The Jaguar’s Teeth

When I was thirteen, I took a photograph that launched me on a journey of questions and answers that has lasted my entire life.

The guidebook I used in 1974

It happened outside a stone building with a curiously rounded roof called El Caracol in the great ruined Mayan city of Chichen Itzá, on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. It was the summer of 1974 and my parents had signed me up for a lengthy driving tour of Mexico organized by a private school that I didn’t attend, most likely to get me out of their hair for five weeks. The tour had an archaeological bent and the tenth ruin on the itinerary was Chichen Itzá. As usual, I separated myself from the rest of the group as quickly as possible, a guidebook in one hand and my sturdy Kodak Instamatic X-15 in the other. The camera was a small rectangle of gray plastic with a push-down lever for a shutter and a noisy dial near the eyepiece that advanced the film. A thin strap connected the camera to my thin wrist, which made the motion of drawing the Instamatic to my eye rather awkward. But then, at thirteen everything I did felt awkward. I had already dropped the blasted thing two or three times, chipping the plastic. My heart leaped each time. I loved my little camera.

El Caracol means “snail” in Spanish and the guidebook described it as an observatory used by the ancient Maya to track the movements of celestial bodies. Cool. I hadn’t experienced an observatory yet and I was eager to see one. I carefully threaded my way through the sprawling ruins, following the guidebook’s map like a pro. By this point on the trip, I had explored marvelous temples, huge pyramids, damp underground vaults, vast plazas, spooky ball courts, jungle-encrusted arches, quiet palaces, beautifully colonnaded markets, and solitary, starling-infested structures of mysterious function. I specially liked to prowl the periphery of a site, where the line between order (the tidy, tourist-friendly grounds) and chaos (the jungle) blurred intriguingly. It was on these rough edges that a ruined city seemed most genuine and most secretive. Exploring them stirred a romantic yearning in my thirteen-year old soul, requiring that I literally wander off the beaten path, much to the consternation of our four adult chaperones. Not that they didn’t try to stop me. When their early protests proved futile, however, they threw up their hands, letting me go where I wanted.

I should have recognized it as a sign of trouble.

The actual itinerary of our trip to Mexico

The yearning began during a visit to the first ruin on our trip, Tula, the former capital of the Toltec Empire, located north of Mexico City. Climbing out of our vehicles, I saw a wide staircase that led to a flat-topped pyramid crowned with tall, stony statues of human figures in elaborate costumes. I was instantly smitten. According to a guidebook, the Toltec Empire flourished a thousand years earlier. Jesus. Back home in Phoenix, Arizona, “old” meant anything built before World War II, including the feed store down the street that we frequented for horse supplies. I knew Phoenix had ‘risen from the ashes’ of a prehistoric village, but so far I hadn’t discovered anything in town older than a ranch house. Tula hit me like freight train. I bounded up the pyramid and wandered among the statues, whose martial bearing and silent, vacant eyes fascinated me. Nearby, a human figure reclined on its back, its knees bent up and its head turned alertly to one side. Resting on its stomach was a bowl, which its hands held carefully as if anticipating a delicate offering. It was a chacmool, said the guidebook, and what it anticipated was a bloody human heart. Yikes! Human sacrifice was part of the deal with the Toltecs, as it was for their imperial successors, the famous Aztecs. I suddenly realized I was a long way from the feed store.

My photo of Guanajuato

Exploring the pyramid, I felt jazzed for the first time all trip. Up until that point, I had been lonely and homesick, paying scant attention to the foreign sights that greeted me as we drove south. The tour consisted of two vehicles, two sets of married adults, a dozen or so kids (of which I was the youngest), two dozen cities, and a month of near-constant driving. So far, only two stops had stood out. In Chihuahua, we met the ancient widow of Pancho Villa, who served us cookies in her living room. As we sat in stiff chairs, I gawked privately at a house that looked like a museum. Then, in the charming town of Guanajuato, I deliberately broke away from the other kids, who seemed only interested in drinking and fooling around, and went on an impromptu solitary stroll down a narrow street. I must not have asked permission because a chaperone quickly caught up and steered me back to the hotel. To my surprise, I wasn’t chided for my unauthorized initiative. Otherwise, the trip had been notable only for the long hours we spent driving in cramped cars. Mostly, I dozed.

Tula

Tula changed everything. Something woke up inside of me among the stony statues – something that has not slumbered since. Here’s what I wrote in a little journal I kept: “We arrived in Tula via a very bad and rough road. I thought Tula would be just one temple with some statues on top, but I was wrong. There was the temple, but as we fanned out, there were long ditches with walls and the walls had engravings all over them. We got to the top of the temple you could see another big mound nearby partly excavated. I took six pictures. I walked over to the top of the unexcavated pyramid.” No one else went with me to this second pyramid, probably because it was out-of-bounds. Either I didn’t notice or didn’t care – I had my heart set on exploration. I prowled the pyramid excitedly until one of the chaperones came rushing over to fetch me, this time exasperation etched on her face. “What was I doing?” she asked irritably. “Who did I think I was?”

Questions I’m still trying to answer to this day.

The Museum of Anthropology

Ignited by Tula, my curiosity grew into a bonfire during our visit to the great National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park. I couldn’t believe my eyes as we wandered from room to room. Human skulls, jade masks, gold weapons, grim statues, dark tombs, colorful murals, maps, photographs and best of all: scale models of ruined cities. I loved models. Back home, I spent many productive but lonely hours in my room assembling models of World War II-era airplanes, ships, and tanks. A prehistoric temple, however, was something else. The beautiful model of the Temple of the Niches at El Tajín stopped me dead in my tracks. Wow. I scanned the map on an adjacent wall. Where was El Tajín? How could I get there? The museum’s Mayan rooms were even better. “The models, pictures, maps and stele were great,” I wrote enthusiastically in my journal. “I like very much the tomb of Palenque but I did not take a picture because I will see the real thing…The models helped me to figure out where to take my pictures.”

After lunch in the cafeteria, I charged into Aztec room, home to the famous circular stone calendar, where I lingered so long that our chaperones grew irritable again. They probably couldn’t decide who was more exasperating, the bored, ever-partying older kids or the nerdy, ever-straying one in dorky glasses. When it came time to leave the museum and go back to the hotel, they granted me permission to stay longer, probably out of relief. Thrilled, I wandered around until closing time, fanning the flames of my curiosity, but also paying a price when I got lost twice on the walk back to the hotel. Worse, the door to my room was locked and I didn’t have a key. I had no idea where the group was, so I drifted outside intending to find a park bench so I could read a book on the history of Mexico that I had purchased in the museum bookstore, only to be badgered by a peddler until I agreed to an unnecessary shoeshine (for mucho pesos).

I managed to get lost again the following day, this time during a visit to the huge ruined city of Teotihuacan. It started with a nauseating exchange of flirtations at the foot of the Temple of the Moon between my roommate and a cute girl on the tour that he had an eye on. To demonstrate his virility, he hustled to the top of the steep staircase without a pause, drawing exaggerated oohs from the girl. It made me sick to my thirteen-year old stomach, so I spun on my heel and headed for the other great pyramid in town, the massive Temple of the Sun, telling a chaperone I would be “right back.” He didn’t stop me, so off I went alone (ah, those were the days). After climbing up and down the pyramid’s huge, endless staircase without the benefit of an admiring audience, I headed down the Avenue of the Dead to the lovely and mysterious Temple of Queztalcoatl, at the other end of town. To my delight, the sculptured heads of feathered serpents and round-eyed gods that festooned the temple were immediately recognizable – copies adorned our favorite Mexican restaurant back in Phoenix!

The world, I began to see, was smaller than it seemed.

Palenque

More amazing ruined cities followed: Monte Albán, Yagul, Mitla, La Venta, Palenque, Uxmal, Kabah, Chichen Itzá, and lastly, Tulum, perched attractively on Yucatan’s east coast. It was an unending feast for hungry eyes. I saw huge stone Olmec heads in an outdoor museum, lovely Mayan friezes, carved sarcophagi, and delicately-facaded temples. I climbed up broken staircases, crawled through dank tunnels, and stared wistfully at forbidding mounds of unexcavated ruins in the verdant distance. I bought fraudulent artifacts from a local “farmer,” pulled a dirty shard of pottery from the slope below a decaying building, ran my hand along thick Spanish city walls, prowled local markets for souvenirs, fretted whether the crocodiles at a stinky zoo were dead or alive, swatted at a steady assault of mosquitoes (also a novelty), eavesdropped on English-speaking guides, and raised my eyebrows when I learned that one of the chaperones had to bribe a Mexican policeman in order to leave the scene of a traffic accident. In between, I read in my history book and ignored the teasings of the other kids who seemed as relentlessly focused on beer and smooching as ever. I also took photos, lots and lots of photos.

The traffic accident caused us to miss the important Mayan center of Uxmal, much to my disappointment. We arrived at the ruin a few minutes after closing time, which made me quietly angry (we were habitually late to things, usually because the other kids were such sleepyheads). Sensing my indignation, one of the chaperones kindly volunteered to return to Uxmal the next day, which they had scheduled as a layover in Merida, Yucatan’s capital. Who wanted to go, he asked? I raised a hand, of course, as did my roommate. Two other kids wanted to go as well. Great! The trip was on. Stoked, the following morning I rose early and went searching through the streets of Merida for a tour company that would take me to the Mayan ruins of Labna and Sayil, which I desperately wanted to see as well. I sought a half-day outing, figuring there would be plenty of time to see Uxmal in the afternoon as planned. I was certain the chaperones would let me go, and if no one else wanted to come along, I’d go by myself. I found a guided tour with a company and triumphantly beelined back to the hotel – where the chaperones scotched my plan muy pronto. I was disappointed, but at least the search itself had been educational.

