Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Environmental Journalists In The Sooner State

                                    Abandoned Frey Bros. General Store, Amorita, Oklahoma
"Oklahoma is tallgrass prairie and everlasting mountains. It is secret patches of ancient earth tromped smooth and hard by generations of dancing feet. It is the cycle of song and heroic deed. It is calloused hands. It is the aroma of rich crude oil fused with the scent of sweat and sacred smoke. It is the progeny of an oilfield whore wed to a deacon; the sire of a cowpony bred with a racehorse. It is a stampede, a pie supper, a revival. It is a wildcat gusher coming in. It is a million-dollar deal sealed with a handshake.
Oklahoma is dark rivers snaking through red, furrowed soil; lakes rimmed with stone bluffs. It is the ghosts of proud Native Americans, crusading Socialists, ambitious cattle kings, extravagant oil tycoons, wily bandits. It is impetuous and it is wise. A land of opportunists, resilient pioneers, and vanquished souls, the state is a crazy quilt of contradictions and controversies, travails and triumphs. It has been exploited and abused, cherished and fought over. It is a puzzling place."

                                              Michael Wallis, Way Down Yonder in the Indian Nation

Michael Wallis is a helluva writer, but he forgot tornadoes, sandburs, and peckerwoods. We're made of those things, too. Tornadoes grow down from the sky, and they are ephemeral. Sandburs grow up from the ground, and they are annuals. And peckerwoods? They grow out from the state capitol, profusely, and those hardy bastards are perennials...

Oklahoma is a damn vexing place, always has been. I don't know of another state with a history as rich and weird and violent and vibrant and sad and tragic and interesting, but less known, less explored, less understood, and as poorly or falsely chronicled in history and literature as Oklahoma. Hell, most of us who were born and raised here don't even know our own history; environmental, cultural, or social.

So it was with great interest that I noticed, as I was recently poking around on the website of the Society of Environmental Journalists,  that the 2015 SEJ conference will be held in Norman, Oklahoma, my hometown.

It will be interesting indeed to see how the out-of-state environmental press corps views its Oklahoma brethren, a lot whose tenacity, aggressiveness, and independence in honestly covering state and regional environmental issues brings to mind (with a few exceptions) the image of a sweet, toothless Pomeranian sitting quietly in the lap of industry and power, fetching whatever slippers it's told to fetch.

Back when I was writing more than I am now, I didn't consider myself an environmental writer, even though much of what I wrote had a regional environmental slant to it. Of course, I never considered myself a hook-and-bullet writer, either, although much of what I've written the past six years or so has been exactly that. Like most freelancers, I was - and remain - just a writer, taking gigs where and when I can. As such, I never joined any of the professional organizations like SEJ or OWAA.

Still, I've always admired those groups, and I'm excited that the diversity and complexity of my home state will be the focus of the conference attendees' attention. The agenda and session lineup looks pretty solid, and if I were still writing as much as I should, I'd join SEJ and attend the conference, if for nothing else than to get a fresh perspective on a state and region I sometimes think - as I look longingly toward the distant other - that I've grown a bit too familiar and bored with. It'd be nice, and novel, to spend time with people from elsewhere, who will come here and view this place through fresh, curious eyes.        

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Sailing the Sagebrush Sea

Wednesday, May 20, on your local PBS station. For more info on the film go here.

 It is easy, being trapped in a never-ending and rapidly escalating case of shifting baseline syndrome, to forget about how fundamentally altered the Great Plains region is from what it once was. When you see period photos of early settlers stoically looking out over a helluva lot of nothing, and then you look out your car window and see what, at first through tenth glances, seems to be pretty much the same damn thing, it tends to skew how you view the plains.

Such is their lot, with no pretty mountains, no anthropomorphized trees named Luna, no eco-tourism, no X-games venues, and no prairie hippies chaining themselves to the buffalo grass or sagebrush. The plains, our national cathedral of space, wind, and sky, suffer the myriad indignities and abuses of our industrialized world virtually without advocacy or protest or concern. Because, after all, there's just not a helluva lot out there.

