Letter From the Desert: Hot

At some point you’ll look back at your life and regret not doing more to address this crisis. What is that “more”? And can you start doing it now?

First things first: My new desert protection podcast 90 Miles From Needles is launching January 2022. From our explanatory text:

The North American desert is split by county, state, and national borders. It holds a diverse range of ecosystems, landscapes, cultures, languages and people. But the California desert, for instance, has more in common with the desert elsewhere than it does with many parts of California. You can say much the same about deserts in Nevada, Texas, Sonora and Baja California. Arid lands face the same issues in ecological, cultural and political senses. The American desert is a discrete entity that is too seldom respected, or even recognized as something that deserves to exist on its own terms.

Ninety Miles from Needles, a podcast to launch in January 2022, will interpret and explain the desert, its living things, its people and our cultures in a clear and compelling fashion. Our main focus is on the desert environment: what it is, what threats it faces, and what people are doing to counter those threats. The environment doesn’t exist in a vacuum, however. In fact, the desert is a place where people can’t pretend they aren’t affected by the non-human world. So we will cover environment through the lenses of not just science and recreation, but culture, history, the arts, and politics as well.

You can listen to the first trailer here, and if you want to help us cover expenses like wireless lavalier mics and recording studio time and web hosting, you can sign up on our Patreon and kick in any monthly amount you like. Levels from $5 per month on up will get you some merch, like stickers with our beautiful if a little too on-the-nose logo by Martin Mancha:

Joining me in this endeavor, along with the many desert activists and elders and experts whose work we will be featuring, is my hiking pal and general co-conspirator and now co-host Alicia Pike, who I am reasonably certain will end up being the actual star of the podcast. An upcoming trailer (part of our “Season Zero” content) will explain how we know each other. Spoiler: our friendship started in about as Mojave Desert a fashion as possible. You will adore her. (That’s an order.) Help us get this thing off the ground.

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And what better time to create a new and somewhat hopeful project than in a month when the entire planet seems to be running a fever in an attempt to rid itself of a plague of something? Ironic that the desert may turn out to be a place where life goes on somewhat more uninterrupted than it does in other places. One need only receive so many screenshots of weather reports pointing out that the Pacific Northwest is hotter than the Mojave before beginning to conclude that at least in the short term, we have it pretty good here. 108°F at 10:30 a.m.? Been there, done that, called it “sweater weather”.

When I first decided to leave the East Coast, 450 years ago if I remember right, I thought Portland was the place I ought to head for. I knew less than nothing about the West back then. A series of political and relationship events intervened and I landed in Berkeley instead, which inexorably resulted in moving to the Mojave 26 years later. Imagine if I’d reached Portland as intended, somehow managed to secure an economic foothold in that town, perhaps even buying a house and learnng to complain about the ongoing influx of Californians? I can only imagine the despair I would feel as my cool and coniferous adopted home began to reach temperatures more typical of the Sonoran Desert, and worrying that it was only a matter of time before the book stacks at Powells began to spontaneously combust.


Meanwhile, here in a part of the Mojave that reaches Sonoran Desert temps about one day in seven, what I feel instead is… well, it’s still despair. But a different flavor. The heat wave of the last month killed most of my carefully tended native tree seedlings. I have not hiked in weeks, instead dragging myself to a air conditioned gym where I work on machines that show me a video of a hike through the Alabama Hills. It’s like being thirsty and being shown a video of running water.

Also, there’s this:

Did I say life in the desert is going on uninterrupted? The photo shows a piece of the Chuckwalla Valley that for the last several thousand years has been quietly sequestering perhaps five metric tons of carbon dioxide per hectare per year. Naturally, the Bureau of Land Management is considering allowing a company to convert the land into an industrial solar power project, ending that natural carbon sequestration. Those mountains in the background are the Coxcombs, part of Joshua Tree National Park. This project’s owners want a partial exemption from many of the regulations we just spent four years defending from D*nald Tr*mp during his assault on the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, a.k.a. DRECP. In particular, the company wants to encroach on desert dry wash woodland more than the regulations allow. Why? Because the bankers want the project to make more money than it would without that encroachment.

That’s what the project representative told a few of us enviros this week, at any rate, in between explaining that the dry wash woodland they would destroy wasn’t very important and that the site’s inclusion in desert tortoise critical habitat was essentially a mapmakers’ mistake. All this in a month in which the state of California wants to make it far harder to install solar on rooftops.

That’s just one of the solar projects looming in the desert right now. There are dozens, along with wind projects and lithium mines and new freeways and new suburbs and new water mining proposals and who knows what else. There are three proposed solar projects up around Beatty, NV that I’ll be checking out this week, each of which by itself would pose an unacceptable threat to Death Valley National Park’s desert ecosystem. All three together? Triply Unacceptable. And parenthetically, what a life this is in which one has perfectly sound and sane reasons to head to Death Valley in the middle of a record-setting summer. (I expect to record some stuff for the first episode of the podcast at Badwater, that salt flat at -282 feet below Mean Sea Level, on Wednesday. Working title: The Desert Is Hot.)

Meanwhile, hundreds of people died from the heat this past week in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. We have three months of summer ahead of us, and then three more of autumn, and a continent full of trees waiting to explode, aside from the ones that already have. That’s just here in North America.

But the election broke our way last year! We were supposed to be able to go to sleep until the next one. It isn’t fair.

I remember a time when I thought the last three or four decades of my life would be spent living essentially outdoors, a scrawny old guy in work clothes with a rust bucket pickup and a cabover camper tucked away in some national forest 17 miles off the pavement, seeking solitude and then talking the ears off of any hapless passersby. Though my choice of imagined venue changed and I veered markedly away from (and then belatedly back toward) scrawny I still always had that in mind as a personal denouement.

I never once thought there was a chance I would outlive the woods.

It puts one’s personal goals in perspective, it does. The planet is spiraling toward uninhabitability, but look at my excellent credit rating! Look at all these positive LinkedIn reviews! I finally paid off my houseboat! Too bad the water is on fire.

Speaking of fire, there was another one on Cima Dome this month. It was smaller than last year’s Dome Fire, contained in a few hours, and it mainly burned an area that had burned before. For a minute I took that as good news, not as disheartening confirmation of the grass-fire cycle that is the future of Cima Dome, with a fire on every square mile every few years.

The good news is that people are taking action to stem this horrid tide. The bad news is that it’s mostly the wrong people: The utilities and the energy companies and others who stand to enrich themselves from minor modifications to the status quo are taking definitive action to protect their interests. I see people online saying that it’s the corporations who created most of this mess and that therefore individual action is beside the point and it’s the corporations’ responsibility to fix things, ignoring the facts that the corporations are already working to fix things in the wrong direction and that all we have left is individual action, including individual action to stop the corporations.

The downside is that that leaves less time for complaining at people on Twitter.

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I guess what I’m asking in this unballasted, sloppy diatribe is this: what more can you do? I’m not looking for an answer from you. I can only answer that for myself. I’m just hoping you’ll ask yourself the question. What actions can you take now that you haven’t been? At some point you’ll be looking back at your life through this period, seeing how bad it’s gotten in the world since, and you’ll regret not doing something more instead of hoping you could get by doing the usual amount. What is that “more”? Can you start doing it now?

And I’m not necessarily counting helping with the podcast as one of those things. Though I won’t tell you it won’t be a good thing for the desert if you do. That is, after all, our goal.

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