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Nature Bats Last

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2012)

“Deer have been around for five million years and must know what they’re doing.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Our new home turns out to be a deer park, the resident deer so numerous and hungry that only rhododendrons and redwoods and ferns and huckleberries (the bushes not the berries) and a few other large trees can hope to survive the ravenous hordes. A crumbling wooden fence surrounds our property, and here and there remnant strands of barbed wire speak of a time when the previous owners may have experienced a modicum of deer-free living. I am a vegetable and herb gardener and hope to have a large garden growing soon, as well as berries and fruit trees and flowers, with a few raised beds off the deck outside the kitchen, none of which I can have until we transmogrify the deer situation.

To that end we have engaged the services of a deer fence installer, and at the moment he arrived last week to give us a bid, there were not four or five deer, but seventeen of those hungry animals browsing the shrubs and lower branches of trees and vacuuming up the golden leaves fallen from a very tall plum tree and devouring lilies and daisies, and shitting profusely everywhere around our house. And the deer fence guy, scanning the assembly of does and bucks and fast-growing fawns, quipped, “I see the problem.”

We have decided to bequeath the northern half our property to the deer and other wild things while fortifying the smaller southern portion of our humble homestead. The deer fence fellow is booked several weeks in advance and can’t start working on our property until December, so I might not get my garlic in this year, though I may plant a small bed and surround it with land mines or a more humane equivalent.

“There’s no place on Earth that’s changing faster—and no place where that change matters more—than Greenland.” Bill McKibben

Having recently read a number of fascinating and frightening articles about the sudden disappearance of the Greenland ice sheet, I was not surprised to hear that the super storm Sandy caused upwards of eighty billion dollars of damage. Such awesome storms are precisely what numerous new weather models predict will be the direct consequence of the vanishing ice sheets combined with warmer ocean temperatures, rising moisture content in the atmosphere, rising sea levels, and myriad other factors related to global warming. In other words, though Sandy has been called the storm of the century, she may very well be the first of many such super storms to frequently pummel North America in the foreseeable future. Even as I write this, another massive storm is swirling through New York and New Jersey and Pennsylvania, with winter barely begun. Yikes.

Humans cannot construct storm fences around their big cities, though there is serious talk of building a gigantic sea wall around the island of Manhattan in anticipation of rapidly rising sea levels. (You gotta be kidding!) I wonder who will pay for the construction and upkeep of such a gargantuan wall? And how will such a wall keep hurricanes from toppling skyscrapers? Then, too, the eastern seaboard is rife with crappy old nuclear power plants full of plutonium ready to start melting down, several of those junky old plants identical to the crappy ones currently melting down at the Fukushima nuclear facility in Japan and radiating the entire Pacific Ocean. How many super storms will come and go before one or another of those nuclear power plant time bombs goes off? Not to be an alarmist, but we may very well be on the verge of millions of Americans and tens of millions of people in other countries being displaced annually by super storms and super droughts and super famines and super nuclear disasters; and I wonder where all those displaced people will go.

“He knows nothing; and he thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career.” George Bernard Shaw

Election night, as Marcia and I took turns monitoring the voting results on our computers, I suddenly found myself hoping fervently that Obama would win, though I did not vote for him and I think he is a supreme poophead regarding most of the tremendous challenges confronting humanity today. What, I wondered, was behind this sudden hope that Obama and not Romney would be President for the next four years? And as I wondered, my mind filled with visions of being part of a band of ancient hunter-gatherers watching two alpha males fight to the death for control of the band. Both alphas were cunning and violent, but one of them was vastly more intelligent and resourceful than the other and would be much more likely to act to insure the survival of the entire band when we were down to our last few pieces of deer jerky and giant tigers were pawing at the walls of our hut—or so I felt in that moment of their mortal combat.

“America makes prodigious mistakes, America has colossal faults, but one thing cannot be denied: America is always on the move. She may be going to Hell, of course, but at least she isn’t standing still.” e.e. cummings

When my sister Kathy lived in Los Angeles, she rented the ground floor of a two-story house at the end of a little canyon road at the base of a steep hillside composed of wholly unstable soil and stone, a formation geologists call a junk pile. In the winter of 1979 torrential rains caused massive mudslides, one of which obliterated Kathy’s home and smashed her car to smithereens with a boulder the size of an elephant. Having lost most of her possessions to that torrent of mud and rocks, my sister moved out of the hills and settled in the flatlands. And less than half a year later, her former abode had been rebuilt and leased again (with an exorbitant increase in rent) to a couple newly arrived in Los Angeles who had no idea they were pitching their tipi, so to speak, in the line of inevitable disaster.

In that same year, while visiting my sister in the aftermath of the mudslide and her relocation to level ground, I dined with a movie producer whose home was built at the top of another massive junk pile of soil and rock very much like the one that had shed part of its mass and obliterated my sister’s place.

