I’ve just received a press release from the National Parks Conservation Association, of which I am a member, informing us that 9 of the 12 members of the National Park System Advisory Board have just resigned in frustration. Despite repeated requests to meet with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the NPSAB has not had the opportunity to advise the secretary through all of 2017.
Founded in 1935, the NPSAB is entirely non-partisan. One of its major concerns, the past few years, is that our national parks currently have an $11 billion maintenance backlog.
Members of the NPSAB serve without compensation. Like me, they’re park service volunteers. Most of them, like me, are entitled to an NPS Volunteer Pass, given annually to NPS volunteers who have logged more than 200 hours the previous year in service. Year after year, around 250,000 citizens, 40% of whom are seniors, donate more than 6 million hours of service to the system.
And now we’ve lost nine of our most expert volunteers.
"The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e. the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e. the standards of thought) no longer exist”
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951
Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously wrote that “words are loaded pistols.”
I read Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” while trying to earn one of my masters degrees, after which I wrote a seminar paper on Sprachregelungen, the language rules of Nazi Germany. Foremost among these rules was that the campaign of ethnic cleansing conducted against the Jewish community should never be referred to as extermination, execution or killing. Rather, it was to be called “die Endlösung der Judenfrage,” best translated as “the final solution to the Jewish question.”
Solutions, after all, are good—are they not? And every question deserves to be answered.
When I was first assigned to read Arendt I wasn’t sure of her relevance in the postmodern world. Hadn’t civilized society once and forever solved the problem of totalitarianism? However, since writing that paper I have always resisted attempts by those in authority to impose language rules. For example, my university wants me to call the dorm I line in a “residence hall.” I don’t. Swig Hall, where I live, is a dorm, and I’m proud to be part of the residential learning community that lives in this particular dorm. Euphemisms be damned.
Over the weekend I’ve read half a dozen news articles about the new language rules being imposed by the Department of Health and Human Services of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In short, the CDC has been forbidden from using seven deadly words, including: “science-based,” “fetus,” “transgender,” “diversity,” and “vulnerable.”
Those words are indeed loaded pistols. They have power. So does this word: totalitarianism. We’d better start reading about it. I suggest you begin with Hannah Arendt.
I write this morning from within my apartment in Santa Clara, where the windows are closed and the air conditioning is on despite cool temperatures outside. Although we are 94 miles south of Sonoma, the air quality index here is 154, which is considered “unhealthy.” All outdoor athletics have been suspended by the university, including team sports, club sports and intramurals.
We didn’t go up to our sailboat this weekend because it should be even more smoky up there. The air quality index in Sausalito right now is 161, which I’m assuming is even more unhealthy. Sailing regattas have been cancelled on the bay, and the National Park Service has closed down Golden Gate Raptor Observatory’s hawk watch because they are unwilling to risk the health of official NPS volunteers such as myself.
What bothers me about this is how routine it’s getting to be smokebound. In July, up in our cabin in the San Juan Islands, we inhaled the smoke from a forest fire in British Columbia for more than a week. Then, in August, we lived for another week in the smoke of forest fires in Idaho and Montana. Those fires were 400 miles away! Neighbors who have lived on the island for decades assured us that it’s never been this bad in the past.
I realize that I’ve got relatively little to whine about. My sister, who works for the Sonoma Land Trust, has evacuated to Sacramento and doesn’t even know whether her home is still standing. She reports that visibility was no more than thirty feet when they left their house.
This morning I can make out the hazy outline of mountains out my window. It’s the first time I’ve been able to see them this week. We were breathing in their smoke in September of 2016, and the glow of their flames lit up our bedroom one night.
I’m no climatologist, but I am a nemophilist, which the ancient, 2,000-page dictionary in my office defines as “one who loves the woods.” And the woods are telling me about profound changes that are going on in terms of climate. For thousands of years the forests of this planet have controlled the climate, keeping just the right amount of carbon sequestered, emitting just the right amount of oxygen. But now the climate is controlling the forests, and much of the carbon sequestered there is literally going up in smoke.