Except of course, that there is a helluva lot out there, or used to be; a world now relegated to scattered little pockets here and there, especially on the southern plains, where sage grouse and sharptails did indeed once live, not that long ago. The southern plains, for all their romance and vistas and immense space and distance between points of habitation, are a broken and tamed land, utterly subjegated. For a variety of reason both cultural and political, they are parceled, fragmented, and industrialized beyond any form of landscape-level rehabilitation, or even protection of what little remains.  

But the northern plains are a different kettle of grouse. Thanks to the inherent evils of the Socialist idea of public land, millions of acres of native sagebrush prairie still remain, at least for the time being. For now, you own it. So do yourself a favor and take the time to learn a little about it. There's a helluva lot to see, out in there in the middle of nothing.           

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Goodbye, Blue Monday...

An incredible, blue-tinged Martian sunset snapped by NASA's ever-plucky Curiosity rover. You can learn about why Martian sunsets are blue here, but what's striking to me is the fact that if you converted that shot to B&W to eliminate the blue color, you would, in essence, be looking at a picture of a sunset here on Earth.

The older I get, the more convinced I become that, as a species, our long-term future lies elsewhere, somewhere Out There. While thoroughly heathen, I do lean heavily Buddhist in some of my worldviews, especially in regard to the idea of impermanence. Nothing lasts forever, not even the security of home.

A couple weeks ago, while cleaning out one of the raised beds in our garden, I discovered a hollowed-out depression containing five blind, nearly hairless baby cottontails. Apparently their teenage mother was young and small enough to slip through the wire of the fence, and had wisely made her nest in the enclosed, predator-free zone of our garden. Smart rabbit.

 It would take a flinty heart indeed - one far harder than what mine, with age, has become - to do the practical, pragmatic thing, so for the next 14 days, I, a confirmed lifelong hunter and consumer of big-eared rodents - especially garden-raiding rodents - found myself in the unusual position of playing Rabbit Daddy. I kept the dogs from running around loose in the late evenings when the mother would slip through the fence and tend to the babies. I kept the garden gate shut. I checked on them twice a day to make sure they were all still there, and that the thick mat of dead grass and fur she had made to cover them was arranged properly. Once, when we were having storms, I went out and put an upside-down bucket over their nest to keep the rain from soaking them. Real Disney movie crap, I know...

It was, I must say, a fascinating opportunity for our family to follow their day-to-day growth and development, from wiggling, helpless little things, to eyes-wide-open, fully-formed little rabbits who, when we peeled back the mat and peered into their hole, would simply look up at us from the comfort and safety of the only world they knew. My wife took daily progress pictures, and the damn rodents became something of a Facebook hit with her friends.

And then, yesterday morning, I went out to check on them and discovered that the mat of fur and grass was gone, as was the pile of sticks and leaves the mother would carefully push over the depression to hide it. Mama had deemed, apparently, that it was time to leave one world for another. Their genetic trigger for self-preservation had also finally been tripped, as all five bolted when I leaned down to look at them. They squeezed through the wire of the fence and were gone in a flash, out of the doomed familiar and into the unknown.

Someday, in the distant future, when this world is finally used up and exhausted and ruined, I suspect we'll be doing the same, in one fashion or another.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Art and Wealth

I haven't done a helluva good job of keeping this thing up lately, have I? Not for any lack of things upon which to write, rant, reflect, or pontificate. Been a lot happening, actually, but I'll be damned if I've had time to sit down and write about it, or do any other writing, or even much blog reading. I've just been too damn busy with work. Who knew pushing someone else's words around all day would be so time-consuming? Self-reflection is nice and all, but self-reflection doesn't pay the bills. At least not in any form I've been able to capitalize on yet (but I'm working on that...)

Which brings up an interesting question I've been pondering. I'm reading a book right now, a good book full of lovely writing, and wry observations about many things having to do with fishing, nature, and life. The kind of book written by someone who has no expectation of it making any actual, you know, money to live on and such.

