All posts by Dana Smith

Author and Entertainer

Plundering the pastoral

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…

sunlight catchers

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.  

Another Roadside Distraction

The Kid with the Old Man in Edmonton

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.”

Big Bad Dodge Pulling a Classic…take that Shakespeare

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.

What a Pair Sunshine and Her Performing Juggler Dana

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.

Leaver Fever

Road to Troy, Oregon

Eastern Oregon wants to secede from the government in Salem and throw in with Idaho. Eligible voters in favor of secession voted in the majority even if the total number of Eastern Oregon voters does not add up to more than 20,000 of these quitters.  

Snowballs in hell have a better chance of becoming Idahoans than those nut ball socially conservative anti-problem solvers.

Same things happening in Colorado where folk in Greeley want to go steady with Wyoming. Rural Americans are in a tizzy and a doozy. Diversity is regarded as the near kin to perversity. Seems like the closer you live to a functioning tractor, blacksmith or feed and tack shop the more likely you are to have gone plumb loco over what’s going on in America’s traffic choked big cities.

You drill down and what you find is that rural folk hate playing by the rules. You want to divert water and depending upon the science and available resources they might say maybe or maybe not. You’re standing on the banks of the Colorado River and there’s plenty of water, you can see the flowing river with your own naked eyes, what in hell is going on? The story out west is mostly the same, everybody is dirt rich and water poor.

Cooking up some grub and gossip

Fascist fighting Portlanders have this bonkers ecosystem mentality. Seems like some folk’ see a river that is hundreds of miles long and have the audacity to regard the waterway holistically. What is happening at the beginning and end is also part of all the activities happening every mile in between. Makes an East Oregonian want to make birth control retroactive, I hear some are reconsidering their opposition to abortion.

Fever dreams triggered by sagebrush and pinion pine nuts will land you in the cowboy poetry contest in Elko, Nevada. One thing for sure is rural westerners do enjoy saddling up their horses and slow walking out on things they can no longer stomach. It isn’t just a mental disability exclusive to American’s, rural folks in Alberta have not one kind word for politicians sorting out the nation’s problems in Ottawa. Quebec was hell bent on leaving but they can stay right where they are, no need to go anywhere Canada’s western provinces might walk out on them first.

What gets my gall is how hot heads can go blind when the fat lady has already sung, and the dance floor is disserted. I mean what if Boise, Idaho goes out of its ever-loving mind and ends up becoming a Pelosi sympathizer? What in God’s good name are a bunch of rifle toting rebels going to do then.

A bunch of lunatic libertarian Silicon Valley bitcoin con artists waxed about building barges they could place just offshore beyond our nations boundaries so that they could escape from the burdens of living under the rule of law. I’d recommend we take them up on that and appointed Zuckerberg to track their data and clog their feed with cheerful stories about well-adjusted happy people that love America.

You walk out on your girlfriend, hire a divorce attorney, no longer send out Christmas cards and don’t talk to anyone at the gym because you never go. You like barrel racing, rodeo clowns and busted up brahma bull riders. You wait five years to get a permit to hunt elk hike out into the backcountry and never even fire a shot. The elk are nowhere to be found and even the deer want nothing to do with you. You aren’t just onery you are miserable to even be around.

Happy farming in California

Driving south last week on Highway 101 from San Francisco to Los Angeles I spent a fair amount of my good time reflecting upon the agricultural splendor. From Salinas all the way to Paso Robles there are miles and miles of farms growing food that ends up on our table. I’m talking salad fixings, broccoli, cauliflower, string beans, artichokes and avocados. I didn’t see any disaffected Americans running their mouths off about how rotten things are. I saw hard working farmworkers driving good-looking cars, some were near good as new, whole scads of these men and women were scattered across vast tracts of farmland bringing in the harvest, getting the food Americans eat ready to ship out to supermarkets across our nation.

Further south I saw productive farming activity in San Luis Obispo County, Santa Barbara County and Ventura County, I counted blessings and abundance even in the teeth of a megadrought for over 250 miles.

I’m going out on a limb here and suggesting maybe all those rural East Oregonians might do the world a favor and trade in all that hay growing for vegetable crops. Get rid of that cowboy hat, horse and all those cattle that you’ve been fattening for slaughter. Cow killing might be what’s bothering you out there. I bet you’d be happier growing fava beans. I bet these little towns that you live in, you know the towns that keep getting smaller and smaller because everyone sooner or later leaves and never comes back, I bet you’d all be happier running a big crew of farmworkers on your land. I bet the path to a better place is learning how-to live-in balance with nature, welcome people to your community, especially people that look and think different than you and your kind. Turn off the television and put on some classical music. I don’t mind churchgoing but for heavens sake tell your preacher to stick to the good Lord’s word. You know things like being kind, helping others, caring for those less fortunate than yourself.

It is not so hard once you get the knack of it. You just learn to be nice to the deer and queer. Take a moment to appreciate all these sorts of differences and take pleasure in our diversity, how our all being different beats our all being pissed off and the same.

With the world about to blow through the 8 billion people on the planet we seem to be getting testy and acting like there’s still room to be a miserable loner, like doing your own thing is nobody’s business but your own and you are 100% certain you don’t have to do a single thing anyone tells you.

Oregon Rainbow

Sounds to me like you had best finish your supper, brush your teeth, go to bed and when I see you in the morning you might try finding that better self you are always bragging about. This experiment in self government begins right where you are standing, it is in that face looking back at you in the mirror, that’s what needs some tending and mending. Let’s face the truth of the matter, you don’t polish your own boots and you gave up square dancing for bingo night.

