FIELD NOTES (Log not Blog)
In the Antelope Valley, L.A. County, California. April 30, 2019.
You can see it glowing red-gold from 30 miles away, an improbable gold mountain in the middle of the desert. In March and early April, the wildflowers blooming in the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve in the Mojave Desert west of Lancaster are so bright they can be seen from space: the fire-ember orange of the poppies, yellow goldfields, purple lupines and phacelias, and pale butter-yellow tidy-tips, mixed in swirls and splotches like a landscape-scale abstract expressionist painting.
They can also can be seen from cyberspace—indeed it’s almost impossible not to: the “superbloom” of wildflowers all over California has been a global phenomenon on social media: just check #superbloom or #californiapoppies for their hundreds of thousands of posts. There are eye-popping shots posted from Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and psychedelic Walker Canyon near Lake Elsinore, but the superbloom’s crown jewel is here, in the low, rounded hills at the western edge of the vast Mojave.
Up closer, the reserve looks like a scene from The Wizard of Oz, but these poppies are real, a seemingly endless carpet woven of innumerable flowers waving in the incessant wind. Distant mountains—Mt Pinos to the west, the Tehachapis and Southern Sierras to the north, and the San Gabriels, still rapturously snow-capped, guarding the Los Angeles Basin to the south—show the huge scale and diversity but also the essential connectedness of California’s ecosystems.
Among the fields of flowers is another, remarkable profusion: people. Slow, snaking lines walk along the trails, gawking and posing for pictures—many wearing costumes of big sunglasses, hats, and billowy dresses expressly designed for their Instagram moment. But others walk off the trails into the fields, in spite of ubiquitous signs reminding them not to, stepping on the flowers, picking them, often laying down in them, to get their smiling faces right up close to the petals for that perfect selfie. One enterprising couple even landed their helicopter in the middle of a poppy field to get theirs.
For these delicate plants, trampling kills the first time—just one footprint does the job. And one footprint encourages others: everywhere there are trod paths, squashed areas, and dead, dry, compacted dirt.
As the superbloom peak has moved from place to place, following rainfall and warming spring temperatures, obsessively documented on social and other media, so too have the horrendous traffic jams and selfish behavior in pursuit of selfies, leaving once-pristine landscapes trampled and scarred.
In response, there has been much hand-wringing and online outrage. Overwhelmed by traffic, Lake Elsinore authorities even shut Walker Canyon, briefly. But the superbloom, and the frenzy, continued.
Why would so many people feel no compunction in destroying the thing they came so far to celebrate?
From the hilltop vantage of the poppy reserve, it’s not hard to see that trampling, on a vast scale, is our standard modus operandi in California. The 1,781-acre reserve is just a tiny remnant of a high desert grassland ecosystem that covered hundreds of square miles. Once, the Antelope Valley was home to tens of thousands of antelopes—pronghorns actually, but they died of starvation en masse when the railroad came in 1876 and blocked their way to seasonal food supplies; the rest were killed off by settlers.
Since then, the Mojave Desert landscape has been ruinously and massively scarred: by mining, the military, and farmers, who plowed up 45,000 acres of thin desert soil to grow crops watered by fossil groundwater. As the aquifers were sucked dry, 35,000 acres have been fallowed or abandoned, and the topsoil blown away by the Valley’s fierce winds, also unleashing Valley Fever, a fungal disease caused by naturally-occurring Coccidioidomycosis spores, or “cocci” from the soil, a respiratory disease that can be fatal and is nine times more common in the Antelope Valley than in the rest of LA County.
Power lines and fences string out in all directions, as do roads, some paved, most not, carved into the desert to form a massive grid sprawling over 200 square miles between Lancaster and its neighbor Palmdale. The gigantic grid is the record of an optimistic greed, in hopes that this desert would soon be developed, like the rest of Southern California’s 10,000 square miles of sprawl stretching from the Mexican border to Ventura. Once a sleepy rural outpost, the valley began to boom in the 1980s, fueled by Reagan-era military spending and cheap tract housing that attracted 70,000 daily commuters to LA. Chronic busts have followed, from the end of Cold War defense downsizing to the housing crash of 2008, yet still the population grew 8-fold, from 60,000 in 1980 to nearly 500,000 now. And yet the Antelope Valley’s bulldozed road grid remains mostly empty, studded with absurd, desolate intersections such as 300th Street West and Avenue A, 30 miles from downtown Lancaster.
The cost to the desert’s delicate ecosystems has been steep: not only are the pronghorn gone and square miles of Joshua Trees bulldozed, but desert tortoises and other animals struggle to survive on shrinking fragments of habitat, hemmed in on all sides by our ever-sprawling footprint.
