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Cities Burn, Max Hikes

Monday, June 1st, 2020: Musings, Society, Trips, Wildfire.

Is denial a river in Egypt?

We depend on news media for information about the world outside our neighborhoods. But news media are businesses within the capitalist consumer economy. News media reflect the dominant worldview of our society. The information they deliver is driven by their business agenda and prioritized by the dominant values of society – the values of elites: Eurocentrism, anthropocentrism, individualism, statism, imperialism, competition, etc.

This is okay with most of us, because we share that dominant worldview and we accept those dominant values. It’s what we were taught in the schools.

But is our worldview accurate? What might it be leaving out?

What about our history? Do we absorb the news in context of our history as brutal conquerors and enslavers? Do we assume that the past is past, problems are solved and errors forgiven? The Native Americans whose land our ancestors stole, upon whom they perpetrated genocide – all that’s in the past, we Anglos are the natives now. The fact that our great cities sit on the land of indigenous people and our children are consuming their resources – that’s just the way things are, you can’t turn back the clock. Besides, Native Americans weren’t that great – scientists say they drove Pleistocene megafauna to extinction. Anyone defending them is just naively romanticizing the noble savage, and this land is better off in our hands.

Lincoln freed the slaves, the civil rights movement of the 60s ended segregation, one day a year we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. – shouldn’t that be good enough?

We have a justice system – everyone has the right to a trial by a jury of his or her peers. Really? How many of us are aware that local prosecutors actually decide the fate of the accused in most cases, single-handedly imposing punishment on people whose guilt is never proven? As our prison populations spiral out of control, are we aware of restorative alternatives to punishment and incarceration which were developed and successfully implemented by societies we’ve conquered and replaced?

Come on Max, be realistic. We have to deal with things as they are.

Sure, our society has problems. But they can all be solved by electing the right president, and implementing the right technologies. Space exploration will solve everything – as we know from Star Trek and Star Wars, in space all races can live together in harmony. Earth is obviously the source of all our problems. Screw the Earth – let’s colonize Mars! After all, colonialism has worked well for us Europeans so far. Our generation may have screwed things up, but our kids will do it right.

My generation, the generation that came of age in the 60s, was supposedly enlightened. Funny how as they aged, they gravitated toward more and more affluent, whites-only jobs and neighborhoods. Their kids went to private schools – one of them even chose a college formerly known as “White-Man College” for its near-complete lack of minority students. My friends seldom considered that they were helping to make our society more segregated than ever. As a result, their families are doing great – they’re completely isolated from people of color and poor neighborhoods. But that’s okay, because they have their trusted national media to keep them well informed.

So they believe in progress, and unless the news tells them otherwise, they think everything’s fine in the world. No conflict, no segregation, no discrimination, no poverty, no frustration, no suffering. My generation even elected a Black president! Sure, he was a half-white lawyer from the suburbs, not a son of poverty from the ghetto, but it was progress, anyway, right? That’s the important thing, we’re moving forward, away from that past where we made all those mistakes.

In the rural Midwest, I grew up with Black classmates, and I went to college amid the vast Black ghettos of Chicago’s South Side. Unlike many of my friends, as an artist and musician needing cheap studio space, I lived in dangerous slums and barrios among poor Blacks and Latinos most of my adult life. My current hometown in the rural Southwest has only a handful of Black folks, but unlike almost all of my friends, I live now in an integrated, relatively egalitarian community, in a neighborhood that’s half Latino.

In poor ethnic neighborhoods of West Coast cities, I’ve had police helicopters and SWAT teams surround my house multiple times. I was falsely arrested and spent a night in a jail cell with poor Blacks and Latinos. The cops have seldom helped me and often hurt me, and I reject all our institutions of “justice” and “law enforcement” as simply the destructive, coercive mechanisms of social control employed by the imperialist ruling class.

But I’m not immune from denial. It took two years of hard work to recover from my chronic foot injury, and another 18 months to build to my current level of fitness. Yet after my foot started to hurt again on Saturday, and I swore to take a break from hiking, I got up on Sunday and went out for a hike anyway.

I rationalized it because when I got up, my foot no longer hurt. And it felt fine for most of my hike. I hadn’t forgotten yesterday’s pain – I planned to take it easier than usual. This meant hiking closer to 10 miles rather than 15, and keeping my elevation gain closer to 3,000′ rather than 4,000′.

I was targeting the southern segment of the crest trail that normally takes me north to a 10,000′ peak. This southern segment sees less traffic, and those who hike it usually only go as far as the 9,600′ southern peak, which is 3-1/2 miles one-way. I figured I’d try the trail past the peak, although it traverses the heart of the 2013 wildfire burn area and there was no information on whether it’d been cleared of logs.

As it turned out, nobody else uses the trail beyond the peak. It’s unmaintained and abandoned. It’s overgrown and blocked by deadfall and blowdown, and the farther you go, the less evidence there is that a trail ever existed. I managed to get about a mile and a half beyond the peak, fixing landmarks in my mind and cutting arrows in the dirt to help me find the way back, before I gave up and turned back. But at least I was able to get a view of the southern part of the range as it trails off and subsides into the low desert.

This part of the mountains lies outside the protected wilderness area, and I’d seen old cowpies along the trail from the start. In fact, the abandoned segment beyond the peak is now used only by cattle. I glimpsed a lone bull in the forest above me when I sidetracked off the trail to climb the peak. And on the way back, I passed three cows grazing in lush grass at 9,000′ on a steep forested slope below the trail.

The New Mexico locust whose dangerous thorns I’d been contending with in other high-elevation burn scars were now blooming, and I’d been informed by a local botanist friend that the flowers were edible, so I sampled some and found them pretty good, with just enough sweetness on top of the sour base. Hopefully they’ll hold their blooms until the wild strawberries are ready and I can combine them.

It wasn’t until the last mile that my foot began to hurt, and when it did, it was so bad I couldn’t put weight on the ball of my foot and had to limp the rest of the way to the vehicle. There, I examined a historical plaque that explains the name of this high pass.

Like our news media, the sign leaves out most of the story. Lt. Emory was part of the Army of the West. This army was an early agent of the imperialism in which our white, Eurocentric society has replaced native peoples. The story is far too complex for most of us to keep in mind – first the Spanish came and conquered the Indians of the Western Hemisphere, then they established European colonies, then we Anglo-Americans conquered parts of their colonies along with what natives were left. And now we consider ourselves natives. What’s past is done, right?

Another aspect of the complexity we deny is that science accompanies our violent conquests – Emory represented science in the Army of the West, and we credit the scientific discovery of this place to that violent conquest. We deny how these things go hand in hand. No pleasant urban neighborhoods with their galleries, theaters, pubs and nightclubs, coffeehouses and bookstores, without the militarized police and the hidden military empire, without the violent conquests, the capitalist oppression, the consumerist exploitation of distant rural communities and habitats.

But you probably know by now what I see. I see that our society is perpetually in a state of collapse. Our cities are parasitic enclaves grafted unsustainably onto land stolen from indigenous peoples. Our police, our military, our presidents will fight their way to their own demise, and good riddance.

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Skunk’s People

Monday, May 25th, 2020: First Steps in the First Wilderness, Trips.

Another unanticipated holiday weekend materialized – another national holiday I don’t celebrate. This one supposedly memorializes soldiers, mostly young men, who died in the various wars pursued by our aggressive, competitive, violent society. A society which is the direct descendant of European empires and their interminable, apocalyptic conflicts, which were all implicated in the development of the benefits we treasure from Western Civilization – the arts, the sciences, the “democracy.” All these entitlements fed and matured on an endless cycle of war, suffering, and death.

As we echo platitudes about these young men, we might consider the mothers, fathers, wives, and children who were scarred by their deaths. We might consider the much higher casualties of the “enemy,” including the civilians injured or killed either intentionally or as “collateral damage” by our trained warriors and weapons of mass destruction. We might consider the displaced or slaughtered wildlife and the productive natural habitat rendered sterile or toxic. We might consider the peaceful societies who, alongside our history of violence, have had the wisdom to avoid this legacy of destruction that’s glorified by our “advanced” civilization.

But it was Sunday, and like clockwork I was heading out for my Sunday hike, which is partly a tribute to my dad, who briefly joined the U.S. Marines, but missed the fighting as the war ended while he was still in training. He came from a churchgoing family but always told people nature was his church. As it is mine, hence the Sunday hikes.

Because of the holiday, the ongoing pandemic, and media hysteria about people violating lockdown orders and massing in dangerous crowds across the country, I was a little apprehensive. But traffic on the national highway west of town was even lighter than usual, with miles between vehicles. The trailhead, at the end of a five-mile dirt road, is empty four times out of five, but I figured I might have company today. Little did I know!

