Saturday, March 26, 2016

Letter #77--Micrograms

Dear Governor Ducey,

            My book Micrograms, a short book of microessays about micro things, was just published by New Michigan Press. The micro essays include stories about microsoccer and microchips and microbursts and microclimates. This little book is part of a larger book about climate change and other environmental catastrophes and how little things can make big changes. For instance, at ASU’s Center for Biodesign, researchers there study how microorganisms can repair polluted water. Example: Run-off from fertilizer used in agriculture sometimes results in nitrates in waterways, leading to overstimulation of algae, depriving fish of oxygen. At the Center for Biodesign, they have found a microorganism that chemically reduces nitrates back into simple nitrogen. I write about Eric Glomski of Page Springs who, in building his vineyard, had to study the microclimates of Oak Creek and the air masses moving down from the mountains and swirling around the river to figure out where to grow his Chardonnay grapes best. By studying tiny organisms and making small manipulations, researchers and vintners can discover ways to rise to these big challenges.
            I take heart in the tiny things. The way my son tucks my hair behind my ear. The way my daughter scares me with her zombie walk. The way my husband builds a fire in the wood stove. The small owl pellet I find at the bottom of tree. The quick look to see, ah ha, there is an owl, or maybe just the wind, but either way, my eyes have been lifted up: The sky an embracing blue. Even goofy things, like a ball rolling down the sidewalk and stopping in a crack or the sound of a rock kerplunking in a lake, these little things, these tiny delights, accumulate to make the difficult or the bad manageable, even, potentially, hopefully, fixable.
            But then, there are days when the small things get me down. We did another road-side clean up on Huntington by Walmart. Cigarette butts, plastic Walmart bag, Styrofoam coffee cups, plastic bottle, plastic bag, hamburger wrappers, mini-bottles, plastic bags, plastic bottle, CDs, plastic lids, plastic bag, plastic bag. So many little things that are discarded, never thought about by the person letting them go out their car window. How can we make big changes when we’re still at a seventies level of environmental awareness, Give a Hoot, Don’t pollute? Or not even there yet?  with people tossing their cigarette butts on the ground, dropping their coffee cups, letting fly their plastic bags, plastic bags, I swear if you spent two hours cleaning up the road side you would, instead of prohibiting Flagstaff from banning them, ban the plastic bags from all the land, or at least all of Arizona. I said to Zoe, “If there were no plastic bottles, plastic bags, or cigarette butts, there would be almost nothing for us to clean up. No more orphaned highways in need of adoption.”
            I think of the accumulation of plastic—that plastic patch in the ocean the size of Texas, the way the plastic turns particulate but never disappears. The way the tiny plankton eat it, the tuna eat it, the whales eat it. The plastification not only of the streets and fields and sidewalks but the whole planet, wrapped in plastic. Preserved, maybe, but, like a 2-liter 7-Up bottle lying in the sun, getting ever-hotter.
            Accumulation is a neutral term. Things accumulate for the better and for the worse. I guess the whole system is one of balance. Someone pollutes the water, someone finds a microorganism to eat the pollutant. Someone tosses a water bottle out the window, someone else picks it up. Balance, in itself, doesn’t necessarily register as good or bad, either, and yet, as the legislation has been so against the many in favor of the few of late, I am hoping the individual actor, though small, will begin to act, to accumulate, to add up, and tip the scale.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Letter #76--Sandys Canyon to Fisher Point

            You have to drive around most of the city to get to Lake Mary Road from our house. I’ve spent a lot of time riding my bike between my house and campus to know Lake Mary is closer by trail than by road, but still not that close. Erik and I took Max and Zoe and the news dogs, Bear and Zora, to Sandys Canyon Trail. It was late February. The trail dropping into the canyon was covered in ice. Zoe skated down. Max and I climbed up and around off trail, apologizing to the grass as we swung above the trail.
            A couple of miles in, we arrived at a sign that said Fisher Point. I remembered it from the time I’d come down, maybe exactly a year ago—although there had been no ice then. That year there had barely been any snow.
            “We should walk all the way home, we could get the other car.” Erik looked at six year old Max and 12 week old Bear.
            “I don’t think they’ll make it,” Erik said.
            “I want to do it,” Zoe said.
            “Is that cool? I’ll take Zoe and Zora? You take Bear and Max back to the car?”
            “You know the way?”
            “Two miles from here to Fisher point. About two miles from there to Lake Elaine, then two miles home. We can do it. My phone works out here.”
            So we were off. We had lots of water, a map on an iPhone, and a dog that probably needs to run 30 miles a day anyway.

