“My people will be in touch with your people.” I got my ear down to the ground, listening for footsteps.
Reporting from Ft. Collins, Colorado my source informs me that going outside sucks, that air quality from the western wildfire season has been unnerving, “apocalyptic is not too strong a word.” They are all but ready to begin taking antidepressants.
Covid-19 infections have gone back up on the Navajo Nation. My sources tell me they relaxed and let their guard down too soon. Our people of the first nation have been hit hard and too many have died.
Further south in Patagonia my sources report the monsoons have turned the high desert of Santa Cruz County a verdant green, that there is an upswing in hope, but this hamlet of a few thousand people feel that they are getting a little out over their rural anti-venom and ration of whiskey for such hope to be harvested, canned and setup in the pantry for future difficulties.
I note last weekend the annual Buena Vista, Colorado burro race was held. Happy burros trotting along a fourteen-mile course with their ever-faithful partners galloping alongside. Running a half marathon from 7800’ to 11,000’ is what fun looks like up here.
My sources from Amador City (smallest town in California by size-198 acres) reports the turtles down in the creek are getting along, the bocce ball court has been groomed and ready for a tournament to breakout at any moment. It has been hot, dry and that the wasps have been aggressive this summer.
Report from Napa came in triggered by a grassfire that had set off more post traumatic stress disorders in survivors of the numerous larger regional wine country wildfires of the last 5 years.
Hiking out of Afton, Wyoming has been a near religious experience. Recent monsoonal events have turned the Vista Prater Trail muddy but passable with rewarding views not a mile up into the watershed.
An Oregon horse breeder moving a stud on Interstate 5 had a tire on their trailer blow and reported cigarette butts, aluminum cans and improperly disposed facemasks littering the side of the highway where repairs were made. Especially the risk of fire induced by careless cigarette tossed from vehicles provoked breeder to wonder, “What are people thinking?”
Particularly curvaceous Edmonton, Alberta friend has set down into words what concerns her this summer. “You don’t know fear until you tried on a dress too small and thought you were stuck in it forever.”
Harstine Island in the Puget Sound suffered from the heatwave until they didn’t. Brave souls are raising a second schipperke and reporting the dog is as disobedient as their former untrainable schipperke and that the cooler weather has been good for the blooming ranunculus. Wildfire smoke has not been too bad… yet.
Pot farming in British Columbia continues. From an undisclosed location somewhere in the interior my source reports a good crop will be ready for harvest by the end of August. No word yet on how morel hunting has gone or if chanterelles are ready just yet. Border between USA and Canada is due to open soon, or was, that may be put off due to the virus.
While in British Columbia reported all time high temperature of 92.7 degrees Fahrenheit was set on Saltspring Island in July. I am to understand that online poker games were played as scheduled and that the Saltspringers complained but that the grousing changed nothing.
Laurel Canyon, California contacts have moved back aboard their ketch rigged sailboat at Channel Island Harbor. Escaping San Fernando Valley summer heat to idle away the balmy August days along the coast has hopes on high.
Still, it is wildfire season, the summer has been hotter than average, and it appears the delta-variant has muted the luster of better days, that we’d turned the corner on the pandemic and a more normal life was soon in reach is now beyond our fingertips.
A piece of what we are living through has to do with resilience, to do with endurance, and piece to do with our vaccinated population coaxing our unvaccinated resistors to come to their senses and do the right thing and help us bring this pathogenic trail of sickness, hospitalization, and death to an end.
A low-pressure disturbance off the Cape Verde Islands in the Atlantic is being watched carefully as this potential hurricane begins tracking west across the Atlantic toward the Gulf of Mexico.
Monsoonal weather swept up from the south passing over the San Francisco Bay Tuesday. Warnings of the potential for lightening storms had been downgraded as the center of the weather system passed further offshore than had been forecast.
Just west of Benicia’s harbor we sailed off our anchorage at Dillion Point. No two days are the same on the water, expectations are traps, best to keep an open mind and ready for anything attitude.
Still after Monday’s return from the delta and then our rites of passage through the Suisun Bay we didn’t have the stomach for another dog’s life sail.
Callouses on our hands were raw from pulling the lines the day before. Our overnight had been a boisterous feast whipped up by the sailboat’s chef. We drank good wine. A quick anchor check to be sure we were holding. Bedtime came early, the anchoring light was switched on, the rest of the lights were turned off.
After coffee and mush we hoisted sails and tacked out of the channel beyond C&H Sugar on the Crocket side of the Carquinez Strait. For a spell we had enough breeze to keep the boat moving. By 10:00 AM the wind dropped then vanished altogether only the ebbing tide kept us headed to home port.
By 1:00 PM we beat bow to wind toward the San Rafael Bridge, the ebb was at its end and the flooding incoming tide began to push against us. We might have used the motor but since Monday we’d been cursed with an odd rattle, thinking it might be the vessel zincs on the propeller shaft, whatever the problem, it had been making an awful racket. The skipper and his crew discussed our options, deciding together that it safer to sail. Even if we would only get what the light winds and strong counter currents would give us, we calculated the snails pace a better bet than becoming impatient.
When we first hoisted sails, we’d thought if we could find the prevailing winds that we would be arriving at home port by now, but the westerly’s never filled in and the mysterious rattle kept us on edge. We continued sailing in mere whisps of breeze. Light air sailing is a much finer circumstance. Over the course of an hour zigzagging southward, the boat clawed its way through the water taking every extra effort and attention to make our way past the bridge, Red Rock and to the approach of the channel into Richmond’s harbor.
Setting up a mark on the global positioning system (GPS) I’d entered the final waypoint, the mark that would take us to our destination, the last leg of our trip. We needed to make good on 8-9 more miles. In a full breeze the last piece of our journey might take a bit more than an hour. Sailing at 2-3 knots these last miles according to the GPS were predicted to take at our current course and speed to require another 4 hours.
I told my first mate that we were due home by the end of this century—that there was plenty of food and water—that for reasons difficult to know these two days have worked according to powers higher than our own—that we were fated to return from the delta to Emeryville by some other set of schedules and expectations—that our well laid plans were not what Neptune had wanted for us—that if there was even one more adverse force unleashed upon our sorry souls—that together we would need to seek the help of a shaman—to cast off the curse that seems to have devoured our luck—our good fortunes had run plum out.
Sailors look for any ripple of wind on the surface of a still body of water. You steer away from the mirror like surface toward these ruffling patterns. We got hold of a better wisp of wind, then set a favorable angle and shaped our course for the end of the Berkeley Pier.
We had no reason to get cocky, the winds had come and gone all day, teasing us for a few minutes then vanishing, that’s how it had been. Another hour had crept by, we were still making some progress, perhaps one mile further by zigzagging two miles back and forth against the current.
By 3:00 PM changes were afoot. Ahead it was sure there was plenty of wind, more than enough, we could see the winds, there were whitecaps, if we could get there before this hope for a shot at getting off the water was gone, if we could get out of this hole, these doldrums, this rare monsoonal depression that had toyed with us for the last two days.
