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Living Lightly

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

40. The Quickening (and the Slowing Down)

Even though many deeply rooted native plants get moving as soon as the weather cools down, work in the garden told me the soil this year was bone-dry and rain-starved. Everyone is talking of reservoirs half-full or functioning at two-thirds capacity. Whenever there is talk of drought, it is accompanied by talk of dams, as if the problem were not injudicious exploitation of water resources but a storage problem. Those who are fighting hard for a return of some semblance of natural riverine water cycles are fought, tooth and nail, by those who want their subsidized water turned into hard cash. They don’t want water for their farms or for the salmon or for drinking; they want to sell it to the highest bidder.

Drought is no stranger to California, and, historically, we know some droughts have lasted up to forty years. Mary Austin, in her book, The Flock, tells of a dry year on the Tejon Ranch owned by General Edward Beale. He was having Indians divert a creek to water the barley in the fields when the Indians protested the amount of unnecessary labor: “Why so much bending of backs and breaking of shovel handles?” They suggested he employ a chisera or rainmaker: “There is a woman at Whiskey Flat who will bring rain abundantly for the price of a fat steer,” they said. And the General replied, “Let her be proven.”

The woman came, but wanted a little more than a steer. She got “beads, calico, the material for a considerable feast….” Here is Austin’s account of what happened:

First the Indians fed and then the Chisera danced. She leaped before the gods of Rain as David before the Ark of the Lord when it came up from Kirjath-jearim; she stamped and shuffled and swung to the roll of the hollow skins and rattles of rams’ horns; three days she danced, and the Indians sat about her singing with their eyes upon the ground. Day and night they sustained her with whisper and beat of their moaning voices. Is there in fact a vibration in nature which struck into rhythm precipitates rains, as a random chord on the organ brings a rush of tears? At any rate, it rained, and it rained, and it rained! [Italics are Austin’s] The barley quickened in the field, a thousand acres of mesa flung up suddenly a million sprouting things. Rain fell three weeks. The barley and the wheat lay over heavily, the cattle left off feeding, the budding mesa was too wet to bloom.

“For another steer,” said the Chisera, “I will make it stop.”

So the toll of food, and cloth, and beads was paid again, and in three days the sun broke gloriously on a succulent green world.

I love this story, and not just because it shows California Indians at their knowing best, but because it also holds a key mystery, beautifully expressed in Mary Austin’s question: Is there in fact a vibration in nature which struck into rhythm precipitates rain, as a random chord on the organ brings a rush of tears? The question is profound because it is asking whether or not nature is responsive to people, their pleas, their prayers, their supplications — that is, to their rituals of communion with the world.

Our culture does not seem to like animism or any diffuse sacred. If everything had a soul or a sacred spark, our actions and rituals would have to be more thoughtful, deliberate, and speed would not be in the pantheon of our most honored gods. Thoughtful, informed ritual slows consumption, and we are all about speeding it up, making it easier, more reflexive,

I have been thinking a lot about this while preparing acorn as food. I had to gather, shell, pulverize, leach, and then finally, cook the acorns. Because of the ritual of preparation, I did not want to waste a single grain of the hard-earned meal. If hunters have to prepare themselves for the hunt by thinking or dreaming the game, clearing the human scent, aspiring to worthiness of the sacrifice, and killing in keeping with a certain code, would they be able to engage in market hunting?

In Poland I once witnessed a conversation between parents and son. Pater familias was railing against the then communist system because the son could not go out and immediately buy a car; instead, he had to wait a year to get it. The son had said, what is a car worth if you do not have to wait for it? The father railed against the son’s statement and system some more saying that it had demoralized people by thwarting immediate gratification and making them wait for everything. The mother tried to explain to her husband that waiting is an inextricable part of valuing anything, a kind of practice and necessary stage in the ritual of acquisition, something that had nothing to do with the system they were living in. I return to the scene of that argument over and over again.

Meanwhile I see that my garden is desperate for rain. Since I am not lucky enough to have been taught rain chants and dances by a chisera, I have to resort to a different tradition: a wooden Madonna from Vilnius. Under the base of the statue, I tuck a handwritten petition for rain, along with a few other requests. I keep the singing in the garden in check out of regard for the neighbors. Within twenty-four hours (and after a little feasting on acorn roca and acorn eggplant dip) I hear the sound of rain dripping from the clay tiles of our roof. The quickening in the garden is immediate: the first butter-yellow Fremontia blossom, wavy leaves of soaproot, and succulent new leaves on the prickly, fuchsia-flowered gooseberry. “Is there in fact a vibration in nature…?” General Beale couldn’t have been more surprised.

