LOST HILLS, CA : The sun rises over an oil field in California, where gas and oil extraction using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has contaminated aquifers in a state damaged by drought. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
During summers in California’s Central Valley, an inland area that spans the length of the state from Bakersfield to Stockton, it’s not uncommon to hear a local rejoice when “it will only be 100 degrees today!” The sun is relentless and its heat is stifling, especially during a drought, and especially for the thousands of farm workers who are responsible for nearly all of California’s and much of the United States’ agriculture.
Now, a report from the University of California, Davis explains that if the drought continues for two or more years, Central Valley farmers will be forced to increasingly rely on groundwater reserves, some of which, we are now learning, may have been polluted by fracking wastewater.
Growing up in the heart of the Central Valley, whose claim-to-fame is being the “Gateway to Yosemite,” my preferred remedy for the afternoon summer heat was to frolic in the lawn sprinklers for hours on end, quench my thirst with gulps of water from the garden hose, engineer makeshift slip-and-slides, and bike to the farmer’s fruit stand down the road.
The days of moderately worry-free water consumption are long gone as California rightfully encourages reductions in residential water use during this debilitating drought. What I never imagined is that my trips to the farm stand might become a relic of the past not only due to a lack of water, but to a lack of safe water.
Summer is a time for getting outdoors, listening to the birds, taking long walks in the woods or long naps on the beach. And there’s nothing quite like reading a book outside, or after a day spent basking in the splendor of the natural world. With that in mind, here are five titles to accompany your summer adventures, or inspire your next trip outdoors:
Missoula whitewater rafter Daniel Berger (at rear) and friends float past three airliner fuselages dumped in Montana's Clark Fork river by a train derailment last week. (Courtesy Chuck Irestone)
The picture probably showed up in one of your feeds. It fit all sorts of algorithmic criteria for viral interestingness, shapes and colors and scale otherwise unseen in nature: The steep bank of a Montana river littered with the bare fuselages of three Boeing airplanes spilled from a train track above like oversized logs swathed in aquamarine-colored protective wrap. Or maybe not logs, but uniformly skinny whales beached far from any ocean. Either way, an eye-grabbingly irresistible curiosity. In the foreground, always, whitewater rafters taking selfies.
The river is called the Clark Fork. And I’ve paddled that stretch in canoes and rafts with some of the rafters who showed up in some of those pictures. It’s a section about 40 freeway minutes downstream of Missoula called Alberton Gorge, named for nearby Alberton, Montana—an off-Interstate mountain town of four or five hundred people. Within roughly seven easily accessible river miles are five major rapids that, depending on the flow, range from Class II to Class IV. The last of these is called Fang, and it was just downstream of Fang that the planes were tossed down the bank, coming to scattered rest with their snouts or tails in the water.
The Gorge is a fun stretch to run, but it makes you pay attention. While drownings are infrequent, substantial injuries are hardly unheard of. Boats are flipped all the time in Alberton Gorge, spilling bodies and gear that is later recovered or washed downstream to the intake grates of the next dam, at Thompson Falls, and trucked off to a landfill.
You wouldn’t know it from rocky Alberton Gorge, which is host to an almost constant stream of kayakers and rafters during the temperate months, but the Clark Fork is one of the most badly abused rivers in the United States, and simultaneously one of the luckiest.
In our soon-to-be released book, The Real Cost of Fracking: How America’s Shale Gas Boom is Threatening Our Families, Pets, and Food, we discuss the laws that affect local control of gas drilling in New York and Pennsylvania. At the time of writing, two cases were before the New York State Court of Appeals that would effectively decide if individual towns in New York could ban gas drilling using zoning ordinances (Mark S. Wallach, as Chapter 7 Trustee for Norse Energy Corp. USA vs. Town of Dryden et al. and Cooperstown Holstein Corporation vs. Town of Middlefield). On June 30, 2014, the decision was announced by the Court of Appeals in favor of the Towns of Dryden and Middlefield. It is important to note that “towns” in New York are subdivisions of counties, and constitute most of the land that is not a city or Indian reservation.
“Bulindi survivors” Sylvester and Keeta crossing the main road in Bulindi, Uganda
Nancy J. Merrick came to Boston recently to talk about her new book Among Chimpanzees: Field Notes from the Race to Save Our Endangered Relatives. Over lunch, she passed around a series of photographs taken by chimpanzee researcher Matthew McLennan. The photos were compelling, showing key members of a chimpanzee group in Bulindi, Uganda. In them, one could see all the intelligence, emotion, and wild beauty that first captivated a young Merrick in 1972, when she was a student of Jane Goodall’s at the famed Gombe Stream camp in Tanzania. Chimpanzees—as Goodall and the rest of the world would discover—can fashion tools, solve problems, and have complex societies and relationships. And they share 98% of our DNA, making chimps our closest relatives. The chimpanzees in the photographs seemed to have enough charisma to ignite the imaginations of anybody they encountered. But the photographs also showed a darker side: chimpanzees sharing a road with local villagers while the humans looked on, wary but not surprised.