I never liked barbwire. It was part of our original sin against nature. Husbands don’t like feeling tied down, and cows and horses are smart enough to know where and when to come home. I know you have no idea how this is going to work without having something to be angry about, all this peace and quiet could bring on a wave of contentment like you’ve never known. That grouch in the mirror might just smirk and wink back at you. Try smiling, get rid of the chewing tobacco, reduce your total fat intake, and drink more water. I’ll see you back here in a month, I suspect I’ll find a whole new happier and healthier you.

white striped wayfaring

          

Sunshine Grocery Morro Bay

I departed the Bay Area midday for Morro Bay. Arriving late that afternoon at the seaside hamlet I shopped at Sunshine Grocery mingling with my kind, all of us in social isolation behind our masks. My tribe arrives by Volkswagen micro bus to shop here for organic vegetables and dry goods. Shoppers know each other by temperament, culinary tastes, and the cheerful scent of patchouli oil. Here is a place where the smell of time stands still.

Along the waterfront there are clustered a wide range of gin joints, eateries, and trinket shops. Seafood restaurants are popular with outdoor decks situated so patrons might admire the fishing fleet inbound with their fresh catch motoring up the entrance channel. Unloading mournful gulls quarreling with each other burdened with an unquenchable hunger for even a scrap, a tasty morsel, a fin would do fine, anything—- please, before I lose my seagull faith in mankind—- Right minded mariners know to share their bounty with the animals that they go to sea with. You can tell the gulls and fishermen are attached, the gulls want nets, and the men wish for wings to soar upon.

 Standup paddle boards are available by the hour, motels by the day, and a lifetime can be purchased at the local real estate offices. Most of the eternity in Morro Bay types hike up to Main Street where vows are sworn, escrow waits, and closing documents are signed. If foggy days are your pleasure this is your home.

Returning south by sailboat later this year I intend to rent a mooring ball off the waterfront. Discussing the notion of tethering hopes and dreams in Morro Bay’s lagoon this weak-willed sailor spoke with Tom Varley sailor-surfer-skateboarder friend and it was quick work to see that a month-to-month drift in the rising and falling tides would sate the thirst for the other piece of what wayfarers crave. In Morro Bay mortgages, marriages and drifting on mooring balls is an improbable right decision.

Plunging further south picking up my wife at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, my tempestuous life partner having escaped Colorado’s Front Range spring weather, the two of us made a quick dash on the interstate and shoehorned our lives into our friend’s Glassell Park bungalow. Dodger Stadium is nearby, the Los Angeles River closer yet. There was this odd certainty that we had entered the belly of the congested parking beast. Breaking free from our pandemic solitude, now choking on a humanity that numbers in the tens of millions, the big city hum audibly present not imaginary, we relished the inconvenience of the Southern Californian traffic choked quagmire.

Nina and Martin, mariners and mongers of dreams whipped of creams derived of long voyages would surrender their guest room. All of us, four pandemic weary survivors were intoxicated with the vaccinated companionship.

This is a meringue of four rascals that want vegetable gardens, unbound horizons and lives made of not having to think twice because it’s alright about their children’s lives. Martin continues to prepare his sailing vessel for drifting off La Paz. From spinnaker to water maker there is fitted onto his center cockpit sailing sloop all manner of apparatus, appliance and labor saving device.

 Nina wishes to be puttering about beneath her hat in her vegetable garden in Glassell Park and then on weekends dashing south by jet to toss away day upon day away aboard their sailing vessel Gratitude. Never mind the contradictory web of complications, I predict both will happen and to each end their hopes will find waiting the reward of a lazy Sea of Cortez cruising life mated to the bustle of a home in LA.

Holding two places in our imagination, being present in one while imagining the pleasures found waiting at this other is the essence of gypsy soul. This is what I term the penitentiary of wanderlust, a kind of intuitive boneheaded knowing that you are not suited to remaining still, and digging in, that you’ll need to cure restlessness and your walkabout craving, that you will be sentenced to a life of changing latitudes and longitudes all in the daffy search of dispelling the demon of sameness.      

Skating the wall- Tom Varley

Monday I was in Oxnard skateboarding, more properly termed, skating with the talented Tom Varley. Tommy is a great one, great skater, great sailor, great dog caregiver. Happy his Jack Russell howls at his Tommy Varley itch. There are more greats to Tom’s greatness. Most important to know is that Tommy loves his work, and he doesn’t have a job, at least no job in the conventional sense, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t work, he is likely the hardest worker among the whole fool bushel of us.

Tattoo artist, mother, wife, and roller skating lifelong Californian phenomenon Alma joined us at the skate park. Our meeting was a first encounter. I whittled away my non-skate time learning about Alma’s soul and inspiration. Latina, piercings plenty, tattooed with abandon evermore youthful in looks, all of 27 but could pass for 16, two boys, a husband, her spouse she has known since 7th grade, this is a kindred West Coast spirit. Twice she had tried leaving. First was a job in North Carolina, but racism was annoying so back she came. The second time she tried Klamath Falls but boredom and long winters finished that dream off. Skatepark patron Alma born in Oxnard has an inner bell that chimes to be center ring dancing with a thousand clowns.

With sunrise on Wednesday Waldo landed at Los Angeles International Airport from Hilo. We bivouacked along the edge of the San Gabriel Mountains; the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was a stone throw further east. Dinner, drinks and debriefing ensued.

In the morning we drove south to Compton. Wally’s car arriving by ship from Hawaii had been delivered to a logistics operator. A long drive north back up to the Bay Area would eat our day. Tomorrow’s itinerary was full and growing fuller.