Of course, many such books (and other forms of art) are produced all the time, all for sheer love of self-expression, with no thought to profitability at all. But in this book's case, the author comes from Old Money, and is apparently quite loaded.

So here's my question: are there fundamental, existential differences between art made by the hardscrabble and art made by the wealthy?  Is art created wholly outside the crucible of suffering, hardship, denial, or sacrifice any less worthy, or legitimate, than art created by those who, through choice or circumstance, live closer to the subsistence or working-class end of the dial? Or is art made by the wealthy merely an indulgence, a pastime? Does it lack...something?

Now I'm generally not a class warrior when it comes to that: if I like it I like it, regardless whether it was created by a trust-funder or a prole. That both can and do produce art is not in question. But I have to admit that sometimes, when the wind is just right, I can catch a whiff of indolence rising from the pages of books written by people who inhabit worlds to which most of us will never have our visas stamped.

In response, my lower-class populist hackles rise a bit, and I suddenly find myself reading through a filter, a class-based judgement system that is not at all fair to the material itself. That's silly, of course, and in the end it doesn't keep me from enjoying it, but the unavoidable markers of class, wealth and privilege inherent in such works do tend to remind me of my place in this world, which I'm sure is not at all what the author intended. Social and economic class informs our view of everything, I suppose, whether we want it to or not. Even art and literature.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

First Yak Bass...

...of the year. And a decent one at that. Not huge, but at 5.8 lbs. on my ancient-but-dead-on Rapala digital scale, not a bad way to break in the kayak this season. I would have preferred to have caught her on a fly, but when your gut (and the gusting wind) tells you to put down the rabbit strip leech and start throwing the red shad Tiki Stik, you put down the rabbit strip leech and start throwing the red shad Tiki Stik.

Truth be told, I probably should have gone turkey hunting. That was my plan. But when I got up early that morning, poured myself a cup of coffee and walked outside into the darkness, there wasn't a hint of wind, a rare thing on the prairie in springtime. So I started thinking about bass and kayaks, and how I'd experienced neither so far this year, separately or in conjunction.

I am, admittedly, a fairly casual turkey hunter, and a fairly obsessed angler, so bass and kayaks took the day. I ditched my turkey hunting plans, loaded up the yak and headed for a local lake. As it turned out, the wind was just politely waiting for me to get on the water before starting to howl. But I had a good hour to two before it blew me off the lake. The vagaries of plains weather giveth, then taketh away...

With fish pics I try as much as possible to follow the tenant of "keep 'em wet" (besides the ones I plan on eating), so I snapped a couple quick pics in the water, then off she went.

And wouldn't you know, I didn't catch a damn thing after that. So it goes...

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Oklahoma Chrome

No, it's not a steelhead, but out here on the arid plains, you take your piscatorial sport where and when you can find it, and when the white bass ("sandbass" in our regional slang) start running upstream to spawn, the banks of a slow, shallow, turbid prairie river is the closest this poor, water-challenged bastard is ever likely to get to chasing chrome.

But you know what? I don't mind, because the sandbass is a helluva fish in its own right, one of my favorites.They're not large ( most average one to two pounds), they're not found in postcard country, they're not revered and fetishized as totemic symbols of wildness and personal meaning, and they will never be trendy and cool and hip. They are, like the channel cat, a glamourless, working-class prole's fish, caught by people sitting in lawn chairs casting bubble-pack spincasters, then taken home and eaten. The carp, the goddamned common carp, has more cachet (at least with the flyfishing crowd) than the white bass ever will. And yes, I like carp, too. But I like white bass more. They're plentiful, pugnacious, unsophisticated, delicious, and strong fighters, especially on a fly rod. What's not to like about that? Not a damn thing. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

A Modest American Proposal...

When confronted by a false and deceitful political "movement" so outrageous, so dangerous, and so fundamentally un-American and antithetical to our core values that it seems like satire, sometimes the only sane response is to go full-on Swiftian.

