Letter From The Desert: Reading the News a Day Late

There are times when it’s hard to write about rabbits.

The three of us spent Friday and Saturday nights sleeping up in the mountains again, away from cellular connectivity and thus away from the internet and thus away from the news, which I did not learn until the dog and I waited outside for la mujer que amo to emerge from the usual shop with our coffee for the ride home. Heart made friends with another dog waiting there and I absently, out of force of habit, opened my phone and tapped the “News” icon.

I had thought maybe I’d write about Clark’s nutcrackers, which we saw in abundance this weekend. Or possibly about the five-mile hike I took this morning without really planning to, up and up a long mountain road through junipers and Jeffrey pines.

It seems hideously tone-deaf to think about doing that now.

I have often thought that natural history writing often lacks any grounding in the lives of those we would like to think are reading. Too much nature writing reads as if its target audience is privileged and blissfully ignorant, willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars flying to Costa Rica to do a two-week “service project” painting a rainforest eco-lodge, but kinda only a little familiar with the hungry people they drive past on the way to Whole Foods.

It’s a fabricated illusion this idea that nature writing is above and separate from human experience, human suffering. It is not unlike the illusion about how Yosemite Valley got the way it was in 1851 with no human labor required.

I walked this weekend in a forest — I live each day in a desert — that was never formally ceded to any official representative of any settler power, either by treaty or by conquest. It is part of the United States only de facto. The government of Mexico claimed it before 1848, and some King of Spain or other before 1810. Before that, the land belonged to the Yuhaviatam, one of the groups of Native people we now know as Serrano. The trees I walked among fed the Yuhaviatam. Pine nuts and acorns fed them, as did the game that browsed young trees and shrubs. Mormon settlers built a sawmill. Then gold was found in the mountains. After decades of conflict, and a massacre of between 200-300 Yuhaviatam at Chimney Rock in Lucerne Valley, the settlers took unambiguous possession of the San Bernardino Mountains. 150-odd years later, I walked in those mountains not really thinking of the bloodshed that made them available to me.

The pronoun “Our” in the often-used phrase “These Are Our Public Lands” has some explaining to do. And when, in the wake of horrendous events like those this weekend, I read someone opining that such events are uncharacteristic of the America we all know, I can only wish that it were true. One can only say such things these days if one is determined to remain ignorant of how this country came about.

Sometimes, though, we do need to focus on something else. There’s a new atrocity every day and a half. Spend some time looking away or run the risk of growing calluses on your soul. Without good, we would have no yardstick by which to measure evil.

It’s a balancing act, I suppose; one that I have so far failed to master after three decades spent spreading bad news for a living. And compounding my confusion is the fact that I feel like I have nothing new to say. At least, I have nothing new to say that hasn’t been said better by someone else about El Paso, or Dayton, or Southhaven, or Gilroy, or Virginia Beach, or Highlands Ranch, or Charlotte, or Poway, and that just gets us back to the end of April. Three percent of Americans own half the country’s privately owned weapons, and it’s not hard to guess who makes up that three percent.

I turn to my non-human cousins for cameraderie. For solace. But mostly for perspective. It’s not the Clark’s nutcracker’s fault she’s named for someone who (perhaps unknowingly) paved the way for a continent-wide genocide. She had nothing to do with that decision.