Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Wither Crops, Hopes, Humanity, and Quail...

 The Oklahoma wheat harvest is under way, and it's expected to be one of the worst - if not the worst - on record. This time of year we should be covered up with custom cutter crews and wheat trucks and combines in the fields. Instead, many of those wheat fields have either been hayed, turned out to cattle or turned into patches of cracked, bare earth.

Bread's gonna get dear, so now may be a good time to go on that low-carb diet...except that when I was picking up dog food at the feed store last week the sweet, tough, leathery 'ol gal who runs the place told me that more and more ranchers were being forced to reduce or even sell out their herds for lack of grass and water. It's been that way for a while now, of course, but the pace is apparently picking up. The local livestock auction has been a busy place lately. So instead of low-carb, paleo, vegetarian, or whatever, now may actually be a good time to start transitioning yourself to the hottest new diet soon to be sweeping the world. It's called the climate-change diet. It's very simple: you starve until you achieve your desired weight, then you continue starving until you die, because there's nothing to eat. And when you do find temporary sources of food, you eat whatever the hell you can find, when you can find it, where you can find it, while you can find it. And the great thing is, all that binging is completely guilt-and-consequence free, because soon enough you'll start the starvation phase of the diet all over again. Cheery, huh?

But damn, I'm digressing here at a rate rivaling Antarctic ice melt rates. Back to quail and rain...    

While perusing the festivities at one of the recent PF/QF Pheasant Fests, I got to hear a number of interesting seminar talks about quail conservation, but two in particular that stick out for me were talks given by, respectively, a biologist from the state of Missouri and Dale Rollins at the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch. The Missouri biologist talked about the detrimental effects of spring rains on quail populations, then Dr. Rollins talked (briefly, because his seminar was on another topic) about how in contrast to Missouri, there's just no such thing as too much rain in west Texas (and by extension, Western Oklahoma), for quail or people.

And thus is how the bobwhite quail (and us) rises and falls on the dusty, arid plains of Comancheria. Live by the raindrop, die by the raindrop. And there have been damn few raindrops falling on my head lately. The picture above is of the rain gauge in my back yard. That three-quarters of an inch of precious liquid represents the sum total of our May rainfall. We were supposed to get two to three inches this weekend. This is what we got instead. Thankfully for the folks directly south of here, they did get several inches, and if anything, they needed it more desperately than us. I spent last week driving the roads in and around Black Kettle National Grasslands (about an hour or so south of here) and much of that country looks like the surface of Mars, whereas in these parts we merely resemble the interior of Death Valley.

Moreover, last week the entire southern portion of my main quail hunting area burned in a massive wildfire. I drove by there not long after, and just about cried. I live in a sandy region. I know how incredibly fragile is that thin skim of crust atop the ancient dunes that cover this area. I know how easily and quickly that sand can start blowing away if it gets grubbed out by too many cattle, broken by plows, scraped clean for a well pad, or torn up by the wheels of the ATV crowd. But to see that sand exposed on such a massive scale is startling, to say the least. In the space of a single afternoon, thousands of acres of habitat that - despite the drought - was still going to be important nesting habitat this spring and summer, was incinerated and turned into a sea of dunes. So much burned so completely that the state transportation department had to place signs warning motorists of blowing dust conditions.

Yes, fire is a natural and necessary (and too-little used) part of the prairie ecology, and we need much, much more of it, but the difference these days is we're just not getting the rainfall needed to regenerate any growth after those fires. Further complicating things, the composition of the prairie plant biome itself (what little of it remains) has changed drastically over the past hundred or so years. More invasives and weeds, fewer true native prairie grasses with those amazing root systems that anchor the soil. So the soil just sits there, untethered, barren, drying out, and blowing away.

And so, too, are my hopes for this coming fall. After last spring's timely and relatively abundant rains and the subsequent modest increase in quail numbers, I thought this year - weather permitting -  would be one for the books. But weather is damn sure not permitting. At least not yet. It's not too late, I suppose, to turn things around, but I think I can hear too late coming over the horizon if we don't get more rain.

So I dump out the rain gauge, sigh, and with the Reaperish specter of the coming summer hovering over my distant fall hopes, look to the skies and ask the winds for rain while muttering under my breath about ammo, toilet paper or possibly moving to a nice Scandinavian country like Norway...     

Friday, May 23, 2014

Buddhism Tells Us...

 ...that nothing is permanent, and to think otherwise is Ozymandias-level folly. I guess that also includes blog hiatuses. Yes, it really has been almost two months since I last posted, and if I'm honest I hadn't exactly been burning up the blog in the time leading up to the layoff. What can I say? Creativity, desire, discipline, interest, they all ebb and flow, wax and wane, come and go as they please, and there's not a goddamned thing you can do about it, at least until Big Pharma finally creates a boner pill for creativity. You wake up and you either want to write, or you don't. Lately, I've been in "don't" mode. Now I'm trying to ease the dial back over into "want" mode.

So what have I been up to during my literary hiatus?I also took on a really unique and interesting short-term contract non-writing job with the intention of turning said unique and interesting non-writing job into a unique and interesting feature story.

Can't say much about it now, as I've signed an NDA for the job, but hopefully after the contract's up I can sell a spec piece on the experience. Think "Arrested Development" meets "The Worst Hard Time" and that's kinda what I'm shooting for. Yes, it's an odd combination, but it's an odd job.