I learned I could seek and find things on my own.

Uxmal

Uxmal was amazing. Once released from the car, I climbed straight up the towering Pyramid of the Magician, clutching the heavy chain that officials had placed on the stairs for us unsteady tourists. The view from the top was heart-stopping. Built during the Mayan Classic Period (circa 900 AD) out of lovely yellow stone, Uxmal became a major administrative center for the region with an architectural style that was both unique and beautiful. For a time, the city prospered and grew fat. Then it fell to conquering Toltecs (from Tula!) who subdued the entire region within a few short decades. Soon, the entire Mayan civilization collapsed into nothingness. Yipes! According to my history book, the reasons for the collapse were shrouded in mystery, creating one of the great enigmas of archaeology. Questions filled my mind as I wandered through the lovely ruins. What happened to the Maya? How could a large, complex society crater so quickly? How could a place like Uxmal be abandoned like that? Where did everyone go?

Uxmal mesmerized me with its mystery and quiet beauty. After taking too many photographs of the stately Governor’s Palace, I decided to head over to the House of the Doves. I didn’t make it. “I wanted to get over to some buildings,” I wrote later in my journal. “I found a path, so I followed it. I did not have any bug spray and I was sorry. Bugs attacked me from all sides. It started to rain, so I hid in a temple in the cemetery group…The ride back [to Merida] was done in rain and overcast skies. They talked about beer most of the way.”

Uxmal had pushed my adolescent yearning up a big notch. On the drive back, I closed my eyes and wished with every ounce of my teenage heart that the jungle would magically lift, just for a moment, revealing hidden ruins – and answers to my questions. I squeezed my eyes tight, concentrating. I didn’t want fame or fortune. I wasn’t looking for Mayan gold or Spanish treasure. I just wanted to know. What had happened out there, in the thickness of the jungle? I opened my eyes. Nothing had changed. I tried again, praying earnestly to a deity, any deity, for a quick peek under the jungle, asking it to lift it like a vast green rug. I opened one eye. Nope. I tried again. No go. I sighed. I knew I was being childish. I suddenly felt embarrassed and scanned my fellow passengers. No one had noticed my prayerful behavior. As I turned my gaze back to the leafy foliage zipping past us, embarrassment gave way to disappointment. There were no shortcuts to answers, I suspected, no accommodating deities available to lift jungle rugs. I settled in for a doze.

Our next stop was Chichen Itzá.

Resupplied with film and burning brightly again with curiosity, I headed into the heart of the magnificent city, aiming for El Caracol. Every ruined building I had seen so far was square, so when the round form of the observatory came into view, with its roof eroded at a rakish angle, I knew I needed a photograph. Excitedly, I snapped a quick one, climbed the stairs to a large platform and snapped another. Satisfied for the moment, I looked around, drinking in a marvelous view of the ruined city. Wow. Walking to the edge of the platform, I saw a square-shaped building a short distance away, which my map identified as the Nunnery. It was pretty, so I lifted my little Instamatic to my eye, framed the image carefully, groped for the shutter lever with my finger, and…hesitated.

The Jaguar’s Teeth

Something was wrong. I peered over the camera at the building and then looked again through the X-15’s tiny viewfinder. I suddenly realized what it was: the picture was boring. I had snapped this photo a hundred times. I needed a new angle. Craning my neck, I looked around for inspiration. Suddenly, I spied what looked like a life-size stone jaguar nearby, its mouth stretched wide in a silent, defiant roar. This gave me an idea. I walked over and bent down behind it so I could frame the Nunnery in the middle of the jaguar’s gaping mouth. Looking through the viewfinder, I saw the teeth of the jaguar about to close ravenously on the hapless edifice. Chomp!

I pushed the lever down.

The photo is important to me because it established a life-long pattern of responding to left-brain questions (science) with right-brain answers (art). I knew early on that I would never be a scientist or an academic even though I had earnest and anguished questions – lots of them as it turned out – about the world. I also knew, however, I couldn’t be ‘just’ a creative person either, focused on shape, color, words, or other forms of self-expression. I wanted to do both. But how? Answering that anguished question has occupied my waking hours from the moment I took the photograph through the jaguar’s teeth. I also knew I wouldn’t be content in any single genre or mode of expression. My responses needed to be as diverse as the questions that motivated them. That raised another set of challenges, as I discovered. Was there such a thing as a career creating right-brain answers to left-brain questions? No. That’s because there wasn’t a prepared path. I had to make my own.

Not long after visiting Chichen Itzá, my little journal fell silent. Thumbing through it, I was puzzled at first then I remembered why. After our group arrived at a small resort on the coast of Yucatan not far from the Mayan ruin of Tulum, I came down with a fever and spent two days sweating profusely under a mountain of blankets in a thatch hut. I remember faces peering down at me, their expressions etched with concern. “Great,” I probably thought to myself, “now the dorky kid in glasses has found another way to be a nuisance.” When I recovered, I remember feeling subdued for the remainder of the trip, getting fired up only once. It happened when I broke away from the group in downtown Puebla and went for a roaming walk on my own – a walk that resurrected the yearning I had first encountered at Tula. It was still there, I realized, somewhere deep inside, burning brightly. It would never go away. The winding path would never end.

By time we reached Guadalajara, however, I just wanted to go home.

I am grateful to my parents beyond words for pushing me into this adventure. And I was wrong about their desire to get me out of their hair for five weeks. Looking through my little journal from the trip, I discovered a short poem that my mother tucked away in the back across from the Clothes Checklist (she was always doing things like this). Her note said it was a prayer uttered by an Aztec chieftain upon his elevation to a position of leadership. I don’t know why she chose it, except it reads like a blessing for anyone setting out on a new adventure. Perhaps, she suspected I was heading out on a memorable journey. Maybe it was her way of saying that she wanted to go on a trip too. Either way, forty-five years later the words still ring true:

Grant me, Lord, a little light,

Which goeth about the night,

Be it no more than a glowworm giveth

To guide me through this life,

This dream which lasteth but a day,

Wherein are many things on which to stumble,

And many things at which to laugh,

And others like unto a stony path

Along which one goeth leaping.

The Only Story

There is only one story now.

Amsterdam (by Olivia)

I didn’t feel that way when Gen and I traveled to Prague and Berlin last month to see our daughter Olivia. I had many stories on my mind at the time, starting with the most important: how had our sweet, shy child fared? Olivia had been living in Berlin for nearly six months as part of a Study Abroad program offered by her college and although we had been in regular touch we were eager to hear about her adventure in person. In our family, Olivia is the quiet one. Caught between her garrulous twin brother and her excitable, overeducated parents, Olivia had to learn over the years to speak up. Now she was on her own in a foreign country! We’ve traveled a great deal as a family, including twice to Europe, so Olivia was familiar with the challenges. Still, when she took the train alone to Amsterdam on spring break, I fretted – like any parent. She was fine, of course. Her subsequent sojourns to Poland, Munich, and Copenhagen also went off without a hitch. She navigated Berlin with ease, mostly overcoming her shyness with strangers (she said it took her a long time to screw up her courage to order coffee in German). Before meeting us in Prague, Olivia made a lightning visit by train to Vienna. No sweat.

We wanted to hear all her stories.

View of Prague from the Charles Bridge

Prague was its own story. In the late 1950s my parents visited the famous city, hidden quietly behind the Iron Curtain. It made a huge impression on my mother. She loved its medieval architecture and sang its praises for years afterwards. Unfortunately, it became a melancholy tune over time. Escaping a miserable upbringing in West Virginia, she became a passionate traveler after marrying my father and graduating from college in 1952. She soaked up foreign sights and sounds with the same hungry energy she directed at books, plays, and movies. She desperately desired to see and do more (she would have burned with envy at Olivia’s opportunity). Life had other plans, however. Children, for instance. She took this change of plans badly. By the time I turned ten in 1970, she had begun a general retreat from the world. She never went overseas again and rarely left Phoenix. Prague became a nostalgic symbol of her previous existence – before domesticity, before self-medication, before diminished horizons. But Prague was a beacon too. It was a dream of hers to return. She showed me the amazing photos she took of the city and recounted funny stories about traveling in a Communist country. I knew she kept leftover Czech money in a box. We schemed on ways to go the city together some day – plans cut short in 1988 by her death.

Now I had a chance to take the trip for her and complete the story.

Berlin 1945

My father had a story too. On my writing desk sits a metal bookend in the shape of military badge, its blue and red center emblazoned with two trees, two crosses, and a lightning bolt. On its base are the words ‘Heads Up’ and ‘Berlin 1945.’ My father barely missed the war. Over his mother’s strenuous objections, he enlisted in the Army shortly after turning eighteen on December 25th, 1944. Six months later he was a member of a mobile radio unit patrolling the devastated streets of smoldering Berlin. The few stories he told me about his experiences involved fights between American and Russian soldiers, including one about an American who was deliberately pushed from a moving train by a Russian just as another train traveling in the opposite direction approached. Luckily, the soldier survived. Another story involved a drunken street brawl he witnessed between Russians and Americans servicemen. I never asked him about the physical devastation he saw in Berlin, which I regret, but it must have been a shocking sight to a small town boy from southern Arkansas.  