The drive out to the reserve along Avenue I from the 14 freeway is a dispiriting tour of things we have tried to put out of sight and out of mind, each placed on cheap desert land in an effort to solve one immediate, pressing problem, then another. Miles of dusty, low-rise tract homes give way to fallowed, weedy fields here and there dotted by walled, treeless housing developments (the high desert is increasingly home to Section 8 voucher holders unable to find housing elsewhere in the Southern California), a state men’s prison, a juvenile hall, an animal shelter.
In the distance, the orange fields of poppies beckon, mixed in with patches of yellow goldfields and darker ones which appear to be lupines. But on closer inspection the dark patches are not flowers at all, but commercial solar farms, arrays of photovoltaic panels spread across the desert floor for many miles, together constituting the largest collection of solar arrays in the world. A single one, sprawling over 3,200 acres, is the largest solar farm on earth. (Yes, they can be seen from space.)
Ironically, this “green” energy infrastructure was bulldozed on top of the real green on the ground. The farms were cited here for “good” reasons: many on already-degraded former farmlands, and close to existing transmission lines to the L.A. megalopolis. They have helped California to meet 50% of its energy demand with solar on a sunny day. But the same area of panels could have been mounted on existing urban rooftops, especially the huge warehouses that have proliferated in recent years as more and more of our goods come from overseas.
A recent state law mandates solar panels on all new construction beginning in 2020—a welcome and overdue step. Solar capacity is expected to actually exceed maximum (springtime peaking) demand by 2022. But no amount of daytime solar power can wean us completely from fossil fuels without major investments in efficiency, energy storage, and distributed generation, and these ought to be sited as closely as possible within the existing urban footprint.
The nature of environmental problems is complexity and interconnectedness. As John Muir said: “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” Too often, we make policy decisions in fragmented silos, each piece of a problem handled by a separate agency, authority, or jurisdiction, without coordination with others.
Unfortunately, no amount of renewable energy of all kinds will solve the planet’s ecological crisis, which includes climate change but also extinction, the collapse of food webs, plastic pollution, and on and on. We must begin considering our footprint as a whole and seeking to reduce it, everywhere, by stacking policy goals together, rather than attacking them separately.
In California, our policy is still to encourage sprawl: the continued growth of desert solar farms as well as the L.A. County Board of Supervisors’ approval last December of the Centennial development, 19,000 homes to be built on pristine lands 70 miles from downtown L.A., attest to this.
In the poppy fields, there is reason for optimism: not far from the reserve, eruptions of orange in an old, fallowed alfalfa field show that the land, even badly scarred, can heal itself, if we let it.
Moab, Utah. July 2, 2016
At a gas station in Moab, a Thursday afternoon in June, the temperature a little over 100, heat rising from the oily asphalt. The pumps are lined with vehicles gassing up: 4 x 4 pickups, lots of Jeeps, old, local and dented, and new, jacked up, stud-tired, and rented, offroad Tonka toys for the slickrock trade; also little nondescript rental sedans packed with tourists, mostly apparently Chinese couples in shapeless cotton clothes in primary colors, and clutches of Euro dudes sporting horizontally striped shirts, spiky, dyed haircuts, and sunburns. They’re headed for the national parks, the Indian ruins, the river, the redrock desert, what they don’t have at home. What they have in Utah. Inside, I wonder what is edible: there are racks of coral reef colors, every kind of soda pop, candy, and chips in taut, pneumatic, mirrored bags, as though a new product line by Jeff Koons, priced for retail. Steamy, filmy glass cases with revolving red hot dogs and jalapeño cheese poppers. A pimply cashier guy shrugs. In apology? Or just to say, This is it, these are your choices. I get Cool Ranch Doritos in a metallic blue bag and chat about the weather. He says it’s the only place he’s lived where it tends to rain while the sun is shining. Maybe clouds drift down off the peaks of the La Sals? I suggest. He rings me up.
The main street, Highway 191, is four lanes of traffic, bumping along a line of red lights, past rental outfitters offering Jeeps, Hummers, quads, mountain bikes, rubber rafts and inflatable kayaks. There are fleets of vans to shuttle customers between trails, river put-ins and take-outs, and dirt roads. Brewpubs, diners, motels, more gas stations, too many for a town this size. There is Uranium Avenue, and there, is the Uranium Building, a little modernist storefront from when this old Mormon farming settlement struck Cold War gold in radioactive dirt. After the boom decades of nuclear weapons and nuclear power, it bottomed out. Down by the Colorado River, a dune of uranium mining tailings crouches by the snot-green water flowing past, and looms in at least a few of the minds of the 30 million or so people downstream.