Then, as if by practical joke we found plenty of wind and more and went tearing south screaming along as fast as the boat will sail. I was on the low side steering, Richard my crewman on the high side grabbing hold to the boat while we rocketed toward the Bay Bridge on the east side of Yerba Buena Island. Winds were blowing from the west at 30 knots.
Laughing we hid in the lee of the island and lowered the main and would finish in this teasing maelstrom on headsail alone. Once at the dock we made quick work of putting the boat away. Down below we shared a bit of whiskey and split one can of beer. We laughed about our two days out on the water, the weather fit no pattern, being surprised had cost us, we might have gone about all of this another way, for one thing we might have waited in Owl Harbor, that might be the first thing to have tried before we opened the door to tempt all these flying monkeys to come into our lives.
Postscript… The following day the diver that cleans the boats bottom went over the side and reported he had to use his knife to remove seaweed, netting and fishing line that had gotten tangled around the propeller—there was a stinking mess below we had sailed with for two days—hard to know how we’d even made it back—prevailing as we did against all the stubbornness and expectations.
Owl Harbor curves like a crescent moon in the delta off of the San Joaquin River. The entrance to the slough is landmarked by the scuttled remains of a tug and dredging crane abandoned decades ago.
Boats vary in size and type. There are old motorboats, a newer 45’ ocean going catamaran. It wouldn’t be the delta if there were not variously configured houseboats, the most common are constructed with aluminum siding. One in particular featured four potted pomegranate trees, not large but well fruited.
All kinds of boats for all kinds of people. This is the time of year when the playful are jumping off watercraft into the water. Whole swarms of enthusiasts congregate in the water with a favorite floating device and beverage and for hours to idle away the afternoon together with their barking dogs.
Deverey is the harbor master. This is a skilled position. You’ll need to be able to spot a roustabout at first glance, former outlaws and a weak willed man that may soon become a lawbreaker. Since women can go bad too it takes some sixth sense to flush out the soul that may be in a corner of their own making and all too ready to entangle Owl Harbor in their drama.
This is just plain old everyday run of the mill way that the human condition and a boat harbor interact with one another.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Barry aboard a rather out of its place sports fisher, something you might see of Cabo San Lucas, in the Carolinas, maybe Key West. This is a the curviest vessel visiting Owl Harbor, the light green hull has been buffed out, two voracious CAT C18 diesels are resting below in the engine bays. Long of tooth, rascal and renegade, Barry appears to have wrapped his fate around his dreamboat, living the 60 gallons an hour at 20 knots all head full speed dream.
This is how it is here at Owl Harbor. Barry will move to Half Moon Bay in September then cruise south to Catalina Island by the middle of October. No right thinking mariner will linger this far north once the summers over and the first edge of autumn has been spent.
Up with first light and into a monster ebbing tide against a wee bit stronger blow than had been accounted on. This return to San Francisco Bay was harsh pounding against steep chop and a moody gray frothy and foaming sea. We feared the flying monkeys would soon attack, then a bolt of lightening, a refinery explosion could end our journey. We pounded against the Suisun Bay’s unkindness.
My second on this passage has sailed south to ports of call south of San Francisco. We have visited Monterey, Morro Bay and Ventura. Nothing was as belligerent and unwelcoming as yesterdays bashing into what Suisun Bay had on offer.
We redoubled our efforts. Every move, every effort was made to get the boat through and keep crew safe. A few days before sailing into Owl Harbor took all of 4.5 hours time. This return to Benicia extracted 10 hours.
We were concerned about being struck by asteroids, a train derailment and catastrophic crash off a trestle that might sink our boat and end our one chance at this thing called life. What other unanticipated horror might befall the fate of two chastened mariners?
We could be run down by a cargo ship, boarded by pirates, eaten by sharks, drenched head to toe by such a procession of waves as to leave us shivering our timber’s, and indeed the Suisun provided an infinite dousing of our desire for something slightly more gentle than what we were to receive.
With grit and grim dark humor we sailed on into the teeth of this beast of a mere ordinary Monday in late July. It was not hot as was the day before, it was overcast and the sky murky, gloom was hung into the heavens and there to see. Late afternoon we set our anchor in Dillion’s Point. Safe and sheltered now, thirsty and hungry, just another day of playing with boats.
We both spoke of flying monkeys because our trip out of the delta back to the San Francisco Bay could not have been more frightful. We took a good one yesterday and gave it all we had. You are sure you didn’t want to be there. I promise you the Suisun will give you all the hell you will ever care to take..
Every winter, from November until April Earthbound Farms operations move from the Salinas Valley of California to the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. If you are eating a salad in January odds are stacked in your favor that the organic lettuce produced by Earthbound Farms was grown with water from the Colorado River.
What is described as the lower basin of the Colorado River: New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and California, have 186 million acres in agricultural production. Back of the envelop calculations estimate that our agriculture and ranch stakeholders use 80% of our drinking water. The remaining 20% is used for everything else. Agriculture using the lion share of our water returns about 3% to our gross domestic product. By way of comparison Apple Inc. in Cupertino is a $2 trillion enterprise and yes it needs to be noted that we can’t eat our iPhones, iPads and MacBook Pro’s, at least not yet.
Michael Kiparsky writing for the Los Angeles Times said that the relevant water rights records, estimated at more than 10 million pages of paper files, legal rights dating to the 19th century but still binding today are disbursed across 58 county courthouses in California.
Until now, as California is battered by drought, wildfire, and heatwaves there has been little interest in digging into this massive trove of tangled legal decisions. Water users have continued using while regulators have been directed by political leaders to look the other way- when they could- as long as they could. That dog won’t hunt any longer.
University of California at Berkeley School of Law has attempted to digitize a fraction of the relevant water rights documents. Evidence suggests the effort may be useful, that there is some hope the scanning and organizing of the records might be finished in a realistic time horizon and at reasonable cost.
Nothing happens in the American Southwest without water. Crossing the Sonoran Desert on foot from the Mexican border to Tucson isn’t survivable without water. Scarcity has been a constant and now with demand outstripping supply the push comes to shove moment is pressing in on the region.
Arizona monsoons last week in Queen Creek, Mesa and Apache Junction dumped almost 1 inch of much needed precipitation. Parts of Scottsdale received about half that amount. Most other Arizona stations reported little to none. Last year’s monsoon season was a no-show. Each year half of all the water that falls in Arizona comes from these summer downpours. Banking on monsoon downpours is like betting the house with a chance of winning chump change. The monsoons are predictably unpredictable as the desert southwest has grown water that falls from the sky will never keep pace with demand.
Rebecca Solnit writes in the Guardian that we have reached a climate induced “turning point.” Anxieties about wildfire, drought and heatwaves have increased across the region as one disaster is predictably followed by another. Homes burn to the ground, wine is tainted by wildfire smoke and rendered worthless, exorbitant increases for fire insurance threaten vast regions of Northern California’s property owners caught up in land located in the urban-wildfire interface. Actuaries in the business of spreading risk see no winning hands for insurers and many are no longer writing new policies in California. The knock-on effects of these unanticipated higher costs are a piece of the reckoning climate change is forcing on the region.
