providing information about the chemicals used, source of water used and plans for disposal of that water.
Panelist Craig Nicholson, a geophysicist from UC Santa Barbara, noted that while there has been a correlation between fracking and an increase in earthquakes in Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and Midwestern oil fields, the opposite is true in California.
Showing a chart that detailed the earthquake rates compared with fracking wells in Kern County, the only California county where hydraulic water injection — or fracking — is widely used, Nicholson said there has actually been a drop in seismic activity.
Don Clarke, a petroleum geologist, said fracking essentially involves using liquid with various chemicals that is injected underground to fracture rock and release the oil. Other oil extraction methods include injecting hydrochloric acid down wells to dissolve rock.
Brian Segee, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Center in Ventura, contended that there is little oversight of old wells in Ventura County, many of which have permits that go back decades.
Stern pointed out that SB 4 calls for all wells that are fracking to get a permit, even those older wells. “If you’re fracking an old well, you need a permit,” he said.
Stolz, a freelance writer for The Star, said one of the biggest arguments for fracking and increased oil drilling is job creation. He pointed to a University of Southern California study that says using hydraulic fracturing to access oil in the Monterey Formation shale deposit would yield 15 billion barrels of oil and create 500,000 new jobs.
Dave Quast, California director of Energy In Depth, an advocacy group of independent oil producers, said those are “very optimistic” numbers. He added that most oil companies agree that greater openness about their practices will go a long way toward appeasing public unease.
Tom Krause, of the Ojai Chautauqua, ended the session by thanking the 150 or so people who gathered to pose questions or listen.
“This is a community-based project about how people can get together for civic discourse,” said Krause, who said the fracking panel is the third event sponsored by the group.
He concluded by asking people to send in nominations for other topics. For information about the Ojai Chautauqua, call 231-5974 or go online to http://www.ojaichautauqua.org.]
There is a fairly substantial uptick in local production in Ventura County since 2007, from about 7.2 million barrels a year, to about 8.9 million barrels. But it's impossible to know how much, if any, of that uptick can be attributed to fracking -- or at least none of the panelists could answer that question.
What makes a t-shirt about the grim future cool?
An even-greater-than usual recent episode of Radiolab focused on this question. It found a route into the question through a bizarre fact: an ultra-obscure philosophical book from Zero Press called In the Dust of this Planet has overnight (well, this past year) become a fashion/cultural icon of pessimism.
Or, just a cool t-shirt.
But the coolness can't be denied, because the reference has the legs. Not just the model's, but the central idea of the book -- from young philosopher Eugene Thacker -- turns out to have been central to the (really) cool mini-series True Detective of this past year.
Example? Look at the scene in which the lead anti-hero Rusty Cohle discusses the flatness of our existence versus the perspective of our lives seen from the fourth dimension -- with a graphic visual demonstration to boot.
Some observers trace this to Nietzsche's idea of the horror of the eternal return. Which is interesting, but even more interesting is the idea from the broadcoast --the idea of the horror of philosophy.
Thacker talks about how (as I understand it) horror movies with a supernatural element dramatize what cannot be known by philosophy or logic. The monsters that spring from the darkness in our imagination: -- that's the true horror. Our inability to see past our limits. This is where Radiolab shines, and I encourage you to give it a listen.
Essentially Thacker takes Nietzsche's idea as a jumping off point:
Nietzsche suggests that the thought of the end of all thought is really the pinnacle of humanism, in which even the possibility of human extinction is recuperated by the heroic capacity of human beings to think it, to comprehend it, maybe even to accept it. Thus the speculative opportunity of extinction becomes, ironically, a form of therapy. this is what we see happen in culture today, where speculation about extinction is rampant, from pop science to books about "the world without us" or science documentaries on "life after people." Even the discourse around climate change and sustainability plays into this. It's been interesting to see it shift in subtle ways. At one point not so long ago, the rhetroic was about changing our habits so as to change the planet -- little changes resulting in big changes. Now it seems that it's too late. We've pretty much fucked things up, and watched ourselves do it. So the rhetoric has changed from “saving the planet” (a ridiculous and naive proposition—that the planet needs to be saved by us is the height of human presumptuousness), and more towards a new rhetoric of minimizing the negative effects, doing the least amount of damage, living in the “least worst” of all possible worlds. A strange, compromised pessimism.
Radiolab actually discusses this idea of Thacker's. Plus, why this image of Jaz-Z is cool:
But although in one respect Thacker is right -- the planet will continue with or without us -- in another he's completely wrong. When people talk about "saving the earth" they mean saving us, our civilization, our culture. Not just the rocks. We are the people called earth, as Neil Young put it in a recent song.
About ten years ago I wrote an essay, perhaps my best to date, about John Muir, that was published in the spectacular nature magazine Wild Earth. (Which sadly no longer publishes, nor can it be found on-line.) I found myself in good company, with the likes of E.O. Wilson, but the best piece in the magazine that month was written by a fellow I had never heard of named Charles Bowden. The piece was called "Snaketime," about how he was befriended (sort of) by a rattlesnake who liked to hang out on his porch.
Here's an excerpt:
For the snake a few things are obvious: I am large, and this is certain because of my footfall. She can hear the footfall of a mouse. I am rich in odor. She can pick up the faintest scents, identify them, and follow a single strand as clearly as if it were signage on an interstate highway system…And I am irrelevant unless I get too close. She will ignore me if I stay six feet away. She will ignore me if I become motionless for 180 seconds.