On the radio, a Grand County commissioner, a woman, laments the traffic on 191, calling it the area’s biggest problem. The morning commute can be 20 minutes in bumper-to-bumper traffic, she says. South out of town, the road rises onto a pinyon and juniper-covered plateau, where, without warning, a field of tall, blindingly white wind turbines turns slowly, then is gone. We see no others.
On the San Juan River, in rented rubber boats, we pull ashore to see ancient Ancestral Puebloan Indian stone houses set in the cliffs, and panels of drawings, strange anthropomorphic figures, doodles, bighorn sheep, and tricksters etched into the vertical red rock. They are layered up, willy-nilly, graffiti accreted over thousands of years. The artists disappeared from these canyons and mesas hundreds of years ago, fleeing South and leaving these traces. Drought and a changing climate played a central role, making it harder to grow their crops and game more scarce; forests and meadows retreated up the mountains. The stress worsened conflict with their neighbors, who became enemies. A culture with magnificent art and architecture, and good technologies, but it couldn’t adapt to a changing, drying world.
Santa Barbara County, California. January 21, 2012
Last Monday, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, was so calm and clear that you could see trees on Santa Cruz Island 26 miles away across the channel, and even, it seemed to me, trees 30 or 130 years in Santa Barbara’s past. I walked with my kids and some friends through the eucalyptus groves and fields at Ellwood Mesa, seeing monarch butterflies alone or in chasing pairs floating on the warm air. Along a muddy drainage and up a hill more butterflies appeared, until we found the spot in a knot of shaggy trees where a small crowd of people stood staring upwards. Among the leaves, greyish in the slanted, yellow light, were clots of bright orange and black hanging from the branches, honeycombs of layered wings blinking with motion. Thousands of the insects were there, clinging to one another or drifting on the air between trees, occasionally falling in orange puffs when a clump got too heavy and lost its grip, like snow falling from an eave.
I brought my kids, ages 5 and 9, to experience something that moved me immensely as a child. When I was a 11 or 12, my family lived on Eucalyptus Hill in Santa Barbara, named for the probably 100-year-old blue gum eucalyptus grove that covers its south slope. I would play in the slatted shade of the giant trees, as in a dank cathedral, crunching over the heaped-up bark and leaves that blanketed the ground. Once I found a sheet of old plywood, wet and slimy on its under side, and made it into a forest surfboard: I nailed a 2 x 4 near the front to hold my foot in place, positioned the sheet at the top of the slope above an open slot through the tree trunks, then ran and jumped onto it, sliding down 20 or 30 yards before crashing in the leaf litter. One day in the dark center of the grove, I looked up and was astonished to see the branches and leaves alive, shimmering and undulating with thousands, or tens of thousands, of monarchs. I had never seen anything like it, never even heard of it. I stood still with arms held out, and a few monarchs slowly began to land on my head and arms. Interested in each other and indifferent to me, more landed, until a gob covered my hair and smaller gobs my arms, and, scrabbling to hold onto one another, butterflies began dribbling down my face. I remember the tickling of their tiny, sticky feet on my forehead.
Most North American monarchs travel, famously if not incredibly, up to 3,000 miles from summer territories as far north as northern Canada, all the way to overwintering groves in the mountains of central Mexico. But western populations, west of the Continental Divide, fly to the California coast to spend the winter — demonstrating the insects’ excellent judgment. From Northern Baja to Sonoma County, butterflies habitually hibernated and mated in sheltered groves of Monterrey pine and Monterrey cypress, and in stands of coastal sycamores. But most of these have fallen before the chainsaw to make room for us. Here in Goleta, the sycamores were cut down by men like Ellwood Cooper, who arrived from the East in 1870 and planted acres of walnuts and olives in their place, becoming the largest olive oil producer in the US before cheap Sicilian imports crowded him out. He replaced the olives with eucalyptus trees in the tens of thousands, believing these fast-growing, drought-tolerant Australian transplants would make him rich. Others followed, and before they realized the wood was nearly worthless, millions of eucalyptus trees had been planted up and down the coast.
In a happy congruence, the butterflies accepted the substitution, and now hundreds of blue gum groves shelter monarchs from November to February. Alas, the few butterfly-laden trees we marveled at are just a slim echo of the 25,000 seen in the same grove 15 years ago. The last decade or so has seen drops of 90% or more in some sites. Natural Bridges State Beach near Santa Cruz had 120,000 butterflies in 1997 and just 1,300 in 2009. No one knows exactly what is causing the declines: possibly loss of milkweed, the plant required by monarch caterpillars to develop, obliterated by development; likely the 10-year drought that has gripped much of the western US.The severe Midwestern drought of last year devastated the migration of monarchs through Texas to Mexico. Climatic stress spares few. And as trees are replaced by ever-more houses and asphalt, the butterflies’ outlook would seem grim.
