Dry lands: Wrapping our heads around California’s ecological future

A mere three years ago, every headline about California from the Times to Buzzfeed was screaming about the droughtpocalypse.

Then we had a semi-normal precipitation year, in 2015-16. We learned to use a little less water. And after that, a historically wet winter (2016-17) changed us from worrying about empty reservoirs to scrambling to stop dams from bursting.

Now, we’re deep into another epically dry winter. On February 19, Los Angeles passed 365 days without significant rainfall. The snowpack in the Sierra is as bad as or worse than in 2015—which was supposed to be a once-in-a-few-centuries event. And it has been not only dry but exceptionally hot. The Bay Area has seen day after day of blazing sunshine—and this coming on the heels of a hot autumn where the air was choked with the smoke of massive wildfires for weeks on end. The water-watchers on Twitter and in government are starting to fret. They are running out of superlatives to describe the type of non-winter we are having.

Meanwhile, the general buzz amongst the populace seems to be something along the lines of, “Wow, isn’t this weird and kinda scary?” But water-saving habits have started to slip in some locations. The snow machines are chugging away at Squaw. The almond orchards are still blooming across the Central Valley.

The fact is that, as a state, it seems like we still haven’t come to grips with the new hydrological and ecological realities we are dealing with. We’re living paycheck to paycheck, water-wise. Our anxiety levels ebb and flow in inverse proportion to the rivers that fill our reservoirs. But what we really need is action on a much larger scale—an adjustment of our water priorities from the level of the household to the megafarm.

Being a nature lover gives one a special perspective on the true dimensions of what is happening. I’ve spent a little time every summer in the High Sierra almost every year since I was 14. I have seen the drying out of the high peaks, the melting snows, the tree saplings at nearly 13,000 feet (high above the old timberline), and the changes to species distributions. In the last few years, I’ve watched as the giant trees of the Southern Sierra snow forest have died en masse, cramming the mountainsides and valleys with rust-colored corpses. There are now an estimated 100 million dead trees in the state. Among the worst hit are the sugar pines, largest pine tree in the world. In my childhood summers, the silhouettes of their thick trunks and pendulous five-pound cones marked the gateway to the mountains, and the beginning of a dark and seemingly endless forest. In the future, they may become a rarity.

The ecological cost has already been a tragedy for tree-huggers, but larger human costs are in the offing. It is likely that vast wildfires will occur in the next few years, and the blazes of 2017 will begin to seem like the first episode of a new normal.

Not all of this is purely due to water scarcity. It’s also about rising temperatures that have allowed bark beetles to run wild, and about a century of fire suppression. But that’s sort of my point: lack of moisture is just one prong of the environmental shifts under way in California. Even without human-caused climate change, we are probably unprepared for the types of megadroughts that have occurred in the past. The fact that the world is now hotter, and that we’ve been mismanaging our resources for a solid 160 years, is making the new normal that much harder to adjust to.

There’s always a starting point for creating change. I think a statewide consciousness about water and the environmental transformations happening around us is, for most of us, a good first step.

It really doesn’t matter how much it rains in California this year 

Just a quick reminder that, no matter how much El Niño drenches us this year (or doesn’t—we’re actually behind the curve on rainfall), California is still kind of up dirt creek in the long run.

I think that’s worth remembering as we gaze longingly to the skies, parse the intricacies of meteorological models, and discuss their “what ifs” and “probablys,” and our “hopes” and “fears” about the rain and snow.

Those are words I see a lot in the internet discussions of the California drought. Weather buffs, for all their obsession with the high-tech minutiae of the field, still end up sounding like so many Merlins wondering if the eye-of-newt-to-frankincense ratios are off in the potion they’ve whipped up to beseech the Northwind.

timtheenchanter.gif

Neat trick, wizard!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of the advancement of predictive science. It’s just that I see people looking to meteorology not just as technicians or out of curiosity but for answers on whether we’ll be OK. Filtered through the news, the effect is even worse—the jet stream is cast as a fickle savior. It’s scientific language projected onto an essentially religious relationship with the weather that probably goes back to the days of bone divination and smoky fires beneath cave paintings.

