October 2005

©Joe Medieros

Living Lightly

Rivers of Birds, Forests of Tules: Central Valley Nature & Culture in Season


21. In Praise of Humble Alliances

Twice a month I head for the home of Aida Sakalauskaite, a young Lithuanian woman and UC Berkeley student who has graciously agreed to tutor me in Lithuanian. Learning a new language is always a humbling (and energizing) experience because you get to relive your childhood in another linguistic world. Aida has made learning her native tongue a pleasure by giving me CDs with children singing songs about pesky flies and white crows. She also helps me figure out the plots of children’s stories brought back from Lithuania.

There is one folktale that is always repeated with slight variations. In this story three sisters have a brother who is a bit of an indulged simpleton. He spends his (mostly carefree) days on the nearby lake fishing, and every afternoon, his youngest sister, also not the brightest of the sisters, brings him his dinner in exchange for the fish he has caught. Inevitably an evil witch, who goes to great lengths to imitate the sister’s voice, fools the boy, snatches him up and makes him work in her cottage, faraway from his home. At this point one of the sisters sets off to bring him back.

And this is where the story becomes interesting. The eldest (and most competent) sister sets off single-mindedly and fails. The same happens with the middle sister. It is the youngest, least intelligent but most sensitive sister who recovers all three of them from the hands of the evil witch. Conventional intelligence, cleverness, even fearlessness are not prized in these stories. It is always the simpletons who save the day.

The youngest sister is put to many trials, but she realizes that to save her brother she must live well in the world, in spite of the crisis, and she responds to the world’s entreaties with generosity and kindness. She takes the time to execute everyday tasks and to forge small alliances. No living thing is unworthy of her attention and everything, it seems, asks for help. She releases a small fish, and it tells her where her brother and sisters are and how to get there. Along the way, the little girl props up the heavily-laden apple tree, milks the cow, shapes the rising bread dough into loaves, scrubs the dirty footbridge, and takes seriously the counsel of ordinary birds, rabbits or squirrels. Only these alliances (which the older sisters refuse to make and to value), created through the girl’s industry and compassion, make it possible for her to extricate her family from the clutches of malevolent forces.

There are scholars who regard some of these stories, and the oldest Lithuanian songs and folktales, as hermetic texts representing various aspects of the real world and the cosmic sacred. If these stories are parables, that is, teaching stories, what is it exactly that they are trying to teach? Certainly that raw intelligence is ineffective and maybe even obstructive in discerning the true alignment of power in the universe. But I am fascinated most by the business of alliances.

The word alliance can mean a formal treaty or simply an affinity for or identification with. Do the stories really mean that nature, i.e., a hare, cuckoo, or even yeast will come to your aid if you acknowledge their existence and accord them respect? We may be in the realm of fairytales until we start thinking about something like penicillin (produced by molds); taxol (extracted from yews, once considered “trash” trees); or the water conservation magic of a kangaroo rat or Orcutt grass. Scientist Barbara McClintock pursued her work in genetics because she had a “feeling for corn.”

As a child, I identified with animals absolutely, probably because they did not speak but expressed a great deal. As the daughter of Polish immigrants I knew a lot about muteness and people regarded by others as simpletons because they spoke halting or no English. Our first pet in the U.S. was a German Shepard, a war dog trained to work in mine fields; summer thunderstorms drove her into a wild frenzy because she thought bombs were falling. In my personal pantheon of symbols, she is a visceral image of the impossibility of obliterating wartime trauma and memory.

We lived in a big city, Detroit, but most of the books I read were about animals: Big Red, Irish Red, White Fang, Lassie Come Home, and My Friend Flicka. Even the films I remember from about age seven through ten were films about bonds between people and animals: Old Yeller, Snowfire, Tonka, or The Boy Who Talked to Horses. These were not the animated Disney films, which terrified me (“Your mother is dead, Bambi, come with me”). To this day films like Whale Rider, Snow Walker, Never Cry Wolf, Fly Away Home, Winged Migration and March of the Penguins are among my favorites.

In a recent review of March of the Penguins, one writer worries that the filmmakers anthropomorphize the penguins by making them look like better parents than people are, but I think Paul Shepard got this right: we don’t anthropomorphize animals as much as they humanize us by allowing us to identify parts of ourselves (positive and negative), by isolating and becoming emblems for emotions, and by embodying thoughts and ideas more complex and more poetic and more ambiguous than our words make them. We developed our minds, as Shepard notes, by observing, tracking, dismembering, eating, and probably fleeing animals, by nouning and verbing them.