As the megadrought bares down upon the Colorado River’s lower basin water managers are going to be forced to order water allocations cut, landowners with subordinated water rights will be forced to take their land out of production first, if that isn’t enough all stakeholders will have their water cut.
Albuquerque, Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, San Diego and Los Angeles, our urban population will feel the impact in grocery stores as higher prices. The rural communities will be hit by losses as the farms can’t produce. Then there are all the second order effects, wages lost, seed and fertilizer not sold, crop dusters idled, truck drivers with no load to deliver.
Farmers growing vegetables in the Salinas Valley have optimized their operations. Labor is a key resource. Veteran farm hands returning each year work the same land with the same equipment to produce the same crop. Streamlining operations is a must.
Reconfiguring an operation for a crop that requires less water may be a bridge too far, the transition costs too high, the access to water too uncertain to get a bank to make a loan on a future crop they may never make it to harvest.
If you are driving between San Francisco and Los Angeles, you will drive through the Westland’s Water District. The regions access to water is tentative, only after those groups that possess the most senior water rights, usually dating back to before 1930 may water be made available to the Westland’s water users further downstream.
This is the poster child for a piece of the western regions 184 million acres destined to be removed from production. Water allocations have been over promised and cuts will be needed to bring the system back into balance.
Even if it rains and reservoirs begin to recover the higher temperatures and drier air means our recovery will be glacial, and there is every reason to be concerned that given our increasing population that Lake Powell and Lake Mead will never see enough runoff to be refilled to capacity. Too many stakeholders continue to demand their promised deeded access to too little. Excess heat trapping carbon particles in the atmosphere is the invisible piece of our crisis, the demand for rights to use the last drop of water is the most tangible.
In this modern go-go we can do anything world, without access to a reliable supply of water that can do attitude won’t get the job done. Even if you see the glass as half full there is still another half a glass of water missing.
Advances in irrigation technology add expense to production, the water scarce west will always be disadvantaged competing with same commodity produced in a more water abundant region.
Efficiencies also include crops that use less water producing food that can feed more people. This more direct use of our land for human consumption I liken to “farm to table,” in this case we rid our food production system of the intermediary, the animal we fatten, slaughter then eat, instead it is a system repurposed, this is the model of field to stomach, that is if you can imagine reprogramming the passionate tastebud driven throng trying to adapt to being satiated and contented eating further down the food chain.
Can’t imagine that? You’re not alone. Like a heart attack on a plate, a cheeseburger, fries and chocolate milkshake consumed over decades by a well-meaning yet sedentary citizen there will be that moment that the cheeseburger eater is flat on their back, then there is the stranger attempting to revive you as you slip away into the vast eternity of the next chapter of your life, this is beyond the body, after it no longer matters what you eat.
At our dinner table there is all kinds of trash talk about wildfire risk. We calculate wind direction, relative humidity, and chance of fire as if this is the normal course of conversation. In our neighborhood the nearby pine trees are no longer regarded as safe. Fire resistant indigenous trees are less of a danger. Our leafy neighborhoods are both possessed of beauty and high dungeon.
Growing organic lettuce in Yuma makes sense. Helping American’s gain access to an abundance of organic dark leafy greens is one of the healthiest vegetables to end up on our supper table. This mighty vegetable holds the key to heart health and a disease-free life. It also rids us of the middleman, fattening animals for slaughter is complicating our fight to fix the climate emergency. If you don’t think of yourself as part of the problem, you haven’t been living quite guilty enough. Feel more passion to change, don’t accept your mindless desires, maybe our stomach is wrong.
The Colorado River stretches 1400 miles from headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park to where the last remnants that empty into Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. From start to end there are a vast complex overlapping community of stakeholders. These are the diverse other spokes in our food system, from fist fighting cowboys to addle appetite driven vegans, from irrational misinformed partisan hotheads to indigenous peoples that can trace their ancestors back to 20,000 years before present.
Abandoning representative government for an autocratic, command and control world where the unchecked power’s pick and choose between the well-connected and not so well connected won’t solve the American West’s water shortages. This anti-science bandwagon isn’t a good fit in civilization threatened by megadrought. We can’t invent water, we can’t imagine our way to abundance, we must learn to make the most of the water we have. Conservation and reclamation will help, and it is part of our mix of adaptations, but we’re heading for a far more consequential crisis, the dimensions and impacts are not going to be easy to come to terms with.
If you live in LA you’re back of your mind worried about wildfire, but more likely you’re real ache in your life has to do with your commute, what time your girlfriend is going to show up, how to get tickets to the Hollywood Bowl, you promised your heart throbs you’d go see Diana Krall.
If you are raising a family in King City in the Salinas Valley it is the high rent, the price of a gallon of gas matters, getting you newborn baptized is everything.
Forty million acres will need to be removed from production, and what land remains in production will be refocused.
None of this will be painless. I didn’t want to switch to a whole food plant-based diet. I didn’t make the change until I had to, and even then, what can I say, much of this path was difficult, I complained plenty, but I put my big boy pants on and did what was required, that my changes increased the odds of my survival, and if I didn’t change and had kept going the same way that there was trouble ahead.
Rural America’s politics has shot off and gone haywire. Our white rural Christians have latched onto the toxic politics of what remains of the Republican Party. If taxes from the urban professional class are to be used to help our agricultural sector through this transition the two America’s will need to sit down and have an honest conversation.
Voting rights should be at the top of that list. Ending income inequality needs to be on that list. If we reach across the isle to help the other side, we’ll want a full-throated affirmation that the best future for our country is a two party self-representative government.
Rural America needs to come to terms with a more emancipated modern woman. We need a less oppressive approach to living with half of our citizens.
Rural gun regulations are not a good fit for urban America. Rural and urban America need to fix this problem. Blocking legislation in Washington DC needs to stop.
Adapting our agricultural sector to the realities of climate change will require changes in how and what we farm. There is no better place to fix the lethality of our diet than by changing to crops that will make us healthier and happier.
Expertise matters when sewing seeds or flying a plane. Let’s get the best ideas up to the front of the line and put all this bias and prejudice back on a barstool in a tavern where a customer can have their say but not tip the whole freaking experiment in democracy at risk.
America can do this, but first off, we need to agree to be more agreeable, that the other side has a right to exist, but it doesn’t have the right to grab hold of power and tyrannize everyone and everything that’s not the same as the people you are most familiar with.
Won’t be long now. Citizens living in the rural American West are about to go through some things and if there is any chance of survival it is being willing to cooperate with those more affluent urban citizens that are willing to step up and help. Megadroughts, climate emergencies, wildfires are the warning signs, the flashing red lights on our dashboard that our ecosystem is breaking down, that there is no more time for doing nothing, that for the sake of our survival we are all going to be asked to make some sacrifices as we adapt to this hotter and drier reality. We have to give to get.
Enter reality on the boil as the consequences of hotter days become an irrefutable fact of a world facing peril. Distant and vague no longer hipsters on Capitol Hill in Seattle are having their own personal polar bear moment.
Canada’s Prime Minister Justine Trudeau facing a ticklish problem continues to voice his support of Alberta’s tar sands extraction. For now, puckish political raconteur can offer support for these life threatening fossil fuels, but there is a global campaign underway to make mass environmental destruction, known as ecocide an international crime similar to genocide and war crimes. The new law would in part make it illegal to commit a crime against nature, not just a crime against people.