If I violate the rules of her culture, she will work through a sequence of four tactics. First, she will pretend to be invisible and hope I do not see her. If that fails, she will try to flee. If that fails, she will rattle in hope of frightening me away. And finally, if I am completely ignorant of simple courtesy and get within a foot or so of her, she will attack me…
She herself is cultured. In her lifetime, she will attack maybe twenty or thirty or forty times. She will never attack any member of her own species. She will never be cruel. She is incapable of evil.
Bowden became a magic name for me, as he turns out to have been for many other Western writer and editor types. The last issue of High Country News had a wonderful profile of the man, fortuitously written by Scott Carrier before Bowden died recently (in his sleep). It's not fully available on-line, understandably, as High Country News needs subscribers, but here's an excerpt:
Bowden knows why I've come. This morning, before I arrived, in order to prove he's been working, he emailed a new book to an editor in New York. It's called Rhapsody and he says it's a love story about wild places...I ask him if it's true he has been hiding out.
"I just got tired of talking to stupid people on the phone," he said. "I wanted to strip everything down and start over."
He knows I understand the feeling and lets it sit for a moment with the crickets.
"I got trapped on a path," he says.
Bats are dive-bombing bugs above our heads.
"I wanted to write about nature, about animals, what it's like to be an animal, but I went into murder reporting and now I'm recovering."
I can't see him but I know he's lying on his back with his hadn on a cup of red wine, looking at the stars.
"Everything you see out there is constantly re-inventing itself," he says. "We call it evolution. It's all one big yes."
The crickets agree.
"I want to write something that matters. In order to do it you have to get rid of yourself. The lion on the hunt ceases to be the lion and becomes the deer."
I know what he's saying, but I'm wondering how to describe it the folks back at headquarters.
"In the end all writing is about adding to life, not diminishing it. that's what life is all about. there isn't a plant out here that' snot trying to take all that chlorophyll and light and trying to add to life. The book I sent today I did 15 drafts, or I stopped counting at 15. I don't know if it's any good. I just know it about killed me and it's the best I can do."
Thank you Chuck Bowden. Look forward to reading your Rhapsody.
A week or so ago had the privilege of living in the western fringe of the pine-nut forest of the Southwest and became fascinated with these super-hardy and super-productive trees, upon which so much life in this region depends. (Not so much human life these days, true, but once upon a time.)
So today I couldn't help but perk up when I heard Dan Charles of All Things Considered report on pine nuts today, and reveal that a great deal of commercial pine nuts probably are smuggled out of Siberia, of all places, to China, because the pine nut trees in Russia are enormous and hugely productive.
Once a year, the pine trees drop these cones onto the forest floor, and entire Siberian villages move into the forest for a month or so to gather them. "It doesn't take any special equipment," Sharashkin says. "You go into the forest, you pick up the cones from the ground, put them into burlap bags, and then transport them to wherever they are being crushed to extract the nuts."
Charles also talks to a couple of American experts, who fear that climate change and insect attacks are taking a bite out of pinyon pine forests today. He quotes Penny Frazier as stating that in twenty years we've lost "half that ecosystem" here in the U.S. (It's a little unclear if she's talking about the Missouri region in which she lives, or all of the American Southwest.)
But the good news is that she and at least one other pine-nut admirers have started a mail-order business to sell good ol' American pine nuts gathered from the wild.
It's a worthy idea. Will check out and report back. Might want to go looking myself: a local blogger who spent a lot of time scavening as a kid reports on what it's like to try as a family in Frazier Park.
Sounds kind of fun actually. At least with boys eager to climb trees.
Let me belatedly post the main story I have been at work on for the last six months or so, as part of a Reporting on Health fellowship, about obesity -- and those battling it -- in Santa Paula.
Turns out, appropriately, it's students and young adults who have taken up the fight. Not to mention of course doctors, educators, health care agencies, and countless others I didn't have a chance to quote.
I confess to liking my lede, for rhetorical reasons:
Americans today are an exceptional people: We are the heaviest in the world. Now the federal government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that as we supersize ourselves we are skyrocketing our risk of developing diabetes.
Especially at risk are children in Ventura County.
For more, please see Mission Healthy.
People -- including the funders, who want it numerically -- ask for some measure of impact. Wonder if I've heard much of a reaction. Well, a number of friends have told me that they thought it was good, they liked it, even that it actually had something of a happy ending, but that's all I've heard.
Well, that's enough. "Respect of my peers," as they say in sports.
Note: a smart and faithful reader writes in to remind me that my math skills have gone to hell in the last forty years. So I'm going to keep my "metric" simple: compliments must outweigh reasonable complaints about errors re: any given story by 10-to-1 for it to be any good. This means -- practically speaking -- a story can't be good unless it is essentially error-less.
That's a high standard, and that's why editors and time are required for good journalism.
(Er, not that anybody asked...)
Eliza Gilkyson is a folk singer, an unexpectedly good guitar player, and a wit. For years she's been writing about nuclear war, environmental and economic collapse, and has had the nerve to issue whole records on these themes (notably the excellent song "The Party's Over").
But she also writes songs about herself, of course, and on her latest tour she's been in an unexpectedly sunny mood, kidding herself with the tagline:
I'm so worried about everything
Here she is singing the song ("Eliza Jane") earlier this year at a house concert. It's great to see an artist you love find a way to accept herself, doubts and fears and all. It's often said environmentalists have no sense of humor, but in my experience -- reading Muir and Abbey and Thoreau -- it's just not true. Not at all.
Add Eliza Jane Gilkyson to the list.