My father was there literally at the start of the Cold War, a nerve-wracking conflict that was important part of my life growing up, as it was for many Americans. This story was very much on my mind as Gen and I prepared to travel. This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Communist East Europe, two events that were as inspiring and exciting at the time as they were surprising. I assumed Communism would go on and on. The huge crowds of rebellious citizens I saw on television, the hard fall of brutal dictatorships, the end of the Soviet Union’s evil empire, all accomplished in just a few months (ten days in the case of Czechoslovakia ) was truly amazing to behold. Two years later, the Soviet Union itself collapsed – perhaps the most astonishing event of all. In preparation for our trip, I read a book about the Soviet empire’s disintegration titled Revolution 1989 by journalist Victor Sebestyen. It is an incredible story told with wry humor and candor by the author. His descriptions of the peaceful protests by which regular people achieved their liberation were especially poignant. It felt a world away from the anger and polarization that infects so much of our behavior today. Alas, the heady, optimistic feelings generated by the 1989 revolutions have vanished in Eastern Europe, wrote Sebestyen, replaced by crass materialism and political cynicism – which means it has joined the rest of the world. But that’s another story.

This was exciting stuff and I made sure my notebook was safely stored in my satchel for the trip. By the end of our visit to Europe ten days later, however, all of the stories had become one story.

It began with our outbound journey from Santa Fe. Our second flight was delayed requiring an extra flight to London. By the time we reached Prague, ten hours later than planned, we had sat on four separate planes. We didn’t mind the inconvenience but I worried about our carbon footprint. Air travel generates a large amount of carbon dioxide per passenger (a recent analysis said a single long-haul flight creates more CO2 than one citizen produces in a year in many countries). Planes also pollute high in the atmosphere which makes them a conspicuous contributor to climate change. It is estimated that over four billion passengers will fly in 2019, five percent more than last year and up 300% from 1990. This is important because global CO2 emissions began climbing again in 2017 after stabilizing for three years in what had been a hopeful sign that the world was getting serious about climate change. In 2018, emissions rose to a record high, which a science reporter characterized as “brutal news.” Not surprisingly, a ‘flight shaming’ movement has begun in Europe called flygskam, which made headlines in the weeks before our trip. It’s a Swedish word, perhaps inspired by the dynamic young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg who stopped flying four years ago.

Shame aside, we did ponder not going on our trip. Rebecca Burgess, my coauthor of a book on regenerative agriculture and clothing, recently decided to give up air travel as a way of walking her talk about carbon pollution and climate change. I greatly respect Rebecca, who is doing amazing work, so her decision weighed on me. I hadn’t stepped on a plane in eighteen months and had only flown internationally once since leaving the Quivira Coalition at the end of 2015 when I flew to Paris for the United Nations climate summit. I work from home and Gen takes public transportation to her job in town every day. We haven’t traveled farther than Albuquerque or Taos in the past two years by car. We were trying to reduce our impact in other ways too – buying less, eating carefully, and staying home more. These activities also have a positive economic benefit, which nicely dovetailed with my carbon concerns. It all added up to a debate whether to go to Prague and Berlin, neither of which we’ve visited. In the end, we decided to go. It was a chance to visit Europe, which we love, and wanted to see Olivia!

A crowd at Prague’s famous clock

She met us at the train station in Prague late in the afternoon. She had arrived from Vienna in the morning, found the hotel, checked in, and taken a nap. It was so good to see her! After big hugs we purchased espressos-to-go (ah, Europe) and headed to the hotel, located in the center of old Prague, close to its historic Town Square. Dropping our bags off, we immediately beelined for the famous Charles Bridge, built in the fifteenth century and one of Europe’s must-see destinations – and extremely popular as a result. As we joined a steady stream of tourists flowing toward the Vltava River we queried Olivia about her travels and time in Berlin. We were accompanied on the walk by Prague’s mesmerizing architecture. The old town wasn’t bombed in World War II and retains much of its medieval character, though most of the ground-level shops have been converted to upscale stores giving the city the feel of an Old World mall. We didn’t care. We were just happy to be back in Europe, whose blend of history, culture, food, and human-scale life appeal to us on so many levels. The July air was soft and fragrant. Working our way to the middle of the crowded bridge, we were soon rewarded with a sunset view of Prague’s lovely profile. I tried to imagine my mother and father standing here all those years ago. It was very easy to why she loved this city so much.

Overtourism in Venice

Our warm feelings continued over the next two days as we walked ceaselessly around the city starting with its impressive castle, sitting regally on a hill across the river. One condition, however, marred our strolling and became a story in its own right. Prague was packed with people. We weren’t surprised. All year, I’ve been reading news stories about the plague of overtourism in Europe. When Gen and I visited Venice in 2008, the famous sinking city endured eight million international visitors. In 2018, the number had risen to nearly thirty million! Nearly twenty million people are expected to visit Paris this year, up from nine million a decade earlier. In May, workers at the Louvre, the world’s most popular museum and home to da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, walked off the job due to overcrowded conditions. Although it’s a similar story in other cities, including Barcelona, Amsterdam, and London, it’s become a continent-wide problem. Between 1995 and 2015, the number of visitors arriving in Europe doubled from five hundred million to one billion and is expected to double again by 2030. There are many reasons for this trend, including low oil prices, the rise of budget airlines, the expansion of Airbnb, an explosion of Chinese tourists, and the popularity of cruise ships, the largest of which can carry as many six thousand passengers. The cruise ship industry, in fact, is running at capacity, totaling twenty-six million people in 2017.

The carbon footprint of all this traveling is huge, as you can imagine. The authors of a research article published in 2018 in the peer-review journal Nature Climate Change determined that between 2009 and 2013 tourism’s global carbon footprint increased from 3.9 to 4.5GtCO2e, four times more than previously estimated, accounting for about eight percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The story gets worse. “The rapid increase in tourism demand is effectively outstripping the decarbonization of tourism-related technology,” wrote the authors. “We project that, due to its high carbon intensity and continuing growth, tourism will constitute a growing part of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (article). All of this comes at a time when global greenhouse emissions MUST begin to decline if there is any hope of avoiding catastrophic climate change. However, judging by the hordes of tourists we witnessed in Prague I doubt the crowds will be thinning any time soon.

I didn’t know it, but the outline of the one-only story began to take shape.

A segment of the Berlin Wall

On our last full day in Prague, we lingered in Wenceslaus Square, site of huge public demonstrations in 1848 (part of a Czech nationalist revival), 1918 (celebrating the establishment of the Czech Republic), 1968 (protesting the Soviet invasion), and 1989 when 400,000 people filled the large space demanding the end of Communist rule. It was very moving to visit the epicenter of so much civic action, even if the Square (a rectangle really) is ringed today with tacky tourist shops and cheap food eateries. The stories this place could tell! I felt the same way two days later as we visited an outdoor memorial to the Berlin Wall, not far from Olivia’s apartment in the German capital. The 1.6 kilometer park includes a remnant of the original wall (covered in colorful graffiti) and is sprinkled with slender information kiosks detailing the construction, maintenance, and impact of the nearly impregnable barrier that divided Berlin for twenty-eight years. It is a very moving story of oppression, conflict, defiance, and triumph – once again led by regular citizens. We visited the park on a sunny and warm Sunday and I was impressed by the large number of Berliners who walked thoughtfully along the course of the memorial, suggesting that memories of the Wall and its legacy remain fresh for many people.

Memorial to Murdered Jews

The story the Wall told about our inhumanity, resilience, and ability to overcome terrible challenges was repeated all over Berlin. The city was bombed relentlessly by the Allies during World War II and then reduced to rubble by the Red Army as it fought its way into the Nazi capital in April 1945, damaging nearly eighty percent of its buildings downtown. Today, you can still see bullet holes in many of the structures that survived the devastation. As we walked through the magnificent Brandenburg Gate I tried to imagine what my father felt as he stood here seventy-four years ago. It’s nearly impossible for my generation (much less Olivia’s) to fathom the shock and suffering caused by a war of this scale. Or our inhumanity. The Nazi era left scars that run deep in Berlin as we saw repeatedly during our five days. Most impressive was the cemetery-like Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, located near the Brandenburg Gate. We visited it late on a drizzly afternoon, wandering somberly among its black stele.

Babylon’s Ishtar Gate

The stories kept coming. A bout of museum-going brought Gen and I into contact with six thousand years of human history, including Babylonians, Egyptians, Assyrians, Greeks, Etruscans, and Romans. A visit to the Natural History Museum brought us face-to-face with an impressive T. Rex skeleton. Four hours in the National German History Museum barely scratched the surface of the complicated and bloody history of northern Europe. My head began to swim with stories of empires, gods, religions, wars, elites, injustice, revolution, exploration, discovery, conquest, enslavement, liberation, art, technology, love, death, exploitation, duty, greed, hubris, reformation, enlightenment, science, propaganda, persecution, genocide, atonement, and so much more. If there was one thread through all the exhibits it was this one: we haven’t changed at all in six thousand years, not at heart. Our technology has changed a great deal, of course, and we have lots of science now but I’m not sure about anything else. Democracy might an anomalous state of affairs, for example. When viewed against the long history of human governance dominated mostly by despots, it certainly looks like the exception to the rule. That probably means progress is illusory. After all, greed and hubris seem just as strong today as it was at the height of Babylon’s power.

