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.