Let us all hope harder that we get enough rain to get us through another year of this madness.

Reno NWS

This year is less of a cataclysm than last, oh thank goodness!

But it doesn’t matter how hard we hope, how bad we want it, whether the models are right or not, or whether you’ve been naughty or nice this year. It doesn’t even really matter if it rains a lot this winter.

doesntmatter_rock

California—and the Western United States—faces a water crisis of its own design. We knew this long before we understood climate change, before the current drought put our state’s agriculture in doubt, triggered massive forest fires, and threatened to kill off 20% of our trees.

The real issue in California is a gigantic water management problem that has political origins—and only political solutions (with perhaps a bit of help from technology). Climate change and a historic drought have merely helped reveal the rottenness of our system. The mining of millennia-worth of groundwater; diversion of rivers hundreds of miles from their courses; the use of old, inefficient technologies; verdant golf courses in the desert; a frontier-era finders-keepers scheme for water rights: it all sounds pretty dumb, because it is.

It shouldn’t be a shocker that a system built by ambitious men for their own personal gain—whether Gold Rush prospectors, displaced Southern cotton kings, or resort developers, the motivations have been about the same—is failing to serve the public interest.

All the smartest weather researchers and journalists already know this. But I’m a bit worried the popular attitude of supplication to the weather gods (of which I am also guilty) is distracting us from the true source of our H20 woes.

Would that more of us directed our angst and dreams toward political action rather than pulling our hair out and wishing for rain. Things like further reducing our consumption of water, subsidizing more efficient technologies, banning wasteful practices, making sustainability and equity a headline in every one of our efforts at economic growth, and taking an active part in international movements to mitigate climate change.

Many Californians are already involved in these activities, but not enough. And definitely not as many as worry about the weather.

San Francisco: the “threw it on the ground” city?

Nathan Heller has a New Yorker piece about dissatisfaction with the tech industry in San Francisco. I always watch my step around Heller’s work these days, because he’s so damn persuasive – he had me completely won over with the Bay Area tech industry booster article he wrote last October, despite my better instincts. (With some distance, I’m less swayed than I originally was.) And he’s produced another well written, satisfyingly reported piece. It stands out for being descriptive among a crop of prescriptive and polemical essays on the topic, even if one still feels that his sympathies are a bit more on the side of The City’s transformation.

There was one passage I particularly liked, a surprisingly poetic nibble at the conflict between the burgeoning “progress”-oriented culture in SF, and Northern California’s political heritage:

Does a society that regards efficiency and advancement as its civic goal have any true investment in the mechanisms of representative public life? The West Coast radicalism of the twentieth century arose from the revelation that, in moments of extreme frustration or injustice, power could be claimed and wrongs could be corrected by exiting the system.

One implication of the article is that “exiting the system” may no longer be a viable means of claiming power. Which relates, I think, to a complaint I hear from people who visit these days that the city feels like a bubble. That observation may be on target, but at a point in time it was the right kind of bubble – a city that lived on its own terms, and was a true pioneer for counterculture and the rights of marginalized people. A paragon of “think global, act local.”

What people are complaining about when they call San Francisco a bubble these days is something a bit different. In some cases, their annoyance may still have the tinge of an old mainstream, reactionary prejudice against the city. However, I think it is also energized by a feeling that San Francisco is very much part of the system from which it would like to think it stands at a distance. Indeed, it has become something of a capital of that system in a way that—for all its bank towers and corporate law firms—it never fully was in the past. To those critics, it’s a city where aesthetes and other lovers of rare, fine things can enjoy themselves while feeling a bit morally superior.

It’s not really the city’s fault that this has happened. The system it once shunned has overtaken it: global American-style capitalism all but rules the world. What San Francisco has done wrong, however, is fail to recognize the size of the macro forces outside its control. It often still seems like the best-intentioned San Franciscans—those I would agree with on a huge variety of political issues—still believe that simply standing their ground will be enough to get the city through this storm, mostly unchanged. What they can’t seem to see is that they are quickly losing the fight. In failing to adapt, they are allowing the city’s defining values to slip away forever. They may lose their only chance to have the city change on their terms.