Gauguin’s painting

Our tour through Berlin’s museums reminded me of a quote by the great biologist and humanist E. O. Wilson who summed up the human story this way: “We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of humanity.” This sentence can be found in Wilson’s book The Social Conquest of Earth, published in 2012. The cover features Paul Gauguin’s 1897 masterpiece on which the painter inscribed three questions: Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Whether Gauguin considered these questions to be anguished or not, Wilson certainly did. In his book, Wilson works strenuously to provide answers with a provocative blend of biology, anthropology, art, neuroscience, and history. Although his analysis is a sober one, Wilson ends his book on a hopeful note, predicting that we’ll pull through our current dilemmas. He believes the human story will ultimately be an inspiring tale of discovery and adventure, not the dark Shakespearian tragedy that seems to be developing.

I’m willing to give Wilson the benefit of a doubt though mounting evidence points to the very danger he said we pose to ourselves and the natural world. This is the one and only story, I realized.

The realization began with my feet. As our time in Berlin went on each day became hotter and hotter. It didn’t slow us down at first. We kept walking despite the heat – hey, we were in Berlin! How hot could it be? Hot. On the third day, I developed a heat rash around my ankles that looked bad. I was having trouble staying hydrated too despite chugging water at every opportunity. The humidity wasn’t terribly high, so I blamed our difficult circumstances on the lack of air conditioning in the city, which including many of the museums. There was another culprit, however. No one thought to check the news, so when Gen and I boarded our train for the ride back to Prague to catch our return flight we were unprepared for what happened next. The date was Thursday, July 25th – the hottest day ever in Europe, part of a record-setting heat wave. Climate change, in other words. By the time we reached the airport the next morning for the long journey home, all the stories had melted in the heat and merged into just one story, one anguished question:

Where indeed, Mr. Gauguin, are we going exactly?

(photos of Prague and Berlin by Courtney White)

THE HEAT WAVE

At first, I thought there was something wrong with the air conditioning.

Train station in Germany (from our trip)

As Gen and I settled into our seats last Thursday, July 25th, on a train bound for Prague from Berlin, Germany, I passed my hand across an air vent along the base of the large window in our compartment. Something leaked out, barely. Air, I hoped. It was early afternoon on a hot day in a hot week and soon there were six of us in the cramped compartment, adding our body heat to the stuffy conditions. When would the air conditioning kick in, I wondered? It’s been years since I’ve traveled by rail in Europe, and never at peak summer, so I wasn’t hip to protocols for cooling down passengers. Maybe the train needed to be moving? A few kilometers after leaving the train station, I ran my hand over the vent again, testing the feeble flow. A half hour later I tried again. Nothing had changed. Maybe it was a mechanical problem? Back in Berlin, I had felt a twinge of concern as our train pulled up. It looked old. To save a few Euros, I had booked us in second class on a commuter run to Prague, where we had started our sojourn nine days earlier. The train seemed to be fine, however, and not noticeably different than the one that carried us to Berlin, a trip that hadn’t caused any discomfort. Maybe it was just a cultural thing. As an American, I’m accustomed to air conditioning everywhere I go (though we live comfortably without it at home in Santa Fe). In Europe, there seemed to be a different attitude toward the convenience, as we discovered in Berlin where nearly every building, including the national museums, lacked air conditioning. I understood why. Europe is temperate in the summer and I suspect Germans are keen to keep their energy use as low as possible.

Still, something seemed wrong. An hour into our train ride, we were sweating – a lot. There was no way to open the window and the feeble air supply hadn’t changed, except to die briefly when we pulled into a station. Between the heat and the humidity, the compartment became a sauna. Fortunately, we had brought plenty of water for the four-hour ride. And as former field archaeologists Gen and I were used to sweaty discomfort. I glanced at our fellow travelers. The middle-aged man wearing European-styled glasses seated next to Gen seemed unperturbed by the heat (he disembarked in Dresden). The other passengers were three cheerful young adults from Ireland, judging by their accents, traveling with a larger group. They had disappeared into their smart phones as soon as we left Berlin, though occasionally they spoke short sentences to one another. They, too, were apparently unfazed by the conditions. Meanwhile, the heat continued to build. Gen fanned herself with a map. I wiped my face on a sleeve as I watched farm country roll past under a cloudless sky. Maybe I was just being a wimp, I thought to myself. It had been a while since Gen and I had done any hard traveling, preferring to stay home and keep our carbon footprint as low as possible. Maybe I had gone soft in middle age. Then I heard two words that changed everything.

“Heat wave,” one of the Irish lads announced, looking up from his phone.

And not just any heat wave, as I learned when we turned on the TV in our hotel room later that evening. It was a record-smashing heat wave. In Paris, the thermometer hit 108.7° F (42.6° C) while were travelling, demolishing a record that stood since 1947 by an astonishing (in the words of a meteorologist) four degrees. Germany set an all-time national record of 108°, surpassing the previous mark by nearly four degrees – a mark set just the previous day! It was a similar story in Belgium and the Netherlands. Both hit 107°, destroying previous highs by six and five degrees respectively (prompting experts to use the word “astonishing” again). According to the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, temperatures had never risen above 104 degrees in recorded history. The Met office in England reported a reading of 101.7° at Cambridge University, breaking the previous record of 101.3°, set in 2003, and marking only the second time temperatures had ever reached triple digits in the UK. No wonder our train compartment had become a sauna! I could certainly sympathize with a story in the New York Times I read upon our return about a Eurostar train in Belgium that had broken down and passengers were not allowed to open windows or leave the train for three hours out of safety concerns. A passenger was quote saying “I have never been so hot in my life.”

The real news, however, wasn’t how many records had been broken across the continent but by how much they had been surpassed, said researchers. New all-time records are usually set incrementally, most often by only a few tenths of a degree. But the records that fell last week were obliterated. Another word used by weather and climate experts to describe what happened is one appearing in more and more news stories and scientific reports recently: unprecedented. Whether the topic is heat waves, flooding, fires, or rates of melting, everyone seems to keep using the word. We’re entering unchartered territory. As Marshall Shepherd, director of the University of Georgia’s atmospheric sciences program said in news story about the heat wave, the obliteration of all-time temperature records have “established an entirely new baseline.” It should be setting off loud and persistent warning sirens. Employing a medical analogy about a fast-rising fever, Shepard said “If you have a temperature of 99.6 degrees, it is alarming…103 degrees would send you right to the doctor.”

Worse, it was Europe’s second fever in less than a month. A June heat wave also set temperature records (2° Celsius above normal on average) earning the month the worrisome title as the hottest June ever on the continent. Not coincidently, it was also the warmest June ever globally, according to the World Meteorological Organization and NOAA. Nine of the ten warmest Junes have occurred since 2010 (1998 is ranked eighth). 2019 saw the forty-third consecutive June with temperatures above the twentieth century average. In fact, the hottest summers in Europe in the past five hundred years have all occurred in the past seventeen years, according to the New York Times story. I wasn’t thinking about unprecedented weather, however, as I planned our trip to Prague and Berlin. I did keep an eye on the June heat wave, breathing a sigh of relief as temperatures fell back down into the “normal” range. It was high summer, so we knew it would be quite warm – and packed accordingly. But another record-breaking heat wave? I didn’t even consider the possibility or think twice about it as temps rose during our time in Berlin earlier last week (abetted by my decision to unplug from the Internet when we left home). I did note the lack of air conditioning, but, hey, were in Europe! How bad could it be? Bad as it turned out.

And it’s just the beginning. The influence of climate change on last week’s heat wave was unmistakable, scientists said in numerous articles. And there would be more, hotter, heat waves in the future. Our fingerprints are all over this troubling development. “Every heat wave occurring in Europe today is made more likely and more intense by human-induced climate change,” wrote the authors of a preliminary study published by the World Weather Attribution, an international scientific collaboration, about the June heat wave. In a news article, Radley Horton, a climate researcher at Columbia University said “The verdict is in: Increasing greenhouse gas concentrations due to human activity – by raising average temperatures – have loaded the dice toward more frequent record breaking heat extremes.” Karsten Haustein, a climate scientist and meteorologist at the University of Oxford, tweeted: “This. Is. Climate. Change.” Perhaps most ominous, journalist Jack Holmes, writing in Esquire magazine (online) said this about 2019: “It’s the first summer of the rest of our lives.”

It’s not just Europe. This summer there have been unprecedented heat waves in South Korea, Japan, India, Alaska (whose largest city, Anchorage, set an all-time record high on July 4th), and the East Coast of the United States. As I write this the dome of heat that cooked Europe last week has settled in over Greenland, likely to cause massive melting of its precious glaciers. This avalanche of news came as a bit of a shock to me. Although I’ve worked in climate change for many years, mostly on the solution side of the crisis, none of the research I saw said conditions would deteriorate this fast. For example, James Hansen, the father of climate science, warned in his 2010 book Storms of My Grandchildren that heat waves would be more intense and more frequent with each passing year unless greenhouse gas emissions were reduced but he was writing about the world his grandchildren would inherit, I thought. Years from now, in other words. But it’s arriving much more quickly, evidenced by roasting Gen and I experienced in the train last Thursday.