The proposal states, “For the purpose of the Statute, “ecocide” means unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of sever and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts.”
Rude awakenings have been the hallmark of the Anthropocene epoch. Crafty political operatives give and receive orders verbally one on one, nothing on paper, no witnesses, leaving no legal trail, no fingerprints, no self-incriminating evidence. Incitement to riot can’t be charged without ironclad evidence of the speaker’s state of mind. Wink-wink-nod-nod…so it goes.
Three weeks ago, I was caught in a heatwave on Interstate 70 in Utah where it was 107˚F. Too exhausted to continue driving but still only 3:00 PM I parked beneath cottonwood trees at the Green River State Park waiting for sunset. It was near the same temperature at 8:00 PM. I’d used damp rags and a spray bottle to relieve myself of the heat. By 10:00 PM I could sleep. Hotels in town had all jacked their rates up above $200. Price gouging in a heatwave isn’t a good look for the national hotel chains.
When setting up our van we’d declined installing a rooftop air conditioner. Until this heatwave hit, we had been a bit high handed and dismissive of the potential for extended days of hot weather.
Then, a week later the heatwave hit the Pacific Northwest. On June 30th Lytton, British Columbia hit an all-time high temperature record of 49.6 °C (121.3 °F). On July 1st this little village north of Vancouver was destroyed by wildfire.
Oregon reported 116 people died from the heatwave, Washington reported 78. In British Columbia officials there estimated as many as 500 died. My liquid dance with a damp cloth and spray bottle in Green River served as a warning.
Then yesterday tropical storm Elsa dumped over New York City flooding portions of Manhattan’s subway system.
More deer in headlights and polar bears swimming in a sea searching for the missing ice their lives depend upon.
Lobbyists for Exxon were caught out boasting about their efforts to block climate change legislation. Keith McCoy, the oil giant’s senior director for federal relations described Senator Joe Manchin was their “kingmaker.” Apparently, the ecocide legislation can’t be put into effect quick enough.
In this digitized go-go ever hotter world, there is this sickening feeling that we simply do not have enough time or enough people willing to step up to the fight to save civilizations incessant march toward self-immolation.
Much of what appears to be the disintegration of the Republican Party is perhaps simply a tantrum thrown by the fossil fuel lobby. This is my theory. It makes some sense. Tax break fanatics and deregulatory addicts realize that the jig is up. Cornered, desperate, masks off and in fully revealed white nationalist mode it may just be that most of the Republican Party’s disenchantment with the two-party system has more to do with Caucasian constituents that would prefer to continue burning natural gas, oil, and coal. Civilization’s self-induced existential threat is a wee bit too thick a plot to interrupt the titans of big business and their marionette controlled double dealing politicians.
Hurricane season portends all manner of chaos, the Left Coast heatwaves have everyone on wildfire watch, the drought that effected half of the American West last year has now got a grip on 98% of this vital agricultural region.
Even Florida’s Surfside condo collapse appears rooted in the twin issues of deregulatory fervor and climate change induced high tides that may have helped undermine the buildings foundation.
I meet more and more millennials born between 1981-1996 forgoing having children. If like my daughter you grew up with a dot-com crash, non-existent weapons of mass destruction Iraq War, global financial crisis and finally a full-on as of now 4 million people killed global pandemic you can sort of see how things don’t seem to be working out quite like the millennials had been promised.
Reality keeps punching the earth in the nose. A pair of jacked-up billionaires are racing each other into suborbital space. More and more of us are learning to grow our own vegetables, we’re busy trying to master the art of permaculture and perfect regenerative farming methods.
Time does not appear to be our friend. The clocks nearly run out on our planet. We’re cutting this chance to do something to save the planet razor thin. Bringing my own grocery bags is quaint, recycling virtuous, while the 10 most carbon polluting multinationals remain defiant.
Everyone has basically run off in every direction seeking a piece of the action on the one hand or trying hard as all hell to put that hot sweet genie back in the bottle.
I’d been warned by my doctor that if I didn’t straighten out, he’d order me put on statins and if I disobeyed his orders he’d quit me as a patient and go find a more cooperative clientele. I didn’t want to eat whole food plant-based diet but congestive heart failure, stroke and god knows what else might happen persuaded stubborn SOB to change. The first year was difficult learning to cook and prepare food I’d never prepared before. By the end of the second year, I was actually able to feel satiated after supper. Now at the end of 6 years I’m delighted to have escaped from eating factory farmed animals. That includes fish, dairy, and bee’s honey.
Eating lower down on the food chain spares the world so many stresses. Plant based diets use less water and land. By now science has warned that crowding animals into feedlots is a recipe for breeding pathogens that could cross over and trigger another pandemic.
I know, I know, so many of you are not ready, the idea of upending your eating habits is not welcomed.
Most of my career I’ve worked outdoors in the sun for audiences gathering in the fairer seasons of the year. In August of 2009 I worked at the Kentucky State Fair where it became so hot that animal control authorities suspended the exhibition of all performing animals. Humans could continue to perform but they described the hazards faced by performing animals to be so great as to be life risking.
If I were starting out again, I’m not sure a career as an outdoor entertainer would be the best choice. On average we had enough good days to make living with the hottest days a reasonable bet, you could probably get by and likely the weather wouldn’t be too hot, things were still workable.
Then Seattle on June 26-27-28 posts three days of triple digit record breaking high temperatures. The usually benign city along the Puget Sound hit 102°F on June 26th, 104°F on the 27th and a record setting 108°F on the 28th. This high temperature record is hotter than records for New York City, Washington DC, or Atlanta.
This whole doing thing has a nice ring to my ears. We’ll need to sweat the big stuff, saddle up a capable posse and corral some of the miserly miscreants in our midst. Then, all of us pipsqueaks we can do better too, but these Goliaths need a good punch in the kisser. You know everyone acts like they’re going to win a fight until they get socked in the face with a hard right hand.
You’re not alone, this sense of the world going off the rails isn’t your imagination, we’ve got us a pretty good pickle of a problem and we’re all about to find out if mankind can step up and meet the moment. Are you ready, or do you just want to play more pretend, like nothing bad happens here? What will it be?
Sweltering in 118*F isn’t what any of us had expected, (we’re in an emergency, wake up people, time to do something) at least not so soon. Our grandchildren, our grandchildren’s children, they’d take the hit, but by then we’d have figured it out, in 2010 there was no reason to get hysterical, there’s no reason to panic.
Summer of 2021in the American West is already off the charts. Up and down the entire continent including Canada is in the grip of an extended record breaking heatwave.
The new normal is a mix of wildfires, heatwaves, droughts and thick unbreathable smoke filled skies. Planning for a weekend in the mountains? Now we have to check for safe roads in and out of United States National Forests. We carry extra water. Days are so hot most hiking is done at dawn or dusk. A trip to Death Valley? Who needs to drive to Furnace Creek to experience what is now happening almost everywhere you go?
