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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

When deer attack!

I was innocently working away in my office (living room) when the barking began. We live in a medium-sized town in southwestern Colorado, where owning a dog seems to be a prerequisite, and every canine in the neighborhood was going off about something, resulting in a cacophonous symphony. Our dog, Princess (no, we didn’t give her that name), joined the chorus with her incessant yapping. The barking had an urgent pitch to it -- the bear tone. December would arrive in just three days, so it would be pretty remarkable if we still had bears roaming around. It might even be some kind of record -- related to the drought and the wacky warm weather, no doubt -- and so worth noting.

A bear in our midst, for better or worse, has become a somewhat mundane occurrence. We live at the edge of the neighborhood, and our backyard is the wildland-urban dividing line. Not that creatures from either side of the line abide by it. Humans around these parts, often clad in spandex, swarm the hillsides like ants. Bears, raccoons, deer and coyotes roam the alleys like surly teenagers looking for some nutmeg to smoke. A mama bear and her cub spent a good portion of the summer lounging in our neighbor’s backyard, and the alley down the street has a permanent set of greasy bear tracks leading from the fast-food joint’s grease bin to trash can to wild plum to trash can.

Read more here

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Mission Cemetery

Last month, in the hiatus between my time in Boulder and my return to Berlin, I traveled to the region I still consider my homeland: The Four Corners Country.

I was born and grew up in Durango, and spent a good portion of my youth riding around the region in the back of my parents' old, white International pickup truck with my older brother, Geoff. We'd chug along highways and back roads through the Reservation and public lands, the aroma of sage or pinon or juniper or exhaust our constant companions. My dad was a writer and a journalist, so these trips qualified as work for him. We were poor, so they were our only family vacations.

Later, as a teenager and then a college student, my friends and I continued our explorations of the canyons, mesas and mountains of the area.

My recent return was in part for work. I ended up writing for and editing a special travel issue for High Country News, which included a piece on the Four Corners Country. It was also for pleasure. It had been a long time since I had visited this beautiful and eerie place. Despite all my time spent in the area, I made some new discoveries. I had actually never hiked into the Bisti Wilderness, and I did on this trip. And I had also never noticed this cemetery, though I had driven past it many times. The light was just right this time, and I had to stop and caught a few images. It was beautiful but also haunting, a place where the dead have been forgotten, it seems, the grave markers toppled and decaying. I'll post more pictures from the journey soon.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Stumbling Stones of Aldekerk

One of the reasons we moved to Germany in 2010 was because Wendy, my wife, and our daughters have German citizenship. They are citizens because Wendy's grandparents, Arthur and Margaret Mendel, fled the Nazis back in 1938, and German law says that those who lost their citizenship between 1933 and 1945, along with their descendants, can have it back.

The story of Wendy's grandparents and their families is heartbreaking and fascinating. It's a story I hope to write down someday. In the meantime, I made this short video about Wendy's grandfather's home town of Aldekerk, and the installation of Stolpersteine, or Stumbling Stones, in front of the family house there. The Stolpersteine, of which there are thousands throughout Germany and in some neighboring countries, are a project of the artist Gunther Demnig, who places the little brass sculptures in sidewalks in front of houses from which Jews and other victims of the Nazis were taken or where they were murdered. When we stumble upon them in Berlin, which is quite often, sadly, we always stop and read the inscriptions.

Up until June 2012, there were no Stolpersteine in Aldekerk. Now there are two groups of them, one for each of the two Jewish families who called the small town their home until the Nazis took their homes and many of their lives away from them.

Sometimes the number of memorials to the Holocaust in Berlin can be overwhelming. And sometimes we might ask, Isn't it enough yet? The answer is clear: It will never be enough.

Music: Requiem for Victims of East Japan Earthquake (sanmi) / CC BY 3.0
and Brendan Kinsella playing  Bach - Aria Variata, BVW. 989 - Variation No. 3 from under a public domain license.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Super Moon, Lightning & bye bye Boulder

I'm leaving Boulder this week, for good. It's bittersweet: The fellowship I've been doing is over, which is truly depressing, but I'll be able to go back and be with my wife and daughters in Berlin again, which makes me quite happy. We're planning on returning to the American West in July, where I'll work with High Country News, but probably not in Boulder.