Waldo playing with a top hat

Waldo because of the virus ended up stuck on the Big Island on a surprise extended stay package. Technically the retired juggler could have comeback to the mainland but to what end? His remote home carved into the heart of the island’s rainforest was an ideal place to wait out the pandemic. We should all be so miserable and lucky. As bad as island fever can be, how awful the trap of going incessantly in circles can irritate, there’s being stuck dodging the potentially infected living virus carriers here on the continent too, and this having to avoid the living is its own kind of annoying restrictiveness.

John Park once from California now living in Toronto was back in the Bay Area for work. Fred Anderson has lived his entire life on Nob Hill in San Francisco. Dan Holtzman another juggler and East Bay resident dropped everything to swing by. I am another juggler here too. All of us have circled the globe scuffing up a buck working gigs for our supper. Pro’ jugglers spare no moment with mindful silence, it isn’t possible. Worrisome signs of age are all about. There is hair loss and worse still there is this glacial sense that we are becoming better at listening.

Wally lingered another day before rolling east for Illinois. He tried Nevada’s Highway 50, that put the fear of solitude in his soul, and because of this terror of loneliness he has changed course and gone south through Kingman, Arizona where he is now east in Gallup, New Mexico.

I am back for the moment. I’ve chores to do, a van to wash, food to buy and a spring journey across the Great Basin to embark upon. The garden is planted, and I’ve news my spouse is weary of Denver’s turbulent spring. I’ve been tasked to buy a new umbrella for the patio, as if that might keep us home more, my wife and I both have our doubts, but we’ll try to be still, for as long as being still lasts, until the want of change overtakes our being present here. The penitentiary of travel has us hook and line, ball and chain. People can be like swallows, we are sheepherders, nomads. Horizons are for chasing, stillness is for towner’s, and as our instincts so often tell us, the long-long road is wanderlust’s surest destination.

Quarreling for a Water Fight

Irrigation water isn’t available in Southern Oregon this year. Klamath County’s farmers rolled the meteorological dice and won a drought. On the California side of the border on the easternmost edge of Siskiyou County matters are the same. Each state operates under a different set of rules, then you layer in the federal government and the mashup leads to farmers and ranchers using heads on pikes rhetoric.

The Klamath River flows west to Del Norte County where the last drops empty into the Pacific. As is true of every river along the west coast of North America migratory fish, (salmon and steelhead) enter and exit the rivers to reproduce and return to the ocean. Been here doing this thing for 5 million years, that’s all, what’s not to like, what’s the problem, “what in the hell do those fish have to do with my hayfield here in Klamath Falls?”

At the mouth of the river on the California coast the indigenous Yurok tribe and their ancestors have lived off salmon for many thousands of years. It is worth understanding that North American’s have been here 17,000 years before present, (in spite of Rick Santorum’s Christianity centric eruptions) and science suspects longer, many thousands of years, but science can’t prove it yet so they can’t say it until the facts are proven, but we can speculate because evidence is mounting that our first people have been on this continent for much longer than we know. May I tempt you with the possibility of 24 thousand year, likely even longer. So, yes the Yurok are important stakeholders and deserve recognition to what does and doesn’t happen on the Klamath. The courts agree.

Rural life along the Klamath’s easternmost region, on the east slope of the Siskiyou and Cascade Mountain’s was already drier and hotter in summers and colder and impossible to farm in winters, and now it’s only getting that much more difficult ground to work. Evaporation rates are up, and soil moisture is down. The drought only makes matters that much worse. Drought will beat the hope out of a tribal rug without using a broom. You want heartbreak? I’ll show you a roadhouse, two-steppers and beat up pickup trucks waiting to be repossessed in the hard times parking lot near the end of your best hopes for a better life.

I’ve been pouring over Klamath and Siskiyou County commodity reports. There are about 7000 acres of potatoes planted as compared to 75,000 acres of alfalfa and hay grass. There are another 8000 acres planted with vegetable crops as compared to another 75,000 acres used for livestock. All in with everything that is agriculture and ranching this two state region cultivates if there is enough water the land under production tally’s up to about 210,000 acres, and most of it goes for livestock production.

Monterey County by comparison farms 400,000 acres. Monterey’s commodities are almost all destined for your kitchen table and almost none for livestock. Think of the region between Salinas to King City as America’s salad bowl. Everywhere you look there are farmworkers hunched over in fields cultivating and harvesting what America eats. The mild climate means Monterey County has a longer more productive growing season. More important is that this is a diverse population not a bunch of angry entitled white Americans riding around on tractors with placards denouncing the government.

Problems, you want problems, I’ll give you problems, there was never enough water up in the Klamath Basin, not now, not ever, never mind all that, plenty before us pretended otherwise and here we are, a bunch of stinking quarreling for a fight farmer’s that can’t afford a used new tire, prom dress for their kid, or a billy goat to chew down the blackberry out back. You want hard times, I’ll give you hard times, “we got a mortgage to pay, kids to feed, and a goddamn health insurance premium to pay.” Did I tell you Hoss is in his late 50’s perhaps early 60’s and he is getting picked apart, spleen, kidney, and high blood pressure by all those so-called benefit providers.

Gavin and Nancy want nothing to do with all this remake of the famous Oklahoma Dust Bowl times waiting dead ahead.

Same as the local shoot and ask questions later police departments the Department of Agriculture is not constituted to unknot this challenge.

I want to say this out loud, as loud, and as clear as can be. Ready… here we go. There are 44 million people in Oregon and California and no more than 2 thousand farms and ranches facing tough times up here. Not none, but not many farm and ranch operations have even half a mind to switch up how they’ve been doing things, won’t do it, no thank you, next question, would someone please strap that questioner to a Brama bull and call a ambulance.

