The fight for independence

Originally posted 8/5/2009

I love used bookstores. I savor the smell of those old, mildewed pages, crisp with age and ripe with knowledge. I always wonder how wise those booksellers are, if they tire of their job, or if they relish the fact that they are constantly surrounded by hundreds of books.

I also love independent bookstores. When I walk into Village Books in Bellingham, WA, or Spellbinder Books in Bishop, CA, I feel at home. When I was a child, I would walk straight to the children’s books section and read the stories until my dad told me it was time to go. Now I mosey around the bestseller and non-fiction shelves, wondering if someday my name will be on a “Staff-Picks” sticker.

More often, however, I wonder if my name will ever make it into an independent bookstore. At the rate Amazon.com is selling books, my name may only be subject to internet searches.

Although I understand the benefits of online shopping, with books, it’s a different story. I will always spend the money and the time at an independent bookstore so it can remain stitched in the fabric of the American bookselling tradition. I would hate to see the day when Amazon.com and book franchises like Borders become the only options for buying books.

I saw this poster recently and decided more people should have the opportunity to read it. Although it’s distributed by the California Independent Booksellers Association, I know it pertains to independent bookstores across the nation. Here it is:

Number of in-store author appearances last year:

California Independent Bookstores—4,000

Amazon.com—0

Amount of donations to local community organizations last year:

CIB– $100,000

Amazon.com—0

Number of local people employed:

CIB—over 3,000

Amazon.com—0

Sales taxes collected and paid to support schools, social services and public agencies last year:

CIB—over $10 million

Amazon.com—0

Rather than the big franchises or online options, independent bookstores are the businesses truly committed to the art of writing, the joy of reading, and the passion of bookselling.

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Where there’s water…

Originally posted 7/3/2009

We can’t get enough of it. We drink it, swim and bathe in it, and flock to its shores to build our empires. In the kingdom of life, Water reigns supreme. Yet, even though it possesses enough power to wipe out cities with its waves and torrents, carve and split rock, and drown our fragile bodies, we still continue our mission to tame the beast—keeping it barred behind dams, trapped inside reservoirs, sailing through pipes, flying through fountains and suffocating in swimming pools.

We need water to live, and we’ll kill for access. We have been waging war against the land since settlers decided it was a good idea to inhabit places where water was scarce. I sit here, in Bishop, California, and am amazed I’m able to survive in this desert. Without man’s extreme manipulation of the natural will of water, the vultures would be picking at my dry, brittle bones.

Currently, I’m reading Marc Reisner’s book Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water. Dense, but incredibly entertaining and witty, the book is a detailed account of America’s absurd notion that cultivating land in the nation’s most arid regions is a good idea. Is it possible? Not permanently. That is the point of the book. We’re screwing ourselves over with poor planning and disillusionment.

The roots of the problem are both unnerving and comical. In the nineteenth century, to populate the states—particularly the ones most uninhabitable— the government promoted the idea that “Rain Follows the Plow.” Professor Cyrus Thomas, a climatologist of the times, said, “Since the territory [of Colorado] has begun to be settled, towns and cities built up, farms cultivated, mines opened, and roads made and traveled, there has been a gradual increase in moisture… I therefore give it as my firm conviction that this increase is of a permanent nature, and not periodical, and that it has commenced within eight years past, and that it is in some way connected to the settlement of the country, and that as population increases the moisture will increase.”

After hearing all the hype, settlers swarmed into the western states to cultivate all the so-called Eden-like land. The problem: most of the places people wanted to settle and farm were so dry they required heavy irrigation, and not everyone was as irrigation-savvy as the Mormons. One of these places was Los Angeles. In reality, given the location of this now-sprawling metropolis, the city should have never gotten so big. The solution to the city’s early water woes came in the form of surreptitious political plotting to divert (steal) water from a very, very long ways away.

In 1900, when William Mulholland, superintendent and chief engineer of the new Los Angeles Department of Water and Power realized that nearby water sources could not support the growing population of Los Angeles, he decided to construct an aqueduct that would pump water from Mono Lake, in the East Sierra, to the big city. Los Angeles residents voted to purchase Owens Valley Land and water rights for $1.5 million and construct the proposed 233-mile aqueduct. With mass amounts of water being diverted from the Mono Basin, the salinity of the lake has risen to 81 grams/Liter, roughly twice as saline as ocean waters. When salinity is allowed to increase above this level, surrounding wildlife is negatively impacted. Water diversions from the Mono Basin have left the main input streams dry. Also, as the level of the lake decreases, lakebed sediments are exposed to the air, causing dust storms, which result in air quality issues in the area. In 1978, the Mono Lake Committee was formed to help protect Mono Lake. With public support, the Mono Lake Decision was passed in 1994 which sets in-stream flow requirements for each stream entering the basin, prohibits the diversion of water from Mono Basin until the level of the lake reaches 6,377 feet, and protects public trust and fishery values of the area. Mono Lake is still in recovery.

Water is a huge issue. Some take its worth for granted until they are forced to live without it, or with limited use. Realistically, a desert is no place for people to survive. Yet, here I sit, in a café—kept at a bearable temperature by the swamp cooler, which uses water to chill the air— located in the middle of the desert. Thank god for water. Thank god for our ways of manipulating it. Thank god for the firemen who doused the fire a block away from our house, and for managing the fire that is now burning the hills of the Sierra in the distance. The sky this morning was hazy with smoke.