Sources: Mary Austin, The Flock.

The San Joaquin Valley prepares to meet the clean air challenge


The San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy & Fuels Conference, held in Fresno on December 3, 2007 brought together farmers, legislators, environmentalists, energy entrepreneurs, educators and students, and alternative energy advocates together for a day of sharing information. This conference was hosted by the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization (SJVCEO), a byproduct of the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley formed by Governor Schwarzenegger. More than 40 speakers were grouped into panel sessions which included the themes of regional clean energy legislation, clean energy programs of utilities and cities, educational and workforce issues, alternative technologies, green building, and agriculture and transportation. One of the main sponsors of this conference was the Sierra Club, which provided a grant to host this conference.

Congressman Jerry McNerney, in his keynote address, pointed out that, although the world has passed its peak oil production, oil consumption continues to rise. He said that the $1 billion per day spent on national security costs is essentially spent for oil security. It is imperative that we make the switch to alternative energy sources. Solar, wind, and other energy technologies/sources will continue to become more cost effective. Currently there is a House Energy Bill that addresses alternatives to some of these issues.

Sierra Club’s California Regional Director, Carl Zichella, reminded us of that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommends a 80-90% reduction in CO2 by mid-century. If climate change continues to occur, and ocean levels rise to a worse-case scenario of 8 meters, much of the San Joaquin Valley will be under water. It is also predicted that the snow pack in the Sierra would decrease within decades, affecting water sources for 25 million Californians. And although the consequences could be dire, Mr. Zichella is optimistic, stating that we already have the technology to meet our energy needs (but not necessarily the political will), and that the needed energy transformation is already occurring. He believes that the San Joaquin Valley is ready for this opportunity for a more efficient economy, decreased pollution, jobs, and development of renewable energy.

The cities of Fresno and Visalia have initiated programs which incorporate green building and alternative energy sources including city-owned solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) and alternative-fueled fleet vehicles, and LED traffic signals. Fresno’s “affordable green housing program” incorporates low-tech solutions such as tree placement and 24” roof overhangs (for shading), and permeable concrete (water recharge) with solar PV panels and on-demand water heaters. Fresno State University has saved over $2.5 million by decreasing its energy use with occupancy sensors in classrooms, window film, and solar PV panels.

One issue that surfaced many times throughout the conference was the need for a trained workforce. Dr. Jeff Wright of UC Merced stated that by 2012 up to 45% of the energy engineering jobs may be vacant and that 25 % of the US energy infrastructure will need to be replaced in 20 years. Unions and community colleges are helping to fill the gap with apprenticeship programs and science/math application courses.

Community activist Rey Leon of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition stressed that all stakeholders, including farmworkers and low-income people, need to be part of the discussion. The Central Valley has a rich agricultural value, yet unhealthy air quality. He said that the poor people of the Central Valley are carrying the largest burden of air pollution problems.

This conference was very informative and thought-provoking. It was evident that many people in the San Joaquin Valley are working to reduce air pollution, pass clean energy legislation, increase alternative energy technologies, and enhance the economy of the region. As I listened to the presenters, I kept wondering what our county and local cities are doing. During a call to the City of Modesto Solid Waste Dept., I discovered that the city has one CNG vehicle and several hybrids. A solar shade structure with PV panels is being planned. But why aren’t solar considerations mandatory for new buildings? Government projects could have alternative/green energy components. Also during the conference I kept hearing that we have the technology and plenty of potential energy. But with energy consumption increasing, shouldn’t we also be focusing on conservation and reducing our “need” for energy?

For more information on the SJVCEO, go to www.valleycleanenergyconference.org and www.sjvpartnership.org.

Join Reforestation Brigade to Nicaragua

From Nicanet

Plant trees in post-Felix Nicaragua to help prevent further natural disasters. Learn about the work being done to solve Nicaragua’s environmental problems. Visit scenic areas in Estelí and Madriz. Meet with environmentalists and governmental officials in Managua.

Nicaragua was devastated by the winds and water of Hurricane Felix and the floods caused by two tropical depressions in 2007. The damage was aggravated by existing environmental damage to forests and watersheds.

The Nicaragua Network invites you to join a team of volunteers traveling to Nicaragua June 15-29, 2008, to assist with a water restoration and reforestation project supported by the Nicaragua Network called “Let the Rivers Run” of FEDICAMP (Federation for the Integral Development of Peasant Farmers).