First I passed a full-size horse trailer. Then I came upon EIGHT vehicles, big trucks and SUVs, packed into the steeply sloping parking area around the trailhead. Most wore Arizona plates, but two were from Utah and Montana. I could hardly believe my eyes. During this pandemic, while everyone I know locally stays obediently near home, every time I go out for a hike, I find vehicles from out of state, some from as far away as Michigan. Renegades hiding in the forest, invaders endangering us locals. City people may be getting tired of travel restrictions, but we country folks are getting tired of thoughtless, careless invaders from the city. And this crowd at the trailhead was out of control, adding insult to injury.

There was only one narrow space left beneath a juniper where I could pull in without blocking anyone else. What was going on here? Eight five-seater passenger vehicles plus a horse trailer, that could mean up to 40 people and half a dozen equines. Two of the SUVs had been parked blocking two others, so it was clear that some of these people belonged together as part of a group. Even assuming the folks from Utah and Montana were outliers, I’d never encountered such a big group in the backcountry around here.

Strangely, the log book at the trailhead showed only two visitors since I’d last been here, two weeks earlier. There was no entry for this weekend.

I hate crowds in nature, and I was ready to give up, but where else would I go? This was one of the most remote trails in the area. My feet, anxious to get going, pulled me forward toward the trail. The canyon bottom was a mile ahead, and I envisioned it teeming with dozens of anti-government yahoos from red-state Arizona, enthusiastically violating lockdown orders and carelessly exposing each other to the virus. For some minimal exercise, I would just walk the half mile to the wilderness boundary. Or maybe the full mile down into the canyon, but as soon as I saw people ahead, I’d turn back.

Strangely, the sparse dry dirt of the trail didn’t show much sign of a crowd. In the first half mile I could distinguish two or three different boot or shoe prints and what seemed to be a single hoofprint. My feet kept pulling me forward, down into the canyon. Just before the first creek crossing I came on a single fresh pile of horseshit. I listened but could hear no voices, just the trickling of the shrinking stream.

The sky was clearer than when I’d last been here, and the air a bit cooler – in the low 70s in the canyon bottom – and I was comfortably warm in my tough hiking pants and long-sleeved shirt. You don’t wear shorts on these trails in burn areas because they’re often overgrown with thorny shrubs.

After another mile, moving from stark burn scar into semi-intact riparian canopy, I reached the trail fork, still with no sign of people. But someone had pulled down the Forest Service trail sign at the fork – it was lying facedown in the dirt – so I set it upright again and rebuilt the cairn that held it in place. I was going straight as usual, up into the high country. I knew the right fork led to an old miner’s cabin over in the next canyon to the south, but according to the Forest Service that trail hadn’t been maintained since the 2012 fire and was impassable. Yet it looked used to me. I carefully followed beside it in the grass, looking for tracks. Sure enough, there was a hoofprint and a single boot print. But that didn’t account for the crowd from the nine vehicles at the trailhead. The mystery deepened.

I continued up the canyon. Lush vegetation blocked my view ahead much of the time, so I stopped often to listen for voices. Had most of the group been on a guided backpacking trip? Were they off somewhere in the wilderness that I hadn’t been able to penetrate on my day hikes? There were guided horseback trips over on the other side of the wilderness, but I’d never heard of such a thing here, or on foot. And surely there was a moratorium on guided trips during the pandemic.

3-1/2 miles into my hike, I reached the base of the switchbacks at the head of the long side canyon, where the trail begins its steep climb to the 9,500′ crest. There’s an old fire ring there in the grass beside the now-dry creek where I usually stop for a snack and a drink of water, but there was no sign anyone else had lingered. So I continued, keeping my eyes and ears peeled toward the trail above. The next logical stopping place would be the mountainside spring at 9,100′.

But there was no one up there either, and no recent tracks. It was breezy, and cool in the shade of the forest, so that if I didn’t keep climbing I’d have to pull on my sweater. I was feeling much better at this point – even if I found people at the crest, I would’ve achieved a good day’s hike.

The approach to the crest is across a barren slope of crumbling white rock, so I stopped as soon as I rounded the bend that reveals a view of the crest and the little knob at its west end, about a quarter mile away. Anyone lingering at the crest would be up there for the panoramic view, so I squinted and waited for movement. There was a shadow between the trees that could’ve been a person, and it wavered a bit, but I couldn’t be sure. So I kept climbing.

There was no one up there. I saw an occasional boot track but couldn’t tell how fresh it was in this dry, sparse dirt. Like I had a couple weeks earlier, I continued down the other side, climbing over dozens of fallen trees until the effort was greater than the reward, where I turned back, still mystified about where the crowd had gone. Had they all parked at the trailhead and headed somewhere else, not using the trail at all? I wasn’t aware of any other destinations from that starting point, but I’d never actually checked.

Despite the nastiness of the trail on the back side of the crest, I like being back there, feeling like I’m really in the heart of the wilderness, on the other side of the watershed from the distant highway and the tiny pastures and farmsteads of the San Francisco River valley. Shortly after I turned and started back up the trail, I heard an awful racket in the tall firs to my east. It sounded like an animal in pain, a very loud sort of rasping croak. Then I saw some large birds bursting out of the foliage, flapping up into a dead tree ahead of me, keeping up their racket full-time. I couldn’t tell what they were but whipped out my camera and tried to zoom in before they flew away. They were really worked up about something!

Later research would reveal that they were Clark’s nutcrackers, a bird I first saw at the age of 12, on the rim of Oregon’s Crater Lake.

On the way back down, I stopped at the spring and waited to fill the dipper I’d brought along just in case. Earlier in the year, the water had been full of sediment, but now it was clear and delicious again.

Back down the steep, rocky trail into the canyon. Through the tangled, difficult stretch where fallen trees and small debris flows need to be negotiated. And finally to the trail fork, with still no sign of people. But just past the fork, I finally spotted people ahead. Not from the crowd at the trailhead – these were just starting into the back country, hiking toward me. It was two boys, one about 18, the other a few years younger, both carrying old-fashioned frame packs with sleeping bags and pads.

As we talked, the mystery was solved. They were part of a “family tradition” that maintained and used the old miner’s cabin, Skunk’s place, over in the big canyon to the south. The vehicles from Utah and Montana were part of their far-flung family. When I asked the condition of the trail, the older boy said they’d gone in with horses two years ago and cleared it. And the cabin was all fixed up and I was welcome to use it any time.

The boys were super polite, shy but friendly, and my former annoyance at their invasion during the pandemic faded away for the moment. Their elders had organized this trip and it wouldn’t do to challenge these kids. They were carrying fishing gear and said the trout should be biting over there, where a perennial stream cascades over a series of falls.

In fact their trail climbs 600′ out of this canyon to a saddle, and then down 1,400′ to the cabin in the bottom of the next canyon over, a much bigger and wilder canyon that can only be accessed from here. One online nature photographer who has rafted the Grand Canyon claims that this canyon in our local wilderness is its equal – it’s a mile deep and has towering cliffs and a series of waterfalls up to 200′ tall.

So the crowd of invaders from Arizona, Utah, and Montana maintain a cabin deep in our wilderness, and return here each Memorial Day weekend to hike or ride a rugged five miles in, with 2,600′ of accumulated elevation gain on the round trip. That’s quite a family! And screw the pandemic – in the culture we inherited from our European ancestors, clan loyalty is far more important than the health and safety of your neighbors.

Who knows how many strangers these travelers interacted with in their journeys to Skunk’s cabin? But as it turned out, they didn’t interfere at all with my day in church.

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Color Returns to the Mountains

Sunday, May 17th, 2020: First Steps in the First Wilderness, Trips.

Returning to the wilderness area around a 10,000′ peak, where the snow is finally gone and color has finally returned!

I chose this hike because it was going to be a hot day and I hoped it would be cooler up there. It’s also a north-south ridge and tends to be windy – I would turn a bend in the trail and literally go from calm and sweating in the 80s to a wind chill in the 50s, instantaneously. I had to hold onto my hat several times.

This is a fairly remote hike, but popular with city people driving from Las Cruces and El Paso. Most people are focused on reaching the fire lookout compound on the peak, partly because it used to be occupied by local celebrity author Philip Connors; I couldn’t care less about Connors and am much more interested in the wildlife. I skip the fire lookout and continue down the crest trail on the back side of the peak to a remote saddle, around which there are still some big old-growth trees that survived the 2013 fire.

I was hoping to explore more of the crest trail, but north of the saddle, it was completely obliterated by a big blowdown of mature conifers. I will be surprised if the Forest Service ever restores the trail system around here. The trails themselves, like the fire lookout, are simply aspects of more than a century of failed practices. A microcosm of our entire society.

On the back side of the peak, trying to climb over a fallen tree trunk, I lost my balance and fell backward, grabbing a locust seedling by mistake. My hand was pierced by its long thorns, but miraculously, didn’t bleed. Hiking back to the trailhead in a heavy wind, I noticed a beautiful butterfly darting around my legs. It suddenly dashed under my heel just as I put my weight down, and was crippled.