The bikini clad waterski culture is the mirror image of the winter ski culture, there’s never enough snow in the mountains or enough water in the lakes. Even if you do hit the slopes after a fresh dusting, or if you do launch your ski boat and get out for weekend, even if you pull all that off you are left to wonder how much longer this can last? What the hell is going on?
Once we all cut playing the denial game, once we all recognize all hell has broken loose, that the climate we grew up in is no longer the climate we are living in, once we just admit we’re in for a real fight for the survival of civilization, once we have cast ourselves in our favorite role in our modern day Doctor Strangelove we can roll up our sleeves and get down to the business of saving our species from a potential out of control climate driven chain reaction that sends us packing into the permanent fossil record.
Climate driven atmospheric chain reactions that might spiral temperatures beyond our wildest estimates is a knickers in a knot real risk. This is the one more cigarette won’t hurt me mentality of human thinking. One more bizarre year of releasing megatons of carbon into our atmosphere may be one cigarette too many. You got a smoking problem? You ever try quitting?
Quick list of to do’s. Try saddling up posse and ride on the Top 10 carbon belching industries in the world. All our self sacrifice aside the main thing is that there are some very large oil companies, some nationally owned some are corporations and they need to slow down and then stop, and like you know as soon as possible. Putin and MBS are not going to cooperate but we’ll get to the scoundrels in due course.
Agriculture needs a revolution. Regenerative farming is a piece of the puzzle. Consumers need a come to Jesus moment, human beings definitely need to eat less meat, if still insist on eating meat the spoiled and stubborn might try decreasing the amount of meat they eat, you know for a while, you know, for a change, maybe like a smoker it might do your body and the earth some breathing room.
Ocean needs healing so let’s give the fish a few years off from our factory fishing fleets, they could use a breather.
I’m negotiable on dairy, but could we just do the value added thing, you know artisanal cheeses perhaps, put Ben and Jerry in charge of making all the world’s ice cream. Yeah its expensive but so are iPhones and everybody has one of those.
The Department of Agriculture is a complete tangled policy mess. Politics has incentivized farmers to grow the wrong crops with the wrong technologies using way more of our water than we can afford to waste any longer. The red blooded American diet is causing epidemic level heart disease, hypertension, stroke and diabetes. If we could take any policy back it would be our going full factory farming on an industrial scale in 1960.
Electrify our transportation system. Deploy more renewables and build grid scale sized batteries to store energy for use when wind and sun don’t blow or shine. Heat pumps in and old gas powered furnaces are out.
Live closer to work. Try taking vacations closer to home. Stop take frivolous jaunts on jets to exotic globalized tourist destinations. Love your children, walk your dog, take yoga classes, do more with less, recycle your stuff and go to garage sales and buy your neighbors unwanted stuff, relieving others of their unwanted stuff is loving kindness in stuff action.
If you own your own home and have some dirt plant trees that fruit and then eat what you can and give the abundance out to those in your neighborhood. If you are really a sensational fruit and vegetable grower call yourself a farmer and sell into the local Co-op, sell your carefully grown organic crop and then turn around and go home and grow more.
If you are older, I’ll let you decide what that looks like, if you’ve had children and your children are pretty sure they don’t want to have any children then maybe consider building a family planning plan to honor their plan. Maybe you donate time to help other children, lost children, abandoned children, hungry children, any children that may benefit from your helping them.
You really want to see quantitative easing in action offer to take care of your single mother neighbors kid to help keep that woman’s childcare costs down. Pick them up from school, take them to soccer, bring them home make them a snack, help them with their homework. Keep them safe, treat them like the most valuable renewable resource that they are. Help
All of these strategies are in many parts not only practical but also are good for your health and the earth’s health. You’ll feel better, you’ll become part of the solution instead of being part of the ongoing Lamborghini internal combustion engine problem. Choose non motorized sports. Badminton is good, croquet tournaments are fun, tennis anyone?
Use your handsaw when you can. Get rid of your sprinklers install drip irrigators, put your garden on a timer and dial your use of water in. Learn how to catch water. When it gets super hot put some water out for the birds, squirrels, possum and raccoons. They’ll drop by, they appreciate the help.
My wife and I take walks to fortify our health. We try bringing our own bags to the grocery store, sometimes I forget. We shop bulk and bring our own containers. For sport and recreation we sail. Our boat is nearby. A day off away is 20 minute drive and then wherever the wind blows.
One of the trickiest tricks is eating a simpler diet, down the food chain, where what is grown goes directly into this animals mouth. When cooking at home, away on the boat, further afield traveling in our van we can control what we eat preparing desirable dishes that we both find appetizing.
To be sure we have days of pure sloth, we can be part of the problem, we are weak and impulsive creatures. We can get stuck in traffic with the best of you.
Here we are all now firmly in the grip of the long predicted to climate emergency. It’s no longer far away, might happen one day, could be coming, nobody is sure. It’s happening. There is a lot to do, much to take time to be concerned about, but it isn’t hopeless, it isn’t all lost, and we can each act individually and collectively to turn the bow of this ponderous vessel filled with humanity and make our course to a better day. Try doing what is possible, what you can, we’ll all try, a little at a time, then more and more, until we’re all taking the best possible course of action. It is fun to try new things.
I know you’re all feeling better now. You have powers you didn’t know you had. You can do something and it beats doing nothing. Try one or three…you’ll be happier for it.
Colorado River runoff is in climate change induced decline, Lake Powell is at 38% of capacity. Here is what is at risk. “Spanning parts of the seven states of Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming (Basin States), the Colorado River Basin (Basin) is one of the most critical sources of water in the West. The Colorado River and its tributaries provide water to nearly 40 million people for municipal use, supply water to irrigate nearly 5.5 million acres of land, and is the lifeblood for at least 22 federally recognized tribes (tribes), 7 National Wildlife Refuges, 4 National Recreation Areas, and 11 National Parks.” All of the water allocations are regulated by the Law of the River.
Up in the Klamath River Basin there is a different drought dynamic. Both the Klamath and Colorado rivers because of the megadrought have allocation agreements that are impossible to meet. There has long been tension on the Klamath, this latest drought is just the most recent trouble. Because of the much more complex water law on the Colorado it is difficult for a disgruntled water user to put a face on their water crisis.
In Klamath Falls there are several convenient faces pointed out for blame. Top of the list are the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Oregon Water Resources Board. Then predictably there are the indigenous people that have long lived in this basin, the tribes consist of the Modoc and the Yahooskin-Paiute people, known as the mukluks and numu. Non-indigenous citizens frustrations boil over, local sovereignty movements emerge, states rights advocates get their dander up, and talk of secession is floated in community meetups.
The problems on both river systems are identical, but on the Colorado River friction is spread out among 40 million. On the Klamath River basin the official population is 114,000, this is one quarter of one percent compared to the Colorado basin.The colossal Colorado’s economic impact on the region is enormous but it is this smaller river system the Klamath where matters other than economic may go off the rails with a bullhorn.