            The trail is sandy, the canyons sides are substantial, with cliffs of Kaibab Limestone and Coconino Sandstone. We walked deeper, toward Walnut Canyon. I can imagine how water had cut this channel. The Sinagua lived here, because of that water. The river is dammed now, making Lake Mary and supplying Flagstaff. There used to be walnut trees down here but, without the river, the trees are long gone. Not as long gone as the Sinagua, but just as gone.
            Zoe and I don’t follow the Walnut Canyon trail but turn left and hike up toward Fisher Point. From there it’s a straight shot, although a long slog, through Ponderosa Pine forest, which is still here, but, as the snow pack diminishes every year, may not be much longer.
            We hit forest road 301B so I know where we are. Erik calls. He’s worried about us. Zoe and I admit, six miles in, that we wouldn’t mind a ride home.

            I’m reading Craig Childs’ House of Rain. He traces the migration and the disappearance of people living in the southwest in the 1300, 1400s, and 1500s. He wonders if maybe they who left early had a hint of what was coming. Although many anthropologists think people left primarily because of drought, Childs thinks it was a combination of drought and too many people drawing on too few resources. He wonders if people from brought too-different, possibly too-violent, social practices together, unweaving once-stable social fabrics.
            While Erik was at the Bernie Sanders rally, I was reading how you signed into law, House Bill 1487. The one that forbids local cities from passing ordinances of which the state doesn’t approve. This reeks of hypocrisy: Aren’t you members of the government that doesn’t like the federal government telling states what to do? If Flagstaff wants to ban plastic bags, how does that hurt you (Oh yeah, you have campaign donors in the plastic industry).       Ironically, I feel the way you must sometimes when the federal government insists you spend money on children and the homeless. Shackled. Hobbled. I feel saying to you what Princess Leia says to Darth Vader, “The more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers,” but then I look at the star systems: they’re really just sand. I pick up some sand that was once Kaibab sandstone and think, everything falls apart. Entire cultures living in Walnut Canyon. Entire copses of trees. Entire climate systems. (Where is the snow?) You and I just see things so differently. A government that helps versus a government that hinders. I do feel the hand of your government constricting around my throat. I don’t know if this might be the end of our social fabric as we know it or just this particularly hypocritical one. I do know when I look out at the Ponderosas, I see needles turning brown, plastic bags hanging in branches like tattered rags.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Metaphors. Letter #75

            There are good things and bad things about metaphor. I try to distinguish between metaphors that collapse two things into one and metaphors that highlight the connection between two things while simultaneously highlighting their differences. The second kind, in Charles Altieri’s lingo, expands the available universe. A bigger universe, abundant and interconnected, an ecosystem brought to you by literary devices. A collapsed universe metaphor might be something like A Dog is a Bear. We did name our dog “Bear” and he does look like a tiny bear cub. Black and fluffy and squishy. But he also looks like a pig and a hedgehog and swims like a fish on the snow. To say he is a bear is to ignore his other animal-partners. He’s rolling on the ground right now with the dog we named Zora because Zorro in Spanish means fox and this one looks like a girl fox but she also looks like a coyote and a wolf. She acts like a mama to Bear the Dog. She acts like a sister. Like a brother. To describe either of them well, you have to keep turning the circle of metaphors. Bear is a big baby but he’s also a ferocious forest beast. It’s for our own safety that I make these metaphors multiple.
            I use a lot of metaphors to try to describe the effects of the budget cuts on Higher Ed. I think I’ve used the word “eviscerate” before, which, now that I watched the latest Walking Dead, has a whole new meaning for me as one of the zombies was walking around with his intestines hanging out like spaghetti pouring from his stomach. But it’s a semi-apt metaphor. We at the university are still walking around, at least some of us who haven’t been let go, but kind of in a daze. We’re hungry too. A little desperate, although I don’t think of spaghetti as appetizingly as I did before.
            Perhaps “cut off at the knees” is a good metaphor. Again, we are still mobile but people (other universities) run past us, taunting our scabby, stubby knees with their research grants and fully funded graduate students. It’s a little slower to get things done, but you’re right, what does not kill us makes us stronger. Or at least covered in scar tissue.
            I’ve also tried to describe to you the idea of collectivity—that the more educated every single student is, the more educated Arizona as a whole could be. We lift each other up by devoting time, energy and money to every single child in the public school system and, if we can, in the Higher Ed system. I think of it like a web of interconnectedness. Even if there is selfishness to it: I am better off if every single person has an opportunity to have a better education and a better job and a more secure economic situation. I imagine this web, not really like a spider’s, more like the mycelia on the forest floor, connecting tree root to mushroom—cloth-strong and pervasive. I imagine lifting it up, out of the forest, onto the quad where everyone can step on it and recite from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, “I contain multitudes” and each of us is elevated above their concrete-bound situation and is able to aspire to new heights. Inspiration, aspiration. These dreams of education. Lofty dreams indeed but like any metaphor, you can poke holes in this analogy. You could argue that higher isn’t better or that not everyone wants to abandon the concrete. You could argue that the top is only for some. Only they at the top get to decide who rises and who stays put. We are committed to a system of hierarchies. How would we understand a world where even they who walk on their knees, who walk zombie-like, who come from families with no mycelia at all, who come from other countries where all the trees have already been obliterated, where no mushrooms grow at all, are all walking at the same speed that they who born running through the forest already run?
            Oh. That is what I thought they called the United States of America. That forest of equal opportunity. That mycelia that makes a blanket upon which each of us can stand and rise up together.
            That’s what I love about metaphors. Metaphors are multiple. If you keep them spinning, you end up with a pretty good picture of a dog, or a country.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Scarcity. Letter #74