Driving down through the foothills, where the speed limit increases and I was forced off the road a few weeks earlier by a reckless driver, I watched carefully as vehicles emerged one by one from the blind curves ahead of me. Nearly all of them were driving too fast and cut the curves, crossing the double yellow line into my lane, and I leaned on my horn again and again – something which is strictly taboo in rural southwest New Mexico. I was relieved to get home safe, but I couldn’t stop thinking about that poor butterfly.

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First Steps in the First Wilderness Part 9: May

Sunday, May 10th, 2020: First Steps in the First Wilderness, Trips.

The last time I’d done my favorite hike, at the end of March, there’d been patches of snow two feet deep above 9,000′ elevation. But since then, the entire West had been hammered by a heat wave for weeks, and almost all the snow had melted from our mountaintops.

The heat had finally subsided this weekend, and today the forecast in town, at 6,000′, was cloudy with a high of 79. As I drove north toward the mountains, the sky above was clear, with scattered clouds in the west. And when I left the highway to take the dirt road to the trailhead, I could see a small mass of cumulus clouds peeking from behind the canyon I would be hiking up. I was hoping for some weather, but didn’t really expect any, since no rain had been forecast.

The canyon bottom was sweltering, and sweat poured off me. The stream was almost dried up, but as I’d expected, the heavy snowmelt had resulted in a big hatch-out of flies and gnats, and they were swarming in my face. I’d picked up a cheap “head net” earlier in the week, and pulled it down over my hat to keep the bugs away. What a relief! The bugs had never been this bad before, but I’d spent years waving my hands in front of my face in early summer, trying to keep them away.

When I reached the first viewpoint on the trail, 1500 feet above the canyon bottom, I could see tendrils of rain trailing from heavier clouds in the west. A strong wind was rising and the temperature was dropping fast. Soon it had dropped almost 30 degrees and I pulled on my sweater.

Climbing higher, I finally heard some thunder, far off to the northwest. And when I reached the crest, I could see more dark clouds and rain along the skyline to the east, only a few miles away.

I’d gotten an early start and was hoping to continue following the trail down the other side of the mountain, a mile or so beyond where I usually stop. But it was slow going because it entered the burn area and many dead trees had fallen since the Forest Service had cleared the trail last year. After a half mile I had to turn back – just too many logs to climb over.

I’d descended almost 500′ in that half mile, and as I trudged back up to the saddle, it started to rain. Yay! I quickly unpacked my cheap poncho and pulled it over me and my pack. It wasn’t a hard rain, but it continued for about 15 minutes, so the poncho was well worth it.

I knew this hike would be a milestone for me – the first time in more than 40 years (since I was 26) that I’d climbed over 4,000′ in a day. I felt like I could’ve done even more if I’d had more time.

On the way back down, I was lucky to spot another painted redstart, a bird I’d first seen last weekend. It was much farther away this time, and moving fast, but I recognized it by the white bands on its wings and the white underside of its tail.

On the way back home, I could see rain falling south of town, and shortly after I got home, while I was eating leftovers for dinner, I could hear the rattle of rain on my metal porch roof. Apart from the snowmelt, it’s been a very dry spring, so this rain was really welcome!

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The Night I Gave Up Physics

Wednesday, April 29th, 2020: Musings, Science.

Cult of Genius

My Dad was a rocket scientist. He grew up during the Great Depression, when there seemed to be harsh limits on human potential. But World War II inspired technological innovations and a resulting leap in the industrialization, wealth, and power of our society. In high school, Dad read avidly about the exciting discoveries and inventions of his time in Popular Science magazine.

As World War II drew to an end, chemistry emerged as the glamorous science that offered “miracle products” and “better living through chemistry.” Dad began his career developing some of these products – for example, melamine, used in unbreakable dinnerware – in a research lab. From there, he advanced to the aerospace industry, where he developed rocket fuel for nuclear missiles.

My own childhood inherited this postwar optimism and passionate faith in science, technology, and innovation. Science and technology would bring us ever-increasing comfort, convenience, power, and speed, ultimately rocketing us into Outer Space! We were living in the Space Age, and President Kennedy, a national icon of youthful optimism, became one of its heroes, analogous to Elon Musk today.

But this scientific and technological innovation required the mastery of mathematics and other difficult subjects, nudging us further toward a meritocracy, in which power is achieved by those with the most advanced training and skills in the areas our society values most – those with superior ability, “aptitude,” and ultimately, “intelligence.”

Thus arose a cult of intelligence and “genius,” which signified the highest achievement in the most difficult field of endeavor. In our newly “scientistic” society, with its absolute faith in science, the most difficult field was believed to be physics. And the greatest achievement in physics was the Theory of Special Relativity, discovered by Albert Einstein, who was now recognized as the smartest human who ever lived – the very definition of a genius.

In general science and academia, as well as being the most difficult science, physics is considered the fundamental science, the science upon which all others are built, and the Laws of Physics are considered the most fundamental laws of the universe. Physics grapples with matters which used to be the sole province of the Judeo-Christian God. Hence it wasn’t just Einstein, but every exceptional physicist who became acknowledged as the smartest humans.

Dazzled by Choices

Growing up in that era with a rocket scientist Dad, it was unsurprising that I devoured science fiction and dreamed of being a scientist, and with physics as the most important science, the science of geniuses and everything from the atom bomb to space travel, it was no surprise that I was drawn to that subject. In junior high, even before I was old enough to study science, I was captivated by media accounts of lasers, the latest and coolest product of physics. In media and the popular imagination, lasers appeared to be the “death rays” forecast in science fiction, but they also promised unlimited benefits to peacetime society.

In the classified ads of Popular Science, I found an offer of blueprints for building a solid-state ruby laser. I ordered it, and when it came, although the technology was fairly simple, it was way over my head, so I consulted our high school physics teacher, and an older neighbor who was a ham radio geek and handy with electronics.

As the builder of a laser I become a local celebrity, and around the same time, IQ tests were administered in our schools and I was found to be exceptional. When I advanced to high school, I discovered a phenomenon well-known to talented students in our educational system. I became the target of seduction by teachers who were frustrated by their bored, unmotivated, underachieving students, teachers who were competing with other teachers for limited funding and equipment. In me, they saw a potential new star in their field, someone whose future glory they could eventually bask in. When they lobbied the administration to buy new equipment and teaching aids, they were doing it for students like me.

Our physics teacher had already become an early mentor. But after the IQ test, it emerged that I had equal aptitude in every subject. The only difficulty was to choose between them! Most people struggle to find something they excel at – I struggled to pick from seemingly infinite choices.

Our math teacher bought a computer for me – a long metal box topped with flickering vacuum tubes – and set it up in its own special room. Our English teacher enlisted me in a small circle of elite pupils to meet weekly in her home for readings and analysis of contemporary poetry. Our biology teacher lived on a farm and caught wild animals for me to study, including a beautiful, sleek black snake with a glistening yellow belly that became my favorite pet.

But the teacher I loved the most, and was the most loyal to, was my art teacher. He was the only one who exposed us to things that challenged not only our intellects but our most fundamental beliefs and values. He wasn’t pandering to our youthful attraction to cool fads, he was trying to make us uncomfortable, to get us to experience the world in new ways. He was truly wise, and he became my lifelong mentor.

Mastering academic subjects was so easy for me that I looked for more inspiration outside of school. My mom was an English teacher working on her master’s degree at Indiana University, and I accompanied her on trips to campus, where I picked up books on world religions, philosophy, and psychology. I devoured Neitzsche and Jung, inspired without really understanding what they were writing about. All that reading just filled me with urgent adolescent questions about the fundamental nature and meaning of life. I had mystical dreams and felt myself in the grip of profound mysteries.

Science of the Bomb

Of course, it was now the late 1960s, and my whole generation, average students as well as prodigies, were in revolt against the beliefs, values, and institutions of the older generation and its Establishment. Boys were threatened with the Draft and military service in a brutal war in a distant tropical jungle. We were shocked by horrific images in the media, and slightly older peers were returning home in body bags. This was the atmosphere in which we came under relentless pressure to quickly figure out what to do with the rest of our lives. Pressure to pick the right next step, college or vocational school, and the right career to ensure our future success – assuming we survived the draft and the war.

In early 1968, our government escalated the war, and the death toll accelerated. Closer to home, pacifist hero Martin Luther King, Jr. and liberal icon Robert Kennedy were assassinated in rapid succession. College students held desperate antiwar protests around the world, culminating in the chaotic, bloody Democratic Convention in Chicago, the big city of the Midwest – the city where my parents had met, a little more than 200 miles northwest of my home town.

The dangers and decisions I faced in the near future seemed more and more daunting. In the fall, at the start of my junior year, I don’t remember deciding on a particular career. Who does, after only two years of high school? But our physics teacher announced that I’d been selected as one of our state’s delegates to the National Youth Conference on the Atom, to be held in Chicago. And a newspaper clipping says that I planned to be a research physicist.