Will San Francisco shift from being an activists’ redoubt to being a “threw it on the ground” city? I refer, of course, to the pathetic character portrayed by fellow Bay Area native Andy Samberg:

The reason we don’t respect this hilarious character is not that he’s militant, but because, with his careful hip wardrobe and staid, middle class activities, he is obviously not separate at all from the system he is so angry with.

I hope that doesn’t become a good metaphor for San Francisco in 2014. I’m sure there are those who would argue it already has.

John Steinbeck’s lessons for a gentrifying San Francisco

Sidewalk graffiti on San Bruno Avenue, San Francisco. "SFC" stands for "Sucka Free City."

Sidewalk graffiti on San Bruno Avenue, San Francisco. “SFC” stands for “Sucka Free City.”

Writing about San Francisco’s changing neighborhoods — a gentrification crisis according to some, a renaissance according to others — has  become quite the fashion in recent months and weeks. I can only assume many of these journalists were inspired by my devastating analysis of census data earlier this month.

The subject has been especially popular of late, but change in San Francisco is nothing new. Even change from the tech boom(s), while reaching a fever pitch in the last couple of years, has been going on since the 1990s. And many of us who feel so pained by the loss and/or change of the City’s vibrant communities would do well to remember the variety of incarnations it has been through in the last century and a half, right up until recent decades. When my parents moved to Bernal Heights in the late 1970s, my dad remembers going to a community meeting at St. Kevin’s church on Cortland, in which some participants said they were uncomfortable that many of their new neighbors were gay. At the time, Bernal was a very ethnically mixed neighborhood, with an especially large number of Latinos. My dad reminded people at the meeting of the backlash many Latinos faced a generation before when they moved into the largely Irish Mission. The meeting took a different course at that point, he says.

Change is the only constant in San Francisco, to use an unavoidable cliché, and the City has distinguished itself by its ability to embrace it, while maintaining some sense of continuity.

Sara Brody has some interesting thoughts on this over at The Bold Italic, though I take small issue with the headline, “Don’t Let Gentrification Push You Out of SF,” since in many cases it is only the most privileged vestiges of San Francisco’s old communities that actually have a choice about “letting” gentrification push them out. Most who have moved, at least the renters, left not as a matter of taste because they couldn’t afford it any more. Involuntary movement is a tragedy, always.

That being said, though, Brody raises some excellent points, the most important one for me being the uselessness of bitterness. Bitterness about change is part of an essential paradox of San Francisco, a city more liberal and welcoming than almost any, but with a deep and almost conservative devotion to its history. This paradox is almost never resolved. I’ve met descendants of old-time Irish San Franciscans who moved out of the City in the 1960s and still lament how it will never be the same. On the other hand, there are others who stayed if they could, remained involved in the new communities, and maybe even started calling Eureka Valley the Castro. (For a good account of these diverging reactions, read The Mayor of Castro Street)

So, to get to the (damn) point of this post: I just read John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, the account of a 1960 cross-country trip the native northern Californian, then resident in New York, took around America with his dog. A significant section deals with his reflections on the Bay, noting what was still there, and reminiscing about what wasn’t any longer. Time and again, I found wisdom in Steinbeck’s observations that is deeply relevant — even enlightening — for considering our current times in San Francisco. He is a gentle curmudgeon, one who honors the past while accepting the inevitability of change, especially in our fast-paced times. I think he provides a model for how to relate to the changes in the City. Here are a few excerpts, mostly from his time in Northern California.