“Amazing view,” I said, gazing out on the smog-cloaked city. “I’ll bet it’s really something on a clear day.”

“Don’t be sarcastic,” said my host, joining me on her deck. “The air is getting better. It really is.”

“Do you ever worry about losing the house to a landslide?” I asked, noticing several ominous cracks in her patio.

“I’ve been told this place has gone down twice in the last twenty years,” she confided with a shrug. “And they are forever shoring up the foundation and sinking piers and doing whatever to keep it from going again.”

“So…”

“So that’s why I’m leasing instead of buying,” she said, nodding confidently, “and why I’ve got the best renters’ insurance money can buy and why I stay in my townhouse in Santa Monica when the rains get crazy.”

“All great change in America begins at the dinner table.” Ronald Reagan

One young left-of-the-mythic-center pundit we listened to in the wake of Obama’s victory over Romney opined that henceforth the only way the Republican Party would ever be anything more than an obstructionist gang of amoral dinosaurs, and a shrinking gang at that, was if they could find a charismatic leader, a latter day Ronald Reagan, to take the helm and mesmerize the masses as old Ronnie did.

Now I was never for a minute mesmerized by Reagan. On the contrary, I found him repulsive and so obviously the puppet of George Herbert Bush and his cronies that I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why anyone found him attractive, let alone likeable and trustworthy. He knew almost nothing about anything, said only what he was told to say, and did such serious damage to our country and the world that we are still suffering from the impact of his policies. And yet he was the most popular President since Franklin Roosevelt. Why? I dunno.

“It’s too bad that stupidity isn’t painful.” Anton LaVey

From all I’ve read about the evolution of humans and human society, it is clear that we would not have survived as a species for long had it not been for our ability and willingness to cooperate with each other for the greater good, the good of the group transcendent of the selfish desires of individuals. And in thinking about the recent election and the San Francisco Giants winning the World Series and how people voted on the various state propositions and our wanting to install a deer fence around part of our property and the dawning of the age of rampant super storms and super calamities, it occurs to me that stupidity should henceforth be defined as the unwillingness to do what is best for the greater good.

After the Giants won the World Series, I read several articles by baseball writers and so-called baseball experts who were all baffled as to how the Giants could have possibly beaten the Reds, the Cards, and ultimately the Tigers, when the Giants, according to these experts, were so clearly the inferior collection of individual players. What a bunch of shortsighted knuckleheads! We, the Giants, were clearly the superior team and that’s why we kept on winning—because a great team is always far more than the sum of its parts and is invariably a highly cooperative community intolerant of selfishness. Or put another way, a great team is a collective dedicated to the success and well being of the entire group, and not just the enrichment of a few jerks who don’t care about anybody else. 

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Solar School

(This piece originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2010)

Mendocino has a spanking new elementary/junior high school on Little Lake Road about a mile inland from the village, and I am happy to report that her shiny blue metal rooftops are being covered with photovoltaic cells to produce electricity. I was recently at the school shooting hoops on one of the three new outdoor basketball courts, fresh nets affixed to glossy orange rims, and as I huffed and puffed in humbling pursuit of my largely uncooperative basketball, valiant technicians were hard at work affixing the solar cells.

It was a sunny day, and in the absence of students or anyone else making use of the new school, I thrilled to imagine the school’s electric meters whirling in reverse as great currents of electricity flowed from the rooftops into the greater power grid. Such imagining made me happy in the face of the murderous gusher continuing to gush in the Gulf of Mexico. I am aware that solar power is not the ultimate answer to the woes of the world. I have read myriad articles by smart people explaining how electric cars are every bit as bad for the earth as gasoline powered cars. I have read even more articles by these same and other smart people explaining how renewable energy will never replace oil and that we are destined, rather soon, for a new Dark Age of lawlessness and mass starvation. But whenever I stopped to catch my breath from chasing my runaway basketball and saw those fellows affixing solar panels to the shiny blue roof, I felt twinges of hope.

When I was a young man I decided to try to make my living as a musician and a writer. I worked as a landscaper, a gardener, a janitor, a ditch digger, a farmhand, a day care worker, and at several other low-paying jobs. With whatever energy I had left at the end of each day, I practiced music and writing. And for ten years, every person I knew, including my best friends and many smart people, told me with absolute certainty, “You will never succeed as a writer or as a musician. Give it up.” And when I did succeed, these same absolutely certain people said, “I always knew you’d make it.”

Indeed, I have subsequently observed again and again that smart people are often very good at talking themselves and other people out of doing things by stating with absolute certainty that the thing in question cannot be achieved, and they know the thing cannot be achieved because they have the data to prove it. “Oh, so you put in a gray water system to water your garden and conserve water. Big deal. That won’t help. Corporations waste millions of gallons of water every minute. Your little gray water system won’t make a bit of difference. Ditto growing your own vegetables, driving less, having only one child instead of two, vacationing closer to home, carpooling, turning off lights, lowering the thermostat, or cooking your meals with a solar cooker. Won’t help. Don’t bother.”