This prestigious event for high school students had been organized by the nation’s public utility companies, all of whom had been engaged in promoting nuclear energy. Since the 1950s, nuclear science, and in particular nuclear or “high energy” physics, had been considered the most cutting-edge of the sciences. It was the science that claimed to probe the essence of reality, the fundamental nature of matter and energy that supposedly make up everything in the universe. But it was also the science of war and mass destruction, the science of the Bomb, which my generation was trying to ban. Nuclear science badly needed a flattering makeover.

I didn’t record my feelings on being chosen for this honor, but I’m sure that despite any misgivings about the subject, I was impressed and excited about the trip. I’d be accompanied by our physics teacher, but I’d have my own hotel room, and at the age of 16, I’d be visiting a world-class city without my parents, staying in the center of the world-famous “Magnificent Mile” of North Michigan Avenue.

Eternal Danger

The Sheraton-Chicago Hotel turned out to be a massive, towering complex combining a 42-story Art Deco structure, faced with elaborate relief sculptures, and a newer, shorter contemporary annex. On arrival, I was advised to check out the 14th-floor pool, an ornate facility inspired by the architecture of Ancient Egypt. And for the first night’s dinner, I was taken to the hotel’s high-end restaurant, Kon-Tiki Ports, a phantasmagorical immersive series of themed spaces inspired by explorer Thor Heyerdahl’s bestselling book. I’d never seen anything like Michigan Avenue, the Sheraton, the pool, or the restaurant, and I can remember feeling like Alice through the looking glass, or down the rabbit hole, or whatever. Transported to a completely overwhelming alternate reality. The pregnant darkness, the millions of multicolored lights, the frenzied, random motion, the thronging, sophisticated voices. Modern people who experience almost everything through a tiny two-dimensional screen will have a hard time imagining the sensory overload I felt there as a teenager from a small farm town.

During the three-day conference, I attended lectures and demonstrations in the hotel’s spacious auditoriums. I saw a research physicist from Oak Ridge National Laboratories operating a gas laser, far more sophisticated than what I’d built. I went on a tour of Argonne National Laboratories and got up close to a famous research reactor. It was all overwhelming, but nothing left a lasting impression, except the reactor, which felt chillingly ominous, an object of profound, nearly eternal danger.

The conference schedule began with “hard science” topics like particle physics and space science, but the agenda became more transparent in the final sessions: “Nuclear Energy Centers for Underdeveloped Nations,” “Tapping Latent Science Talent in the Ghetto,” and most critically “The Flight From Science.” In the final lecture, a physics professor from the University of Chicago tackled what she believed to be my generation’s fundamental problems with science. But in keeping with the boosterish tone of the conference, she focused on superficial, simplistic arguments that were easy to refute, ignoring the deeper and more troubling critiques of the emerging Counterculture.

On Friday night, after dinner, the physics teacher and I parted. We returned to our separate rooms, and I put on a warm coat, took an elevator to the ground floor lobby, and set out into the big-city night by myself. A 16-year-old kid from the cornfields, loose in the city of Al Capone and John Dillinger. The city where my parents had met during the birth of bebop. It was truly the city where my existence had been made possible.

The Night I Gave Up Physics

I don’t remember many details from that night. I do know I wandered down to the Loop, Chicago’s center, where I left Michigan Avenue for State Street. Near the Loop, Michigan mostly hosted corporate offices, which were dark at night, whereas State was the street of theaters and nightclubs. Photos of nighttime Chicago typically show a blaze of light. But wherever I went in that night of hazy memory, what I remember most is darkness and mystery. Shadowy towers looming above me. Shadowy strangers on mysterious missions. A sense that I was invisible, a secret agent, a silent observer, a child posing as an adult. A sense of danger mixed with a feeling of new power and potential.

What could I do in a place like this, away from the safety and comfort of my family home? I’d read Emile Zola’s Nana, the tragic story of a Parisian prostitute, and I knew that some of the people around me had to be hookers, gangsters, violent criminals. Actors, directors, corrupt politicians, multi-millionaires, captains of industry. The kinds of people I’d only read about or seen in movies.

Somewhere along my nocturnal path through the heart of the city, I felt myself absorbed into its mystery. As tiny and insignificant as I really was, I felt my heart swelling with feelings I didn’t begin to understand. After all, I was an adolescent! Everything about me was in constant flux, evolving toward the unknown.

But there was one thing that became crystal clear on that solitary exploration. I would not become a physicist, or any kind of scientist at all. Nothing I’d heard or seen at the conference had moved or inspired me. None of these high-powered professors or researchers had captured my interest. It wasn’t a question of my ability – there was clearly nothing in these subjects that I couldn’t master. I knew I could achieve just as much as any of these eminent scientists if I wanted to.

I also knew my generation was rebelling against science, specifically the military-industrial complex that employed so many scientists, but also against the broader dominant paradigms of European culture. But I don’t think my generation’s rebellion motivated my decision to abandon science. What I realized was that my essence is to seek experience – in all its beauty, horror, magic, and danger – to process it, and to return it in the form of art, music, poems and stories. I feel things profoundly and I’m driven to create in response. I’d always known that, but in the turmoil of adolescence, the pressure to decide on a career path, and the competitive seduction of my teachers, my thoughts and feelings had remained muddled and conflicted. Until now. Until that night alone in downtown Chicago.

Real-Life Education

Eighteen months later, when I graduated from high school, it was with our town’s art scholarship. But that was long before the internet, and even before the now-widely-available comparative reviews of colleges and universities. The only way I knew about colleges back then was word-of-mouth: from family, teachers, and the guidance counselor in our little farm town.

Sure, everyone had heard of legendary schools like Harvard and MIT, but to a kid in the boondocks they were as distant and unreal as the moon. Nobody seemed to know anything about art schools, but my broad talents suggested that I needed an equally broad education. Our high school guidance counselor solved the problem for me when he received a recruitment package from the University of Chicago, in that vibrant, mysterious city where my parents had met and I had forsaken a  career in physics. That was where I started my long, winding, and ultimately misguided path through what our society calls “higher education.” Ahead of that mess, my real education was waiting for me, outside the ivory tower.

I entered college on the eve of a recession, and it quickly became evident that a career in the arts wasn’t going to support me. After a couple of years mastering anatomy and the classical techniques of figurative drawing, painting, printmaking and sculpture in Chicago’s picturesque Midway Studios, I was forced to fall back on my math and science skills. And ironically, the degrees I ultimately obtained – BS and MS – derived from a branch of physics: dynamics, the science of motion and change, the science of Einstein and his Theory of Relativity. So I gave it up that night in Chicago, only to be forced back into it a few years later – although I never ended up actually working in the field.

It took me decades of hard living to begin to overcome the cultural conditioning of my formal education. So much misdirection, so many false gods, such a narrow scope of knowledge – our precious Western Civilization. There were a few solitary voices along the way urging me to question authority, but they were drowned out by the dominant paradigm. My childhood pastor, Richard Merriman, who urged us to reject received wisdom and think for ourselves. My junior high and high school art teacher, Mel Gray, who challenged me by asking hard questions and listening patiently to my long, agonized answers. My freshman social science professor, Bill Zimmerman, an antiwar activist and founder of Science for the People, who revealed that, far from being an objective search for truth, science is a political activity, a tool of the imperialist state and the capitalist economy, and scientists should always be held responsible for the practical applications of their work. Richard McKeon, the spellbinding philosopher who framed the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But most of my so-called teachers were just trying to indoctrinate me in the same gospel of Western Civilization that they’d been programmed in themselves: the Greeks, the Romans, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, Bach and Beethoven, Galileo and Darwin, blah blah blah.

Unsurprisingly, I couldn’t really think for myself until I’d gained a broad and deep experience of life outside the ivory tower. In ghettos and barrios, on movie sets and rural communes, in nightclubs and underground performance spaces, in jail cells and courtrooms, on military bases and toxic waste sites, in mines and oil fields, in remote farming villages and Indian reservations, in mountain and desert wilderness.

From that mature perspective, looking back on the formal education our society provided in my childhood and youth, some of which was generally acknowledged to be the best in the world, it’s easy to see that it was primarily an indoctrination in imperialist European culture. After I escaped that system of indoctrination, I struggled for decades to break through the veil of illusion it created, to correct the errors in thinking and overcome the bad habits.

Science of Death

One of those errors is the paradigm of reductive, mechanistic science, represented by physics and chemistry. Physics and chemistry are so universally accepted as the foundation of science that virtually no scientists today question them. But they originated in a wacky, controversial thesis from Ancient Greece, which held that everything in nature is assembled from tiny, invisible particles called atoms, and anything can be understood by analyzing its component parts. Of course, you have to destroy things to break them down into their component parts, so this principle of reductionism was essentially destructive. This destructive principle was initially validated by the transformative, and most often the destructive, power of early chemistry, beginning a feedback loop in which science was progressively validated by its power to destroy nature and transform natural resources for human purposes.