So, when I heard about the Super Moon, I knew I had to take the opportunity to try to get some photos, taking advantage of the aesthetic opportunity that the collision of mountains and plains affords here. So some friends and I hiked a little ways up the lower slope of Flagstaff Mountain, found some rocks to sit on (and to use as a tripod, since mine is in storage somewhere), and waited.

The sky was particularly dramatic, as a storm was moving in. The yellowish smog was thick. Vultures soared over Boulder. And when a breeze kicked up, we watched pollen billow out of trees below like smoke. The moonrise wasn't as dramatic as some I've seen -- rather than a gelatinous red blob, it was more of a pale specter pushing its way through the Front Range smog. And then the thick clouds swallowed it up. No worries, though, that's about when the lightning started way off to the East. Nice.
Smog, storm and pollen. Yes, pollen.
Vultures and Valmont power plant.


Super moonrise and hwy 36.
Moon and big big house above Chautauqua.
Just before the cloud swallows the moon.
Boulder at night.

Notice the strange electric ghost in upper right of center.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Land Art, Altered Landscapes & the Sublime

When I started my time as a Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism, I decided to focus on topics that I might not have paid much attention to, otherwise, and to look at familiar topics from unfamiliar angles. Now, the fellowship is coming to an end. Over the past 9 months, I've delved into: tribal energy development (not new for me, but I've found a focus that is both old/familiar, and new and fascinating); the unique economics of Utah and Mormon country (rather unexpected discoveries); the electrical grid (the "biggest machine on earth" is less a machine than a living organism or natural system); and, most surprisingly, as the title of this post notes, Land Art et. al.

It's a bit of a grab bag, yes, but I've always been a generalist. My favorite thing about being a journalist is the ability to throw specialization out the window and to delve into all kinds of different fields, and the fellowship has allowed me to indulge. In doing so, I've actually found all kinds of nodes (to borrow some language from the grid) where all of these topics connect or overlap. I've also found that the Land Art topic, which was originally assigned to me as sort of a light, travel story, has become rather involved, and far more connected to environmentalism than I anticipated. In writing that story, which should appear in High Country News this summer, I've ended up relying on the contemporary art class, the postmodern literature class and the environmental philosophy & law class that I took during my fellowship. I'm also making a connection between Land Art and conservation in the Anthropocene.

I hope it works. In the meantime, here are some photos I took while touring Land Art and while reporting on the economics in Mormon country story.

On the way to Double Negative, Mormon Mesa, Nevada.

Aptus Hazardous Waste Incinerator and sky. Near the Great Salt Lake, Utah.

The Power Grid. Eastern Nevada.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Cold sky in Boulder, March 2

Sometimes I forget how dynamic the sky can be here on the Front Range of Colorado. Boulder's a great town, but best of all is the melding of mountains and plains, and the way the wind plays with the sky and the sky and the light play with that big broad canvas stretching out to the East. Last night, from my perch up above my apartment in Chautauqua, the sky reminded me of a Stanton Englehart sky.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Agenda 21 & you

Last summer, after spending a year in Germany, I paid a visit to my hometown of Durango, which is in La Plata County in southwestern Colorado. When I picked up the local rag, I was shocked to see several caustic letters to the editor regarding the county comprehensive planning process that had been going on for two years. Most alarming was what appeared to be a fairly widespread belief that the process had been hijacked by United Nations conspirators bent on implementing something called Agenda 21 via sustainability, bike paths and smart-growth.

Durango has always been a bit more progressive than other parts of the rural West, in part because it's a college town, but perhaps also because its reliance on the extractive industries has always been one step removed. That is, it wasn't ever a mining town or timber town, per se, but rather a support town for those industries. It hosted smelters and sawmills in the early days, and later became the place where the lawyers and doctors and other professionals that serviced the region liked to live.

My father was on the town board and served as Durango's mayor back in the early 1980s. During that time, a lot of pretty-serious-for-the-time planning initiatives were passed: a strict sign code, a public bus system, a new sewage treatment plant, and a blueprint, at least, for turning the once-industrial Animas River corridor into a greenway and the gem of the town. There was resistance: it was all part of the same Commie plot as fluoridizing the water, said the John Birchers, who had a strong enough influence back then to get various speakers to come speak at the local schools (I remember one guy eating uranium in front of the entire high school student body to prove that nuclear power's safe). But most of the initiatives passed, and the river corridor plan continues to be implemented today.