On change in mid-century America:

Even while I protest the assembly-line production of our food, our songs, our language, and eventually our souls, I know that it was a rare home that baked good bread in the old days. Mother’s cooking was with rare exceptions poor, the good unpasteurized milk touched only by flies and bits of manure crawled with bacteria, the healthy old-time life was riddled with aches, sudden death from unknown causes, and that sweet local speech I mourn was the child of illiteracy and ignorance. It is the nature of a man as he grows older, a small bridge in time, to protest against change, particularly change for the better. But it is true that we have exchanged corpulence for starvation, and either one will kill us. The lines of change are down. We, or at least I, can have no conception of human life and human thought in a hundred years or fifty years. Perhaps my greatest wisdom is the knowledge that I do not know. The sad ones are those who waste their energy in trying to hold it back, for they can only feel bitterness in loss and no joy in gain.

And on returning to northern California:

I find it difficult to write about my native place, northern California. It should be the easiest, because I knew that strip angled against the Pacific better than any place in the world. But I find it not one thing but many–one printed over another until the whole thing blurs. What it is is warped with memory of what it was and that with what happened there to me, the whole bundle wracked until objectiveness is nigh impossible. This four-lane concrete highway slashed with speeding cars I remember as a narrow twisting mountain road where the wood teams moved, drawn by steady mules. They signaled their coming with the high, sweet jangle of hame bells. This was a little little town, a general store under a tree and a blacksmith shop and a bench in front on which to sit and listen to the clang of hammer on anvil. Now little houses, each one like the next, particularly since they try to be different, spread for a mile in all directions. That was a woody hill with live oaks dark green against the parched grass where the coyotes sang on moonlit nights. The top is shaved off and a television relay station lunges at the sky and feeds a nervous picture to thousands of tiny houses clustered like aphids beside the roads.

And isn’t this the typical complaint? I have never resisted change, even when it has been called progress, and yet I felt resentment toward the strangers swamping what I thought of as my country with noise and clutter and the inevitable rings of junk. And of course these new people will resent newer people. I remember how when I was a child we responded to the natural dislike of the stranger. We who were born here and our parents also felt a strange superiority over newcomers, barbarians, forestieri, and they, the foreigners, resented us…. And we were an outrage to the Spanish-Mexicans and they in their turn on the Indians. Could that be why the sequoias make folks nervous? Those natives were grown trees when a political execution took place on Golgotha. They were well toward middle age when Caesar destroyed the Roman republic in the process of saving it. To the sequoias everyone is a stranger, a barbarian.

And on returning to San Francisco:

When I was a child growing up in Salinas we called San Francisco “the City.” Of course it was the only city we knew, but I still think of it as the City, and so does everyone else who has ever associated with it. A strange and exclusive word is “city.” Besides San Francsico, only small sections of London and Rome stay in the mind as the City. New Yorkers say they are going to town. Paris has no title but Paris. Mexico City is the Capital.

Once I knew the City very well, spent my attic days there, while others were being a lost generation in Paris. I fledged in San Francisco, climbed its hills, slept in its parks, worked on its docks, marched and shouted in its revolts. In a way I felt I owned the City as much as it owned me.

San Francisco put on a show for me. I saw her across the bay from the great road that bypasses Sausalito and enters the Golden Gate Bridge. The afternoon sun painted her white and gold–rising on her hills like a noble city in a happy dream. A city on hills has it over flat-land places. New York makes its own hills with craning buildings, but this gold and white acropolis rising wave on wave against the blue of the Pacific sky was a stunning thing, a painted thing like a picture of a medieval Italian city which can never have existed. I stopped in a parking place to look at her and the necklace bridge over the entrance from the sea that led to her. Over the green higher hills to the south, the evening fog rolled like herds of sheep coming to cote in the golden city. I’ve never seen her more lovely. When I was a child and we were going to the City, I couldn’t sleep for several nights before, out of bursting excitement. She leaves a mark.

And my favorite of all, as we wrap our heads around a city that will be changing, no matter what:

It remained the City I remembered, so confident of its greatness that it can afford to be kind. It had been kind to me in the days of my poverty and it did not resent my temporary solvency.

Is it too late to wish my loyal readers Happy New Year?

Ten days isn’t too late, right folks? I’m still basking in a new year glow, and just want to give everyone my sincere thanks for following me through 2009. I transformed into a functional digital addict this year, and through your comments, tweets and feedback, you helped me do it.