The material universe, including living organisms, was a machine for Descartes, which could in principle be understood completely by analyzing it in terms of its smallest parts….The belief that in every complex system the behavior of the whole can be understood entirely from the properties of its parts is central to the Cartesian paradigm. (Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life)

Physics and chemistry were initially one science, based on this atomic model. Models – simplified man-made structures which are presumed to represent aspects of nature – are fundamental to the scientific method. They are usually termed “mathematical models” because mathematical formulas and equations describe their behavior, but in the beginning, scientific models were uniformly inspired by man-made machines – particularly the Asian and Middle Eastern mechanical clocks and computers that were the earliest known complex machines. These machines inspired the cosmological theories of Galileo and Copernicus. And it became accepted practice, which continues unquestioned to this day, for scientists to base their models of nature on man-made machines.

Ironically, it turned out that the atoms and molecules of physics and chemistry – these tiny natural machines that were the building blocks of the periodic table – could only be observed by still more and more powerful machines, often via acts of destruction in “atom smashers.” As models proliferated, particles became waves, and waves became strings, but it was always the same old same old – invisible phenomena that only physicists could observe, and only using ever more powerful machines.

As the European sciences solidified into a hierarchy with physics and chemistry at the foundation, they also split into the physical sciences – the sciences of nonliving matter – and the life sciences – the sciences of living organisms. Traditional indigenous societies avoid that distinction – they view all of nature as alive. Even geologists acknowledge this when they speak of the living rock.

Physics has its own history of naive mysticism, which is usually interpreted as the harmless eccentricity of sages with big brains. Prominent theoretical physicist David Bohm maintained that all matter possesses consciousness – but no one really took him seriously.

Instead of living habitats in specific places, the physicist imagines abstract mathematical space. Instead of natural cycles, events, and progressions, the physicist contemplates mathematical equations based on the linear variable “t.” Rather than living ecosystems, the physicist sees “matter” and “energy” – mathematical abstractions which can only be detected by machines. The European distinction between living and nonliving matter has enabled us to justify our ruthless destruction of natural habitats and overconsumption of natural resources. Physics and chemistry, the sciences that gave us napalm and nuclear weapons, are the scientific leaders in this destruction. They are the violent sciences of death.

This circular, self-validating thinking – nature is a machine which can only be studied by breaking it down using other machines, I understand how this machine works, hence I can transform nature for my purpose, hence I understand nature – is the essence of most science today. But there was a brief period from the late 1960s through the early 1980s in which a minority of scientists – part of the Counterculture – rebelled against mechanism and reductionism, seeking to replace it with holistic science, a science in which entities are only studied as components in systems, the way we actually find them in nature. A more objective, holistic, life-based science would have its foundations in ecology – the study of nature – and anthropology – the study of humans.

The great shock of twentieth-century science has been that systems cannot be understood by analysis. The properties of the parts are not intrinsic properties but can be understood only within the context of the larger whole….Accordingly, systems thinking concentrates not on basic building blocks, but on basic principles of organization. Systems thinking is ‘contextual,’ which is the opposite of analytical thinking. (Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life)

By this point, physics should be obsolete. But it remains far too essential to the exploitative, coercive agenda of the state and its economy. After the 1970s, the idea of holistic science was rapidly swept aside and mostly forgotten as computers, genetics, robotics, and other reductive and mechanistic paradigms triumphed in furthering the ends of the capitalist marketplace and the imperialist state.

As we perceive reality as a network of relationships, our descriptions, too, form an interconnected network of concepts and models in which there are no foundations….Since there are no foundations in the network, the phenomena described by physics are not any more fundamental than those described by, say, biology or psychology….Physics has now lost its role as the science providing the most fundamental description of reality. However, this is still not generally recognized today. (Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life)

Physics and chemistry represent what is sometimes called Big Science – science which is funded and directed primarily by governments, including the military-industrial complex. Whereas they are considered the foundation sciences, they are actually the least objective sciences, because they are implicated in the power politics of the imperialist state. Claiming to define the fundamental laws of the universe, physicists are not even smart enough to grasp the concept of the Umwelt, recognized by pioneering ecologist Jacob von Uexkull. The knowledge of each living species, including humans, is limited to the sensory, experiential bubble we live in. We can never understand what’s outside that bubble. Far from the smartest humans, physicists are among the most naive and ignorant, confined in their circular theoretical universe of mechanical models and violent machines.

As a chemist and a rocket scientist, my Dad worked with some of the most toxic substances known to man. They destroyed his health and ultimately his livelihood, so that by the age of 55 he had to transition to part-time work, and by the age of 60 he was essentially unemployed, financially insecure, and becoming an invalid. The 10-square-mile rocket plant where he worked became a toxic Superfund site. The miracle products he helped develop in the 1950s were eventually found to be polluting our environment, poisoning our water supplies, killing wildlife, and changing global climate. This is the vicious cycle of science and technology. Scientists and engineers innovate in isolation, ignorant of the larger context for their work. Their innovations are promoted by entrepreneurs, media, politicians, and teachers, with little or no consideration for the long-term consequences in nature and society. Young people are attracted to novelty and pursue careers in the most exciting fields of their day. Decades later, scientists in other fields discover that these innovations are actually destroying us and our habitats.

What tragedies and misery we set our kids up for, hoping for their success in a toxic society, urging them through an educational system that indoctrinates them in destructive paradigms!

Even the most primitive tribes have a larger vision of the universe, of our place and functioning within it, a vision that extends to celestial regions of space and to interior depths of the human in a manner far exceeding the parameters of our own world of technological confinement. (Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth)

Beneath the veneer of civilization, to paraphrase the trite phrase of humanism, lies not the barbarian and animal, but the human in us who knows the rightness of birth in gentle surroundings, the necessity of a rich nonhuman environment, play at being animals, the discipline of natural history, juvenile tasks with simple tools, the expressive arts of receiving food as a spiritual gift rather than as a product, the cultivation of metaphorical significance of natural phenomena of all kinds, clan membership and small-group life, and the profound claims and liberation of ritual initiation and subsequent stages of adult mentorship. (Paul Shepard, Nature and Madness)

Where do the little people of the world turn when the big structures crumble or grow humanly intolerable? At that point, it becomes important for us to know what a political and intellectual leadership devoted to the big system orthodoxies will never tell us: that there are small alternatives that have managed to bring person and society, spiritual need and practical work together in a supportive and symbiotic relationship. (Theodore Roszak, Person/Planet: The Creative Disintegration of Industrial Society)

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Hiking in Place

Monday, April 27th, 2020: Trips, Wildfire.

Like every crisis in our alienated society, COVID-19 has revealed more of the social and ecological failures we live in everyday denial of. It was clear from the beginning that the virus became a pandemic due to our technologically-enhanced national and global mobility. The more people venture outside their local communities, the farther the virus spreads. But raised as individualists in our European-derived culture, we take our mobility for granted and resist any constraints on our ability to travel.

My weekend hikes have evolved to encompass a radius of a hundred miles from my home, but as the virus spread and voluntary travel restrictions were imposed, it became clear that the farthest of those hikes would take me out of my local service area and expose me to risk of interacting with people in other communities. So I dropped those destinations and stuck to hikes which, if anything went wrong, would limit my exposure to services and people in my local community.

I’m lucky to live in a small town which supports a vast rural region. For city people, the restrictions are much more limiting. Your local “community” is typically a tiny, densely populated enclave of strangers, completely surrounded by similar enclaves. If you want to get out into “nature” – a nearby park landscaped with non-native plants and infested with invasive species – you enter into competition with thousands of people from neighboring communities. Hence many city parks have been closed. And if you travel outside your enclave, you’re immediately at risk of spreading the virus. But that’s the price you pay for living in a city – an unhealthy environment at the best of times.

Thus one of the most profound failings of our alienated way of life is exposed – the meaninglessness of “communities” to modern, urbanized people. City people are lucky if they even know their next-door neighbors. The idea of living in a neighborhood has only intangible value to them. In a crisis, it’s every man for himself. He can’t be bothered to care about the health of the thousands of strangers surrounding him. He just desperately needs to “get out.”

Early spring is a transitional season for us. Our habitat can’t accurately be described using the four-season cliche; March and April are the dry and windy season. Vegetation doesn’t really start greening up and flowering broadly until May.

Despite the dry air, the winter’s heavy snows still cling to north slopes over 9,000′, blocking some of the trails I’d normally use this time of year. And snowmelt floods streams and rivers, blocking other trails.

Excluded from many of my favorite trails, I experiment with trails I’ve avoided in the past. But the drabness of vegetation this time of year offers only limited photo opportunities.

With all that in mind, here’s a gallery of highlights from “hiking in place.”

March

April

May

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The Real Virus

Friday, March 27th, 2020: Musings, Society.

Addiction and Misdirection

Throughout the day, every day, news media urgently demand our attention to the latest crisis, and like sheep, like puppets, many of us drop what we’re doing to breathlessly follow the unfolding narrative.

