Entries in water (2)

Tuesday
Feb202018

About a boot

Last week Tom got a hole in his boot. He also—on the same day—fried his computer beyond repair when he plugging it into the truck to charge and then started the truck. Not sure what went wrong with that one, but that is another story…

In order to get some context, I need to start back at the beginning. In late November last year, about the time the winter rains arrived on the west coast in earnest, we left Winky in a nice, dry garage and set out for a winter of couch-surfing and short-term rentals. Our first stop was Seattle—this time for business, as we had decided to take the plunge and......sell our house. If this sounds sudden, that is because it was. We had not planned on selling just yet, but our renters made us an offer, we knew we weren’t moving back, and—plans or not—it was time.  So, we have now taken one more step in this long adventure in letting go.

After Seattle, we spent several weeks visiting family for the holidays, and then embarked on a winter back in the world-of-water, otherwise known as the Samish Flats—the delta where the Samish River meets the Salish Sea, about an hour and a half north of Seattle. Honestly, after a year of perpetual sunshine, I missed the rain. I missed the low skies, the sound of water dripping from the eaves, the space for inward reflection, the infinite variety of clouds, and the amazing displays of light those clouds create.

There are lots of places west of the Cascades where I could be wet for two months, but we chose the Samish Flats specifically for its birds. Originally a flood plain, it has been diked and drained for farming, but its shorelines, rivers, bays, creeks, sloughs, canals, channels, and flooded fields still support an immense number of wintering waterfowl (mostly snow geese, swans, and masses of ducks) as well as mesmerizing flights of dunlins, blackbirds, and starlings, and a smorgesbord of eagles, hawks, falcons, harriers, shrikes, and owls.

This is a place vibrantly alive with wings and water. You might not know it if you just drove through once on a gray day, but if you stay, you can feel the constant flux from both above and below—rain, wind, tides, mist, clouds, seeping groundwater, and the constantly shifting flights of thousands of birds, calling, flocking, gleaning, fleeing in front of the eagles and peregrines and hunters—everything in circling, washing, restless motion.

All of the rain that supports this teaming ecosystem makes it attractive to have a real roof, so we stayed at a guest cottage at an organic farm for a month, and a house on Samish Island for two weeks. I was focused on writing; Tom was focused on photography—that is, when it stopped raining long enough to take the camera out.

Which all brings me back to the boot. To photograph birds Tom has to go where the water is. And honestly, there really isn’t much of anyplace where the water isn’t. The “Flat” part of Samish Flats means that if there is water one place, there is water everywhere. One night of heavy rain, and you wake up to a lake in your back yard and water over all the roads into town. In this “university of mud” (as Tom Robbins calls it) the boot is essential.

Tom’s first impulse these days when something breaks is to find a way to fix it. Since duct tape didn’t seem like an option in this case (though we did think about it) Shoe Goo was the next obvious go-to, but it didn’t seem adequate for the size and placement of the hole—right where the boot bends. So Tom did some research and someone suggested having a patch put on at a tire repair shop. Since we were in town anyway (for the computer) I decided to give this a try.

The thing about living this way for so long—it has now been a year and a half since we “left home”—is that the lines between “normal” and “weird” start to get fuzzy. So by the time I got to Discount Tire I had somehow forgotten that most people don’t bring boots here to get patched. I had gone on a trip with some girlfriends from grad school over the weekend and hadn’t gotten a lot of sleep for a few nights, and was probably more concerned about the computer—I don’t know what it was exactly, but somehow this had become just one more thing to check off my to-do list.

So I go into the store, walk up to the service desk, put this big, muddy, man-sized, muck boot up on the counter, and in the tone of voice of someone ordering a hamburger at Dick’s say, “I would like to get a patch put on this boot. How soon can you have it ready?”

The nice service man on the other side of the counter is just staring at me. So far he hasn’t said one word past, “How can I help you?” His eyes have enlarged a few sizes and his jaw muscles don’t seem to be keeping his mouth closed anymore. His face has taken on a kind of deer-in-the-headlights expression as though he wants to run but doesn’t know which way, and he just rotates his torso slowly toward his co-worker at the register next to him with this mute appeal for sanity in a world gone sideways. This probably only take a few seconds, but time, for him, has come screeching to a halt.