When I hear arguments about why nature is of no interest to poor people who simply need better housing and salaries, I realize those are compelling arguments, yet I can’t help but think that children’s psyches and imaginations crave nourishing alliances with a variety of other life forms — plant, insect and animal — that express their own bigness and smallness, aggression and fragility, fear and inarticulation. Somehow they know that one day that stink bug, fairy shrimp or woolly bear gall will deliver an insight that may save a brother or sister from the nasty imposters of this world.

Sources: Petras Cvirkas, Kvailute ir laume; “Bebenciukas ir kvailute” in Graziausios Pasakos Maziesiems; and Paul Shepard: The Others: How Animals Made Us Human.

Lillian Vallee is a Professor of Literature and Language Arts at Modesto Junior College.

Canoe with salmon!

The Tuolumne River Trust will sponsor its eighth annual canoe trip on the lower Tuolumne to view the incredible Chinook salmon and other wildlife on Sunday, November 13, 2005. The public is invited on this full-day outing. Participants should be in good physical shape.

The trip begins at the Old La Grange Bridge and ends 8 miles downstream at Turlock Lake State Recreation Area. The cost is $50 and includes lunch, an interpretive program, and a one-year membership to the Tuolumne River Trust.

ACTION: RSVP to Patrick Koepele, (209) 236-0330; email: patrick@tuolumne.org. Space is limited and will be reserved on a first-come, first-served basis.

Mend the Bend”: Tuolumne River volunteer tree planting day


With the help of volunteers from throughout Stanislaus County, the forest along the Tuolumne River will be a step closer to being restored at the annual Big Bend Restoration Project – Tree Planting Day along the Tuolumne River, Saturday, October 22, and Saturday December 3, 2005 from 9:30 am to 12:30 pm.

The Tuolumne River Trust, the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service and the East Stanislaus Resource Conservation District have been working with the California Department of Water Resources and the National Marine Fisheries Service to restore flood prone land at the Big Bend Restoration Project.

The 240-acre Big Bend Habitat Restoration project is targeted at improving forest, river, and wildlife habitat along the Tuolumne River and resulted, in part, from the 1997 floods, when the site was heavily damaged by the high water. The landowners decided that the best recovery plan for the land was to dedicate it to fish and wildlife habitat.

Volunteers are needed to help plant valley oak acorns and other native plants. Additionally, participants will have the opportunity to tour the site, learn about the project’s goals, speak to the landowner and project partners and learn about river restoration.

ACTION: The site is located about 20 minutes southwest of Modesto, off Grayson Road. Please dress to work, bring gloves and water. Snacks will be provided. RSVP by calling Patrick Koepele, (209) 236-0330, email patrick@tuolumne.org

Sierra Summit soars


The Sierra Club’s first national convention, the Sierra Summit 2005, brought thousands of members, delegates, environmentalists, and other progressives to San Francisco recently. The convention featured Waterkeeper Alliance President Robert F. Kennedy Jr, Arianna Huffington and Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope to talk show host Bill Maher. Former Vice President Al Gore made a surprise appearance at the opening plenary session.

Sandra Wilson and I represented Stanislaus County. For the local Yokuts Sierra Club group, and Mother Lode chapter. The 700 delegates from the U.S., Canada, and Puerto Rico reviewed,  prioritized and discussed.

The delegates overwhelmingly selected “Building a New Energy Future” as the #1 priority for the Sierra Club. We also selected “Defending Federal Lands and Public Waters,” “Building Vibrant Healthy Communities,” and “Protecting People and the Planet from Pollution” as other important conservation approaches. Advocacy, legal action, and coalition building goals were discussed. Our 3rd task was to prioritize how we will best influence decision-making. Influencing federal decision-makers was not considered to be in the top 3 most effective strategies.

Summit highlights included speeches by such luminaries as Alice Waters (Chez Panisse Restaurant) and George Lakoff (professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at UCB).

Natural Sciences writer Janine Benyus spoke on Biomimicry, and challenged us to learn from the natural world to help solve our environmental problems. “If you want to know about the land, ask a plant,” and she gave several examples of how scientists and engineers are studying organisms as diverse as diatoms, sea sponges, desert beetles, and peacock feathers to battle drought or create color without pigment.

The Summit film festival showed over 30 films such as Affluenza, Being Caribou, and The True Cost of Food. The Sierra Showcase featured informative booths, Lonely Planet guide books, brochures on building materials and home products made from recycled materials, hemp and organic cotton clothing. Hybrid cars and SUVs were available for a test drive.