The event reinforced the anguished question that I posed in my previous post: What Is Earth For? For us to roast? It’s beginning to look that way. Things are moving fast climatically – and very slowly politically. In a fitting but pathetic irony, the annual gathering of climate change deniers in Washington, D.C., organized by the heartless Heartland Institute, met on the 25th just as Paris broke its all-time record. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of young protestors around the world, led by courageous sixteen-year old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, have mobilized all year in a desperate attempt to provoke governments into action and salvage something of their collective future. However, in another sign of the times, a day before the record-breaking 25th, Thunberg was publicly mocked by right-wing lawmakers as she spoke to the French National Assembly in Paris! It boggles the mind.

Yosemite Valley (1990) from my photography project The Indelible West

The events of the past week have put many things into perspective suddenly for me. I have known for some time that we were careening toward a precipice from which we might not recover, but I always assumed we had time to take corrective action. However, the speed at which the world has approached the precipice – now only a few years away, say the experts – puts my personal journey into sharper focus. The transition from the ‘precedented’ world that I grew up in to the ‘unprecedented’ world that has begun to take hold has happened entirely within my lifetime. On the one hand, I’m not at all shocked. I’ve been worried about our destructive habits for nearly all my life, first through the lens of archaeology, then land conservation, followed by my activism with the Quivira Coalition. Figuring out how “live on a patch of land without ruining it” as conservationist Aldo Leopold once described the “oldest task in history” has been the central tenet of my work. That includes my nonfiction books, of course, but also my photographic projects as well as my novel-writing. One might call it a ‘career’ interest in conservation and sustainability, via anguished questions, though I’ve always considered my path to be more akin to an artist’s journey than a researcher’s investigation (right brain/left brain). But events this summer have cast my work and interests in a somewhat different light, which I am still sorting out. This includes things I saw and learned during the rest of our journey to Prague and Berlin, which I’ll discuss in my next post.

What Is Earth For?

“The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and foster its renewal is our only hope.” – Wendell Berry

Author Wallace Stegner once said every book should try to answer an anguished question, an instruction that I took to heart at a tender age. For over thirty years, I’ve tried to answer a number of anguished questions in my writing, photography, and activism, ranging over the fields of archaeology, history, conservation, the radical center, regenerative agriculture, resilience, and climate change. Although the questions were often daunting and suffused with urgency, in my answers I tried to be creative, hopeful and, above all, a good storyteller. It’s my nature to see the glass as half-full, even if the glass is large and intimidating!

Slowly, a general anguished question began to reveal itself over the years, linking my various concerns and creative efforts: what is land for? Why do we do what we do to land, including its plants and animals? Why do we treat it so poorly at times and yet magnificently at others? Why are we so obsessed with its beauty and bounty and yet so harmful and destructive to its health? We are possessive of land and possessed by it, but we are also deeply conflicted about what land is for – Food? Wilderness? Mining? Inspiration? Recreation? This anguished question lies at the heart of The Sun. In my story, a young doctor inherits a large, beautiful property and must decide: what is the ranch for? Oil-and-gas? Houses? Cattle? Fish? Wolves? A casino? A spiritual retreat? Complicating things, there’s a dead body and a mystery to solve as well!

Hurricane Katrina

When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, my anguished questions expanded suddenly. How do we build resilience economically and ecologically for a rapidly changing world? How do we scale-up hopeful solutions to serious problems? How could we work together more collaboratively despite significant cultural and political differences? How were we going to confront a warming globe and slow down climate change? The same year, I saw a graphic in a peer-reviewed academic journal that brought all the issues I had been worried about and working on into focus. The researchers studied twenty-four global indicators in an attempt to understand how fast human impacts were taking place at earth system levels – i.e., to oceans, land, and the atmosphere. They discovered that in a tiny fraction of time our impact had grown from insignificant to colossal. They called this rate of change The Great Acceleration. Human activity was approaching or exceeding some of the great forces of nature. The extent and magnitude of alterations to the natural world was (and continues to be) unprecedented, they wrote, and humans are now the primary driver of change on the planet. Taken together, it meant a new anguished question: what is earth for? Here is the graphic:

Steffen, et al, “The Trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration” Anthropocene Review, January 2015 (updated from 2004) – the year 1950 is in red.

In the years since Hurricane Katrina, I have searched for hopeful answers to this question in many places and expressed what I found in a variety of forms, including books, articles, lectures, and the work of the Quivira Coalition. Last fall, I was asked by the editor of a journal to reflect on this ‘earth’ question specifically and share what I had learned with readers. I was reluctant at first to try, mostly because I was feeling down about our prospects (Trump, climate change, Twitter, etc), but writing the essay proved to be cathartic. I realized that the quest to tackle anguished questions still beat strongly in my breast. I was still ‘Courtney White’ in other words (see previous post) even in fiction. It’s all one journey in one canoe. I am reprinting the essay here (The Point, no. 18, Winter 2019, in a longer version) as a way of explaining how my search for answers to anguished questions came about and evolved over time. And I offer it here on the Summer solstice as a tribute to the start of my favorite season of the year and a reminder to keep on questing:

What is land for? This question entered my mind like a bullet one incredibly hot July day in 1979 while working on an archaeological survey crew in the Sonoran desert north of Phoenix, Arizona. Actually, it was the second piercing thought I had on that scorching afternoon, the first being what the hell am I doing here? It had to be 120 degrees out – hotter, actually, since additional heat blasted upward from the volcanic rock all around us. It was like being roasted slowly in a furnace – again. It had happened yesterday. And the day before. In fact, it had been a record-setting week of broiling temperatures in Phoenix, the kind of unforgiving heat that softened asphalt in parking lots and runway tarmacs, cancelling flights. Normally, I didn’t mind. I was eighteen and indestructible. Besides, I knew from experience that the desert has a surprising amount of shade if you know where to look. This day, however, was different. The volcanic land, covered with moon-like fragments of black rock, was shadeless except for the thin relief offered by a handful of saguaro cactus. Needing a break, our four-person crew dispersed quickly to the sparse stand of these stately monarchs, squeezing our bodies into their shadows. We didn’t have a choice. We were miles from our truck. And we had a job to do.

We had discovered a prehistoric field house among the rocks.

On survey in 1979 (I’m on the left). Near Phoenix.

It was my second summer as a member of an archaeological survey project run by Arizona State University, part of an energetic effort at the time to canvas the desert around Phoenix for signs of ancient human activity. On the surface, our purpose was scientific: to discover and record archaeological sites so we could understand better why prehistoric people did what they did centuries ago. In reality, our job was political. We surveyed land fated to be drowned by the rising waters of new dams. Phoenix’s economy, sustained by epic amounts of air conditioning, was beginning to boom. New homes, schools, and businesses were springing up like weeds after a spring rain. Raised on the edge of the expanding city, I had a front-row seat as cement flowed endlessly in all directions.

However, there was one significant limitation to Phoenix’s heedless addiction to growth: water. To civic leaders that meant new dams – taller, wider, deeper. In the old days, they would have simply hired engineers and dispatched bulldozers to accomplish their vision of progress. By the late 1970s, however, federal laws required cultural and biological surveys to be conducted before the bulldozers could fly, which is where ASU came in. Its job was to inventory the past before it was lost forever – and help the civic leaders choose the best site for the new dam. My job as a crew member, hired at the eye-popping (to me) rate of $3.33 an hour, was to hike, make maps, collect artifacts, and camp in the desert. I had so much fun I would have done it for free!

Prehistoric field house. Bandelier, NM, from my book In the Land of the Delight-Makers (1992)

Over the course of surveying the basins of five potential dam sites, ASU’s crews discovered a wide variety of prehistoric ruins, large and small, but none quite as intriguing to me as the little field house in the volcanic field on that broiling July day. At first glance, the structure was unimpressive. A square of shaped stones, it measured two meters by two meters and stood only one course high – hardly discernable among the rocky moonscape. Trained eyes had discovered it, however, and now we needed to record the lonely edifice. But we weren’t quite ready to abandon the blessed shadows of our saguaros. Standing there, I frowned at the little house. What was it doing here? These types of structures were usually associated with agricultural fields, serving as storage for harvested crops, but where were the fields? The land was sand and rocks and pitiless sun.

Prehistoric food included corn, beans, and squash and the technique used to raise them was called dry farming by archaeologists, which is a literal description. Farmers relied on rain water to grow their crops and when the rains failed, as they often did in the arid Southwest, people suffered. That’s why prehistoric farmers were fabulous opportunists. They grew food wherever they could, even in places considered marginal by desert standards. Our survey crew discovered field houses in surprising places, including on steep slopes, but not one as merciless as this moonscape. It spoke of human ingenuity – and desperation for sustenance.

Phoenix during my youth.

This was a revelation to me as a suburban city boy who had no idea where my food came from other than the grocery store and fast food restaurants. Actually, in our household most of our meals came from the freezer. My mother liked to boil frozen food in a bag, back when that was popular. Ranching? Farming? I had no clue. The only livestock I knew were a few horses my parents owned for a while. Occasionally, I would spy a green farm field on the edge of town while driving, but the only crop I ever saw harvested were new houses. All that changed when I joined the survey.