Here’s an image that belongs on the LGD: I like to think this is what this blog is all about. This photo is on the trail below Banner Peak, California in June, 2009 (count yourself lucky, I don’t always identify the location of my Sierran pics). That mountain looks imposing, but then look at the view from near the top — all the topography of the land traversed is clear. Kinda like starting and finishing up the year.

Continue reading

New York City Mexican Food Challenge: Any Tips?

There’s a place on 16th Street between Valencia and Guerrero in San Francisco where you can get one, delicious soft-sided taco for $2.95. It comes with fresh salsa, grilled chicken, onions, radishes — and a heaping portion of homemade tortilla chips. Get two of those babies and an horchata, and you are good to go for the night.

Every hood in San Francisco has its own taqueria highlight, especially the Mission, Outer Mission, Excelsior and Bernal Heights. I grew up taking them for granted.

No more. After a year in New York, I have not been to a really good Mexican or Central American restaurant in the city that supposedly has everything.  (I have been to some pretty terrible ones. Think the Amsterdam Chevy’s, if that exists. I found a place like that on Flatbush.)

On Saturday night I made the mistake of getting hopeful. I was on Houston and went to a little joint named El Paso. The owners made an effort to have a nice classy feel, and the waiters wore ties tucked into their shirts above little aprons. Prices were commensurate with the location and ambiance. They were not, unfortunately, commensurate with the food: cheesy and lacking spice. The salsa looked like bean soup. The meal was preceded by a salad (?) of iceberg lettuce with “Italian” dressing.

Then I realized: There is a taqueria in a car wash in San Francisco that serves better Mexican food than the best Mexican restaurant I have been to in New York City. I’m talking about Bayshore and Army/César Chávez right there at the intersection of Bernal, Bayview, Mission and Potrero.

What’s the deal, people? New Yorkers say I’m hating. There’s a taco truck in Queens that does it right, they say. I don’t know, but I think a taco that takes an hour to get to doesn’t count. Does that mean there’s nothing in the island of Manhattan?

I invite my ten regular readers to submit some suggestions, because I’m at a loss. And please don’t recommend the spot on Amsterdam and 108th. It’s close, but I’m looking for the real thing. I’ll privilege suggestions from Californians living in NYC.

Heart of Solitude, One Year Later

It’s been a year since two friends and I crossed the Sierra Nevada through its most remote heart. For me, it was a spiritual experience, extremely difficult — the most challenging climb/hike I’ve ever done — and a reference point for all things afterwards.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot because I have been so out of touch with nature since then, and decided to post a few pics from that time. (My brief encounter with nature in Batroun, see previous post, made me realize that.)

I am too selfish to write the place names — I don’t want this to be searchable and then draw a bunch of people to these amazing places. Some spots are secret and sacred, and should only be available to people who study topo maps for hours and dream about the obscure swaths of peaks, canyons and lakes where no trails lead.

Your eyes follow the lines, and a landscape opens up in your head. The unnamed lakes with their high elevations printed on them, the creeks in canyons so narrow all the contours touch, the glaciers that cling to northeastern cliffs on the highest peaks are flat and dry on the unbeautiful paper, but your imagination runs wild. Then, when you finally see the places that inspired these maps, there is no way to exaggerate how beautiful this hidden land is. The feeling of crossing over mountains and valleys with only your food, maps and shelter — and no guide or path — is the closest thing I’ve felt to flying like a bird. Pure freedom.

I won’t name the places, but I will give a few clues: Enchanted Gorge, 10 days of hiking and an east-west traverse of the Sierra Nevada, completely off trail. And I will say that we once went three days in California without seeing another person, which is an accomplishment. Enjoy.

Peering into the Gorge.
Everything was silent as we passed between two peaks named after mythic monsters.

Mouth of the Enchanted
(and we look like a party of 1860s surveyors)

On top of the world, somewhere on the western ridges.
We had nearly completed our crossing.

Dimmy’s final resting place at 10,500 feet, where he lay down to sleep and turned into a stone (inside joke).