Here is the Law of the River on the Colorado. “The treaties, compacts, decrees, statutes, regulations, contracts and other legal documents and agreements applicable to the The Law of the River consists of allocation, appropriation, development, exportation and management of the waters of the Colorado River Basin are often collectively referred to as the Law of the River. There is no single, universally agreed upon definition of the Law of the River, but it is useful as a shorthand reference to describe this longstanding and complex body of legal agreements governing the Colorado River.”
Water activists on the Klamath who have had all of this years water cut to zero, with roots in ranching and farming need to put a face on their problems. Governors are picked on, Secretary of the Interior is hit, scientists from various agencies, to gain any traction the farmers and ranchers need a target for their frustrations.
The insurrection of January 6th has only cemented the impression something has gone haywire in our country. A few years ago the survival of our democracy wasn’t even on anyone’s radar screen.
What we know with some degree of certainty is that there is enough water out here in the American West for residential use. It is the commercial use of the water, it is the farmers and ranchers that will struggle to thrive and expand as water allocations are reduced year by year, some years by drought, other years by the swelling population.
Demographic projections in decades ahead warn the Colorado River basin population will grow to 79 million by 2070. If you are from Denver, Phoenix, Salt Lake City or Las Vegas firsthand experience with explosive growth tells you this trains coming, no cow- all bull full steam ahead.
What can we done? Laws will need to rewritten. We’re going to need to get with the Department of Agriculture and rejigger crop subsidies, and that’s going to trigger a wave of tantrums. The titans of agriculture will resist but there are no easy outs, this David and Goliath story is an epidemic in our country and time has come to slay the beast. Our century old water laws are outdated, drought and the climate emergency have rendered these rules unworkable. You want a tip? Get a degree in water law.
Where water has been over promised we’ll want to pull acreage out of production. We’ll want federal dollars used to buy back land. We’ll want to rationalize what crops we plant and decrease the total number of acres planted. Regenerative farming methods will become common. Water intensive crops like almonds, alfalfa, and dairy will be relocated to water abundant regions of the United States. Grazing cattle will become impractical as summer temperatures soar. Last weeks heatwave was recording setting. In the Mojave I was driving between Las Vegas and Barstow in 118*F.
Funding for programs can be solved by use of a carbon tax. Where a rural community has been hit by the decline in fossil fuels we’ll want to develop programs that diversify the economies of these communities.
Differences have grown between urban and rural regions of the American West. Since the pandemic spawned the work from home movement we need to incentivize our digital workers to be sprinkled out across the countryside. Corporations should support their workers spreading out. Pressure on housing would decrease in our urban zones and perhaps prices in our rural communities would benefit from a more robust growing population.
Many pieces of what I am proposing are in the hands of Biden’s Build Back Better infrastructure bill now working its way through Congress.
Factions that move populations by emotion, by fiery rhetoric, by putting an innocent face on this gigantic existential problem only slow down our ability to set our course for survival.
I’ve been touring this region of the country since 1974. I’ve lived in the Verde Valley and farmed land in the Willamette Valley. I have hayed my own fields and loaded my own horse into my own trailer. I don’t take no backseat to anyone claiming they’ve earned some special rights or claim to be free to do whatever the hell they want to do. Frontier times are over and we will make do by cooperation and following rules.
My eyes have seen sunrises and sunsets that my camera can’t capture and my novels seldom do justice to, but I’m out here, constantly talking to folk, the janitors, teachers and horse whisperers. I get a fresh faced yo-yo champion to laugh at a trick dog’s stunt. I make camp in the loneliest corners of the Great Basin. I know hay farmers, barrel racers and organic strawberry growers. Much is unsettled and more turbulence is likely than less. Join with constructive groups, urge your political representatives to speak up about these matters, we can do this but not by tempest and tantrum. We’ll get by hard work and compassion. Saddle up partners we have a country to save.
Planted plenty of romaine, arugula and red leaf lettuce. Offstage for more than a year I’ve grown accustomed to not having to chase the demon showman from town to town. Good lets grow tomatoes to celebrate. Squash and cantaloupe seem to be making a go of life here.
I’m a lucky creative stiff. Swashbuckling for my supper in front of an audience has kept me busy for most of 5 decades, but a good part of these many years there’s been the writing too. Creative types without an outlet are a danger.
Swinging for the fences, you know really getting over on an audience, nailing a well devised scene, these are not exercise’s they are full blown creative skirmishes. That’s what the untamed and untrammeled ego will do for you. Off the boards and out of the lights the pressure to perform retreats from the top of the to do list.
A solo vaudevillian is its own particular show business steed. You can do your set with your eyes closed, you can play it start to finish word for word. If you want you can improvise the set, riff all the way through, might be hard or might be just what the doctor ordered, usually we have material so we don’t have to open the vortex into the source fires, where sure a set of new might be willing to tumble on out.
I’m talking to the grapes, I’m singing with the birds, and whispering sweet nothings to a lizard. My backyard is a conversation.
Leon Redbone and I hooked up across Northern California to play some dates. Leon ever the pro’s pro was always banging out shows not just to keep food on his table, but since he had a name he’d carry a good size band along and for giggles toss a juggler into the act as his opener. Backstage we’d hang in the green room. Leon always said he’d rather be home working in his garden. The coy musician didn’t say it once he said it a thousand times and meant by it that it was there that he was able to be of service to his wife, and his garden, both of which he dearly loved.
I was still too full of wild horses and tempting horizons. Tending to my own garden wasn’t in my fool youth’s playing cards.
Vince Giordano was out on the tour with Leon. Brooklyn based he brought out his collection of rare instruments, most no longer made, many seldom if ever heard or played. Like Leon, Vince was meticulous, his music was note for note pitch perfect. Leon’s sidemen all made the cut because these cats could keep up, they had a knack for nailing the tune.
I’m more than lucky I found this garden to tend. Getting my barehands into the soil, toiling beneath a wide brimmed straw hat, plucking a ripe blueberry to eat, caring for the living, paying my respects to the plants that have lived well beyond their prime, planting yams hoping for yam greens soon with whole yams to bake next winter.
That’s the big show. Tonight and for one lifetime only, appearing beneath the old oak tree, ladies and gentlemen “the father of my children” let’s hear it for the guy giving these plants his best…
It is the simplest things that make all the difference. Getting closer to the original source works too. The Japanese tea ceremony is an example. Soaking at a remote hot spring you’ve spent the day hiking into is more what I mean. I always have thought street theater to be one of the simplest performing art forms, artist-audience…the experience. That’s all, nothing extra is needed, nothing more is added, a street show is complete in every sense. Stripping down until you are touching the essence is a specific cognitive pleasure. The exquisite nature of being pleased by simplicity is not uncommon. The temporal coordinates within our mind, the pleasure center where the appreciation for what is the best least complicated experience can be navigated to again and again once you have recalibrated, once you understand the nature of satisfaction and fulfillment.
After morning coffee, appreciating how good the day promised to be, then scanning my surroundings for signs of fascists, white supremacists, or Confederate flags (luckily there were none) I rolled to Amador City.
A longtime friend and I drove out east of Plymouth to the Shenandoah Valley. This is the wine country part of the Mother Lode. Not all the miners struck it rich but there were barrels of wine, companions to sweet talk, rich or poor there was fun to be found scattered between the gold nuggets. Ancient zinfandel vines are still here even if all the gold in the world is now long gone.