Arianna Huffington, political commentator, satirist, and a candidate for California Governor suggested that environmentalists and progressives start referring to themselves as citizens. One of her main messages was that it is time that we quit settling for “scraps” — the miniscule victories for the environment or social justice. This will lead to continuing low expectations of the government and our representatives. Ms. Huffington, and other speakers, voiced that because of the inept and inexcusable blundering of our government that exacerbated the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina, we are now in a position to ask more from the politicians that rely on our votes.

She called the situation in Iraq the largest catastrophe of our generation. She suggested that if our representatives are not comfortable with an exit strategy in Iraq, for them to get out of the way. Her best advice was for each of us to look in the mirror and see the leader in the mirror looking back at us.

ACTION: Attend the Yokuts Sierra Club meetings on the 3rd Friday of most months at the Modesto Police Dept. Community Room (10th & G Sts.), at 7 p.m. Visit our website

http://motherlode.sierraclub.org/yokuts/index.html for updates on outings, programs, and other events.

Venezuela: geopolitics of petroleum


August 11, 2005

Fuerte Tiuna, Caracas

The 16th World Festival of Youth and Students took place the second week of August in the controversial country of Venezuela. Its president, Hugo Chavez Frias, has declared it to be a country on the path towards socialism of the twenty-first century. The festival offered opportunities for youth to exchange information about their countries’ political situation in relation to national politics.

A workshop, which took place inside the historic military base Fuerte Tiuna in the heart of Caracas, is representative of this exchange between young activists of the world. The topic: Petroleum and the Geopolitics of Imperialism.

The informal structure of this workshop allowed for great participation among delegates which included youth, activists, professors and students in the field of petro-chemistry. Following is a summary of information and observations presented.

There were three important questions: 1) What is the state of oil sources in Latin America? 2) What is the political relationship between the United States and Venezuela around the oil issue? 3) How are we preparing for the future?

The panel: a Brazilian professor opened by stating the facts of the named imperialist invasion and occupation of Iraq: They were looking for weapons of mass destruction and to provide democracy and justice to the people of Iraq. As it is widely known, no weapons ever existed and the only thing provided Iraq is a climbing death toll and misery. The bottom line; the empire will use any means in its power to dominate the riches that rightly belong to the people.

Case in point: the first delegate to participate, a young Colombian who, with a breaking voice, asked about the possibilities that Petrogras, a Brazilian oil company, had the means of identifying oil under ground for Colombia. Currently, he explained, The U.S. company Chevron, armed with its own satellite, explores, claims there is no oil, forces people off their land, then begins to dig.

The comrade also commented on the U.S. “War on Drugs.” Its strategy is to spray pesticides and poisons on crops and on people. These poisons, products of U.S. based Monsanto, disintegrate whole grown crop fields in less than three hours. These methods are excused for the sake of combating the growth of the Coca plants, an ingredient in the manufacture of cocaine. In reality, the Coca leaf is only 1 of 13 ingredients required to make cocaine. The other 12 ingredients come from agrochemical manufactures such as Monsanto itself. The real reason to spray these poisons, he insisted, is to force people from territories where oil and natural gas have been detected.

A comrade from Ecuador added that they have been preparing for the water wars to come. Oil companies, Texaco, and Shell, have been exploring Ecuador for fresh-water deposits to exploit in the future.

A Venezuelan petro-chemistry student responded to the concerns of the Colombian. Along with Chevron in Colombia, IPEC and ECOPETROL, both Colombian companies, have the capacity to identify oil underground. The problem is that they are anonymous societies, meaning they serve the interests of transnationals. The function of PDVSA, he explained, (the recently nationalized Venezuelan oil company) offers a relevant example to follow. Before nationalization, PDVSA was nothing more than another transnational. After nationalization PDVSA became a tool to meet the needs of the people.

He warned, those claims that oil will run out in 20 years are mere propaganda. Venezuela, for example, will be able to produce for another 200 years to meet the needs of Venezuela. By claiming that oil will end in 20 years, there is pressure to produce, thus lowering the price of a barrel of crude. The energy strategy of Venezuela will be to invest in ethanol and hydrogen technology as it becomes available. But technical analysis is not enough if there is no geopolitical strategy along with it; first and foremost, an investment in the new man, in his health and education.

From Bolivia, a delegate informed that Repsol, a Spanish company, also exploits natural gas reserves in the Tupi and Guarani territory. It is then transported through gas ducts across Chile, close ally of the US imperial forces. He asked for the continents’ solidarity with Bolivia’s struggle.