The forests need our help, and they need it now. A good place to start is to resist EPA administrator Pruitt’s recent proposal to unravel this country’s Clean Power Plan. A good way to join that resistance can be found in the Environmental Defense Fund’s blog here: https://www.edf.org/blog/2017/10/09/trumps-epa-making-reckless-and-damaging-decision-heres-what-you-need-know?utm_source=google&utm_campaign=ggad_clean-power-plan_pd_dmt&utm_medium=cpc&utm_id=1507655789&gclid=EAIaIQobChMIwIqAl8Pw1gIVD5BpCh1-OwRXEAAYAiAAEgKdofD_BwE.
Let’s all campaign for the trees.
Q: What do you get when you buck up a Douglas-fir into 5" rounds?
A: A cordwood writer's shack! (Some assembly required.)
Today is my final full day as a Whiteley Scholar, and I was able to complete my manuscript for the new book, BEYOND SOLITUDE, this morning, a few hours ahead of schedule.
Many thanks to the staff of the Whiteley Center at Friday Harbor Laboratories of the University of Washington for allowing me to take advantage of their wonderful facility. Here is a shot of the study I was assigned. What you can't see is the fireplace behind me as I took this shot. Nor can you see the fireplace in my cottage, a two-minute walk from the study. The cottage is actually closer to the water than the study, and there was a bald eagle in the tree above my back deck when I went home for lunch today.
Let's hope the inspiration was sufficient!
I went out for a walk this afternoon to clear my head after a day of revision and editing. I hadn't journeyed further than our front path, however, when I discovered something truly macabre. There, lying in the sawdust where I've been bucking up a tree we felled last week, was a raven's bill. The lower mandable was located about a meter west of the upper, and there was nothing else of the carcass to be found. Not a single feather!
How does one explain that? The only mammals we've seen on the property so far are squirrels and deer, and I understand that the largest mammalian preditors we've got here are raccoons. We've seen birds of prey, but most of them are bald eagles and osprey, which tend to be piscivores. (Yes, I realize that bald eagles are opportunistic feeders and will sometimes scavenge.) Otherwise, I've seen Coopers Hawks, Northern Goshawks and a Great Horned Owl here on the island.
It’s been a quiet, foggy morning, although for the past week it’s been difficult to tell where the fog ends and the smoke from the British Columbia forest fires takes over. No wind. I was up in the loft writing when I heard a snap, and was quick enough looking out the front window to see my favorite snag crash into a neighboring tree.
This snag had been a Douglas-fir with a twelve-inch diameter at breast height, which means it was probably only 60 years old when it died. Its top half was missing and had been hauled away long before we purchased this lot.
At least half a dozen nest cavities had been drilled into this snag, and it was actively used by breeding nuthatches this past spring. I was careful, when felling trees growing too close to our cabin, to aim them away from the snag so as to preserve it for future generations of nuthatches. Those efforts now prove to have been in vain.
My first job was to get the snag to the ground so that it wouldn’t crash onto someone coming up the front path. It seemed too risky to rig a rope, so I pulled our aluminum flagpole out of its mount, flipped it upside down and used this 30’ tool to push the snag off the tree it was resting on. Former snag crashed over the path and broke into two large logs and a zillion smaller pieces. The wood was thoroughly rotten, far beyond what could be converted into firewood. It took half an hour to cart the smaller pieces out to the community burn pile. The biggest log remains in the yard, honorably.
I liked having a snag with active nests on the lot. It stood out like the memento mori in landscape paintings by the Hudson River School. New life coming from death. And it served its purpose; the more we understand of forest ecology, the more we understand the roles played by logs and snags. In the Cascade Mountains, 39 species of birds build their nests in snags. Nowadays timber companies who log our national forests are required to leave a certain number of snags behind for the benefit of those critters.
There are still two snags standing in the front part of our lot, but that hardly seems sufficient at the moment.
Journal of Natural Hist. Ed.
Natural History Institute
Center for Humans & Nature