Anyone who has participated in a School of Lost Borders program has heard some rendition of Steven Foster’s phrase about the Big Lie. “The Big Lie”, Steven would boldly say, “is that we are not nature!” These words have echoed throughout my life for the last fifteen years, reminding me that not only do I love nature, and want to spend as much time as possible in the wildness of natural places, I am nature. I am the very stuff on which I stand. I am mineral, water, roots, flesh, and fungi. My brain, as Gary Snyder writes, is “rolling, crinkled, eroded, gullied, ridged” just like the washes of Death Valley, or the mountains of the Eastern Sierra. My blood is a river, my veins its canal. My eyes are translucent pools.
Still, after fifteen years of hearing Steven’s words play over and over in the singsong strings of my mind, I have barely the slightest inkling of what this actually means. I am nature? How do I live knowing this? How do I digest it? When my father took his last breath and I watched his body slump heavily into the mattress of the hospital bed, I may have understood, briefly. But then I turned myself toward the door, back to the light of day, and it slipped away.
It seems true that it is not until I am faced with loss, when I feel the heaviness of grief that I really get it, even if just for a sweet and terrifying moment. To be nature, not just a part of nature, is not an abstract concept. It’s not a fanciful or playful idea that I like to toss to my students (which I have done). It is not an amusing phrase to put in a glossy conference brochure (yes, which I have done). It is as real as rock. We age. We die. And when we do, we fall back to earth.
I cannot say it any better than Native American writer, Paula Gunn Allen, who gifted us with these words, “We are the land. To the best of my understanding, that is the fundamental idea that permeates American Indian life; the land (Mother) and the people (mothers) are the same.” How can this so easily be forgotten? When in a drought, I become cranky and thirsty. And when it rains, I drink. When the land provides me with food, I take and eat. When she gifts me with beautiful sunrises and eternal vistas, I believe.
We don’t choose the landscapes that we love. They choose us. Never once have I decided to love a desert valley. I can’t fully describe how this happened; I feel it. The love rises spontaneously up through my feet, crawls up and over my skin, and burrows right into my heart. Almost always it is met with tears.
Desert dweller, Edward Abbey, may have had a similar feeling. The desert chose him. While others saw the desert as a wasteland, he saw color and life. He saw red rock sculptures and claret cups. He saw beauty in scorpions, snakes, and sandstone. He saw rain fed emerald pools reflecting back his tears. And he saw bulldozers tear up the virgin soil. Developers love the desert too, but for very different reasons. The land does not choose developers. They choose it.
With the force of a flash flood, Abbey was prone to extreme expressions of opinion, which involved cutting down billboards and putting sand in crankcases of the bulldozers that were ripping apart his beloved desert. In response to romantics like myself, he wrote, “Sentimentalism without action is the ruin of the soul.” As an introvert, and a sentimentalist, I shy away from activism. I cringe at the thought of speaking out, exposing myself, being ridiculed, being wrong. I like to keep my dirt orderly and clean. But, I also detect the ruin, as subtle as it is, slowly eroding away the force of my life. If I am the land, and the land is destroyed, how could I possibly extricate my soul?
And so today, I write on behalf of the Owens Valley as part of a community effort to stop the pending industrial scale renewable energy developments in the valley. It is not easy being an environmentalist campaigning against renewable energy, so I’ve had to do some homework.* What I’ve discovered is first, it’s a complicated issue but worth digging into and secondly, it is possible to support renewable energy without handing over one’s soul to corporate developers, even if they are in the solar business. Still, the tension is not easy.
If you haven’t seen it, you might want to check out the 4000 acre Ivanpah solar facility near the Mojave Preserve in southern California. I’d give you directions, but you won’t need them. Just take a drive along Interstate 15, between LA and Vegas, or better yet, visit the Mojave Preserve. You’ll see the facility even if you don’t want to. It’s Gotham City at a distance. Or something that Andy Goldsworthy’s evil avatar would create on speed. But this is not virtual reality, especially if you’re a desert tortoise. It’s real. It’s hard to say how many of these endangered species have died so far, because many of them live underground where they also burry their eggs. Some tortoises have been relocated, but they have a hard time making it when removed from their territory. And then there are the flying creatures: birds, bats, and insects. When birds fly too close to the facility, their wings scorch in the 1000-degree temps, at which point, they fall to their death. Not surprising that just days before it’s grand opening, The Wall Street Journal, dubbed Ivanpah as “The $2.2 Billion Bird-Scorching Solar Project”. Butterflies and moths, I imagine, just combust.
There is a creepy atmosphere of stupor when it comes to the government’s involvement – or lack thereof – with monitoring renewable energy developments. Some companies have been given 30-year permits to kill bald and golden eagles; some have been given the nod (hush, hush) to kill critically endangered California condors. And then back on the home front, in the Owens Valley, a February 26th meeting with the Inyo Planning Commission left everyone angry and confused when the entire commission, save one, essentially approved setting aside 10% of the county for renewable energy developments despite the public’s furry over a misleading public document. As Marvin Gaye would ask, “What’s going on?”
I don’t know anyone personally who disapproves of solar energy power. The problem is not renewable energy, but rather how it is to be implemented. Tearing up pristine deserts, critical habitat, sensitive cultural sites, and scenic byways is absurd when there are so many viable options. Options that have been studied and proposed by respected environmental agencies. Furthermore, rooftop solar has been hindered by large utility companies in spite of a recent study that showed how Los Angeles County alone could power half of California with rooftop solar.
And while all this battling is going on, in distant lands, far, far away, glaciers are quickly melting, and entire eco-systems are slipping into the cold abyss of extinction. I’ve never seen a polar bear, but it doesn’t take too much imagination to know that if I lived in northern Alaska, Greenland, or northern Russia, I’d be screaming and yelling at every warm weather bastard to build as many solar farms as possible, and quickly. Like the Judgment of Solomon, it sometimes feels like we’re being asked to cut the baby in half.
So after all my ranting about solar farms and planning commissions, at the end of the day, I’m still faced with grief. And it is taking a huge amount of will not to lash out, or blame, or take it out on those I love. It comes from an unresolvable conflict that drops me a few more notches closer to earth. It puts my face in the mud. It fills my mouth with foul tasting muck.
And it is here, in the mud, that I realize now why I dislike activism. It’s because I know I am never completely right on any issue. And, that I don’t live up to my own standards. That, in truth, it is impossible, no matter how hard I work at doing the right thing, I am a hypocrite. This is not about self-belittlement. It is the truth. What I most dislike about activism, precisely, is that it makes me have to look more carefully at my own shadow.
And if that is the case, then it must be a darn good thing.
For those of us who love this world, who fall in love with lizards and snails, smooth skinned mushrooms and green mossy rocks, lichens and orchids, tortoises and condors, and all the thousands of precious things, may we never forget that one day, every single one of us, will fall back to earth. May we have the grace to do our best, whether it is fighting global climate change or for the survival of one tortoise, to make sure there is some earth left to lovingly catch our fall.
Please take a moment and sign the REGPA petition to stop inappropriate industrial solar/wind developments in the Owens Valley.
* I wish to express my gratitude to Chris Clark for helping me do my homework. His invaluable articles, which have contributed to this blog, can be found at http://www.kcet.org/user/profile/cclarke.