Regarding US/Venezuela relations, an Ecuadorian comrade affirmed that a Yankee military invasion in Venezuela (such as the opposition vigorously claims is about to happen) is inconceivable. The empire needs oil especially in times of war. Besides there is no campaign of conservation in consumption in the U.S. Seventy percent (70%) of Venezuela’s sales to the US is oil, the equivalent of one and a half million barrels daily. Venezuela’s method of defense will be to invest in students, professors, medics, artists and to look for just-exchange alternatives.

An example of just-exchange, explained a Cuban is the exchange between Cuba and Venezuela: oil at a reduced price for free vision operations and treatment for thousands of Venezuelan citizens. Such exchange, named Mission Milagro (Mission Miracle: named after Jesus Christ’s miracle of giving a man back his sight), has returned sight to one thousand people so far.

The last issue concerned alternative fuel sources. It was pointed out that due to the non-proliferation treaty, it is extremely difficult for third world countries to engage in the development of nuclear energy as an alternative.

Venezuela’s strategy is to invest in society, in human beings: that all their human rights are met and through health and education, they will be aware of their historical place. This is how unity will be maintained in the face of imperialist aggressions, be it economic, informative or in other ways.

Esther Diaz is a recent graduate of Cal State Univ. Stanislaus where she studied Political Science and Latin American Studies. She immigrated from Jalisco Mexico in 1992 and lived in Merced county where her family worked in agriculture before her move to Stanislaus. Her involvement with the UFW, the Modesto Peace and Life Center, and the Young Communist League USA, led her to visit the Republic of Venezuela. 

She is currently organizing a Get-Out-the-Vote crew in the city of Stockton under the direction of ACORN/Project Vote to defeat the corporate propositions in the November 8th special election ballot. Contact her at her email or (916) 698-0227.

Extraterrestrials study Modesto

Submitted by Lee Ryan Miller

In homage to Modesto native son George Lucas….


We chose at random a mid-sized colony of the dominant life-form located in the north-western sector of the second smallest land-mass. We kept our identities hidden from the inhabitants as we observed their society.

The life forms exhibited some signs of technological sophistication in their ability to modify their environment to better suit their needs. We noted several interesting examples of this behavior.

Their efforts to increase the temperature of the environment indicated great ingenuity. For example, they continually cover increasing amounts of land area with a black substance, increasing the heat retention of the ground. In addition, they burn large amounts of fossil fuels, creating heat directly, and also indirectly, by raising the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere and thereby creating a greenhouse effect.

Their efforts to modify the atmosphere showed considerable sophistication. Rather than merely burning fossil fuels solely for the purpose of adding CO2 and other scarce gases to the atmosphere, they primarily employed a dual-use technology that provided a means of locomotion. Atmosphere modification, however, clearly was the main goal; we observed countless examples of life forms utilizing their vehicles for locomotion when they easily could have walked instead.

We observed a fascinating organization of their habitations. They exhibited the technological know-how to construct tall structures of many stories, like the Zorm of XPS-2. Such structures enable the inhabitants to conserve resources like energy and land area by living in large concentrations, thereby reducing the need for transportation infrastructure.

They also exhibited the ability to construct underground structures, like the Aieu of AE-3. Such structures also enable the inhabitants to conserve resources like land area (plants can grow above the structures) and energy (underground structures naturally maintain a constant temperature).

The life-forms, we observed, however, mostly eschew such structures. They live and work mostly in structures of one or two stories scattered over a large land area. Furthermore, they tend to travel on a daily basis to the opposite sides of the colony for various purposes, traveling in heavy vehicles propelled by the burning of fossil fuels. This is another example of their great ingenuity. Large, heavy vehicles burn greater amounts of fossil fuels than would smaller, lighter vehicles, thereby advancing the goals of environmental modification. Traveling long distances similarly increases the discharge of gases into the atmosphere. Moreover, most life forms follow a custom of traveling in their vehicles twice per day (morning and evening) at roughly the same time, thereby creating traffic congestion, and increasing the discharge per vehicle considerably.

We also observed that these life-forms are quite war-like. They seem to be engaged in constant warfare with all other species of life-forms in the vicinity. We observed, in particular, peculiar savagery toward trees. Their settlement was ringed with expansive forests of various species of tree, most of which seemed to bear fruits or nuts. At random intervals, the life-forms unleashed savage onslaughts on the forests, denuding large areas with powerful machines, and expanding their settlements onto the barren ground.

We expect to have only a limited opportunity to interact with these life-forms before their environmental modification program renders their planet uninhabitable for our species. In particular, we have noticed that these life-forms seem to thrive on compounds that we find toxic, such as nitrogen oxides, dioxin, and various heavy metals. They are continually increasing the concentration of these substances in both the air and water of their planet.

You can read more stories by Lee Ryan Miller at www.LeeRyanMiller.com.