As Father’s Day approaches, I’ve been thinking of books I’d recommend to my own father. I have fond memories from childhood of sitting with my father while he watched “his shows,” the science and nature and history programming on public televison channels that my other siblings would spurn as too educational to be entertaining. My father, a former Navyman who’d traveled the world in his youth, loved pointing out places he had been to, and I loved discovering a sense of the world through his eyes. Later, after we moved to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, we would go on hikes together and stand at the summits, taking in the vastness. Or we would go fishing together, which seemed mainly an excuse to sit in inflatable rafts and read, or listen as nature filled in the quietness between us. I don’t know if I inherited my curiosity of the world from him, or if I was drawn to that part of him that intersected with my own sensibilities. In a way, it doesn't matter. It’s the commonality one cherishes.
Here are five titles that, like my father, share a deep interest in the world, or that tell the story of fatherhood itself, with all its memories and complexities and sometime revelations. If your father is anything like mine, I’m sure he would take any of these books, find a quiet place to sit, and then read every word.
Of all the problems the world confronts today, climate change undoubtedly affects more people, with more potentially dire consequences, than any other single issue.
Yet most people, looking at the EPA regulation that President Obama just proposed for cutting carbon emissions in order to combat climate change, are probably saying: “I don’t own a coal plant. This has nothing to do with me.”
In fact, the proposal has plenty to do with all of us. And there’s a whole list of things we can do to help make the carbon-cutting goals a reality.
(Of course, if you do happen to own a coal plant, or if you are a member of Congress or a state legislature, or an aide to a politician—well, there’s even more that you can do.)
Mount Storm Coal-Fired Power Station in West Virginia (by user Raeky via Wikimedia Commons)
“Even if Stanford [University] divested itself fully of all its stocks, both fossil fuel and nonfossil, it would probably take the market less than an hour to absorb all the shares. It would not lead the executives of the affected companies to engage in soul-searching, much less to changes in operations.”
Ivo Welch, a finance and economics professor at UCLA, wrote those sentences recently in a New York Times Op Ed column, after Stanford announced that its $18.7 billion endowment would dump all holdings in coal-mining companies.
But where else have we heard that refrain? Ah yes, about 30 years ago, during the movement to divest stockholdings in companies doing business in apartheid South Africa.
Selling a few shares of stock won’t do any good, the refrain goes. Instead, you should do A or B or C...
Back during the South Africa divestiture movement, skeptics said that people who really hated apartheid ought to keep their money in General Motors and other multinationals, and then use their clout to pressure those companies to improve conditions for nonwhite workers. For his part, Professor Welch says that Stanford should invest in “research and development of clean-energy technology.”
However, these naysayers are proffering a set of phony choices and premises.
My mom gently shook me awake. It was 5 a.m. “Quick—you’re going to miss it!” she whispered excitedly, rushing out of my bedroom and downstairs. I was still half-asleep, but I followed quickly. This had happened before, and I knew I didn’t want to miss it.
The coyote was back.
Groggily, I scampered downstairs and sidled up against my mother, who stood with her face squished against a window pane at the front of the house, peering outside. I squeezed my face next to hers. Our noses pressed flat on the cold glass, spreading a fog of collective breath across the pane. I used the sleeve of my Red Sox pajamas to wipe it away. I didn’t want anything to ruin the view.
The summer I turned twelve, this was a regular occurrence at my family’s house in Massachusetts. Our home, nestled in a heavily wooded housing development and closely bordered by horse farms, was no stranger to wild visitors. Still, the coyote was different from the deer, rabbits, foxes and even wild turkeys that frequently made cameos in our yard.
His presence could draw a twelve-year-old willingly from bed at the break of dawn. He was majestic. His vaulted ears made him look like a king. And he was intelligent. His calculating eyes flashed yellow in the dusky dark as he assessed his surroundings.
Peter Matthiessen in 2008 (courtesy Melissa Eagan, WNYC New York Public Radio)
Peter Matthiessen was a mentor and model to me in the early seventies, when I was dropping back in after the mind-blowing sixties. I had lived in the New Hampshire woods with my “old lady,” and there, as my mother put it, “nature hit me,” which was not surprising, as I come from a family of Russian explorers, naturalists, and natural scientists. My dream to become the next great poet in the great tradition, the next T. S. Eliot, had morphed into wanting to be the next Bob Dylan, and that dream too had run its course.
