...And I'll tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it... -- Bob Dylan

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Dry Beach Walk

Spring is drawdown season on Lake Roosevelt.   As the winter snows begin to melt, by some complex interaction of decisions by officials at various agencies, the water flows increase through Washington’s Grand Coulee Dam and the surface level of the over one-hundred-mile-long reservoir begins to fall.  As this happens, the sandy and rocky shoreline along this popular recreational lake begins to grow.  Between the dark blue waters and the deep green Ponderosa Pine forests that surround it emerges a bright whitish-tan oasis that wiggles its way around and through the lake’s many inlets and the region’s precipitous hills.  This is always an odd sight for those of us who live around Lake Roosevelt, still known by many around here as “The River.”  This year the sight was particularly impressive, as the lake level dropped by more than usual, some seventy five feet below the normal fill level.
                For those who haven’t seen it, a seventy-five foot drawdown may not seem like much in a one hundred mile long lake.  Engineers say that one hundred and thirty two thousand acre-feet of water is missing, which helps illuminate the scope of the project.  But to truly appreciate the amount of water that was not held back by the dam this spring and, by extension, the amount of water that is held back annually or even daily, nothing beats a little walk on these expanded beaches in the Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area.
                This stretch of the Columbia River used to be the focal point of a tribal way of life that relied on the abundant salmon that migrated hundreds of miles upstream to places like Kettle Falls, where they were often caught by the native people who fished there.  Now the lake is the focal point of another kind of culture: as the spring drawdown reverses and the beaches revert to thin bands of sand dotted with boat launches, campgrounds, and swim platforms, the annual migration of tourists driving big recreational vehicles pulling even bigger boats to their summer playground begins.  Before these summer migrants arrive, locals like me can take a walk on these deserted and expanded beaches, and get a sense of what the area looked like seventy years ago before the water was detained.
                I took such a walk a few weeks ago.  I strolled past a marooned swim platform, and, a few yards further out, a string of chained-together logs that will soon float in formation to outline a designated swimming area.  But that was just the start, for the shoreline lies several hundred yards further out the gently sloping sand and dried mud bank that once contained orchards, roads, towns, and lots more Ponderosa Pines.  Going out further I found many stumps from the clearing of the flood area seventy years ago, and the remnants of an old road.  Entire towns used to be out here, and people and many other creatures called this slope home.
Then I turned around and looked toward the shore.  I saw the swim platform lying on the dry ground just a few yards away from the beach proper, and from the trees and picnic tables and parking area that are all in immediate proximity to each other.  I walked back toward the summer playground, and tipped my head back and gazed up at the imaginary water line that extends horizontally from the summer shore to a place that is about as high over my head as is the roof of a six-story building.  For a moment I saw the water above me and all around me as I stood on the bottom of this artificial lake.  I imagined all those seemingly massive boats floating up there, and, closer to shore, tourists by the RV load bobbing around in that tiny corner of water delineated by the chained-together logs, and I realized how small these things are compared to the one hundred and thirty thousand acre-feet of water that in a few weeks will be above my head.   Humans can do big things – build big dams and make even bigger lakes on which to put our big boats.  It’s truly impressive. 
This year’s drawdown was bigger than most because of worries about the nearby Odessa aquifer that has been declining in recent years.  And a new study by researchers at the USGS and the University of Washington reports that tree-ring studies show that mountain snowpacks have been dropping to levels not seen in almost a thousand years.  If these declines – which are attributed at least in part to global warming – continue, then water shortages will continue to grow, and, most likely, so will the extent of the spring drawdowns.   As reported in the Seattle Times, the findings “highlight a fundamental flaw in how the U.S. views Western rivers… Assumptions about how to allocate water have largely been based on early 20th century hydrology and flow patterns that may not be sustainable.”
Yes, humans can do big things, and often make very big mistakes when doing so.  We all may be taking more surreal walks on artificial beaches in the future, wondering what to do with all these blasted boats.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

A Message of War

So this week, as many Americans celebrated the death of the most evil man in the world, and proclaimed our “victory” in the war against al-Qaida, we were told by many commentators that this event marked the end of an era, a chance for closure from the horrific terrorist attack that happened almost ten years ago.  Yet not all of us celebrated – I, like many compassionate peace-loving people, felt no urge to dance, sing, or shout upon hearing the news that special forces of the US military hunted down and executed Osama bin Laden a decade after he claimed responsibility for the most significant terrorist attack against Americans, and some two decades after he became a declared enemy of the United States.  Some sense of relief, yes, and – yes – some sense of gratitude for the special forces personnel and all other hard-working souls who have in some way put their own lives on the line over the last decade or two pursuing this villain.  But celebration? No.  And closure? Quite the opposite, actually.
          No, my reaction was one of sadness – renewed sadness for the victims of that horrible act of violence on the East Coast many years ago, sadness for the violence that was broadcast on the news last Sunday night, and sadness for all the violence that happened in between, and around the world, every day and in every place.  This was just one more act of violence, one more death – several, actually – in a world that has become too tolerant of acts of violence large and small.  That many of my otherwise clear-thinking and compassionate brothers and sisters here in the US felt the urge to celebrate upon hearing this news was simply a reminder of how tolerant we've become, and how easily we dismiss another person's humanity because of perceived differences.
          So I hold up Julia Ward Howe's call on the first Mother's Day of Peace for women to “now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.. (to) meet first... to bewail and commemorate the dead.”   
         Soon after I first heard the news of what happened in Pakistan last weekend, I heard our Secretary of State declare that this act would “send a message” – as politicians love to say – to all the would-be terrorists around the world that engaging in terrorism against the United States has consequences.  While I'm sure that many messages were sent with this act, I doubt that that is the message heard by those who are drawn to commit acts of violence against the US empire.  I'm willing to bet that that particular message was intended more for US voters than any would-be al-Qaida operatives.  If I can imagine being a terrorist – a “would-be terrorist,”  I would probably hear two messages loud and clear:  One, that the US likes to “play ball” as much as I do, and is fully engaged in this ongoing game in which we commit acts of violence to send messages; and two, it took a decade or two for the mightiest military in the world to track down and execute this one criminal whose own influence and power has all but disappeared among his most loyal troops.  And we were only able to do this, it seems, by stretching our mighty military to the limits, declaring de facto war on one-third of the world, and bringing the biggest economy in the world to the brink of bankruptcy, all the while watching helplessly as other forces in the Muslim world take power into their own hands.  The message is, in other words, yes, we're in the game, and yes, we can be beat.
          Yet here at home, we celebrate.  Why?  Perhaps it is because on some level, we know this to be true, but we'll do everything in our power to convince ourselves otherwise.  To do so, we tell our stories, for stories are the basis of identity – not truth, but identity.  Well tell the story of old glory, of the rich and powerful U S of A fighting for justice and freedom, and prevailing.  And we tell the story of how our mighty military can do anything, even bring “closure” to a tragedy that was born of the very violence our military uses.  I'm afraid that this act does not bring us closer to closure, for that will only come to those who recognize the universality of suffering, and accept our powerlessness in the face of tragedy.  My thoughts and prayers, upon hearing the news of the death of Osama bin Laden, went to those who have endured the profound loss of death and destruction on September 11, just as it went to the victims of all this senseless violence in all parts of the world both before and after that day.  And my prayer is that all might yet join the spirit of Julia Ward Howe and “take counsel with each other as the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, and each bearing... the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.”  That is where we'll find closure.