A. Richard Hatcher of Lewistown, Montana, I salute you, and if I ever get back up to your fair country to hunt again (and the good {insert deity of choice here} willing, I shall), I will gladly seek you out, take you down to the Mint, and buy you a round or three of Pig's Ass Porter.

Hat tip goes to the most excellent Bull Moose Gazette Facebook page, which is where I first saw it posted. If you're on FB, do yourself a favor and follow him... 


Published in the Lewistown (MT) News Argus, April 11, 2015

This is such a great idea I propose we take it even further and put Congress out of its misery by restoring the British monarchy to America. Half the country is ga-ga about royal gossip anyway.

April 11, 2015

Look to European model for land ownership

Dear Editor,

I am extremely disappointed that more of Montana’s citizens are not enthusiastically supporting the efforts of the majority leadership in the Montana Legislature, recently joined by our junior U.S. senator, to divest the federal public lands and transfer them to the state. This transfer to the states should be but a brief prelude to their sale and privatization, so they can be put to proper use by America’s wealthy.

We should applaud the efforts of these representatives and their financial backers to return the public estate to private ownership. For over 200 years, the United States has increasingly strayed from its European roots and traditions of exclusive private land ownership by the wealthy and gentry.

The silliness of President Theodore Roosevelt’s National Forest, National Wildlife Refuges and other conservation innovations can be put aside in this great effort to revert to the European model of land ownership and resource management. 

As Montana’s population and its out-of-state ownership
grow, there simply won’t be enough high quality hunting and fishing for everyone. As these amenities become more coveted it makes sense that we cash them in for the enjoyment of the most deserving – those who can pay.

The European model of fish and wildlife ownership by the privileged and hunting and fishing for the wealthy and their friends is a good use of these commodities and maximizes their economic value.

Alas, there will always be public land. It is inevitable that some of the arid, ugly lands devoid of game and sport fish will not be sold. Here the public can cling to this ill-considered land use.

Ancillary benefits to privatization of the public lands include the jobs that are created in an increasingly difficult economy. The vast, private estates will require gillies and gamekeepers. Enormous numbers of employees will be required to fence and patrol these lands against trespass.
People will be needed to conduct the driven bird and game shoots. Privatization will eliminate all this fuss about public access. Seemingly, endless time is wasted on these access issues. Your newspaper alone will save barrels of ink.

We need to get behind this effort to privatize the public lands and get back to the model of European hunting and fishing.

A. Richard Hunter, Lewistown

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

John Joseph Mathews

"The god of the great Osages was still dominant over the wild prairie and the blackjack hills when Challenge was born. He showed his anger in fantastic play of lightning, and thunder that crashed and rolled among the hills; in the wind that came from the great tumbling clouds which appeared in the northwest and brought twilight and ominous milk-warm silence. His beneficence showed on April mornings when the call of the prairie chicken came rolling over the awakened prairie and the killdeer seemed to be fussing; on June days when the emerald grass sparkled in the dew and soft breezes whispered, the quail whistled and the autumnal silences when the blackjacks were painted like dancers and dreamed in the iced sunshine with fatalistic patience."

                                                      from Sundown, by John Joseph Mathews

Sometimes we discover great writers through a recommendation, sometimes we stumble across them through sheer dumb luck, and sometimes we discover great writers because we're forced to. I discovered John Joseph Mathews way back in college, in the very same history class where I first discovered R.A. Lafferty. And like Lafferty (Steve Bodio has a neat Lafferty story), Mathews is almost completely forgotten these days, even by Oklahomans who should know better. I had certainly never heard of him, or Lafferty, before I was forced, kicking and screaming, to read them both for that western history class. I can think of no better reason than that to go to college. Sometimes enlightenment has to be crammed down your ignorant damn throat.