I get that hard sweat and fool youth has been busting ass and raising hogs out here but we are in the midst of climate change and stubborn fools are plenty and level headed pragmatists are too few.

There are some plenty pissed off men and women fishing off the coast near the Klamath River that own boats, pay insurance, and are licensed to commercially catch salmon in years when there are any to be found. Like folk out east near Klamath Falls they have mortgages to pay, mouths to feed and lives to live. In our cowboy culture centric world order salmon fishermen are not nearly as coddled a culture as the spur booted Marlboro wranglers of yesteryear.

More and more of what grows in Monterey County is on drip irrigation. Let’s take that to be a sign of enlightenment. Up in the Klamath Basin most farmers are going to need to receive subsidies to reconfigure their operations. Alfalfa and haying operations need to transition to growing crops destined for our kitchen tables. They’ll need many more people to help and those people will come from south of our border, and let’s call them out for who they are, they are human beings. Price supports from the Department of Agriculture will incentivize farmers to produce less water intensive commodities and will allow more land to remain in production. Obsolete equipment will be sold for a profit to growers in more water abundant regions of our nation.

Everywhere I stick my nose and poke around it takes all of two seconds to see how arcane and twisted up our agricultural system has become. Remembering that Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland are colossus and humongous tyrants and cause untold political misery in Washington and have a lot to do with why legislation never moves.

Now we know for certain that the once reliable snowpack in the Sierras is now a one night stand and she’s never going to take a call from you again. Now we know water intensive crops need to be relocated to wetter regions of our nation. Now we know we need to eat our nuts, fruits and vegetables if we want to not all look like some two legged version of the Goodyear blimp. Now we know that water scarcity is radicalizing rural farmers ready to throw democracy out with the bath water if they don’t get their way. We get it, we see it, we know it. Policy has got to catch up to these cowboys before we have to saddle up and send a posse out to bring them in back into a more sane and wholesome world.

Once more it needs to be said. We are in a climate emergency and that means change, and the change we need is the painful changes our farmers with our generous support need to make. Remember if this works out we will all be eating better, living longer, thinner and trimmer, sexier and happier, all of us dancing until all those happy cows we no longer have to slaughter greet us at sunrise as we make it home after a grand night on the town that we really don’t want to talk about.

down to the last drop

All of Borrego Springs water comes from rain that falls to the west on the San Ysidro Mountains. In an average year 5000-acre feet of water from Coyote and Indian Creek, water you will seldom if ever see sinks into the aquifer beneath the Borrego Valley. That’s it, try as the good people living in this desert try there is no economically feasible way to get more water to the 3500 people living in this community. And don’t think that a few of the frisky rascals in this isolated desert community haven’t spitballed this problem, one plan included piping water north from Mexico’s Sea of Cortez to a mythical desalinization plant built on the Salton Sea. That almost affordable plan priced out at about $690 million dollars. This piping plan promised to produce some of the most spectacularly expensive grapefruit and knuckleheads in the world.

In the 1980’s the United States Geologic Survey estimated Borrego Springs was using 20,000-acre feet of water per year, a full 15,000-acre feet more than they are getting off the San Ysidro watershed. Pumping resulted in water wells having to be drilled deeper, until you, the devil, or the Army Corp of Engineers can’t go any further. Taking the chance of this lone isolated aquifer getting pumped dry means the town, farms, golf courses, it means the whole ecosystem collapses. 

Up in Sacramento agriculture and industry have fought against legislation regulating the use of groundwater. The result of all this resistance is that for decades, the farms north of Borrego Springs pumped as much free unmetered water as they wanted and there wasn’t a thing anyone could do to stop them.

That little red blob at the bottom is the spot

Wading into water politics is known as a thankless career ending task. Better to kick trouble into the courts, look the other way, change the subject, nothing good will come of getting in the middle of a dispute over water.

Then in 2014 under the gutsy aquatic jujitsu of Governor Jerry Brown the California State Legislature passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. The new legislation wouldn’t take effect until 2019, first so that political careers could clear the area prior to the— all hands-on deck— to the barricades moment this new law would foment. Then, so as not to shock the state’s water system the law only gradually goes into effect year by year incrementally until 2040. Any faster and they’ll be issuing a warrant for your water thieving arrest.

The Borrego Springs aquifer depending upon who you talk to has never been better or as others worry is freaking close to collapse. California’s State Water Resources Board is concerned, there are about 150 aquifers across the state and Borrego Springs ranks as the number one worry. We are code red by one assessment and hunky dory by another. Expert hydrologists put Borrego Springs problems at the top of not just the state, but it is at the top of the nation’s list of endangered aquifers. Here is the poster child for a community that has literally been unable to do anything about the farmers north of town pumping the whole kit and caboodle into oblivion.

After decades of fighting in court the various stakeholders have come together and created a Groundwater Sustainability Plan. That was the easiest part, coming up with a plan. Pointing fingers, blaming farmers, cursing golf courses, sharing your tender mercies for black tailed jack rabbits, demanding the miserable varmints from the local water board get there you know what over to the community hall hearing and without equivocation explain what in tarnation they plan to do about this hellacious mess.

What the plan does is spread the burden out among all the various water users. That spreading out and distribution ends up being a stiletto stabbed directly into the economic aspirations of the pumping happy farmers that have long had it going their way here.

Now the agriculture stakeholders are taking acreage out of production and investing in technologically enhanced irrigation equipment. This is the fig and the leaf, the head and fake, to a crisis of Noah’s Ark proportions.