Alternative energy? Why it takes so much energy to mine the materials for solar cells, to manufacture the cells, package them, ship them, you might as well drive an old Chevy Impala from here to New York and back and stay in air-conditioned motels along the way. Replace oil and coal consumption with wind power and solar power? You gotta be kidding. Can’t happen. Look right here. These are the numbers. Can’t happen. Get ready to subsist on turnips if you’re lucky and huddle in caves and fight off hordes of starving cannibals until you die a premature death.

But I look up at those guys on the blue roof and I can practically hear the electricity being made out of sunlight. Gushers of electricity. I see herb gardens surrounding this new solar school, and fields of tomatoes and squash and potatoes growing where they’re currently gouging out a soccer field. I see these commodious classrooms being used by people who walk here or ride here in electric shuttle buses or come on horses or on bicycles, and I see these people learning from each other, sharing ideas and books and tools, playing music, quilting, weaving, carving, building, making food, feeding each other, and caring for each other.

I don’t think even the smartest prognosticator can predict what humans might do if we allow ourselves to be guided by our creative instincts rather than the analysis of dubious data about things having little or nothing to do with the countless things each of us might do separately and together.

That said, I do think the idea of bio-fuels is horrific on any scale larger than a backyard still, and when I hear about hundreds of thousands of people planning to gather on beaches around the world to protest offshore drilling, my first thought is, “Yes, but how will they GET to the beaches? Because if they’re driving cars, I’m not buying it.” And I agree there is a powerful denial-of-reality mantra etched into our media-warped minds that intones: They (whoever they are) will surely figure something out to solve the crises of energy and food and pollution and over-population and crime and environmental degradation and global warming and the extinction of whales and salmon and krill and phytoplankton so we can go on our merry way living high on the hog, so to speak.

But our collective denial of reality scares me far less than the growing insistence by so many smart people that there is nothing we can do, collectively or individually, that will make any positive difference to the degradation of the planet and society and the future. And I sincerely wish all these smart future prognosticators would spend more time trying to imagine and test new ways to groove efficaciously with the earth, and spend much less time explicating and arguing ad nauseum that nothing we do will make any difference, because I’m enthralled with those solar panels on the blue roof and visions of electric meters whirling backwards; and if I hear one more smart person look up at those solar panels, figuratively speaking, and say, “Won’t help, don’t bother,” I’ll throw my basketball at him. Odds are I won’t hit him, but that will be my intention.

No doubt my years of living in communes informs my impatience with those who pronounce with such certainty that the actions of individuals can’t possibly ameliorate the horrific disasters perpetrated by the likes of BP and the Pentagon and all the other rapacious forces of evil in the world. Had I not proven to myself that I could live happily with few things, and subsequently experienced a quantum improvement in my quality of life as I spent less and less money and used less and less energy as a result of my immersion in small-scale socialism, I, too, might believe that peak oil sounds the death knell for a comfy way of life. Had I not grown, with relatively little difficulty, much of the delicious food I and fifteen other people needed to survive, I, too, might believe that only misery and drudgery and premature death lie ahead. But I don’t think the transition from a greed-based society to socialism will be bad. I think the change will be difficult but ultimately marvelous.

Yes, it may turn out that Things In General will continue to go from bad to worse, and lawlessness and deprivation will soon engulf us all. But Things In General are, for the most part, so stupid and wrong and broken they ought to crash and burn and leave ashes to fertilize the new and very different system we put in place of the old general things. When I read descriptions of how the Mendocino County Supervisors are presiding over the steep decline and inevitable fall of our local basic services, I find their collective myopia and inaction highly instructive. They reveal themselves to be inmates of the larger state and national institutions that would rather take things away from the weak and defenseless than raise taxes on the wealthy. Their stupidity would be comical if the effects were not so terrible for those least able to protect themselves. The obvious solution is standing right in front of our duly elected officials, a perfect hero of a solution named Equality, except our benighted leaders cannot see her, for she wears the cloak of socialism, and socialism is taboo. But I digress.

What I’m suggesting is that there are many ways already known to us that will help spin the meters backwards, and many more ways we have yet to imagine and design and try out. Just because all these smart people have decided things are going to turn out a certain way doesn’t mean things will turn out that certain way or that we should cease our efforts to figure out ways to live less destructively on the earth. Smart people only know what they think they know. And not one of them knows some of the things you know.

We are only doomed to a disastrous future if we buy into those guesses of disaster (and that’s all they are, guesses) and forget that we, individually and collectively, are limitlessly creative. And I predict that if enough of us make it our daily practice to give some of our time for the greater good, however we imagine doing so, all heaven will break loose.

For some reason, Todd is in an optimistic mood this week. His web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com.