Brigade members will spend ten days assisting local small farmers and cooperative members with the planting of mango, avocado, citrus, and other trees along streams or with other aspects of the campaign. The trees will prevent erosion and provide food and income for the local people.

Volunteers will also travel to Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, to meet with environmental groups supporting sustainable peasant agriculture, and to meet with officials of the Sandinista government to hear about policies the government has put in place to address problems of poverty and environmental degradation.

If you can’t travel with us you can still support this important program by making a donation to the “Let the Rivers Run!” Campaign at www.nicanet.org.

Cost: $850: Includes all ground transportation, three simple meals a day, basic lodging, translation, orientation materials, work materials and a contribution to our Nicaraguan partner organization. Fee does not include airfare to Nicaragua.

ACTION: Email nicanet@afgj.org to receive an application. Deadline for applications is May 1, 2008. ß

Excerpts from Al Gore’s on acceptance of The Nobel Peace Prize
December 10, 2007
Oslo, Norway

For the complete speech, visit http://blog.algore.com/2007/12/nobel_prize_acceptance_speech.html

Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Honorable members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen.

I have a purpose here today. It is a purpose I have tried to serve for many years. I have prayed that God would show me a way to accomplish it.

Sometimes, without warning, the future knocks on our door with a precious and painful vision of what might be. One hundred and nineteen years ago, a wealthy inventor read his own obituary, mistakenly published years before his death. Wrongly believing the inventor had just died, a newspaper printed a harsh judgment of his life’s work, unfairly labeling him “The Merchant of Death” because of his invention – dynamite. Shaken by this condemnation, the inventor made a fateful choice to serve the cause of peace.

Seven years later, Alfred Nobel created this prize and the others that bear his name.

Seven years ago tomorrow, I read my own political obituary in a judgment that seemed to me harsh and mistaken – if not premature. But that unwelcome verdict also brought a precious if painful gift: an opportunity to search for fresh new ways to serve my purpose.

Unexpectedly, that quest has brought me here. Even though I fear my words cannot match this moment, I pray what I am feeling in my heart will be communicated clearly enough that those who hear me will say, “We must act.”

The distinguished scientists with whom it is the greatest honor of my life to share this award have laid before us a choice between two different futures – a choice that to my ears echoes the words of an ancient prophet: “Life or death, blessings or curses. Therefore, choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.”

We, the human species, are confronting a planetary emergency – a threat to the survival of our civilization that is gathering ominous and destructive potential even as we gather here. But there is hopeful news as well: we have the ability to solve this crisis and avoid the worst – though not all – of its consequences, if we act boldly, decisively and quickly.

However, despite a growing number of honorable exceptions, too many of the world’s leaders are still best described in the words Winston Churchill applied to those who ignored Adolf Hitler’s threat: “They go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all powerful to be impotent.”

So today, we dumped another 70 million tons of global-warming pollution into the thin shell of atmosphere surrounding our planet, as if it were an open sewer. And tomorrow, we will dump a slightly larger amount, with the cumulative concentrations now trapping more and more heat from the sun.

As a result, the earth has a fever. And the fever is rising. The experts have told us it is not a passing affliction that will heal by itself. We asked for a second opinion. And a third. And a fourth. And the consistent conclusion, restated with increasing alarm, is that something basic is wrong.

We are what is wrong, and we must make it right.

Last September 21, as the Northern Hemisphere tilted away from the sun, scientists reported with unprecedented distress that the North Polar ice cap is “falling off a cliff.” One study estimated that it could be completely gone during summer in less than 22 years. Another new study, to be presented by U.S. Navy researchers later this week, warns it could happen in as little as 7 years.

Seven years from now.

In the last few months, it has been harder and harder to misinterpret the signs that our world is spinning out of kilter. Major cities in North and South America, Asia and Australia are nearly out of water due to massive droughts and melting glaciers. Desperate farmers are losing their livelihoods. Peoples in the frozen Arctic and on low-lying Pacific islands are planning evacuations of places they have long called home. Unprecedented wildfires have forced a half million people from their homes in one country and caused a national emergency that almost brought down the government in another. Climate refugees have migrated into areas already inhabited by people with different cultures, religions, and traditions, increasing the potential for conflict. Stronger storms in the Pacific and Atlantic have threatened whole cities. Millions have been displaced by massive flooding in South Asia, Mexico, and 18 countries in Africa. As temperature extremes have increased, tens of thousands have lost their lives. We are recklessly burning and clearing our forests and driving more and more species into extinction. The very web of life on which we depend is being ripped and frayed. ….