The Croatian winemakers Milan and Victoria Matulich arrived here in the valley back in 1995. By 1997 they had a tasting room and wine cave completed and Dobra Zemlja Vineyard was born. The immigrant winemakers planted viognier, grenache, sangiovese, barbera, syrah and zinfandel. The valley’s ground consists of volcanic Sierra Series soils – primarily sandy clay loam derived from decomposed granite. Think about struggle, how a vine might produce a dwarfed berry, how coming of age, reaching maturity might best happen if you can build character into the journey. Granite and volcanic rock offers this obstacle to a grapevine’s personality.
From the start the immigrant old world winemakers wanted to make natural wines. Wild yeast is very much part of the story. The Shenandoah Valley yeast found growing on the batch of grapes harvested directly from the field is the only yeast that will do. The natural winemaker uses the indigenous local wild yeast for fermentation. I’ve always had an irrational faith in the notion of symbiosis. I like the idea that there are mutual beneficial pairings to be found in nature. The wild yeasts found on the skin of the grapes turns the grape juice to wine by consuming the sugars and transforming them into alcohol. The wild yeast imparts its own specific aromas and flavors. Modern winemakers will add various laboratory derived yeasts aiming to take their wines to an altogether different specific destination. There is no good or bad here, simply different, natural wines tend to meander like a lazy river, modern wines are built to come charging at full force arriving with a louder bang, pop, and purpose. Natural wines exist down at the level of village, conventional wines aspire to command the lofty heights of nations, states and world.
Natural winemakers speak in the idiom of understatement, they do not make wines that overwhelm, of course that’s the aim, controlling the whelming, dialing your offering into the target zone doesn’t always quite work out that way. Remaining faithful to the fruits character, bringing out its identity, letting the hint of the specific dirt and soil interact with the grapes, that’s the way, this is the pleasure. I like that there is no official definition for what is in or not in a bottle of natural wine. Perhaps it is a winemaker’s faith and courage to not intervene and let the field of grapes speak with its own specific voice.
In a world that is increasingly more and more complicated the adventure found in drinking a simple glass of natural wine is something akin to playing a favorite song off of a vinyl record. Natural wine is about letting go of your bike’s handlebars, it is a revisiting of our analogue world, this is wine that can bark or bite, they are wines that can play cute or play dead, you’ll never know your wine for sure, natural wine is nothing if not fickle, like skydiving landing sites are approximate, they are unpredictable and temperamental, natural wines appeal to our desire to be taken somewhere we have never been.
I like that here in the American West there is a place open to immigrants, Croatian’s, from the Balkans, arriving to make a fresh start, newcomers arriving to risk their daring and do.
There are two merchants that specialize in natural wines in Oakland: Ordinaire and Minimo both focus on small production, sustainable, indie wines from around the world. Terms like biodynamic farming methods or that the grapes are certified organic does not always indicate that what you are buying will be a natural wine. The technique has more to do with minimalism, no added sulfites is the goal, there is no filtering or finning, the less meddling the better. None of the 60 additives approved by regulators are used to make natural wine. The tradition of natural winemaking is sometimes referred to as “méthode ancestrale” and as the terms suggest has been around since the beginning. In its simplest form natural wine is unadulterated fermented grape juice, that’s it, that’s the long and short of the simplicity that is sought.
Then, there is the wicked tasty dazzling category of sparkling natural wines. Here you will enter the world of fermentation that utilizes the ancient method that the French term ‘pétillant naturel’ meaning ‘natural sparkling’— Uncorking a Pét-Nat is always an adventure as these are wines that have spent their lives coming of age in a bottle, alone, separated from inception, left to ripen to maturity, to take form without a clue to how its kin has done, whether each bottle will be alike or how no two bottles will ever be the same. Pét-Nat’s are bewildering and unbridled. They are either glorious or have gone wrong, the balancing act to achieving a drinkable Pét-Nat is a bottle of uncertainty discovered almost by sheer audacity to blunder into the sublime. You’ll need pluck and a soul of fool’s errand to build a Pet-Nat.
Dobra Zemlja, (pronounced — Zem ya) will release their first Pét-Nat this December. The ancient sparkler’s can come dry or off dry, acidic, floral to sour, my favorites seem to arrive at their destination zigzagging through my mouth, like four friends all careening in a car, the point of the thing is that it is a collection of impressions that act like a thrill ride or when it goes the other way, you’ll be eager to pull over to the side of the road and get off. Most important is to go into the thing admitting these are not serious endeavors, Pét-Nat’s are flights into the wild blue yonder of something so close to ordinary as to make the experience a vivid simple pleasure.
Laura Irmer is the General Manager for Dobra Zemlja. Surrounded by other wineries, their competitors, all in pursuit of making big reds there is this sense at Dobra Zemlja of a winery seeking to bring to market a wine that is a true expression of what is found right here, a sense of individuality, a sense of allowing for an experience that is in direct contact with the vine and soil, a sort of direct transmission of the experience we know as wine.
My palate has shifted. I crave natural wines whispers of the fantastical, for small and simple, for being yourself. Perfection can taunt beauty. Striving for reality, for making what is found right here, is more poem that prose, more from the heart than the head. Natural wine appeals to my wanting to get away, to go places I’ve never been, to being content to experience a less visited destination. Natural wines are the wild hot springs of the spa and sauna, they are the flirtatious eye contact, the one only time you will meet, they are your courage, timidity, the haunting aching memories of a love affair, they are down to earth, truth, these original wines invite you to meet in the nude, without dressing up, without pretense, here is another possible opportunity to taste a winemaker’s language written in grapes, these sunlight catchers create wine that speaks of what it means to let nature take its course.
I’m from the small time, nothing but proud of the work I’ve done, all the way down to the day-to-day, show business as paycheck, that’s been the path, how I found my way in this mixed up worldwide love affair I’m having with life.
I played spot dates across the United States, Canada and Mexico. In the latter part of my career, I landed a gig playing nightlife stages at Dreams and Secrets, an American owned all-inclusive Mexican Riviera resort operation.
Until the pandemic I had kept a roof over my head and food on the table banging out shows with much of my focus here in the American West. In San Francisco I played in Fisherman’s Wharf. Off the road for a decade plus, I dug into a swank ground level garden apartment in Cow Hollow at Steiner at Union. Peak street performing years allowed the best of the best acts to live large.
In Alberta Canada I was awarded by the late Dick Finkel, executive producer of the Edmonton International Street Performers Festival the Golden Finkelini in 2001 for my lifetime contribution to street theater. This is who I am, part mongrel street artist mated to a career as a professional variety show artist. I’ve been singing for my supper, at least with a dog accompanying me for the last 5 decades.
Predicting my turn at finding a path in the performing arts would have been a fool’s errand. I was an undiagnosed creative type. Symptoms included boredom with school. I didn’t fear hard work but meaningless, boring, tedious labor ate at my spirit. First examples of my creative bent arrived as poems I composed in middle school years. Best buddies in high school were two terrific actors, I had no knack for the stage, not acting but performing was unknown to me. Ballet training altered my course, in a sense the physical training distributed creativity out of my head into my body. I was still too wordy had to learn to smother my inner Norman Mailer and transpose my literary bent into something more terse, glibber, think Eastwood style single word reply.