Statistics: thousands of cases, hundreds of deaths. Predictions in the millions. Authorities split into two sides: “We must take this seriously to avoid a catastrophe!” vs. “We must get people back to work to avoid economic collapse!”

Statistics are by their very nature stripped of their real-world context. What do they mean? People don’t stop dying from war, domestic violence, old age, car accidents, “normal” diseases – but we only get statistics on the crisis. Where did these statistics come from? What extenuating circumstances already existed? What else was going on at the same time? What assumptions were made by those collecting and processing the data?

But those questions would require us to think, and in the consumer model of the news media, just like in the world of the drug pusher, we’re not supposed to think about what we’re consuming. We’re supposed to react, because it’s the reaction that keeps us addicted. The news doesn’t inform us, it alienates us. In a crisis, statistics are used to manipulate us, to immobilize us in front of our screens. The important thing is to remain enslaved to your favorite device, consuming energy, in a state of helplessness.

The people – citizens of the state, consumers of the media, literally addicted to their screens and the hysterical media narrative – echo what their favorite authorities have said, face to face and through social media. “Millions will die! We must take this seriously!” But what can we do as individuals, as statistics? Very little. Like children dependent on their parents, we look to our remote, unaccountable leaders in the hierarchical organization of the state, and again, as with climate change, this new crisis becomes yet another opportunity to attack the other side, the side which is not doing the right thing. The other side’s leaders are causing this crisis! They’re not taking this seriously enough! Or, it’s a hoax, a plot, they’re taking it too seriously! Yet again, we are divided and outraged.

Meanwhile, away from the media’s misdirection – out of sight and mind of our media addiction – our economy, our lifestyle, our society, our culture continue to destroy nature and humanity. Our global infrastructure of mines, factories, and shipping consumes natural ecosystems and habitats wholesale. Our global exploitation of cheap labor, enforced by our worldwide military empire and our foreign proxies, destroys traditional communities. The devices we’re addicted to, on which we follow this hysterical narrative, are destroying people and nature in distant places, through their consumption of the earth’s energy, their consumption of nonrenewable raw materials, their consumption of exploited and sometimes enslaved labor.

Statistics, sheep, puppets. The emperor has no clothes. This is the real crisis. We are the real virus.

Closed System

From early childhood, our schools indoctrinate us in the propaganda of the state: the narrative of the freedom-loving Pilgrims, the wise Founding Fathers, the revolutionary Constitution, our precious Democracy and its heroes, from Lincoln to Roosevelt to Kennedy. And as we advance through the educational system, our cultural conditioning broadens to encompass the classical legacy of our European forbears: Western Civilization, from the philosophical and democratic Greeks to the orderly, civilized Romans, creators of the language we still employ in both law and science. To the European flowering of arts and sciences from the Renaissance through the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. And the generous role of European culture in spreading enlightenment and democracy throughout the primitive, superstitious Developing World.

Of course, our society’s failures clearly invalidated this narrative in the 1960s and 1970s, and that era’s Counterculture identified most of its fallacies. But according to our hindsight, the Counterculture was a failure, because it never offered an alternative paradigm that would preserve the lifestyle, the “standard of living,” to which we’ve become accustomed. Some people did try communal living and went “back to the land,” but they lacked the skills and/or sociocultural unity to persist, and the juggernaut of consumer culture ultimately overcame their idealism.

In the late 1990s, authorities increasingly drew our attention to another sociocultural failure: climate change. I joined a friend in dinner discussions between the “intelligentsia” – successful white professionals, graduates of elite universities – that again questioned the foundations of our culture.

Like the earlier Counterculture, we again found fault with most of the dominant paradigms of Western Civilization. But again and again, we fell short of condemning the whole shebang, the entire edifice of what used to be called the Establishment. We got stuck on one essential institution, and one undeniable accomplishment: the saving of lives through medical science and technology.

These people (with me as the lone exception) unanimously believed that all the failings of our cultural legacy are redeemed by the statistical increase in life expectancy and reduction of infant mortality achieved by Western Medicine. Hey, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater, okay? The important thing is that the baby survived!

A great irony of this conclusion is that the host of these discussions had a doctoral degree from Stanford, the home of Paul Ehrlich, celebrity author of The Population Bomb, and was inspired by Ehrlich’s thesis of overpopulation as our most pressing crisis. Overpopulation which is partly driven by modern medicine’s increase in life expectancy and reduction in infant mortality. Our greatest achievement, simultaneously causing our greatest problem? To paraphrase Freud, technology has increased the quantity of human life, while degrading its quality.

These people fancied themselves critical thinkers, because they’ve always been told that critical thinking is one of the key components of their liberal educations. But critical thinking is only as good as the knowledge it has to work with. And where do we get this knowledge? Almost none of us is working on the front lines of original research, extracting raw data and analyzing it, turning it into conclusions for peer review. Our knowledge comes primarily from our favorite authorities in the media. Ultimately, our “critical thinking” consists only in choosing between one authority and another. We’re sheep, following the leader.

To make things worse, both we and our leaders are participants in a closed system. The propaganda we’ve all been raised with obscures the reality that our society has become dominant by conquering, suppressing, and often erasing the cultures that could offer us alternatives to our failed values and institutions, and solutions to our problems. Our social discourse takes place in total ignorance of these alternatives.

The Ecology of Death

In natural ecosystems, the death of individual organisms is an essential event in the cycle of life and fertility. Each organism’s body is another organism’s food. The more science we do, the more this fundamental principle is reinforced. We die so that others may live.

But driven unconsciously by the Judeo-Christian mandate of man’s dominion over nature, European science repeatedly tries to prove that humans stand apart from the rest of nature, that we are the pinnacle of natural evolution, with our big brains, our “consciousness,” our reasoning, our languages, our technologies. Despite growing evidence that other animals share our “achievements,” and that our differences are quantitative rather than qualitative, that evidence remains confined to specialist discourse, and most of us are still taught that humans are exceptional. To people like the life-extension advocate Ray Kurzweil, humans should be immortal, and our death is a simply another problem to be solved by science and technology.

Many if not all traditional societies – those alternatives that we’ve conquered, suppressed, and ignored – recognize death as an essential, sacred event in the cycle of life. The events and phases of that cycle are what keep the cycle turning: birth, the learning experiences of the child, the adult’s roles as conceiver of new life and provider to the community, the elder’s role as steward of the wisdom needed to address crises. And death, the necessary return of one’s body to the ecosystem and one’s space to the community. This is why traditional societies haven’t developed our advanced medical technology. Not because they’re inferior and need our help, but because they’re often wiser and more successful than us at thriving on earth.

Let It Come Down

I often remind friends that I’ve spent the past 40 years waiting and hoping for our society to collapse. Some friends agree with me that our society is destroying the earth. Yet in a crisis like this, driven by a hysterical media narrative, many of them are victims of their media addiction. They forget critical thinking and become avid consumers of daily statistics, reflexive followers of their favorite media authorities. They forget that statistics are unaccountable, and media authorities are agents of the state, upholders of a failed paradigm. As citizens of the state, content to participate only as anonymous statistics, we surrender control of our lives to distant leaders we know only as talking heads on a tiny screen.

We forget that our economy, the Growth Economy, is consuming the earth. We forget that we Westerners live in bubbles of affluence and comfort – that worldwide, poor people suffer to provide us with the products of our “progress” and innovation. We only want things to get back to normal, so we can resume our “important” jobs within the machinery of this rapacious economy. We want our kids back in school to continue absorbing the same propaganda we were raised on, to prepare for their own “challenging, fulfilling” jobs within the destructive machine.

I hear serious people earnestly proclaim “Millions will die!” and “This country will never be the same again!” – their point being, our leaders must do something about this NOW!

And as always, I respond: Let go of this fantasy that you’re part of something big and wonderful that needs to be saved. It’s not your country – it never has been. It belongs to the rich and powerful. What you think of as your country is the Evil Empire. Despite its many seductive attractions, your culture is implicated in all the depredations of that empire. Your society will collapse – if not now, eventually – and that will be a good thing both for humans and for the earth.

Diseases are part of life, part of natural cycles. People sometimes die of diseases. Diseases are a natural regulatory mechanism in ecosystems. People are animals who live in natural ecosystems, whether we’re aware of it or not. The more intimately we participate, the more we collaborate in balance and harmony with our natural partners – wild organisms – the more we thrive. The more we rely on technology to save lives, save labor, and empower us, the more alienated and vulnerable we become.

Pandemics are caused by imperialism and globalism – the unaccountable dominance and exploitation of traditional societies by modern states, along with the global transportation networks that states use to maintain their dominance. Pandemics are caused by overpopulation, which results from our scientific and technological innovation: our artificially enhanced agricultural productivity, our medical increase in life expectancy and reduction in infant mortality.