Hiking across inhospitably dry country that had once sustained thousands of prehistoric people, I came to appreciate the deep link between land and survival. The Law of the Desert for prehistoric inhabitants became clear as we worked: cultivate the land or perish. It was a law as old as agriculture, and probably a lot older. For millennia, humans have been in a dynamic, productive, and codependent relationship with land for our sustenance, both nutritionally and spiritually. Success or failure was a mixture of farming skill and natural caprice (the whim of gods or summer storms, take your pick). For me, it was all on display that burning July day in the form of a solitary field house sitting mutely among the sun-blasted rocks. It spoke viscerally to a fundamental human attitude toward the earth: we need it to nourish us.

After a move to Santa Fe, New Mexico, I carried the image of the little field house in my mind as I became involved with the conservation movement. Alarmed by the “Republican Revolution” in the 1994 mid-term elections and Speaker-elect Newt Gringrich’s declared intention to rollback twenty-five years of critical environmental legislation, I called a representative of the Sierra Club to volunteer my services and was quickly recruited as a foot soldier for the local chapter. While much of Gingrich’s anti-environmental agenda was successfully blocked in Congress thanks to a national outpouring of outrage, I witnessed a different sort of trouble at home.

At the time, conservation work was dominated by open conflict between environmentalists and loggers, miners, and ranchers over the use of public land in the West. Almost daily headlines around the region featured a cycle of unhappy news: effigies of forest activists hanging from street lamps; road-building equipment disabled in the dead of night; federal property attacked by anonymous assailants; hiking trails booby-trapped with explosives; trees spiked with large nails to prevent their harvest; endangered species threatened by a rural campaign of ‘shoot, shovel, and shut up;’ public meetings dissolving into shouting matches, on and on. Two popular bumper stickers reflected the tenor of the times: “Cattle Free in ’93!” shouted one and “Cattle Galore in ’94!” shouted the other.

Wilderness or cattle ranch or both? Western Montana.

Although I was a conservationist, I felt a great deal of anguish because this conflict had all the hallmarks of a tragedy: both sides, and all of us in between, seemed destined to lose what was most valued by everyone: the health and diversity of the West’s open spaces. And it wasn’t just the West, the hard-headedness of this fight reflected other divides in the nation – the “red” and “blue” split, for instance, that would soon engulf our national politics. In particular, I struggled to understand why fellow activists kept proposing solutions to environmental problems that carried the maximum penalty for rural people. For example, a vigorous national campaign to prohibit on all logging in national forests – called ‘Zero Cut’ – was the proposed answer to forest mismanagement by the federal government, a solution that fell hard on the struggling traditional Hispanic villages of northern New Mexico who relied on the forest for wood to heat their homes. Tensions quickly flared as villagers protested this assault on their culture. Activists persisted, resulting in a pipe bomb being placed in the local mailbox of the most aggressive environmental organization (it didn’t go off, thankfully).

Jim Winder

An answer to my anguish came from an unexpected source one day. Walking into a statewide meeting of the Sierra Club in the southern part of the state, I saw a cowboy hat sitting on a table. It belonged to Jim Winder, who lived and ranched nearby. If that wasn’t surprise enough, I was told Jim was there because he had accepted the invitation of the chair, Gwen Wardwell, to become a member of the Executive Committee. A rancher on the statewide Executive Committee of the Sierra Club? And a Republican to boot! What was going on here? Jim boasted that he ranched in a new, ecologically friendly style. He bunched his cattle together into one herd and kept them on the move so that any particular patch of ground would be grazed only once a year, mimicking the manner in which bison covered the land. He didn’t kill coyotes. In fact, he didn’t even mind wolves, because bunched-up cows can protect themselves. There was more: because he ranched for rangeland health he got along great with government employees, he had more water in his streams, and most importantly, he was making money.

It sounded too good to be true. Curious about this new-fangled ranching, in early 1996 I joined a tour of the family ranch Jim had organized for a small crowd of his fellow Sierra Clubbers. Attending was a vocal anti-grazing activist who tried to provoke Jim into a confrontation (I learned later this activist was the prime suspect in a spate of cattle murders in the area). It didn’t work. Jim parried each attack with a patient explanation of ecological principles and a fine sense of humor. I soon learned there were other ranchers of Jim’s stripe across the West – ranchers managing for healthy ecosystems through progressive cattle management and collaboration. It confirmed what I saw on Jim’s ranch: thick grass, healthy riparian areas, young plants, wildlife, open space – all the things I said I wanted as a conservationist. Of course, I saw livestock too.

Rancher Jim Williams and myself. Jim sued the Forest Service and then joined the radical center to work things out collaboratively. Western NM.

Acting on what I learned, Jim and I, along with Barbara Johnson, another Sierra Club activist, founded the Quivira Coalition, a grassroots nonprofit organization dedicated to “sharing common-sense solutions to the rangeland conflict.” Our goal was to build a radical center among farmers, ranchers, agencies, scientists, conservationists, and members of the public around progressive land management practices that restored social and ecological health. Our guiding philosophy was encapsulated by Kentucky farmer and author Wendell Berry who wrote “You can’t save the land apart from the people; to save either, you must save both.” Our attempt to build a radical center wasn’t embraced by my fellow activists, however. Not only did many dislike talking to rural people, most were philosophically opposed to the idea of sustainable use of the land.

One of the main goals of the conservation movement at the time was wilderness protection. Arguments advanced by activists were based on the 1964 Wilderness Act which viewed land as either ‘pristine’ (“untrammeled” officially) or not. But I knew from my archaeological experience that nature wasn’t “pristine” at all. It had been used and occupied by indigenous people for thousands of years – at least until they were driven out of their homelands by the federal government in many cases. It looked like empty wilderness, but only because it had been forcibly emptied of people. These are working landscapes, I argued, both historically and presently – working ecologically as well as socially. Ranchers had a place in the West too, I said. This was the point the Hispanic villages were also trying to make – culture matters. But whenever I brought up these concerns fellow environmentalists would scoff. One even accused me in print of being “an archaeologist.”

Singing Frogs organic farm. Northern California.

Then there was food. Why did activists rarely talk about food production, except to criticize industrial agriculture or complain about livestock on public land? Positive, nurturing relationships between land and humans centered on sustainable farming and ranching were almost never discussed, buried under noisy demands by activists for more wilderness designation and greater wildlife protections. Lost in the heated ‘us vs. them’ rhetoric that dominated the 1990s was any acknowledgement that land could be managed in regenerative ways that sustained humans and the world we all shared together. Even as the organic farming movement rapidly expanded and healthy food became widely available in natural grocery stores, restaurants, and farmers markets, many conservationists maintained their campaign against agricultural use of the earth. Others simply stuck their fingers in their ears.

This is where the image of the little field house among the hot rocks on that July day kept coming back to me – we need the land to feed us today as much as we did back then. Food doesn’t come from the grocery store, it originates in the earth. Either we can get it from organic, regenerative farms and ranches or we can continue to consume industrially-produced food-like substances. Either way, as Wendell Berry once observed, “eating is an agricultural act” – a point the conservation movement kept missing.

My work with the Quivira Coalition led to another issue that made my fellow environmentalists uncomfortable: the earth needed us too.

Example of soil erosion – these fence posts sat on the ground in 1937. Near Quemado, NM.

Our relationship to the land has too often been abusive. This point was driven home to me one day as I walked up a small creek on a ranch in eastern New Mexico. I could tell that the creek had been badly eroded by repeated floods but when I saw a barbed-wire fence with its wooden posts still attached stretched across the creek ten feet above my head, I knew something serious was going on. When I asked the rancher about the fence, he said the wooden posts had rested on the ground in 1937! In other words, a huge amount of soil had washed away in only seventy years. The main culprit was historical overgrazing by livestock in the uplands, which stripped land of its grass cover exposing soil to the erosive power of big storms. A few weeks later, I asked an expert with the federal government how much of New Mexico existed in a similarly degraded condition. “Most of it,” he replied. The Rio Puerco, a significant waterway west of Albuquerque, was once called the ‘breadbasket’ of region. Today, it is a forty-foot deep ditch along much of its length, a victim of ignorance and economic short-sightedness (the two principle reasons for land abuse, according to Wendell Berry).

The great conservationist Aldo Leopold once declared the arid Southwest to be on a “hair-trigger” for erosion. If stewarded poorly, he warned, the health of the land would begin a downward spiral leading to all sorts of trouble. He was right. In fact, for much of the Southwest the trigger was pulled decades ago.

Bill Zeedyk teaching a riparian restoration workshop, Comanche Creek, NM.

Fortunately, we can help turn this around. The toolbox for improving and restoring land health, nascent in Leopold’s day, has expanded dramatically over recent years. We know how to manage cattle holistically so native grasses can get reestablished and thrive; we know how to mend damaged creeks with simple, carefully-design wooden structures that slow water down and let riparian vegetation grow again; we know how to grow food regeneratively, building up carbon in the soil that was lost generations ago when topsoil washed away; and we know how to rebuild trust and work together for the common benefit of land and people.