Maybe these clusters in the Goleta blue gums are the last, and will be just memories to my children, something they will only be able to tell their own kids, not bring them to witness. But the butterflies are adaptable. They adopted new Australian trees in an evolutionary eyeblink, and somehow transplanted themselves all the way to Hawaii and the South Pacific in the 19th century, just as human migrants did and probably on the same ships, arriving in New Zealand and then Australia the year after Ellwood Cooper came to Goleta.
Blakeny Spit: on moving ground
November 28, 2011
On a bright Sunday morning I set out to run to the end of the Blakeney Spit, about 3 1/2 miles from where you can leave a car, across the marshes from Cley-Next-the-Sea. It was a classic North Norfolk scene: huge blue sky stippled with clouds headed for Holland on the westerly wind, whitecaps on the water. The spit is a narrow shingle-pebble bank piled up by waves, a hundred or so feet wide, pushed by the longshore current from the shore into the sea to the east-northeast, it is land building seaward. Between the spit and the coast are marshes, whose vegetation laps the top of the stone ridge, which then drops steeply towards the sea.
The going is trying: the pebbles are rounded, impossibly hard, and slick; my feet slide and slip and plunge into soft spots. It is hard to walk, Sisyphean to run. I steer my track down the slope, searching for harder substrate. Nearer the water line the ebbing tide has left the shingle glistening wet and even more treacherous. Mid-slope, there are finer particles, smaller pebbles, and glimpses of sand. Here is better footing, harder, and more stable, but it occupies a narrow and shifting line. The trick is to follow it, but it isn't perfectly visible, and not continuous. My eyes give a hint, but my feet the proof: sinking in, giving way, ankles betrayed by soft spots; occasionally and briefly, pavement as good as a sidewalk. The land, if it can be called that, is like a sponge, suppurating, giving back to the retreating North Sea.
Gradually the pebbles get smaller and there is more and more sand in the mix. The fleeing tide reveals sand flats at the base of the shingle bank, widening as the spit extends away from the coast. There is a beachy litter: jackknife clam shells, crab carapaces, feathers, and plastic trash, mostly bottlecaps, like another genus of bivalve shells. Wind scallops the sand flats into a tessellation of tiny dunes and valleys. Gulls pick at the remains; terns dive beyond the surf line; two seals surface in it, watching.
To the south and west the Norfolk coast is fronted by low marshes backed by higher forested dunes, with the square flint towers of Norman churches nine centuries old protruding above even more ancient villages – Cley, Blakeney, Stiffkey (pronounced Stewkey). To the east it rises into soft cliffs at Weybourne; beyond I can just see the town of Sheringham; the bigger town of Cromer lies unseen beyond on the cliffs' edge. There, the sea, instead of building out is cutting in, taking back the coasts of Norfolk and Suffolk at a rapid rate. Residents there may become the first modern climate refugees in Europe, as the rising sea reclaims land their ancestors drained over the course of centuries with oxen and windmills.
This is geological process in real time, the ground moving beneath our feet. It has always been like this, but it’s getting worse, fast. Out to sea, a line of white windmills is faint on the horizon; beyond them are unseen oil rigs of the North Sea fields. The machines are in sharp dialog, full of recrimination, two industrial canons, modes, totems and tools of different belief-systems. Both speak of a past, and a future, at-odds, competing over the path of the present.
On land, little has changed outwardly in generations. A crazy-quilt of hedged fields enfolds villages of flint-walled houses characteristic of the region, which has almost no stone besides glacial till; the square-towered Norman churches were built the same way. The lines on the ground are ancient: the historical geographer H.G. Hoskins showed that "nearly every village on the map of England today – except in certain industrial districts – existed by the eleventh century and is described in Domesday Book."
Now, the narrow, jerking lanes are crowded with Range Rovers – hulking, guzzling, aggressive, blingy, redesigned by the company's American owners for a rapidly Americanizing British haute bourgeoisie. They are too wide to pass safely on these paved cart tracks, and always going too fast. Shaky at driving on the left, I am over and over nearly forced into a ditch. North Norfolk is the UK's Hamptons: call the posh villages Burnham Market-Hampton, Brancaster-Hampton, Blakeney-Hampton. Maybe there is irony in the fact that the village-and-field landscapes of eastern Long Island, New York, now real estate catnip irresistible to Wall Street hedge-fund guys in Range Rovers, were made in the 17th century by people from East Anglia – from here. Aspiration come full circle in a Chelsea Tractor.