This pandemic, this virus, won’t be the one that brings our society down. Despite the media hysteria, it’s simply not virulent enough. The vast majority of coronavirus cases experience minor symptoms and survive, and will end up suffering more from preventive measures than from the disease. The truly nightmarish epidemics of the past – the Black Plague, Cholera – as well as newer ones like Ebola – are still with us, and are capable of much greater mortality, and much worse suffering. We’ve only temporarily outsourced them to the traditional communities we and our proxies in Latin America, the Middle East, Asia and Africa are exploiting or trying to destroy.

Ultimately, by engineering to prevent death, by isolating individuals from risk and danger, we make ourselves weaker, more vulnerable. Like all the wars perpetrated by our aggressive, competitive, domineering society, the scientific and technological war against disease is a war against nature, a war we can’t win.

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Range of Canyons

Monday, February 3rd, 2020: Range of Canyons, Sky Islands, Trips.

Burned Ridge

With deep snow preventing access to my favorite local trails, I was desperate for something at lower elevation that would still give me a good workout. Around here, lower elevation mostly means further south, in the basin-and-range province where low desert basins surround isolated mountain ranges that rise anywhere from 2,000′ to 6,000′ above.

I’d visited the biggest of these southern ranges briefly when I first moved to this region, but I’d avoided it ever since because it’s world famous, developed for tourism, and sometimes crowded, despite its remoteness from cities.

But further research led me to an excellent amateur website providing information on hiking trails. Dozens of trails are listed, with conditions, distances, elevations, step-by-step descriptions, and topo maps – but thankfully, no photos. The more I studied, the more it seemed that, at least in winter, there might be some great opportunities to get away from the crowds and gain significant mileage and elevation, but without getting mired in deep snow.

This range gets up close to 10,000 feet on its crest, but many trails start at around 5,000′ – as opposed to my local trails which start anywhere between 6,500′ and 8,500′. At this latitude, north slopes hold deep snow at 8,000′ and above. So in the southern range, I’d have many options that could gain me 3,000′ without hitting deep snow.

It was a longer drive than my local hikes – an hour and a half just to get to the entrance of the range, and farther to the trailheads. But if I got up early on Sunday, I could hit the trail in late morning and still have 7 hours of light.

After turning off the Interstate onto the state road south, I began to notice that every third license plate I passed was Mexican. This highway leads north from a major border crossing. The Mexican drivers were all exercising caution, driving below the speed limit.

This range, like my home range in the Mojave Desert, is distinguished by its complex topography, with long canyons on all sides that lead up into broad interior basins that are hidden from the outside. Approaching from the northeast, I drove the paved road into the northeast basin, where most of the development is. I slowed down to pass the small settlement of vacation homes in the canyon’s mouth, then drove even more slowly along the rushing snowmelt creek between towering cliffs and pinnacles, along a narrow, forested floodplain dotted with sycamores, campgrounds, more vacation homes, and small, abandoned barns and pastures from pioneer days.

Despite the descriptions in the trail guide, I had a little trouble finding the trailhead – it wasn’t marked, but there was a wide spot beside the road just big enough for a small vehicle like mine, and after pulling over, I could barely see a trail sign partially hidden among gambel oak on the slope above.

The trail began by meandering gradually upwards across a rolling rocky upland shaded by a beautiful open forest of oak and juniper, interspersed with meadows of bunchgrass, beargrass, and yucca. Then it began climbing a steep ridge, where a small sign marked the wilderness area boundary. Most of the crest of the range lies within federal wilderness.

The trail climbed first the south side, then the north side of the ridge, where I began to encounter small patches of snow. The view started out good and just got better. I love snow, and despite trying to avoid it on the trail, I really enjoyed spotting distant snow-covered north slopes from this vantage point. And I saw plenty of birds, including two golden eagles.

Finally, climbing between a group of large granite boulders, I emerged onto a flat saddle five miles and 2,500′ above the trailhead. Much of the forest above this point was destroyed in a 2011 wildfire, but the web guide said this trail has been cleared for another couple of miles, so I planned to go as far as possible while still leaving enough time to get back to the vehicle before full dark.

Past the saddle, the trail climbed a fully exposed, badly burnt slope that continued to the crest. Much of this slope consisted of fine talus at the angle of repose, on which a slip would mean a fall of hundreds of feet to your certain death. The trail was good and the views exhilarating, but I was drenched in sweat here under full sunlight, and after less than a mile I decided to turn back.

Whereas the ascent had been fairly easy, loose rock on the trail made the descent exhausting for my problem ankle. I’d brought camping gear, but I was so filthy I couldn’t imagine going to bed without a shower. And there was still frost in the campgrounds along the creek, so I’d be making camp in the cold and dark, and waking to frost on my sleeping bag. I got back to the vehicle just before closing time at the tiny cafe and lodge at the mouth of the canyon, so I stopped there, got a room, and had an excellent burrito.

In the morning, I checked out the two tent-only campgrounds up the canyon, for future reference. Unfortunately, though the locations were beautiful, the campsites were right next to each other and none of them was designed for privacy. And I still need to get a tent…

The entire highway north was staked out by the state police that morning, and I was pulled over for driving 67 in a 60 mph zone. The trooper let me go without a warning when he found out I’d been hiking in the mountains.

Rocky Peak

I never hike the same area two weeks in a row, but this turned out to be the exception. I got up on Sunday expecting to return to the “Spire”, but after reading more trail descriptions for the southern range, I decided to try another hike there, a long canyon walk that climbed to the crest. It looked like I might be able to get enough distance and elevation there before hitting deep snow.

But on entering the mountains again, I stopped to review the trail description, and realized that most of the elevation gain occurred at the very end of the trail, where it was in bad condition. So I made a snap decision to take the very first and most popular trail in the canyon, a peak trail I’d avoided in the past because of its popularity, because it lay completely outside the wilderness area, and because it led to the ruins of an old fire lookout. Despite everything, it promised me over 3,000′ of elevation gain.

On this first Sunday in February, I passed three people. An out of shape couple about my age, who didn’t make it very far and were frightened when I came up behind them, dragging my feet in the rocks to make noise. And an athletic-looking solo guy probably in his late 40s or early 50s returning from the peak, about midway up the trail. In contrast to last week’s ridge hike, I encountered few birds – most of them concentrated in the little groves of pine and fir in high north-facing drainages.

Despite having climbed farther and higher many times, I found the top third of the trail exhausting. But it was well-maintained, and it was one of the most beautiful trails I’ve ever hiked. The cliffs above the upper part of the trail seemed impassable from below, but the trail designers cleverly found ways to wind around and between the many looming pinnacles. It was easy to get disoriented – it felt like something out of Lord of the Rings.

While working my way up short switchbacks and snacking on trail mix, I chipped a cusp off a molar, leaving sharp edges so I had to stop chewing on that side of my jaw. This happened last year – can’t tell if it was the same tooth – and my dentist patched it up, saying it might happen again. The old body’s just falling apart, piece by piece…

Finally, unexpectedly, after trudging in the shadow of the north slope for more than an hour, I emerged onto the crest, where a tiny wooden cabin stood, apparently a shed for tools and supplies for the old fire lookout. A little higher, an outhouse perched on the edge of a cliff. And higher still, a winding concrete-and-stone stairway led to the foundation of the lookout, which burned in a thunderstorm almost 30 years ago.

This peak stands isolated within the northeast basin of the range, so it provides a 360 degree view encompassing the desert basin to the north and the long snow-draped crest to the south. To the northeast, I could just barely see the mountains I hike near home, and peeking over a ridge to the northwest was the top of the other sky island I’ve explored, 80 miles away. I’d kept warm by walking fast on the way up, but there was a cool breeze here, and after signing the log, I put my sweater back on for the descent.

What a magical peak! The round-trip distance was just below 9 miles, so I knew I’d get back to the vehicle in time for another burrito at the cafe. But I wasn’t sure whether I’d feel like driving home in the dark. And I kept stopping on the way down for photos.

In the event, I did get a burrito, and I did drive home in the dark. There were no state troopers on the highway this time – in fact, hardly any traffic at all. Driving there and back in a day turned out to be perfectly viable. Stay tuned for more, coming soon!

Troop of Coatis

After studying the trail guide for these mountains, I’d made a short list of trails I thought would be good in winter – lower elevations – vs. summer – higher elevations. But on closer study of one of the “summer” trails, despite averaging more than a thousand feet higher than the trails I’d hiked so far, it appeared to mostly avoid northern slopes where the deep snow is found. And the guide said it had been completely cleared of logs and brush by volunteers last year. Plus, it offered an overlook of the 400′ waterfall I’d glimpsed on my first visit.

Conveniently ignoring my past experience – that above 8,000′, deep snow can also be found on east and west slopes – I decided to give this “summer” trail a try, here in the midst of winter.