The other guy sees what is happening—even in the midst of cashing out the other customer—and takes it in stride. He leans over and very matter-of-factly explains why they would be happy to help me, but the patching process that they use probably won’t adhere to the material the boot is made out of. He pokes at it a few times professionally and suggests that I might try finding a neoprene patch at a dive shop. “And have you tried Shoe Goo…?” I thank him for this information, and turn to leave. This action seems to release the first service tech from his sudden and complete paralysis. “Well!” he bursts out. “Now THAT’S something you don’t see every day!!”

Back in the truck, I can’t stop laughing: both at myself for being so oblivious, and at the thought of my service guy going home that night with a story about the crazy lady who brought in a boot. I am glad to have been part of bringing some humor into the day (for all of us), and also at maybe being the bearer of a little bit of unpredictability. This is the way it all starts sometimes—something doesn’t line up with our expectations. Our worldview has to shift. A crack opens up—reluctantly perhaps, but once that crack is there who knows what else might slip in? I feel like maybe coyote was here, working through my sleepy, distracted self without me even knowing it.

And even though the boot isn’t fixed yet, THAT feels like a good day’s work.

Tuesday
Dec272016

Day 93-113: Desert wonderings


Under the stars at Valley of Fire

We left Zion on December 5, spent a day at St. George trying to fit in too many chores—laundry, groceries, and cleaning out the truck bed to discourage the rodent who had moved in while we were at Zion—then moved on to Valley of Fire, Nevada for two nights; then to Topock, Arizona for a week; then to Lake Havasu State Park in Lake Havasu City for six days; then farther south on Lake Havasu for Christmas. My thoughts this week are something like our travels: wandering and not staying in one place for very long. We have touched on so many new things and my mind is still trying to make sense of it all. 


Valley of Fire in the Mohave Desert

Great Basin. Mojave Desert. Sonoran Desert. These names are beginning to mean something to me. After Zion, we left the Great Basin behind, with its high-elevation sagebrush and cold winters. From there we entered the warmer Mohave Desert, the driest of the US deserts, with its signature Joshua Trees. And now at Lake Havasu we are on the border of the Sonoran Desert, the warmest desert in the US, home of saguaros and mesquite trees. We are experiencing one of the characteristics of the Sonoran Desert this week, which is that in the winter, storms from the Pacific Ocean sometimes blow in bringing widespread rains. Though the hills around us are mostly piles of dry gravel dotted here and there with a few scraggly creosote bushes, the steady drizzle all night and the low clouds slung around the mountains this morning make it easy to pretend we are back home in Seattle.

This trip is helping me realize how profoundly we alter our environments. This is not news, and I don't know why this is more obvious to me out here than it was in Seattle. In a way, when you live in a big city for a long time it can come to seem like a kind of ecosystem of its own. The streets and buildings and people begin to organize into their own system and I sometimes forget that it is all constructed. But out here where so much is still raw land, the contrast is more obvious.

As an individual I feel pretty puny most of the time. We hike out into the Havasu Wilderness south of Topock, which has no developed roads or trails, and follow the burro paths out to the jagged barren mountains of broken rock and then down to the Colorado River in one of the few places where it still runs wild. It is a hot day, for winter, and it is clear that without planning and supplies we wouldn’t last long out here. The desert feels so much more powerful than us, something that could never be mastered or tamed.


Colorado River in the Havasu Wilderness

However, when I see the miles and miles of solar grids being installed in the valley south of Boulder City, and the great towers of the power lines marching away from Hoover Dam, and the immense amount of water dammed in Lake Mead or Lake Havasu I wonder if even the desert will survive us: if we can appreciate its beauty, or recognize its inhabitants' lives as important, or really understand that we are embedded in a matrix of life on which we depend.  


Havasu Wilderness

One of our neighbors at our campsite in Topock was trading stories with another man about favorite guns and talking about a cabin he owned and how great it was to sit inside the cabin and shoot coyotes. I got nine of ‘em last year, he exclaims with enthusiasm. Our RV Park is at the edge of a small square island of houses in the desert bordering the Havasu NWR, and every night we hear packs of coyotes yipping and yowling as they hunt the bare gravel hills around town and lope through our campground. Our first night there something peed on the back window of our truck cab. I assume a coyote must have jumped up on the tonneau cover to investigate the tent we had stored there and decided to remind us whose home we were in.

Then there was the day we drove from Valley of Fire to Topock, through some of the most spectacularly disastrous country I have ever seen. I do not understand the geology of this area yet, but clearly there has been some serious upheaval and the mountains are great rifts of rock, broken and tossed into near-vertical ridges and crazily-tilted crags in every color of brown, red, and black imaginable. Everything here is dry, dry, dry. Very little vegetation, and mile after mile of bare rock and brown washes and the smallest plants eking out whatever moisture they can from the coarse soil. In the distance, down the long, bare slopes, we get glimpses all afternoon of the great body of Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam, and see turnoffs advertising boat launches in a place where I would expect only the fossils of boats.