In 1971, I came obsessed with birds, and was making watercolors of them and keying them out in the Peterson field guide, and taking copious notes in my journals. Writing about nature, having read Wordsworth, Yeats, Cowper, Frost, and other poets who wrote so beautifully about their natural surroundings, came naturally. Having been on the Harvard Lampoon, when in New York I would usually visit George W. S. Trow, the Lampoon’s editor-in-chief two classes ahead of me who was now writing for the Talk of the Town and producing long elegant profiles at the old New Yorker’s Dickensian offices at 25 West 43rd Street. Trow introduced me to the finely crafted literary journalism of John McPhee, who also wrote beautifully about nature in his portrait of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, for instance.
Jane Goodall speaks at the World Bank in 2011 / courtesy the World Bank Photo Collection
Looks can be deceiving. The always tactful and elegant Maria Shriver found out firsthand one day when she called Jane Goodall to the podium in 2009 to award her the Women’s Conference Minerva Award. Intending it as a compliment, Shriver offhandedly remarked that despite her “frail” appearance, Jane was a mighty woman.
As Jane took the podium, she remarked that she was anything but “frail,” and proceeded to prove it by hoisting the heavy award trophy over her head. She then delivered an energetic acceptance speech and spoke of her tireless 300 day a year lecture tour, describing a schedule far beyond the reach of a fragile woman.
I had to laugh, for I knew the minute that Shriver uttered the word “frail,” she had entered dangerous territory. I have had the good fortune to know Jane Goodall for 42 years, and I can guarantee you that she is anything but feeble. Jane runs on sheer determination, even now as she celebrates her 80th birthday.
I understand the United States is having one of those big sports moments when football fans come together to eat their favorite foods and see who will become champion. I believe it’s tradition that football and crunchy snacks go together. Why? That’s a question too big for an answer. Unfortunately, and especially when children are involved, the temptation is to get that satisfying crunch from chips, or some other form of convenience (i.e.: junk) food.
I admit I have been known to hover too eagerly over the potato chip bowl at children’s birthday parties and other events. But I like it when there’s a platter of something perhaps a little more wholesome available as an alternative or just in addition to all the other food.
So what if you like football, you like crunchy snacks, but you don’t really want junk food?
During the early days of my life in Rome, before I had a child, when there was just my husband James and I getting to know our new home by walking all over the city, eating in little restaurants, learning to cook by shopping in our local market, among my first impressions of life in this city was the pleasure people seemed to take in the simplest of meals. The anxieties that I often felt about eating, about making healthy choices melted away in the presence of all this delight in food. Objectively, much of the food could be considered healthy—the bean soups, the bitter greens—but health wasn’t the objective. James observed that we as outsiders could never completely understand the deep joy the Italians around us experienced when presented with a plate of pasta. A good fresh plate of ravioli with sage and butter continually reminds them of their own lives, their own history; it is a part of who they are.
So when some friends suggested that we spend a Saturday cooking dinner together with our children, I felt it was a good opportunity for my son to see how this attitude toward food is passed to another generation.
Editor's Note: Jeannie Marshall's new book, The Lost Art of Feeding Kids, tells the lively story of raising a child to enjoy real food in a processed world, and shows the importance of maintaining healthy food culture. Available now from Beacon Press. See below for more information.
It’s winter in Rome. When I was growing up in Canada, winter was something you braced yourself for (and having just spent the holidays in Toronto, I remember why). But winter in Rome is a gentle season. There is a little rain, a little sun, and it gets just cold enough to make soup. In January when I ask people what they’re having for dinner, the answer most often is “a little minestra.” It’s a simple, warming, comforting, traditional vegetable soup that can include beans and pasta. I think it turns up on the table so often in January because it’s light fare after all the December excess, it’s economical because it uses up the vegetables in your fridge, and yet it’s still substantial and satisfying. While there is a method for making a good minestra, there isn’t an exact recipe. My son will tell you that it must include zucchini flowers because the first minestra he helped to make at his preschool included them. He still believes they are the secret ingredient in a superior soup. But the slow cooked soup blends the flavors of the vegetables, rather than singling out any individually, into something that is at once distinctly minestra and at the same time slightly different from every other minestra.
Minestra is a way to use up that last quarter of a cabbage, the last zucchini or two sitting in your crisper drawer, even the stems from swiss chard, the cauliflower core, the broccoli stalk, and certainly one of the many parmesan rinds that seem to breed in the tiny freezers of Italian refrigerators. I know some home cooks who save the less beautiful pieces of their vegetables during the week to make a minestra on the weekend.
Note: This article and its accompanying updates appeared previously on Wen Stephenson's blog at The Nation.