Since the climate is getting warmer and dryer none of this is likely to make the golfers happy, the grass greener or water grabbing easier. Like a husband who has vowed, there is no alternative, at some point you must get by with less or come to the point where you can’t get by at all, because there is no more water and what remains of your love life depends upon a wife that imagines you to be strong as Hercules and as virtuous as Spartacus. If that doesn’t make any sense to you then you just haven’t been married enough.

Anza Borrego Springs State Park is California’s largest. Fully one fifth of San Diego County is comprised of this pristine place. As stakeholders go the park weighs in at 585,930 acres full of roadrunners and rattlesnakes. If the aquifer in Borrego Valley was to fail all bets are off. This is the nettlesome tangle to be found here. Nowhere does it make sense to give up on twenty percent of some of the most magnificent desertscape in the world. There are no pain free solutions for the biggest water users but there is certain agony for everyone if this doesn’t get fixed and fixed right.

At United Nation’s in 2018 the world’s leaders launched a Sustainable Development Plan. The Secretary General pointed to growing demands, poor management and climate change as having increased water stresses and scarcity of water. What our global leaders are saying is that over-pumping of the aquifer in Borrego Springs is a problem found across the world.

One of the peculiarities of the challenge’s modern-day civilization confronts is the sheer size, scale, and scope of our efforts to harmonize our use of the world’s natural resources. Our economic system exerts enormous pressure on people, politics, and nations. We fix one problem then find we’ve caused another one. I’m thinking about the hydropower systems on the Columbia River and the salmon runs that then were unable to make it back to their ancestral spawning grounds. Don’t even get me started on Fukushima.

For at least two centuries we relied upon fossil fuels to power our world only to learn we are now in a race against time to deploy a new energy system for a new century while there is still time, if there is still time at all, there’s a lot at stake, and everything to lose, like the whole planet.

Human beings are not wired up to dwell on what happens when a million-acre wildfire strikes, when a Rhode Island sized iceberg breaks off from Antarctica, or when a pristine piece of California desert is brought to the brink of collapse. What does that even mean? What can anyone do? Change the subject, gripe about the minimum wage, invade a country, fret about the stock market, become a vegan, or eat veal. Looking the other way only works so long, the time comes when action becomes necessary, and inaction would be suicidal. Borrego Springs is the poster child for a place where the time on the clock, the close shave, the near miss meets the last straw.

California is a mix of seashore and desertscape, a canvas where our doers and dreamers carve out their best lives. Our citizens imagine our world’s problems to be over there, someplace else, not here, how can the most prosperous state in the union even have so much difficulty?

We say this often but these two words bounce off, they glance but don’t penetrate, we can’t wrap our minds around what it means to be living through a climate emergency, we can’t imagine ourselves being caught up in a catastrophe that is forcing us to flee for our lives, to run from wildfires to move on from where we live because the wells have run dry. Then, one morning a volcano, Mount St. Helens ejects most of its mountaintop seven miles up into the atmosphere, a spectacular unimaginable event of outrageous scale.

Centuries long megadroughts seem inconceivable, massive climate change caused migrations are for someplace else, not here, they are for over there. This human caused climate crisis can’t be happening until we all get it through are thick skulls that anthropogenic climate change is the result of what human beings have been doing. That’s the hardest part of our journey, understanding that this is our world, this is our nature, this is what is happening, what the world is now going through, what we’re doing to the world, the world we don’t just walk on, but the world we are folded into.

Ultimately this is a head trip, all dreamed up by the turning wheels inside our minds. It is cognitive, born of imagination while failing to fully appreciate the implications, that our ability to accomplish certain things can result in blowback, that what we do isn’t just dangerous, it can be outright deadly. And once we know better, once we understand what we are doing to ourselves, and then being unable to stop because we don’t want to, it is inconvenient, we’ll lose money, go broke, our lives will have to change, even if our behavior triggers a massive extinction event, even then if we can’t stop the harm we are causing, when we’ve reached that fork in the road we have to reckon morally with the likely cognitive design flaws we’ve inherited as a species.

Borrego Springs is a mirror that’s forcing us to look fearlessly heart and soul into the abyss.   

cultivating delta karma

Sam’s Market on banks of Old River

Twenty years ago, I drove back through the Delta to Berkeley. Life was lush here, tempting, I pulled off the county two lane on Fabian Island. Wind was still, air warm, sun was behind Mount Diablo. I parked in a dirt lot to walk the dog up along the banks of Old River. Swallows darting about, the buzz of insects, life in the Delta is set at a low idle. Stockton was thirty miles east, San Francisco sixty-five miles west, Mongolia seemed just an ocean and continent further over the horizon.  

Sam’s Market, the local landmark was open. Fishermen grabbed their bait and tackle here. Ice cold beer was popular, bag of chips, bug spray.

Next building over a tavern was opening, the paintjob exhausted by sun and time. When I looked inside, I could see a room full of indolent men who had finished chores in the surrounding fields. It was quitting time.

Crop duster pilot bought two beers, “I’ll have whatever he’s having.” We were along a defunct meandering waterway, yesteryears San Joaquin River, bellying up to slake our many thirsts. Behind the joint were smaller shacks, cracker boxes. Farmworkers lived behind Sam’s and the tavern, reckoning they toiled in the nearby fields.

A pair of working women had arrived from Tracy ten miles south. Crop duster pilots once off duty swagger as dare devils all do. Working girls and duster dudes seem to fetch glances and seem familiar, each are persons of interest to the other.

Dike Road along Old River

Small talk next to a field planted with 100 acres of tomatoes needs some streamlining. Mister Fancy Pants showman-juggler could go along or be asked to move along. Thinking it best to coax conversation I nudged my airman, might get the flyer to tell me a piece of aeronautical truth.