Getting to the trailhead itself is a challenge for most folks – you have to climb a mile and a half up a high-clearance, 4wd-only road barely wide enough for a single vehicle. Most people are advised to park below and walk the road. Driving it was slow but fun in my Sidekick. It climbed through a beautiful riparian forest of sycamore, oak, and conifers alongside a rushing snowmelt creek, dappled with sunlight and shade.

The trail began in unburned but open pine forest, and quickly rose into burn scar where long-thorned locust saplings and the hand-high briars of wild roses grabbed my shirt and pants and scratched the backs of my hands. Crisscrossing a steep slope on long switchbacks, I trudged awkwardly up stretches of hard snow crust where I had to kick footholds with my stiff boots.

Clouds were closing in, and a cold wind came and went. An hour of hiking got me to the waterfall overlook. The waterfall was barely flowing – last week’s cold spell had turned it into a spooky ice sculpture. And the overlook was a narrow, precarious gap in the chaparral that only revealed the top section of the falls.

The overlook was less than 2 miles from the trailhead. My target – should I be lucky enough to find my way clear of deep snow – was to hike to the end of this trail where it joined the Crest Trail, and from there make my way to the peak of the range, almost 2,000′ higher.

But my first challenge was a set of tight, steep switchbacks which climbed a steep north slope, and crossed patches of snow up to knee-deep, which were mostly crusty but occasionally gave way underfoot, toppling me sideways. The view was spectacular but my wishful thinking was fading fast.

Finally the trail crested another saddle and entered a partially-burned canyon. At first the way was level across a mostly open slope. But then I came to a maze of green branches, the crown of a seemingly healthy, mature Ponderosa pine than had fallen across the trail. And from there on, it got worse. Tree after living tree had toppled, just in the past few weeks, to make the trail virtually impassable.

Resolute, I climbed and crawled my way through for about a half mile, at which point I encountered a seemingly endless, intertwined pile of fallen trees. It was so extensive I couldn’t see a way to climb around it, so I gave up and turned back.

Why did all these living trees fall? After a bad fire, the soil is progressively destabilized as the roots of burned trees rot and crumble, soil and rocks erode without the support of soil biota and roots, and the dead snags fall. So the surviving trees lose much of their root support. Mature trees have grown as part of a fairly dense forest, losing their lower branches and becoming top-heavy, and without the collective windbreak of the trees that have died and fallen around them, the survivors are more isolated and vulnerable to the force and impact of wind. And inside the trees, invisible fungal infections can make both trunks and branches vulnerable to breakage. It’s a killer combo.

Cloud cover was now nearly complete – it looked like a storm was imminent – and the rising wind was harsh and cold. I made my way down at a steady pace, sinking and toppling occasionally in unstable snow. But before I left the snow behind, I heard voices, and crossing the next patch of snow I saw two people approaching.

The first was just a boy, barely out of his teens. I had spotted something at my feet and bent to turn over a tiny bird, smashed inexplicably into the snow. When I rose, I noticed the kid was wearing a fancy cowboy boot on one foot, and on the other, one of those open-toed plastic medical boots you get when you fracture your foot.

“Damn!” I exclaimed. “That’s hard core!”

He smiled and asked how much farther the overlook was, in a sweet country drawl. He said this was his first time – he used to hike these mountains from the other side. I told him there was an even better overlook higher up, but he shook his head, pointing to his partner who was struggling to catch up. “She’s from Florida. She’s not used to this.”

An underdressed woman who appeared twice his age, she caught up with us, looking down at my feet. “You’re wearing real hiking boots!” she muttered in dismay. I noticed she had on thin canvas sneakers. It reminded me of all the other times I’ve encountered woefully unprepared people out in nature.

I expected to find their vehicle near mine at the trailhead, but it wasn’t until I’d driven all the way to the main road that I saw it: a spotlessly clean late-model 4wd monster truck, lifted on huge off-road tires, with a Florida plate. Apparently the lady hadn’t been confident enough to actually take it on a 4wd road, or maybe she was afraid of getting it scratched. So they’d walked the road to the trailhead, adding 3 miles round-trip to their hike – no wonder she was dismayed.

Despite the letdown of the impassable trail, the payoff for my day’s labors finally arrived, just a short distance down the rough road from the trailhead, as I slowly approached a creek crossing. I suddenly spotted a small animal crouching to drink from the creek, stopped my vehicle, and realized it had to be a coati. I rolled down my window and scrabbled on the passenger seat for my camera. The coati was lithely bounding from stone to stone, ignoring me, and I shut off the engine and cranked up the emergency brake. Then I saw another farther up the bank. They were wandering back and forth, poking between the rocks, occasionally dipping to take a drink. I got my camera open and awkwardly leaned out the window to start shooting video, zooming in on them. Suddenly in the corner of my eye I sensed movement – more coatis were streaming down out of the forest above the road to my right.

When I glanced back, the original coatis had drifted left across the creek and were making their way up the opposite slope between the tall pines. The new coatis arrived at the creek and milled around drinking and foraging. There was a brief lull then more coatis streamed down from the right. I noticed the camera’s screen had turned black – it had shut itself off somehow. By the time I got it started again, a dozen coatis had crossed the creek and moved up the opposite slope, and more were moving down from the right. I figured at this point there’d been about 20 in the pack. The whole time, they completely ignored me and my vehicle – safety in numbers I guess.

Some were dark brown, others pale. At home I learned that females and their young move in packs called “troops,” numbering up to 25 individuals. They keep their tails raised so they’re more visible to others in the troop. They’re supposed make quite a noise as they root around in the dirt, but the tumbling creek drowned that out in my case.

Closer to the Crest

After a bad cold limited my hiking for almost a month, I was anxious to rebuild my capacity and do more exploring. And in a time of global pandemic caused by urbanization, overpopulation, and globalization – among other failures of our imperialistic industrial society – I was super grateful that two decades ago, long before this man-made disaster, I’d made the decision to move to a region which consists of tiny enclaves of humanity in the midst of vast open spaces with mostly intact natural habitat. At a time like this, my situation couldn’t be in stronger contrast with the situation of most of my friends, who’ve chosen to live in the midst of vast concentrations of humanity surrounding tiny pockets of severely degraded nature.

So until our failing government declares martial law, I can still spend an entire day in wilderness without seeing another human. “Social distancing” – what a cruel joke on those who prize the benefits of big cities. The skyscrapers, the lights, the bustle, the restaurants, bookstores, bars, cafes, and nightclubs. Same as it ever was – the dangerous delusions of industrial civilization.

Today’s hike took me back to the range of canyons, a two-hour drive from home, to an unfamiliar trail that ultimately converged with the first trail I’d hiked there, back in January. This time, I was hoping to reach the crest, in a 12-mile round trip. But three things prevented that: the extreme steepness of the unfamiliar trail, my poor condition after prolonged sickness, and the need for multiple difficult stream crossings at the beginning of the hike.

Despite these challenges, I was able to get closer than before, within about a mile of the crest. And with many, many stops to catch my breath, I managed to climb a little higher than on any previous hike in the past 20 years or more.

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First Steps in the First Wilderness Part 8: January

Monday, January 20th, 2020: First Steps in the First Wilderness, Trips.

Above 8,000′, the snow was too deep to hike my favorite trails. And my 4wd was in the shop so I couldn’t drive muddy and/or icy roads to most of the other trailheads. After trying and failing to drive an unfamiliar backroad an hour from home, I was forced to fall back on a low-elevation trail into a popular canyon, a trail much shorter than I usually hike on a Sunday.

But it was worth it! I’d forgotten how beautiful the landscape is from this trail. The side canyons had rushing water, and the main creek was raging with snowmelt.

After reaching the canyon bottom trail, working my way up along the raging creek, and fighting my way through clouds of leafhoppers that rose from trailside shrubs in the few sunny patches, I was finally stopped when the trail ended in an impassable rockslide. None of these trails has been maintained since the 2012 wildfire.

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First Steps in the First Wilderness Part 8: December

Monday, December 16th, 2019: First Steps in the First Wilderness, Trips, Wildfire.

There were snowstorms in the mountains over Thanksgiving, and more a week later. As the weather warmed after that, I discovered the creeks were too flooded with snowmelt to cross in many places, and the snow too deep and crusty to trudge uphill in. But the weather stayed warm and I was hoping I could get in one more hike up my favorite trail before more snow made it impassable.

The creek in the canyon bottom turned out to be very loud, but crossable. The bigger problem was all the new logs blocking the trail, fire-killed snags brought down as melting snow softened the soil. But I climbed over and around them.

Finally, nearing the crest, I encountered snow up to knee deep, but not enough to stop me. I was motivated by the views!

It was windy up there, so I didn’t linger. But for the third Sunday in a row, I was passed by a golden eagle – this time carrying what appeared to be a stick.

The five-mile descent was made difficult by an unexplained searing pain in my ankle. I’d started the hike earlier than usual, but nearing the winter solstice the days are short, and the pain slowed me down, so I expected to finish the hike in the dark.

Luckily I had my new headlamp to help me over the loose rock in the last half-mile of trail!

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