Yeb Sano, lead Filipino delegate to the UN Climate Conference (Creative Commons, courtesy tcktcktck.org)
Hunger allows no choice To the citizen or the police; We must love one another or die.
W.H. Auden wrote that, sitting in a dive on 52nd Street nearly three-quarters of a century ago, as the world plunged into darkness on September 1, 1939. I’ve been thinking of those words a lot lately. Because it feels to me, and many others I know, like we’re poised at the edge of another darkness.
It’s a darkness already visible, right now, in the Philippines, where thousands are dead and many hundreds of thousands made refugees by the force of a storm like none had ever seen.
And it’s a darkness visible in the bright corporate halls of a conference center in Warsaw, where delegates to the nineteenth annual U.N. negotiations on climate change are divided and dithering, even as the window to prevent civilizational catastrophe rapidly closes.
Editor's Note: We were all shocked to read the recent news that the western black rhinoceros, teetering on the edge for decades, had been officially declared extinct. At Beacon Press, we understand the urgency for ecology and conservation as part of our broader humanitarian mission. What can be learned from the tragedy of extinction? That now, more than ever, we must redouble our efforts to save those species that remain close to the brink: the Bengal tiger, the giant panda, the Sumatran elephant, or—as conservationist Nancy Merrick details below—our closest relative, the chimpanzee.
Two-year-old Sara has moxie. Dangling upside down, one hundred feet above the forest floor, she is absolutely fearless even though today is one of her first forays into this African forest.
Not every orphaned chimp discovers their tree-climbing talent so readily, we’re told. It all depends on how they were treated, how little they were when they lost their mothers, and their innate nature. But Sara’s genes seem programmed for audacity. We gaze upwards to feast on Sara’s first time launching from limb to limb as though she were spring-loaded, first time grabbing whole handfuls of fruit while dangling one-handed from a tree branch, and first time nonchalantly scaling upwards into the canopy to dazzle the other chimps.
In the October 5th edition of the New York Times,
columnist Joe Nocera—a self-avowed fracking enthusiast—seeks to
allay environmental concerns about the greenhouse gas emissions from
natural gas fracking operations. He cites a study released last month
by a group of scientists at the University of Texas that found on-site
methane leakage at fracking wells to be lower than previous studies had
assumed. According to this study, only 0.42% of the gas produced by
fracking ends up in the air as "upstream" methane emissions—i.e. gas
releases at and around the wellhead.
Iowa State Senator Rob Hogg decided to combine errands this past week. Along with dropping his son off at Harvard, he decided to deliver an important message to New England—about climate change. With son Robert and daughter Isabel in tow, he made his pitch across four states. No venue was too small or too modest: a nature center here, an ice cream parlor there, small-town bookstores here and there, and places of worship of various stripes.
I heard Rob speak last Monday at a synagogue in Brookline, MA. Though only a dozen people gathered to meet him on that balmy summer evening, he delivered his message with passion and determination—qualities that run through the brief, persuasive book he has written: America's Climate Century. Every person in the room was a climate change activist in the making, in his view. This is not an issue that we can afford to be passively concerned about; it demands broad public engagement. Nothing less, he feels, will stir a polarized Congress out of its short-sighted paralysis.
As soon as John Winthrop and his gang of Puritans landed on the little temporary island known to the locals as Shawmut, they started digging and delving and filling marshes and swamps and inlets to build more land. Nothing new in all that, it seems to be a habit of Western culture; Rome was constructed around the Pontine Marshes, the Dutch put up massive dikes to keep the North Sea at bay, and Venice was built on pilings set in the marshy Venice Lagoon.
Boston, as the Shawmut came to be called, was separated from the mainland by a narrow little strip of land (now, basically, Washington Street) that flooded in spring tides, creating a tight little island. By the 1650s, more tidal streams were channeled, more marshes were filled, and more land was created over the centuries—including the massive filling of the banks of the Charles to create the famous Back Bay.
But coastlines are a fickle things, always coming and going. There was at time, not that long ago as geologic time is measured, when Boston sat under a mile of ice. And there was also a time when you could have hiked out to Georges Bank. Now according to a new study by the National Academy of Sciences, Boston could once more be under water (literally, not financially). The town is one of many coastal cities, including New York and Miami, that could see high tides flooding commonly used streets and neighborhoods in the next decades or so as a result of rising sea levels created by global climate change. And more high water to come in the next fifty years.
The last time Boston flooded entirely was about 11,000 years ago, as a result of the melting of the glacier.
This time around, it will happen from the same reason—melting ice—only this time it will be the polar ice cap and the 600,000 square mile Greenland ice sheet. And this time around, it will be our own fault.