Even in Nobel’s time, there were a few warnings of the likely consequences. One of the very first winners of the Prize in chemistry worried that, “We are evaporating our coal mines into the air.” After performing 10,000 equations by hand, Svante Arrhenius calculated that the earth’s average temperature would increase by many degrees if we doubled the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Seventy years later, my teacher, Roger Revelle, and his colleague, Dave Keeling, began to precisely document the increasing CO2 levels day by day.

But unlike most other forms of pollution, CO2 is invisible, tasteless, and odorless — which has helped keep the truth about what it is doing to our climate out of sight and out of mind. Moreover, the catastrophe now threatening us is unprecedented – and we often confuse the unprecedented with the improbable.

We also find it hard to imagine making the massive changes that are now necessary to solve the crisis. And when large truths are genuinely inconvenient, whole societies can, at least for a time, ignore them. Yet as George Orwell reminds us: “Sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.”…


Indeed, without realizing it, we have begun to wage war on the earth itself. Now, we and the earth’s climate are locked in a relationship familiar to war planners: “Mutually assured destruction.”

… science is warning us that if we do not quickly reduce the global warming pollution that is trapping so much of the heat our planet normally radiates back out of the atmosphere, we are in danger of creating a permanent “carbon summer.”

As the American poet Robert Frost wrote, “Some say the world will end in fire; some say in ice.” Either, he notes, “would suffice.”

But neither need be our fate. It is time to make peace with the planet.

We must quickly mobilize our civilization with the urgency and resolve that has previously been seen only when nations mobilized for war. These prior struggles for survival were won when leaders found words at the 11th hour that released a mighty surge of courage, hope and readiness to sacrifice for a protracted and mortal challenge.

These were not comforting and misleading assurances that the threat was not real or imminent; that it would affect others but not ourselves; that ordinary life might be lived even in the presence of extraordinary threat; that Providence could be trusted to do for us what we would not do for ourselves.

No, these were calls to come to the defense of the common future. They were calls upon the courage, generosity and strength of entire peoples, citizens of every class and condition who were ready to stand against the threat once asked to do so. Our enemies in those times calculated that free people would not rise to the challenge; they were, of course, catastrophically wrong.

Now comes the threat of climate crisis – a threat that is real, rising, imminent, and universal. Once again, it is the 11th hour. The penalties for ignoring this challenge are immense and growing, and at some near point would be unsustainable and unrecoverable. For now we still have the power to choose our fate, and the remaining question is only this: Have we the will to act vigorously and in time, or will we remain imprisoned by a dangerous illusion?

Mahatma Gandhi awakened the largest democracy on earth and forged a shared resolve with what he called “Satyagraha” – or “truth force.”

In every land, the truth – once known – has the power to set us free.

Truth also has the power to unite us and bridge the distance between “me” and “we,” creating the basis for common effort and shared responsibility.

There is an African proverb that says, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” We need to go far, quickly.

We must abandon the conceit that individual, isolated, private actions are the answer. They can and do help. But they will not take us far enough without collective action. At the same time, we must ensure that in mobilizing globally, we do not invite the establishment of ideological conformity and a new lock-step “ism.”

That means adopting principles, values, laws, and treaties that release creativity and initiative at every level of society in multifold responses originating concurrently and spontaneously.

This new consciousness requires expanding the possibilities inherent in all humanity. The innovators who will devise a new way to harness the sun’s energy for pennies or invent an engine that’s carbon negative may live in Lagos or Mumbai or Montevideo. We must ensure that entrepreneurs and inventors everywhere on the globe have the chance to change the world.

When we unite for a moral purpose that is manifestly good and true, the spiritual energy unleashed can transform us. The generation that defeated fascism throughout the world in the 1940s found, in rising to meet their awesome challenge, that they had gained the moral authority and long-term vision to launch the Marshall Plan, the United Nations, and a new level of global cooperation and foresight that unified Europe and facilitated the emergence of democracy and prosperity in Germany, Japan, Italy and much of the world. One of their visionary leaders said, “It is time we steered by the stars and not by the lights of every passing ship.”

... We must understand the connections between the climate crisis and the afflictions of poverty, hunger, HIV-Aids and other pandemics. As these problems are linked, so too must be their solutions. We must begin by making the common rescue of the global environment the central organizing principle of the world community….

… it should be absolutely clear that it is the two largest CO2 emitters — most of all, my own country –– that will need to make the boldest moves, or stand accountable before history for their failure to act.