Working in the business takes it toll. It’s rags to riches and all the way back to rags again. If you need a smoother ride, can’t hack the bumpy road, and there are plenty of this kind of touring weary talented souls that suffer the extended months and months out there making one appearance after another until it shatters their personal lives. If you know someone in this fix, this is how talent gets stuck between the rock and the hard place. The road may be killing them but a steady job would be a death sentence.
Stardom is another beast, there’s a waiting list, and it’s a short one, the gods mint a handful and sprinkle them out over the eons, just know that an infinitesimally few rare talents ever crack the code, so you best know the road is long and there are no bookies taking these longest of long odds, it’s almost a sure thing you’ll go broke and get nowhere no matter how hard you try.
Dining at an outdoor café on Columbus in New York with a former beauty queen, the real deal, a Broadway veteran, triple threat, she was the complete package, and after a decade best she had ever done was one principal role, a few lines, more often a dancer in the chorus. She’d landed a few bit parts in the soaps, worked summers in regional theaters, auditioned in LA, shot one pilot never came of anything. When her current gig in 42nd Street closed her time was up and the stunner in any other business was heading home to South Carolina.
The Pentagon spends $2100 per person per year trying to keep America safe. That is two grand plus for every single citizen. To fortify our cultural lives the National Endowment of the Arts spends $4.00 per person per year. The disinvestment in our cultural lives has shrunken opportunity for both the artist and the audience.
Arts administrators cobble together low-priced office space, staff turnover is frequent, here and there you will find exceptions, more often than not an unqualified inexperienced self-funding citizen will voluntarily step in and do what they can. Having had the opportunity to work at Universal Studios in Universal City, California I can affirm that having a veteran professional production team attending to my sound, lights and staging made a difference. Second day on the job my stage had been lowered, lights repositioned and sound system was replaced. There job was to make me look good, and did they ever.
Playing regional dates at regional festivals is another matter altogether. Volunteer staff trying their best, and none of this heroism is sustainable. The festival breaks, the staff burnout, the artists don’t want to come back. Too many administrators live too near the poverty line. Like the artists the event staff sacrifice everything only to find that their lives are unstable, they are constantly on the move, their marriages crumbling under the stress.
For a very few life at the top is fat while down in the minor leagues where things are less flush the up and comers can’t make ends meet, lives become unmanageable, creative’s become dysfunctional most subsist in survival mode. Everything is put on hold but for perhaps the purchase of a new suitcase.
There are no 401k’s, no matching contributions, nobody is an employee working for an employer. Most artists function as sole proprietor’s, furiously deducting their 3 martini lunches and long-distance drives to the next date. Workman’s compensation, medical, dental, and pensions are nowhere to be found. I joke that my show business day rate is the same as my executive wife’s per diem.
Traveling to an International Festival and Events Association convention in Anaheim I met a Australian who had come to the convention in an effort to teach artists how to save for retirement. Here was proof that you could retire if you knew how time and compound interest worked to the investors advantage. He’d worked in Sidney, had worked for a financial institution, he had a passion for being around people that worked in show business, creative people were his bliss. His intentions were all to the good. His actuarial chops were superb. He was there to teach artists how to save for retirement, he wanted to teach the youngest artists how to start socking away 10% of everything they earned and allow their monthly contributions, their nest egg the decades of time to grow. He knew life was short and at the other end of a career these artists would need this cushion to fall back on when their gigging days were up.
Matters were slightly less dire in Europe where he’d traveled and presented his ideas at similar conventions. In the United States there were no extra revenue streams for artists to invest in their own future. Instead he found performers living hand to mouth, month to month, much of the work was seasonal, rare was the act that had figured out how to build a robust year round tour.
Creatives are wired to put up with all manner of obstacles while dedicating countless hours, months and years building a new speculative piece that may or may not sell. Painters, composers, choreographers, and novelists spend years hoping they’ll maybe find an audience for what they are producing. Most of this work never sells, the work that does sell if you figure the time invested versus the return there is no business case to be made for working this way, but this is the only way this work gets done, by creative types who are doing what they have to do, this isn’t a choice, they must get this work into the world no matter the odds of the work paying off.
Patrons of the arts over the long course of history paid to have paintings created, plays written and symphony’s composed.
In 1946 Wallace Stegner, writer and environmentalist was offered to come to California and lead the Stanford Creative Writing Program and Writing Fellowships. Mr. Stegner had been a prolific writer, over 30 books, and then winning a Pulitzer in 1972 for Angle of Repose, but even still his financial circumstances throughout his life were modest, not so much dirt poor as having to endure so much financial instability that it interfered with his work. Stanford seized on the opportunity to recruit Stegner helping to give this artist a place to live and steady income affording him the opportunity to live beyond the circumstances of what he could earn as a writer. His appointment at Stanford was a form of patronage, and our cultural lives are all the better for it.
Stegner summed up his situation: “A talent is a kind of imprisonment. You’re stuck in it, you have to keep using it, or else you get ruined by it. It’s like a beaver’s teeth. He has to chew or else his jaws lock shut.”
Political hacks have for decades dissed on the National Endowment for the Arts. All in Washington spends about $1.4 billion on the arts. We’ve got little two seat fighter planes that cost more. The damage this lack of funding does to the lives of the artists scrambling through this bizarre world is incalculable. In some alternate world a larger investment in the arts would mean we still would still be teaching music in our public schools, instead of attending festivals designed around artisans hawking pottery and jewelry we might be part of a larger audience watching the amphibious kinetic sculpture racers. More of the funds would end up in schools and our creative students would have the opportunity to develop their craft, hone their skills, prepare for a productive adult life with a chance at making a living wage.
Our climate emergency grows worse by the day. Our climate scientists continue to produce more facts, they are busy building an action plan, filling in the holes in our technology with new tools we can use to fix one piece or another in our effort to end civilizations overuse of fossil fuels. This is a story that needs telling. Our best narrators come from theater, the best scripts from our community of writers, the best sound from our most gifted musicians. Hobbling our best talent because we are unable to understand how to put a price on the priceless, how somewhere in our dysfunctional minds where mistrust lurks, we remain silent while a small band of hot heads derail efforts to redirect our nations resources to corners of our economy that for too long have gone neglected, unfunded and misunderstood.
I started out in the business with a sidewalk circus, a show designed to go work where the people lived. Our audiences were walking across campus, getting on a bus, trying to get to a job, wherever we found people moving in sufficient numbers our show was designed to captivate that pedestrian, to attract them, hold them, entertain them and then if they wanted, if they could, at the shows end they could contribute to our cause, to help us get along for one more day, to make it to the next pitch, to entertain a new audience, because we had provided our audience with an experience of a kind that was like nothing they had ever had until now. That’s how the best of our creativity works by giving an audience an out of this world experience they never had imagined would give their souls such satisfaction and fulfillment. All of this, the fruit of our collective creativity is worthy of our time, attention and money.