Dear Governor Ducey,

            In a study about squirrels eating and caching habits, Mikel Delgado published an article in the Open Access forum PLOS. This article, “Fox Squirrels Match Food Assessment and Cache Effort to Value and Scarcity” sought to discover how squirrels make the decision rather to cache or eat food. The study asked, do squirrels make decisions based on scarcity and abundance? Do squirrels evaluate whether certain foods should be cached depending on the likely abundance of nuts. Can squirrels predict the ephemeral nature of the seasons? When food is scarce, do the squirrels invest more time in caching their food?
            Apparently they do. In the summer, when the trees produce fewer nuts, squirrels are much more sensitive to the food value (peanuts provide more nutrition than hazelnuts). They are more aware and observant of other squirrels around them, making sure other squirrels don’t see where they hide their nuts. Paranoid and stingy, the squirrels become. In the fall, when the seeds are more abundant, squirrels eat more freely. They don’t keep checking over their shoulders to see if someone is eyeing their cache.

            Universities are supposed to be collaborative places. Researchers are meant to bring their work into the classroom where they share their students what they do. They’re supposed to perform their research so then the students can imitate them. They’re supposed to be this place of a free exchange of ideas between surprising groups of people, places where scientists see art that inspires them and writers discover squirrel research and write about it. It’s supposed to be this place filled with music that inspires music theorists and musicians theorizing about resonance that inspires physicists to study resonance.
            Since the budget cuts last year, scarcity is the prevailing mood. Everyone is keeping their heads down, doing their work.  We are teaching and researching but when you’re not sure what’s going to come next, if you’re colleagues will still have jobs, if there will be more centralization, if there will be more “do more with less,” you teach your heart out and write your own research to make sure that at least maybe you will survive this scarce season. I remember when I first moved here. Before the 2008 crash. Before the 2015 decimation of Higher Ed budgets. Then, I began to work with Colorado Plateau researchers, forestry scholars, mushroom scientists. I co-taught a printmaking class. It’s been harder lately to collaborate. It’s expensive to have two professors from different disciplines teach one class. It’s hard to make it to lectures across campus when most of your time, you need to find ways to fund your graduate students and fund your program or have emergency meetings about how the latest budget cuts will affect your plans.
            The past two days, I have been reminded of the season of abundance. The graduate students hosted the Peak Conference—The English Department’s annual conference for NAU students and other graduate students across the country. One of the panels I chaired had two students from our graduate program but also a grad student from San Jose and one of our undergrads. Bringing together people from different places and different cohorts reminded me of the times of the university where ideas to scaffold the next big thing began. A professor from NAU whose work on the resilience of the Glen Canyon after Lake Powell’s water receded could lead to a new chapter in a book I’m working on called Resistance and Resilience. It could lead to a new movement to let Glen Canyon recover. It could lead to scientists being allowed into this National Recreation area to study the idea of resistance and resilience. Later, Ana Teresa Fernandez, an artist from San Francisco, brought images of the border wall in Tijuana she painted to match the ocean and the sky. A section of the wall disappeared. She inspired some of us to paint. She inspired some of us to think about what it means to erase borders which is supposedly what the university is meant to do: erase the walls of thinking in our minds.   As one of my colleagues said about Fernandez’s paintings: it’s one thing to talk about erasing borders. It’s another to physically see them erased. This conference reminded me of what the university is supposed: an abundance of ideas and ideals of the students and the professors. What I would give for that feeling of abundance to prevail.