These aren’t new ideas. Aldo Leopold observed long ago that the tools we used to damage the land – the axe, plow, gun, and cow – were the same ones that could be used to restore it. It wasn’t the tool itself that was the problem, he wrote, but how we use it. A hammer could be employed to build a house, for instance, or strike a person. Cattle, grazing in ways that mimicked the behavior of wild herbivores, such as a herd of bison, could be a tool for regenerating the land. I saw it in practice over and over.

Restored grasslands on Tom and Mimi Sidwell’s JX Ranch. Tumacacori, NM

Today, despite the news headlines about widening political and social divides in America, the radical center continues to grow across the nation. It goes by many names now – collaborative conservation, regenerative agriculture, sustainable resource management, ecoagriculture, watershed stewardship – but the purpose is the same: restoring the ancient, co-relationship between people and land. In many places, it is being led by young people who are emboldened not only by ideas and practices “beta tested” by their mentors, but also by new ways to measure and quantify the results of their work that weren’t possible twenty years ago. New technology, much of it hand-held, can generate piles of data that can guide our land management, food growing, and ecological restoration activities. The sequestration of atmospheric carbon in soils, for example, which has the potential to reduce the effects of climate change, is a rapidly burgeoning area of work among a new generation of regenerative farmers and ranchers empowered by low-cost, cutting-edge technology.

I find all of this tremendously encouraging. The environmental movement has changed too. Many activists now see the value of working landscape for conservation and are working in partnership with rural residents toward common goals. Building up carbon in the soil, for instance, is in all our interests, as every gardener knows. It is the lesson of the little field house that so sharply entered my mind all those years ago: the earth still nourishes us and we can still nourish the earth.

(all photos by Courtney White except the ones of Katrina, Jim, Phoenix and the two with me)

What’s In A Name?

I’ve decided to become Courtney White again.

Sutro

When I left the Quivira Coalition at the end of 2015 to write full-time, I considered using a pseudonym for the mystery series that I hope to write. It’s a common practice among authors who want to keep their fictional identity separate from their other work or if they are writing in multiple genres. Otherwise, crossover is hard on readers, I was told. In my case, I had been writing nonfiction for years and although I wasn’t taking a mighty leap with subject matter of the mystery series I thought I should separate it my former self, especially since I hadn’t planned to write more nonfiction. One idea that came to mind was C. G. Sutro. That’s the pen name Gen and I came up with years ago (C. and G.) when we toyed with the idea of writing an archaeological adventure series together. Sutro was our dog. I wrote down a few other ideas as well but in the end a fake name felt like I was hiding, so I decided to stick a “J” out front of Courtney White instead (Joseph is my first name) and keep things simple.

In the past two weeks, I’ve had a change of heart. For one thing, my CW name will be on the title of a book in the Innovators Series (described in an earlier post) that will be published this fall, reviving my nonfiction brand. It will likely happen again with the book I’m currently working on with farmer Dorn Cox. Meanwhile, The Sun didn’t sell well, which means my dream of financial and literary success as a mystery writer will be harder and take longer (if it happens at all). I’ve also been giving a great deal of thought to the arc of my thirty years of writing, photography, and activism. On the surface, my “career” looks like a collection of discrete activities loosely bound together, but in fact they are all part of the same journey down the same river in the same canoe – full of twists and turns. The connection, I realized, is storytelling – land, people, and the Age of Consequences (which I’ll discuss later).

The kicker came when I stumbled across an interview I penned for Resilience.org, an online “community library and café” dedicated to thoughtful discussion about the multiple challenges confronting the world. I was a frequent contributor for a while and in 2015 the editor asked me to write responses to a short list of questions. Looking them over again, I realized that everything I’ve done over the years originated from one source: Courtney White. So, I’ve decided to take back the “J” and pick up where Courtney left off. Here’s the interview:

Resilience.org: Who/what has been your greatest inspiration?

Aldo Leopold

“My greatest inspirations are William Shakespeare and Aldo Leopold. The key to moving hearts and minds no matter what your field of endeavor is good storytelling and no one did it better than Will. There’s a reason why his plays are regularly performed four hundred years after they were written: they are gripping tales of revenge, love, lust, tyranny, jealousy, betrayal, murder that resonate with us as humans. His words are lofty and musical and his plots and his characters have a poignancy that keeps us coming back for more. Anyone who aspires to being heard can still learn much from the Bard of Avon. On the nonfiction side, I take a lot of inspiration from the great American conservationist Aldo Leopold. He was not only a fine writer but focused his creativity and intelligence on the pressing issues of his day, including wildlife management, wilderness protection, environmental education, sustainable agriculture, economics, ethical behavior, and scientific documentation. Leopold once described living on a patch of land without ruining it as “the oldest task in human history” – a task more pressing today than ever – which ranks it right up there with Shakespeare’s ruminations on the human condition. Whether this task is ultimately a tragedy, a history or a comedy remains to be seen!”

Knowing what you know now about sustainability and resilience building, what piece of advice would you give your younger self if you were starting out?

“Don’t expect facts, logic, or more education to be sufficient. When I began my work with the Quivira Coalition nearly twenty years ago, I assumed that social change was mostly a matter of spreading the news – giving people facts, making logical arguments, promoting profitable approaches, rebutting emotional objections with real-world examples, creating educational opportunities, and generally counting on people to eventually “see the light.” What I didn’t understand is how deep personal beliefs go – as in really deep, even to the point of self-destructive behavior. A rancher once told me he’d rather “go down with the ship” than change his management – which is exactly what happened! Going in, I knew humans acted in contradictory and illogical ways, I just didn’t understand how stubborn we could be even in the face of empirical evidence. I do now. The advice I’d anyone now is to concentrate more on hopeful, fact-based storytelling and less on lectures, numbers, and complaining. I would also advise focusing on young people, who are often more open to new ideas than their elders.”

What keeps you awake at night?

“Besides the low pay of nonprofit work and writing? What keeps me awake at night is thinking about the world my children will be inheriting. Even if we get our act together as a society and work hard toward a sustainable future, all of our children will still inherit a challenging situation. And if we don’t work really hard, then the challenge will be huge. Of course, this situation isn’t fair to them. Parents are supposed to improve the world for their children, not diminish it – but diminishing it is exactly what we are doing. I can only imagine what future generations will say about us when they realize that we still had an opportunity to be proactive rather than reactive to these challenges and we didn’t take it. Strenuous cussing comes to mind.”

What gets you up in the morning or keeps you going?

Greek Muse

“My muse – who is a stern taskmaster. No lollygagging allowed, especially in the wee hours of the morning. Hup hup! Seriously, I’ve suffered from an irrepressible creative impulse and a dangerously insatiable curiosity since I was a teenager. I just love the world, its history, its cultures, its beauty, its mystery, and its diversity. Exploring and interpreting what I find, whether in writing, photography, or activism, is hard-wired into my behavior – I don’t know why. I suppose my parents are to blame! My father was a neurologist who just loved helping people get better. He found humans, and their illnesses, endlessly fascinating. My mother was also insatiably curious about the world, though her interests involved art and literature. Together, they gave me an enduring thirst for discovering and caring. As for the stern muse, as my sometimes exasperated family can tell you, it never sleeps.”

What has been your biggest setback and how did you recover?

“There was a period of time when I struggled with a sense of failure – a slow-growing realization that I wasn’t going to achieve as much as I hoped with my activism. When I began my career in social change, first as an environmental activist with the Sierra Club and then as a cofounder and director of the Quivira Coalition, I had decently-sized expectations of changing the Status Quo both at the grassroots (including the ‘grass’ and the ‘roots’) and at higher levels. I put a lot of heart-and-soul into these expectations so when Business-as-Usual continued to prevail despite our best efforts, my spirits took a beating. We had some success – don’t get me wrong – and I’m proud of our work and the lives we touched, but in the Big Picture we didn’t accomplish as much as I hoped. This was hard to accept for a while, but eventually I got over it. I recovered the way most people do – by going through a grieving process and coming out the other end stronger, wiser, and more focused. Like any loss, you deal with it. The alternative is to succumb to sadness and despair. Those weren’t options for me, so I picked myself up and got back to work (remember the stern muse) and began exploring new horizons.”

For you resilience is…?

“Resilience is both bouncing back and moving on. It’s the capacity to cope with the unexpected, going through a grieving process for example, in order to handle loss, but it’s also the ability to thrive in the face of never-ending change. I love this quote by the Buddha: “Change is never painful, only the resistance to change is painful.” Resilience is all about overcoming the resistance to change in ways that create positive, hopeful, and healthful paths into the future. That’s easier said than done, of course! Take the adventurous journey into mid-life, for example. When you enter your fifties, resistance to change becomes almost a fact of daily existence, especially if you have teenage children as we do. What do you mean I’m not forty anymore! It’s not very resilient, I can tell you, to fight these changes, including the reluctance to admit that life is, in fact, “bounded by a sleep” as Shakespeare put in The Tempest (his career-concluding meditation on aging). The resilient answer, at least for me, is to move on to new work, new horizons, and new opportunities. Never stop using the oars, in other words, even if we must row more slowly.”

What one social/political/cultural/policy change would most assist your work/hopes/dreams?