Then around a corner we come upon a vision so surprising I don’t even know at first what it is. Lake Las Vegas, like a little diorama of a city plunked without warning in the middle of the desert. Its brilliant blue water is surrounded by glass resorts and palatial Mediterranean villas in a tropical verdure of palms and grass and flowers. A mirage? A Hollywood set? A little research and I find that, no, it is “real” enough. A several-times-bankrupt business venture, the 320-acre “lake” and surrounding development was originally the brain child of actor J. Carlton Adair, though he was not able to see it through to construction. Other developers took it over and the lake was created by building an earthen dam on the Las Vegas Wash in 1988. The ambitious project has struggled though multiple bankruptcies, lawsuits, and economic downturns. But new investors are hopeful…

Now we are further south, camped on the shores of Lake Havasu, the lake created from the Colorado River by Parker Dam. It is beautiful, it provides water to many households and farms, and many people (including us) enjoy kayaking and fishing and boating here. However, it and the other lakes along the Colorado have drowned nearly all the cottonwood forests that used to line the whole lower Colorado. The Bill Williams NWR just south of us is one of the last stretches of original cottonwood habitat left, and it's nine-mile length is home to 11 species of butterfly that no longer live anywhere else.  

Yesterday, I spot three huge rafts of Eared Grebes in the middle of the lake in front of our campsite. The lake is so big they are tiny specks even in my spotting scope, making them difficult to count, but I decide that a conservative estimate might be something like 5000 birds. I read in a book published in 1991 that Eared Grebes don't usually number over 2000 here in the winter, but then I find a December 10, 2011 report of over 5000 birds, and a December 7, 2014 report of over 30,000 birds (yes, that is the right number of zeros) on the lake, so perhaps my numbers are low. Would these grebes be here without the dam? I don't know. But I enjoy seeing them, and if I am very quiet I can just hear their whistling calls and the far rustle of their wings and feet as they move around on the water.


The Colorado River behind Parker Dam has become Lake Havasu. This is where I saw the Eared Grebes.

What we do is just as "natural" as these grebes.  We are only doing what all animals do—living our lives, looking for food and water and shelter—only we have bigger tools and a greater reach. Many creatures alter their environments to suit them. The problem is just that we are very, very efficient at this. We can kill all the passenger pigeons. We can excavate an entire mountain for coal. And we can divert an entire river like the Colorado so it no longer reaches the ocean.

It is hard to realize as I sit on the shoreline here watching these lovely grebes and the other diving birds that feed here, that this lake is one of the reasons that water has not reached the Colorado River Delta in Mexico since 1998. (See link.) Same for the wonderful warm shower I can take for free in the campground, or the cool water in my pack, or the lettuce I bought at the store.  Everything we do takes water, and unless we treat it like the precious resource it is, it can disappear.

Finding these things out first-hand hurts. I feel grief at all the things I didn't even know existed that are already gone. Cottonwoods, butterflies, pupfish, desert tortoises, whole ecosystems. And I also feel inspired by the resilience of what is here, and by the way life is continually adapting. The pain is worth it, because in return I have a larger, more inclusive view.

It is not about trying to make things stay the same. Change is happening all the time, with or without us. When you take the really long view, much of this area was underwater during the last ice age. Do I feel grief also for the lost Lake Bonneville? For the dinosaurs? And after all, we need power, we need water. I am very appreciative of both in my little home. But how much do we need and what do we use it for? How much is enough? Who decides? And who pays the price of those decisions? These are the agonizingly difficult questions that people have been worrying over for decades here, where water is scarce, and getting more precious all the time.

Perhaps not having a permanent home for now is helping me see how we are really always visitors in this world. How short our time is here; how limited our view; how much we do not know. I am inspired to respect this place I am visiting by becoming more aware of the water I use and try to make wise choices.  And I am reminded of good traits for all visitors faced with the unknown: some humility, some patience, and a little stillness. I have been reading William Stafford—who is one of the best advocates I know for all three of these traits—and his words infuse the land around me.


Pintail Slough in Lake Havasu NWR. A manmade marsh.

The earth says have a place, be what that place
requires; hear the sound the birds imply
and see as deep as ridges go behind
each other.