Nonchalance is pilot poker face. By now I’m putting two and two together. I try buying my barstool Romeo dusting dare devil a round, but he wouldn’t have anything to do with my generosity, bought the next round.

Jukebox was shutoff. Entertainment would commence soon, what did I know, we are outside city limits, and the clientele and tavern were dead set on enjoying the coming exotic attraction. As unlikely as this worn-out old joint appeared to be, sited right off a two-lane country road sitting right on the famous Old River next to a field of ripening tomatoes.

I was the dandy out of towner in the crowd. I had played a pair of libraires in San Joaquin County, first show was in Manteca then the second in French Camp. I am certain E Vitus Clampus has graced this monument to places all but forgotten.

Houseboats in Delta Heaven

The two professional dancers worked on a platform against a wall in the tavern. Each took a turn. The exotic dancing and skimpy costuming I had not expected, but its unvarnished honesty I found ordinary yet endearing.

Two young women had skills, costumes, music, and courage. I had only been in fancy joints where out of this world strippers worked. This was the first encounter I had ever had with much less pretentious exotic dancers surrounded by farms in the middle of the countryside had come to practice whipping a working man’s tavern into a rural frenzy.

While one danced the other woman walked from customer to customer with a hat. After one dancer finished, they switched roles. The duster pilot was a regular. Each danced just for the pilot. After he explained he’d buy lap dances from both women, customarily he’d get one lap dance early on in the evening and a second toward the end of the night. When he was really feeling his oats, he’d get the pair to dance for him at the same time.

The whole idea of a lap dance is to decrease the range from which a paying customer may best enjoy the pleasure found in exotic dancing. My crop duster pilot acquaintance played along, the dancer tugged on his ears, mussed his hair, ran her finger across the tip of his nose, and dared to stroke his leg, all his while she kept on dancing or hopping up on top his lap for some unbound choreography.

Having no experience with any of this I decided to not look too serious, keep smiling, try not to turn beet red, applause seemed a good idea.

“What are you waiting for?” My duster pilot friend asked. “Ten for one, twenty will get you two.”

Delta plumbing

Imagining an exotic dancer sitting on my lap in a roadside tavern putting me into a moment where what would happen next had put me out of my depth. I was in over my head.

First off all I had wanted to do was buy one beer, and I hadn’t even been able to do that. Being cornered I felt forced to play along, act like I was having fun, be courteous, show the dancers respect, I was duty bound to hold up my end of the transaction.

I was too embarrassed, didn’t know what to do, negotiations were sorted out with help from the bartender, the duster pilot and gentleman in the room. Everybody seemed to be waiting on my decision. Best part of these kinds of entertainments has to do with how much hot water the so-called lady killer can find himself being boiled alive in.

The dancer put on a shirt and buttoned it up, ostensibly, at least there were a few strategically left unfastened. Next, she gets out from her bag of tricks a genuine extra long peacock feather. Her partner spins a tune, a familiar song to the dancer as she moved intricately to each beat while taking my measure. My role was to stop smiling and focus my attention on the dancer and the dance. Teasing and taunting commenced, once she’d finished with the feather, she gave me a pat on the cheek, patting a second time, third time I got slapped, that was popular with the crowd, she puckered her lips blew me a kiss, ran her fingers through my hair, then pawed on my leg with one hand while unfastening the buttons of her shirt with the other. My job during this part of the performance was to look at her hand on my leg, the fingers on her buttons, look up into her eyes while we waited for the moment when that shirt would fly open and who knows when the vice squad was going to fly through the doors and arrest us all. I could see the headlines now— library performer arrested in tavern charged with participating in lewd behavior with exotic dancer.

I had overcome feeling embarrassed, circumstances were considerably more dire. I wanted to be good at this new work I’d been enlisted into. I wanted the dancer to feel her performance pleased, that I appreciated the experience, I wasn’t supposed to indicate that any of this was too frightening, that my dancer wasn’t anything other than the most wanted woman in the world, and if I could dig a little deeper into my pocket that I’d likely bring my first lap dance to a dignified conclusion.

The likelihood of my throwing my life away to shack up for the rest of my days on this good earth with an exotic dancer from Tracy, California had been tested.

I’d already decided I’d tip the second dancer before I got caught then hogtied and dragged into having a second round in this low budget roadside unrequited romance game I’d stumbled upon.

Things you’d never have the nerve to do lineup with things that just happen sometimes. Pulling off along a country road on a late summer late dusky day and there a show business veteran finds himself trying to extend common courtesy to my kindred sisters out hustling much as I’d been doing, working in the small time, for the small crowds, you give a show, you get a show. I took my bows as the curtain fell and walked off out of the tavern into the budding night.

Dumb luck, the human condition and life in the Delta had a head on collision with the naked truth. Doing the one thing you’ve always put off doing so you may leave this mortal plain having completed your life’s purpose, so you are not called upon to return for yet another infinite round of reincarnations, until you put to rest all the curiosities, set down all the temptations, cast out all these yearnings and misbegotten cravings. Fate would not allow my coming to earth and then leaving without buying at least one lap dance. The night out in the Delta was preordained. People who know me best said the fact was that all of this wasn’t just inevitable, it was my karma coming to the present moment to teach my soul. As the saying goes— I learned my lesson.

fixing leaky faucets

Lake Shasta April 2020

A Wall Street hedge fund has sent a posse of potato farming water grabbers out to Winnemucca, Nevada. Water Asset Management was formed in 2005 and is in the business of using water as a for profit investment vehicle.

Access to drinking water is a universally recognized human right. Defending this right and winning this argument at the United Nations was the tenacious Canadian activist Maude Barlow. Drinking water should never be bought, sold, bartered, or privatized. Deeded water rights to underground water shouldn’t be pumped out from underneath one community then piped far off to another wealthier place.