In the ensuing decades, those efforts helped Durango become a full-on amenity hub with a thriving New West economy. The rest of the county, meanwhile, has tried to keep a hold on its agricultural heritage -- not easy when baby boomers are willing to pay a pretty penny to build their retirement home in your alfalfa field -- while also grappling with impacts and benefits of significant oil and gas development that has been going on for decades.

For a long time there's been a bit of an imbalance between Durango and the county. Durango tends to be more liberal in its ways, the county more conservative. County folk often feel as if the Durangotangs are imposing their more urban beliefs on their rural counterparts. So when La Plata County set out to develop a comprehensive plan that would actually streamline development, while also hopefully preserving ag land and reducing sprawl, nobody thought that it would be easy. At the same time, what happened in the end came as a complete surprise: The plan, which cost $750,000 (consultant fees, staff time, etc.) was tossed into the wastebasket, so to speak. But also, a new movement had risen out of the process.

I call them the Agenders, and they are a new force to be reckoned with nationwide. They believe that everything from capping greenhouse emissions to bike paths to smart-growth, whether on the local or national level, are part of a United Nations plot to implement the sinister-sounding Agenda 21. I wrote about the phenomenon -- both at the La Plata County level and nationally -- for High Country News. The article got quite a bit of play (The Atlantic also did a big post on it).

Let me be clear: I don't think Agenda 21 fears were alone responsible for the collapse of the La Plata County comp plan. But I do believe that the united front that the Agenders ended up creating gave the planning commissioners -- many of whom obviously had an anti-planning bias (strangely enough) and a Tea Party leaning -- the confidence to strike down the plan without hesitation (and without listening to the majority of public voices in support of the plan).

Had the La Plata County plan been before the planning commission several months earlier (before some turnover had occurred on the commission, and before the Agenders rose to prominence on the national level) it might have had more success. Up almost to the bitter end, the plan had the support of at least two of the three county commissioners, Democrat Wally White and Republican Kellie Hotter. But they weren't the ones who had the final say.

One of the Agenders' scare ads.
Aside from the fact that what ended up being a moderate plan was shot down, what alarms me is that the Tea Party and this subset of the TPers has gained so much influence in my home county. In the past, whether the La Plata County voters chose Republicans or Democrats for local or national office, I always felt like they made the choice from a relatively pragmatic, non-ideological standpoint. Sure, there have always been those John Birchers (and the KKK even once had a strong presence in Bayfield, now the Agenders' main zone of influence), but they were always on the fringe, even when they were speaking to school kids.

Those days appear to be over. The disintegration started in 2006, when the La Plata County Republicans were taken over by extremists. It was bad enough to help drive state Rep. Mark Larson, a moderate who willingly reached across the aisle, out of politics. It even rubbed Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell the wrong way. Then the Tea Party came along and took the extremism even further, marginalizing any moderate Republicans that were left. This new extremism manifested itself in the evisceration of La Plata County's planning process and in the victory of Rick Santorum in the county and Colorado's GOP caucus earlier this month. 

The potential ripple effects are cause for worry. Reasonable Republicans like Hotter may feel the need to slide to the right in order to keep her party happy, thereby diminishing the chances that the county will ever tackle its planning dysfunction and sprawl. And as the extremists take over, it will harm the county's "swing" status politically, thereby diminishing its political power on a regional and national level.

We live in interesting times.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Land Art (or something like that)

Shiprock (geological formation, above) and San Juan Generating Station (industrial facility, below).

Google Earth/maps have changed the way we see our world. They show us violence and destruction where before we may have seen just a rock formation. They reveal strange beauty where before we may have only seen a pollution-belching coal-fired power plant that generates electricity for 1 million households.

Shiprock is a huge volcanic feature located in northwestern New Mexico. San Juan Generating Station and an associated coal mine lies about 24 miles east/northeast from Shiprock. 

It's just one of the things I've been thinking about lately.