If only we could find ways to use water without abusing the sources we remove it from. What if we started thinking about how much water we use–for showers, washing hands, flushing toilets, watering gardens, irrigating fields, quenching the thirst of billions? Why do we need potable water in the toilet? Why don’t we feed our gardens with gray water (rain runoff)? If our reservoirs will quickly be running dry, why are we continuing to waste water in so many irresponsible ways? Treating water like gold—like the incredibly valuable resource it is—is the first step.

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Smaller soles for all

Originally posted 5/24/2009

The charred, but regenerating, remains of a forest.

Bavaria ain’t got nothin’ on this. From my perch atop a granite slab, a postcard-worthy alpine scene lies stretched out before me. In the distance, white-capped mountain ridges peek out from a V-shaped dip formed by the closer hillsides. From where I’m sitting, the land steeply slopes down to the river below, the rapids swirling and whirling with such force that the white water looks like a river of milk. It winds its way to the small tourist destination town of Leavenworth, Washington, where the mountain goats are gluttons for the countless carrots fed to them by vacationers. The contrived atmosphere of the town can be blamed on the mandatory Bavarian-styled buildings, the token goats that wait in the park for their next carrot, a street band belching out traditional Bavarian music with brass instruments, and locals whose job it is to dress Bavarian, act Bavarian, and direct tourists to the best place to buy a bratwurst.

But the campy brass band is far away from where I am now, and the only sounds I can hear are the chirps and chortles of birds. A gray hairstreak butterfly (Strymon melinus), with lavender wings, flits its way past me. Usually found in the lowlands, this winged wonder has likely traveled a long way from home.

What captivates me more than the butterfly or the grandiose view is the whole place taken in its entirety. What I see is an image of rebirth. The land is littered with the charred reminder of a forest fire. Blackened skeletons of trees leaning catawampus, look like spent birthday candles that have fallen this way and that after a crazed child has shaken the cake a couple times. Yet, despite these burned remnants, the landscape does not look dead—not even close.

Wildflowers of all colors speckle the landscape. Jeffrey’s shooting stars (Dodecatheon jeffreyi) buzz from bees sneaking into their cups of purple petals to retrieve nectar. Glacier lilies (Erythronium grandiflorum) cascade down creek beds in white blankets. Yellow and brown-speckled tiger lilies (Lilium columbianum) are flourish amongst the brown and yellow-speckled chocolate lilies (Fritillaria lanceolata). The red explosion of petals on the Indian paintbrush (Castilleja miniata) burst like fireworks. Everywhere I look regeneration is taking place, growth is balancing destruction. Life is balancing death.

Beneath the weight of my hand on the granite, the red and yellow lichen crumbles. How easily we destroy the earth, I think. I watch a black fly lap at the blood beginning to cake around a fresh wound on my ankle. I decide not to flick it away. Instead, I continue to watch it nourish itself, feeling strange that I’m now part of the food chain of this area. I hope that some bird will benefit from scarfing down this fat fly. All at once, an overwhelming feeling of peace sweeps over me. How good it feels to just be in this wilderness rather than trampling across it, never finding a balance of give and take.

As a culture, we seem bent on bending the natural will of the earth. If it grows, we pick it or clear-cut it. If it lives, we kill it. We dam it, pollute it, mine it, dynamite it, raze it, hunt it, poison it, drill it, melt it, litter it, and take, take, take from it without replacing what we’ve taken. We want to dominate it at all costs. If the water doesn’t flow where we want, we’ll divert it. If the soil doesn’t produce the bounty we crave, we’ll poison it. If the tomatoes aren’t big enough and the salmon isn’t pink enough we’ll alter the genes and inject some dye.

Historically, our technology has always worked against nature, trying to harness its power and converting it into waste rather than recycling the energy into more beneficial forms. Yet the forces of nature are strong, and if we were to vanish from the earth, our inventions would not win the battle and stand the test of time– at least, not according to Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us. In his book, Weisman investigates nature’s ability to regenerate in mankind’s absence. In most cases, life is able to make a comeback.

The eerie echo of his book produces a sinking feeling. The message: if we continue on the path we’re on, we will self-destruct. Nature wins. We lose.

I was recently biking across Lopez Island, a quiet, innovative place where solar panels are almost as common as the funky, personalized mailboxes stationed at every residence. On one country road, I stopped to observe a house I had almost passed by, until a friend pointed it out to me. We looked in awe at the faint outline of a house, camouflaged by a rooftop garden growing where shingles should be. It just made so much sense.

We have to strike the balance. Although I fear this might sound too hippy-dippy from some, we have to try to live in harmony with the forces we’re always fighting against. The examples of our failures at this are endless: Hurricane Katrina, houses built on mudslide-prone hills, burning rainforests for cattle ranches, and the idea of Las Vegas (a city that diverts so much water and consumes so much energy, the slogan should be “Everything that happens in Vegas, doesn’t actually come from Vegas”).

After getting lost in my thoughts, I come back to the present, and step down from my slab of granite. I tread carefully along the goat trail, trying to avoid the fragile foliage attempting to wipe the trail from existence. But I know my footprint is bigger than I would like it be on this earth, wishing I could give more back than I do. If only we all wanted to wear a smaller shoe size.

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