We’re in for a real brawl out here in the American West. For starters we already don’t have enough water. Now we’ve got more people, a growing population and they all arrive at the negotiating table believing they have the best ideas for how to use what little water there is. Water Asset Management is buying up land explicitly for access to the water rights deeded to the purchased properties.

Commercial and Recreational Fishing

What does our water future look like? For starters financializing deeded water rights is turning our common resource into a privatized water grabbing for profit scam. After urban water users’ rates get jacked up you can bet the farm lobby will go seek new water subsidies to offset the higher cost of production. Once consumers start squealing about how much a half gallon of milk has gone up, how expensive a loaf of bread has become, why every politician beholden to Big Ag will be lining up to make water cheaper for farms and ranches while sticking the bill to the urban taxpayers.

From the BBC, Marsha Daughenbaugh, 68, of Steamboat Springs wedge issues agricultures priority access to water use, “Ranching is not only an economic base for us, it’s a way of life.”

What does that mean? In 1994 a telephone operator in New Jersey was practicing a way of life until AT&T cut 20,000 jobs. Telephone operators would have had a better shot at keeping their way of life if they’d been saddled up and sitting on a horse while they were doing their telecommunication’s work.

Look we already have all the dams we’ll ever need, but we can’t finesse our way around a drought and expect to fill old or new reservoirs with water that doesn’t exist. The solution to fixing this mess is not complicated, everyone is going to have to use less water. That’s the new way of life barreling down on every enterprise and individual living West of the Pecos.  

Swallows playing in the Delta breeze

Due to overallocations up and down and all along the Colorado River a hands-on realistic water use plan will be needed for California, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico. Utah is going to be a more petulant childlike player on account of their whole humankind’s dominion over earth delusions, but we’ll set their fundamentalism aside for the moment.

Alfalfa and cotton farming needs to be relocated east where there is sufficient supplies of water. More crops need to end up on our supper tables. Eggplant, squash, watermelon, pineapples, strawberries, onions, spinach, carrots, lettuce, and tomatoes all use less water and are not just suitable for human consumption these fresh vegetables are healthier for both people and the planet.  

Stanford Law School’s award-winning Environmental and Natural Resources Law & Policy Program is training lawyers in the byzantine area of water law. As it sits right now outlawing alfalfa farming is illegal. Allocations are based strictly on whether there is or isn’t any water. There are rules about how to use the water but there are no rules about what to grow with the water. Water law is a tangled-up snake pit of economically threatened special interests.

Even if I can tell you cotton and alfalfa need to be shutdown, it is one hell of a long way further to settling that hornet’s nest of a mess in court with an enforceable decision, but that day is coming, and it will be arriving sooner than the water grabbers might have imagined.

In California pumping water from aquifers is undergoing a thorough rethink. This is known as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Passed in 2014, agencies had until 2020 to file their plans to make groundwater resources sustainable by 2040. Those plans are subject to review and by political career ending loophole to be reassessed every five years.

Right now, a Limited Liability Company in Napa County can pump scarce and ancient groundwater, grow grapes then export the wine to foreign markets while stashing their profits offshore at a post office box known as a Caribbean tax haven. In other words we are a long way from a glidepath to sustainability.

California Water Alliance wants more water diverted from the Delta then piped to their members further south in the San Joaquin Valley. They almost pulled it off, but the courts stopped the water heist before the former administration could do further harm. The Sacramento and San Joaquin Valley Delta “is the most valuable estuary and wetland ecosystem on the west coast of North and South America and is the hub of California’s water delivery system.” Without the Delta there is no such thing as California.

Fishermen dependent on the salmon that would no longer be able to find suitable spawning grounds, which is a polite term for going extinct. Farmers running short of water do not care one whit about what happens to salmon in Northern California, that is not their problem.

In dryer and warmer low rainfall years farms need to be fallowed then put back into production in years when there is sufficient water. A real greenwashed-Astroturfing lobby group the California Water Alliance won’t have it and if diverting Delta water means driving salmon to the brink that’s just somebody else’s radical environmental activism hurting the economy.

Whether a citizen fishes or farms for their living both laudable enterprises but diverting water and then driving fish and fishermen to extinction and bankruptcy because you want to grow more subsidized cotton is a tragedy wrapped in a self-inflicted existential disaster.

None of this is ours to keep, it is ours to pass along to future generations. If while we continue to grow our economy and we were to decide salmon are expendable, then we’ve in some toxicologically bizarre way just admitted that we are expendable nothing is worth saving, except for holding onto the power to choose. Extinction events are not reserved for the unlucky few, man’s rapacious nature contains the seeds of self-destruction.

Largest system of dikes in the United States

In 2019 a misguided Federal cabinet member unilaterally ordered scarce water to be diverted from the Delta to farmers further south. Courts in Fresno halted the illegal diversion.

“This water grab was led by Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist and counsel for the Westlands Water District, the largest water district in the Central Valley and a significant beneficiary of the weakened biological opinions.” The weakening was done under the cloak of anti-science activists in the former administration.

For now, there is an uneasy stalemate and with the inexorable increasing temperatures and ever decreasing moisture levels in the soils of the American West. Urban areas are about to fight tooth and nail, from one farm field to the next over ever more scarce water. The drought is on and our water wars are only going to get worse. As the announcer says, “let’s get ready to rumble…”

penny-pinching beasts

Sunrise somewhere over Seattle

Biden’s infrastructure bill, the American Jobs Bill has $16 billion designated for capping unproductive oil wells and for cleaning up abandoned mines, most of the money would end up being spent in rural America because that’s where most of the hole punching and mine digging occurred.