While Sundown, his semi-autobiographical novel of the mixed-blood Osage Chal Windzer is probably his best-known work, Mathews' Talking To The Moon, which is often described as a "Native American Walden", is a jewel as well. It's the chronicle of ten years spent living alone in a stone cabin on his tribal allotment in northeastern Oklahoma (Mathews was part Osage) after his return from living abroad, during which he graduated from Oxford (where he was offered a Rhodes scholarship but declined, preferring to pay his own way), served as a fighter pilot in WWI, worked as a journalist in Europe, traveled the world exploring and hunting (Mathews was a lifelong hunter) and generally lived the kind of adventurous life you'd expect from a highly-educated, cosmopolitan person of means (the Osage tribe was flush with new oil money at the time) living in that golden age of adventure. He was the real deal. If you ever stumble across any o fhis books, I highly recommend them. Most I believe are out of print, but are easily found online.

Mathews died in 1979, but his cabin is still standing, and is now part of the Nature Conservancy's Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Osage County. One of these days I'm going to make the pilgrimage over there to see it.

Thursday, March 26, 2015


One warm summer night a long time ago, I slipped into the midnight water of an Oklahoma farm pond near the city where I grew up. I remember, for many reasons, that particular night among the countless similar nights spent chasing fish. I remember it for the peculiar, ghostly quality of the crescent moonlight shimmering on the gin-clear water, and for the solitude, always the solitude. I remember it for the inky velvet sky that seemed so close above me, for the way the water transformed into brilliant sprays of molten silver every time a hooked bass broke the surface. I remember the slap of the beaver's tail, the tympanic chorus of the bullfrogs, the wonder I felt at the countless unseen life-and-death struggles taking place in the space around and below me as I floated on the water's surface.  But most of all, I remember that night for the exquisite rightness of it all, the synchronicity of place and moment, the sense that this was exactly where I was supposed to be and what I supposed to be doing in this place at this time. Nowhere else but here. Nothing else but this. Nothing. Such moments are not sustainable, of course, but their memory is what sustains us.

I caught a number of bass that night, but I specifically remember only one. It was not particularly large, maybe three pounds, but so vividly and deeply marked that after I brought it to the float tube and unhooked it, I held it there on its side in the water before me, marveling at its color, its pulsing, primordial aliveness. It remains, to this day, one of the most beautiful fish I have ever caught. And as I floated there in the warm water, half in my world, half in its, I slowly released that bass from my hands. It hovered there for a second or two, suspended in the celestial waters, its pectoral fins sweeping back and forth, before disappearing into the luminous depths somewhere between the moon and the stars. I have never forgotten the memory of that bass and that moment and that place.

I fished the pond many times after that night. I hunted it, too, watched my first chessie, now long dead, retrieve ducks from its waters. But that moment stayed with me. Eventually, however, I moved away and those experiences turned to memories, which in turn were overlaid with other, newer memories tethered to other, newer places.

But not long ago, and twenty years since the above picture was taken on that pond, I found myself strolling, as they say, down memory lane. Only memory lane was no longer a bucolic and familiar path, but a teeming, bewildering concrete artery four lanes wide and buzzing with people, so many people seething with purpose and impatience and irritation toward the dawdler poking along trying to find old memories buried under the asphalt and intersections and Bermuda grass and sidewalks. Eventually I came to the place I was looking for.

My pond was gone, of course; it had been drained, filled in, leveled, compacted, surveyed, flagged, gridded and erased; both it and the mixed-grass prairie surrounding it scraped clean, smoothed, and then covered with a skin of fresh, glistening progress. Rows of vinyl and brick-clad houses so close together you could literally jump from roof to roof lined streets so new the gleaming asphalt still exuded an oily stench. Beyond the cookie-cutter houses I could see the dozers and graders and other earth-moving equipment scraping away what remained of the half-section that once contained my pond. It was all going under the blade, and when it was finished there would be nothing - absolutely nothing; not a native tree or plum thicket or blade of grass -  to indicate that it had ever been anything other than poorly-planned, cheaply constructed, high-density suburban sprawl. Planned blight. 