“From my experience, I’d say incentivizing people to do the right thing with their land is job #1 today. Unfortunately, we have a society/politics/culture that strongly encourages people to do the wrong thing with the planet, and we’re reaping the consequences big time. In vivid contrast, incentives to take care of the natural world (including ourselves) are hugely lacking. What would they be? Aldo Leopold struggled with this question all his life, especially in light of the economic and environmental devastation brought on by the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. He examined a wide variety of financial and policy incentives and found them wanting. In the end, he settled on a plea for a change in our ethics. Fast forward to the present day and his plea looms larger than ever. There is an important difference, however, between his time and ours (see my next response), which leads me to believe that financial incentives might work after all. If we could pay land owners, for instance, to double the carbon content of their soils – and by pay I mean money – than I’m certain we’d see positive, resilient, regenerative results. This is described in detail in my book Grass, Soil, Hope: a Journey Through Carbon Country.”

What gives you hope?

“Human ingenuity. I know it’s the bane of our existence as well, but I’ve been deeply impressed by the large amount of innovation that has taken place within the ecological agriculture community over the past thirty years. It’s staggering actually. The regenerative toolbox is overflowing with new ideas, many of which have gone through an on-the-ground, beta-test phase and proven to be practical, profitable and effective. As I like to tell people, we don’t need to invent anything to solve our problems – we’ve already done it! Mix in photosynthesis and you have answers to most of our problems. This is incredibly hopeful stuff – and I’m certain that Aldo Leopold would have agreed. The challenge, of course, is scaling up – and quickly. That’s the next step and it’s a big one, but in the meantime it’s encouraging to know that human ingenuity is still hard at work for the betterment of ourselves and the world.”

MY COUSIN WILLIAM FAULKNER

Is writing in the blood? Is it inherited? Where does it come from?

My mother and me

If I have writing skills, I didn’t get them from my father. He was a well-respected and much beloved neurologist, but he wasn’t a reader, much less a writer. That was my mother’s department. I knew she loved words and not just in books. She composed them as well. I remember long letters of correspondence she sent me at summer camps (placed in manila envelopes stuffed with newspaper clippings). I also knew she exchanged lengthy letters with her friends. It wasn’t until I waded into her papers after her death in 1988, however, that I realized how good a writer she was – and how badly she wanted a career in literature. Words flowed effortlessly from her. Topics included anything and everything – a recent trip, a visit from a relative, a class taught by Lewis Mumford, a play on Broadway, a book, a favorite dog, the weather. They were the nonstop words of a natural writer, energetically seeking an audience. She was an amazing photographer as well, I discovered, with a natural eye for form and light. I had no idea! Growing up, she never discussed her writing or photography with me at all. I know why. By the time I was old enough to appreciate her skill, she had abandoned any hope of a career – for many reasons – and had settled into a kind of monkish existence, content to read books and watch movies on television.

So where does the skill and desire to write or take photographs come from if one’s parents aren’t tutors? School, I suppose – but I never took classes in these topics, preferring to study history and anthropology. Reading is crucial, of course, but it’s not the same as writing and it doesn’t explain the source of the mysterious drive that propels writers to write. It’s more basic. A friend of mine once declared that he “didn’t have a book in him.” For those of us with many books inside, where does that need originate? Is there a writing gene?

Cousin Bill

This question came rushing at me unexpectedly one day in 1986 when I learned that novelist William Faulkner was my cousin. My aunt Sarah – my father’s sister – had come to Los Angeles, where I was living at the time, to visit Stuart Lacy, their mother’s oldest brother. I tagged along. Sarah had recently retired from a career in social work and decided to dig into the Lacy family tree, the roots of which reached back to medieval England and Normandy (the de Lacys fought alongside William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings). She also wanted to confirm a rumor that we were related to one William Faulkner of Oxford, Mississippi. That was a surprise! On the drive to Canoga Park, Sarah explained what she had learned: Faulkner’s great grandmother and her great grandmother were sisters – Emily and Sarah Holcombe. Emily married Dr. John Murry, whose daughter, Sallie, married John Wesley Falkner (whose famous son added a ‘u’ to the family name). Sarah Holcombe married Watson Lacy and moved to El Dorado, Arkansas. Their child, William Stokes Lacy, was my father’s grandfather. However, Sarah was having trouble confirming our link to the novelist because genealogy trees in those days heavily favored male lineages, leaving wives and mothers to sit forlornly on limbs. In 2006, I paid a visit to Faulkner’s home outside Oxford and spent an hour in a local bookstore confirming the Lacy family connection. My aunt’s sleuthing was correct – I was related to William Faulkner!

Faulkner’s map of Yoknapatawpha County

This news percolated inside me. My mother idolized Faulkner (and never forgave my father for being the family link instead of her). I grew up dabbling in his novels, mostly egged on by her unswerving admiration for the writer. I didn’t get very far. In college, I tried again. I made my way through The Sound and The Fury and Absalom! Absalom! However, his dense writing style and lugubrious sentences (I thought at the time) weren’t my cup of tea. I appreciated his “Southernness” and his world-building, even if I couldn’t pronounce the name of his mythical county – Yoknapatawpha. His regionalism appealed to my budding creative interest in my home ground, the American West. In fact, a direct consequence of my aunt’s visit was a decision to do an ‘independent study’ of the West, which I conducted in the book stacks of UCLA’s main library during breaks from my job in the Acquisitions department (a project prompted by the arrival of John Nichols’ On the Mesa at my desk one day). Faulkner had dedicated himself to articulating what it meant to be Southern, which was a cool idea, I thought. What did it mean to be Western? I had a few ideas, thanks to Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner, among others, but I needed to dig deeper, which is exactly what I did for the next two years, resulting in The Indelible West, among other projects.

My visit to Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oak, outside Oxford in 2006 inspired me all over again, but in a new direction. I had spent the previous eight years writing articles, essays, and interviews about ranchers and other progressive land managers as part of my duties as Executive Director of the Quivira Coalition. The previous fall, I was deeply honored when Wendell Berry published an essay of mine titled ‘The Working Wilderness’ in his collection The Way of Ignorance. It felt like crossing a threshold – I was a writer! What did that mean? What should I do now? Reconfirming my familial link to Faulkner in Oxford and visiting Rowan Oak (where I wandered around so long that a security guard asked me if everything was ok) pushed all these questions to the forefront. I felt a kinship with my cousin that couldn’t be denied, whatever its source. Most of all, I wanted to write books. But I was forty-six years old! Not too late to write books, but too late to make a career of it. Fortunately, I didn’t inherit the legacy of alcoholism from Faulkner, so at least I had that going in my favor. Still, it seemed crazy. I decided to compromise. I had recently stopped writing a regular column for the Quivira newsletter, feeling like I had reached an inflection point. I would start another column, on my web site, with a different purpose – more literary perhaps – and see what happened next. I began the project on Earth Day, 2008, titled A Chronicle of the Age of Consequences.

Where does the urge to write come from? I don’t know. It might be inheritable, I suppose, but whatever the source, it’s important to take our inspirations and run with them, not knowing where they will lead. If you can find inspiration among the leaves and branches of your family tree, so much the better!

Innovators

For the past two years, my day job has been working on a book series called Innovators in Regenerative Agriculture for Chelsea Green Publishing. I just turned in a second manuscript in February. It is tentatively titled Fibershed: Local Fiber, Local Dye, Local Labor – Building Regional and Textile Cultures and Economies and will be published next fall.

Its author is Rebecca Burgess, the founder and Executive Director of Fibershed, an exciting and growing nonprofit organization in northern California. As Rebecca describes it, a local fibershed is a geographical region, like a watershed or a foodshed, that sets a definite boundary for the resources we use in our clothes – in her case a 150-mile radius from her front door. In 2010, she challenged herself to dress 100% from locally grown fibers, natural dyes, and labor for one year. It was a process that brought her into direct relationships with well-managed farms, ranches, and skilled textile artisans. It was a deliberate and eye-opening contrast to the industrial model of clothes production, almost all of which takes place overseas at steep environmental and social costs. The book taps into a broader cultural shift taking place that pushes back against our increasingly destructive behavior. “The question for our time,” Rebecca writes, “is how we can transform contemporary systems to benefit all life and promote regeneration without falling into the trap of unintended consequences that force the hand of another set of technological solutions.” To do this, we must tune into the fundamentals of the carbon, water, and nutrient cycles, developing deeper knowledge about the earth’s true ecological carrying capacity.

She writes: “It is within our deepest human know-how to answer the question how will we care for, protect, and moderately utilize what the earth provides in a manner that leaves the land and water more diverse and productive than when we found it. The challenge to create a functioning fibershed is steeped in the process of answering this question.”

The goal of the Innovators book series is to assist innovative farmers, ranchers, scientists and nonprofit directors in the field of regenerative agriculture get their words into print with the support of a professional writer (me). While many leaders in regenerative agriculture have participated in a variety of educational outreach activities over the years, including public speaking, workshops, and articles, few have written books – an important and enduring forum to convey deep knowledge and experience, communicate more detailed information than other platforms accommodate, and create frameworks for promising new approaches. For many, the obstacle to writing a book is a lack of time and experience not a lack of desire or things to say. Working with a writer can resolve this challenge. Prior to Rebecca’s book, I worked on Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture, authored by Gabe Brown, a progressive rancher in North Dakota.

I am honored to work with these innovators and help get their important stories into print.