That’s fine and dandy but I’d go a mile or two further on this project. Since we’re already out here maybe this program could be designed to help stabilize the economies of so many of the rural communities that have for too long been ignored, neglected and are lurching from one crisis to the next.

Here’s what we do…

First if you are now or ever have been a communist sympathizer, you might want to reconsider. Are you an advocate for a leaner, meaner government? All this passion for penny pinching, beast starving bathtub drowning obsessions of the past four decades have left our government too small and the fossil fuel industry too damn big. This goes by another word, it’s called inequality.

Fair minded citizens trying to keep up with all the bankrupting wildcatting oil well abandoning shenanigans know the industry has painted our country into a tight spot. We’ve been left with a big mess with untold climate emergency consequences. In other words, central planning has screwed the pooch and the consequences are that the taxpayers got some land to restore and oil well capping to do.

If you haven’t noticed or maybe you have and just don’t give a flying sexual intercourse of two or three our nation has been growing. You can tell by sprawl, gridlock and the number of cranes hovering over our urban landscape. We’ve got a big mess that is even bigger than the previous mess, which happens to be the stinking mess I am talking about, and like it or not we are going to have to pick up the tab. Bellyachers can put a sock in it starting now.

Inequality is a Scourge on our democracy

I’d like to digress just for one moment. Senator Rand Paul opposes fixing our country’s infrastructure unless it is to do with a fence Mexico is never going to pay for. Doing nothing to fix our rotting infrastructure is notably deficient of sentience, or as the colloquial saying goes, doing nothing is just plain dumb. Thank you kindly.

Let’s continue…

So here is what I think might be useful to maintaining the peace and quiet in this trigger happy hopped up on Fox News Television nation. I propose we hire good men and women who want and can hold a job, bring people in that live nearest to these abandoned oil wells, pay them plenty good, the less education in their resume the more likely they are to be hired, hire more of them and one hell of a lot less of those with higher educations. If you have an advanced degree you are not qualified.

Now I don’t want them to eat crow or humble pie, but I do want every single solitary one of these employees to understand that this is good work, important work, and their generous salary will help hold the union of our nation together. Spending the $16 billion dollars will put hundreds of thousands of our finest on the front lines of the fight against the creeping climate change emergency we are facing. And remember this is just one small piece of a much bigger plan to build our country back better. You got a problem with that then you likely live in a gated community and are stinking mad about everything. Get over yourself.

I’ll want the employees to understand our tax dollars are replacing the oil companies’ royalty payments, lawyers’ fees, and insufficiently funded Bonds that were not up to the task of fixing the predictable mess this industry has made of our landscape.

I’d argue any worker that hates on our country while pocketing wages while employed in this program be confronted by their choice of television viewing habits. We should dream up some kind of oath of employment, you know something simple like: I promise to fix what the oil and gas industry has left broken and to the best of my ability appreciate the wages I am earning and the wisdom of the taxpayers of our great nation for having the integrity to step up and give me a job, help put a roof over my head and food on my table. I promise I will work on holding the private sector accountable in the future, and as we do hold these big fat liars to account, and when all our work is finished and built back better, we may resume seeking a more perfect smaller sized government and union.

I’m all too sure most of what I’m proposing makes plain old horse sense but likely wouldn’t pass muster with the local, regional, state, private or public entities that are hellbent on preserving a citizen’s right to gripe and grumble about near darn every damn thing under the sun.

Let me just take a moment to say that Senator Rick Scott is miserable at his job and before all that misery this rascal sucked $300 million taxpayers’ dollars out of Medicare and put what was fraudulently skimmed from the federal government into his own greedy pocket. Florida’s phosphate pond problems were on his watch too. Enough said.

Bridges are Infrastructure

This next issue is a serious as a heart attack. There are some dangerous unhappy unhinged young single men in the United States that need opportunity. Many are located near all these holes that need capping. Getting a bored unproductive young man stood up and doing something productive might help with all those other problems we all would prefer not to think about. We might try to get this buckaroo off fentanyl, might get him to dial back on his porno watching, videogame addiction and maybe take that big fat wallet he’s got full of fresh earned honest wages and ask some philly out for a romp around town seated next to him in that new electric powered Hummer he’s just purchased for cash. Forming relationships is healthy, walking through the world alone is harmful to a persons mental health.

Almost every single solitary plug nickel, dime and quarter has ended up going to the Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffet, Billy Gates, and Elon Musk. Time we shower the workers with half a chance to make a little something for themselves. I want more daycare and I want as many women hired in the oil field operation as is humanly possible. As a kid I hated going to an all-boys school and darn if working with a lot of different kinds of people isn’t just healthier for everyone concerned.

Saturday morning, I woke up in Seattle where I had been for a week visiting my daughter for the first time since February of 2020. I’m all over the American West these days. If you didn’t know the stinking gridlock you experience where you live is just as awful everywhere else. In Seattle I tried driving across Ballard back to Capitol Hill and it was no less a grind than trying to go east on Melrose when you are trying to get your sorry butt out of West Hollywood.

Let’s get a wiggle on we’ve a whole wide wonderful world to enjoy if we could just stop with all this nonsense about not ever fixing the stuff that needs fixing. Roads, bridges, water pipes, sewer lines, and could we get serious about upgrading our dilapidated airports. Passing through New York’s JFK shouldn’t be a virtual terrorizing Grand Theft Auto looking dystopian close encounter with a post-apocalyptic reality. We are so much better than all of this.

Meet you and yours at the water cooler and would you all talk about these urgent matters. We have a nation to rebuild.