Never have I seen the physical place of memory so completely obliterated and transformed into something so different from its original form. A befuddled middle-aged man was now driving, roughly, over the same spot where the kid that man used to be had once floated on water so alive, had once caught a bass that haunted him still. The same spot where that kid had shot mallards and gadwall and wigeon and watched a young dog leap like a brown missile into the water after them and drop their bodies into his outstretched hand. Wonder and amazement and magic are the gods of place, but they are old and feeble gods these days, and powerless against the gods of profit and progress.

Memory is a helluva thing. We carry it within us, but still have the urge to seek out the physical markers and locations of where that memory was created, where it was once not memory, but experience. We seek out these places, with our now so distant from our then, to remind ourselves that yes, that did indeed once happen, and it happened here. But what if that here is now gone? What becomes of that memory? Are all memories ghosts, or just the ones that no longer have anything physical upon which to tether?

I tried to reconcile what I remembered with what I was seeing, but reality had already begun untethering memory from place, corrupting the close association of the two I'd had in my mind all these years. I suspect in another twenty years I'll have as much luck trying to remember the first day of my life as I will trying to remember the details of that night. Nothing is permanent, not even memory. I turned and got the hell out of there as quickly as I could.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Trivial Pursuits

...At noon I would usually stop in some forlorn, passed-by spot to eat a lunch that I had packed in a small cooler; forgotten, neglected little parks in forgotten, neglected little towns, or windswept prairie cemeteries full of ghosts and tattered, sun-bleached plastic flowers. Sometimes, if I was in a particularly unpeopled area, I would simply pull over on some little-traveled county road and eat lunch there. But I liked the abandoned public spaces and cemeteries the best, perhaps because the ghosts of dreams and folly were so much closer to the surface, more tangible.

In the cemeteries I would eat in the uncomplaining company of long-dead souls eager to tell their stories, stories written in the dates of their birth, their death, and in the terse inscriptions on their headstones. Death banal and death tragic. Death too soon  and death come at last. Death for the rich and death for the poor. Death for the loved and venerated and death for the alone and long-forgotten. 

Cemeteries are good places for pondering the arc of existence and collective experience. I would walk among the weathered headstones, cracking pistachios and wondering about the lives of the people under my feet while marveling at the screw-turns of history all that old, accumulated time represented.
Some of the parks had little creeks running through them, or dying lakes or ponds, so when I found water I would break out the little three-weight I always carried with me in the car. It didn’t matter that I rarely caught anything. The improbability of the act itself, in those places, under that sky, in the presence of so much immense loneliness, was reward enough for me. I would cast in silence in the shimmering heat, high on the opiate of space and solitude and a rod in the hand.

It was on one such day that I sat beside a dead river that once emptied into a dead lake, eating my burrito and pondering the folly of man. There were no fish here to catch, no answers to be found, no balm for the demons. Forces inexorable and mysterious, but obvious and undeniable, had rendered this once- living thing into a dry, thin wisp of memory.

And it occurred to me, sitting there with my rod cased and wondering about the fish that surely once swam in this dry riverbed, that in the face of such systemic change and uncertainty, pleasant trivialities like fishing may be one of the few things we have left. And if that is truly the case, then one must encourage and pursue trivialities when one can, before they’re gone.

 Because in such trivialities - or more specifically, their loss - can be found the bellwethers of larger history; of tragedy and despair and telling of story on a grander, more terrifying scale. Every headstone in a cemetery, every dry riverbed on a prairie, every ruined patch of earth or failed dream tells a single, inconsequential story, a triviality. But taken together, they tell a history, and perhaps even more. Seers, quacks, hucksters and algorithms can’t predict the future. Future, as the old philosopher (sort of) once said, is the province of the dead and the gone and the whisper of wind across the dry bones of water and memory.

So my takeaway from this arid, dusty lunch shared with rattlesnakes and harvester ants was this: Go fishing, whenever you can, wherever you can. Revel in such trivial pursuits, and try to forget, momentarily, the future those trivialities may someday portend.