What else? As part of the job I flew to San Francisco for a few days, then road tripped home, and in the process finally got to see a few things I've always wanted to see, as well as a few more I hadn't seen in way too long.

A few takeaways:

My first visit there, and California is easily the most diverse and complex state I've visited. Texas, in typical Texas fashion, likes to brag that it's a whole other country. It's not, except in the mind of Texans, but California really is. Fascinating state. Not sure I'd ever want to live there (the eternal bleating proclamation of the terminally meek and provincial!) but it's damn sure a place worth exploring and knowing about.

I didn't see much of San Francisco proper, but what I saw was very lovely, except for the traffic, which was very ugly, and curiously - at least to this truck-drivin' Okie, almost completely bereft of pick-ups. No, really. I hardly saw a pick-up at all, other than commercial trucks, in San Francisco. Doesn't anyone in the Bay area drive a damn truck? What's wrong with you people?

Silicon Valley is its own weird world with its own weird culture, utterly alien to a rube like myself. I didn't like it at all. Too... something I couldn't quite put my finger on. Smug, maybe? A bit like Boulder, Colorado, writ way large. However, in spending a couple days there I noticed some striking and hilarious similarities between the average Oklahoma oilfield worker and the average Silicon Valley tech worker, most of those similarities based on the insularity and cultishness of their respective worlds and the fact that they both make roughly the same outlandish amount of money. Of course they spend it in completely different ways, but they're walking, talking, cliches, both of them. And really, techies, you need to eat some protein or something, because you all resemble twigs. 

The San Joaquin Valley is one of the most fundamentally altered landscapes I believe I've ever driven through. At least now I know where my almonds come from, and the price this place and its workers (including some ancestors of mine) have paid to make it so. I stopped in Bakersfield for lunch, and considered trying to find Merle Haggard's childhood home, but was pressed for time and so I didn't. I consoled myself by blasting disc two of "Down Every Road" as I left Bakersfield and the endless monoculture stoop labor depression of the valley behind me, climbing up, up over Tehachapi pass and down into the shimmering heat of the Mojave with Merle's bourbony voice ringing in my ears...  

"My daddy plowed the ground and prayed that someday he could leave this run-down mortgaged Oklahoma farm, and then one night I heard my daddy sayin' to my momma that he'd finally saved enough to go, California was his dream, a paradise for he had seen, pictures in magazines that told him so.

California cotton fields, where labor camps were filled with worried men with broken dreams, California cotton fields, as close to wealth as daddy ever came."

The Mojave desert is as starkly and fearsomely beautiful as I have always imagined it to be. I fell instantly in love with it. If I were single, childless and responsibility-free, I'd quit my job, sell whatever possessions I couldn't fit in a jeep or a land cruiser, and literally lose myself in that region for a good long while, chasing feverish, shimmering desert rat dreams, perhaps never to return.

After coming down off the pass and its thousands of wind turbines, I briefly turned south and drove into the town of Mojave, just because I liked the name. Later, as I drove along Highway 58 across the northern edge of Edwards Air Force base, a B-2 flew directly overhead, then banked low and disappeared south toward some secret destination within that mysterious shaded area on the atlas. 

Somewhere near Barstow, where I spent the night, I drove a lonely, long-abandoned section of the Mother Road under a brilliant high desert night sky, just to say that I had, then turned onto a side road, killed the car and sat on the hood for a bit watching the stars, listening to the passing traffic on I-40 and contemplating things of importance only to me. At that very moment no one in the world - not even my wife - knew where I was. Sorry, aliens, You had your chance. I was ripe for the abducting, and you blew it. I took one last look around so as to always remember the sight of Joshua trees glowing in moonlight, then I got in my car, drove back to Barstow, ate one last In-N-Out burger (standard tourist menu, no secret menu knowledge here), drank a beer or three, and went to bed. It was a good night. I will go back there someday, before I die, and leave my footprints in lonely places.

A few more takeaways:

The drive from Barstow to Needles is long, lonely and gorgeous, if you're into lots of space and not a lot of people, towns or traffic. Check all three for me. That's my kind of interstate highway. 

The high prairie vista that assaults the eyes as you come back down onto the plains heading east out of Flagstaff, Arizona is one of the most beautiful I've seen, so much so that I had to pull over at a roadside rest stop, clamber onto the rock outcropping behind the rest stop (Caution! Animals found in this area can be venomous!) and sit on a wind-smoothed ochre boulder soaking in the immensity for a few minutes (schedule be damned!) as endless waves of fat, bored motorists trundled into the pissers below me, emptied their bladders, waited as their useless little yappy dogs emptied their bladders (where's a golden eagle when you need one?), then hurriedly got back in their cars without so much as a glance at the mind-blowing beauty stretching out in all directions before them. Their loss.

New Mexico, where I spent significant chunks of my childhood, remains - mile for mile - the most achingly gorgeous state in the union. I spent the night in Gallup, and after a good meal at a local place, I walked up and down the main drag past rows of pawn shops and panhandlers, just taking in the intoxicating differentness of culture and place, this one just a few hundred miles from my own, yet vibrating at such a divergent frequency. Later that evening, I sat at the big window in my third-floor hotel room at the very end of town on a thin strip of undeveloped land between I-40 and the main road. I watched travelers whizzing by on the highway to my right, while to my left three native boys, teenagers, by the looks of them, tried to thumb a ride on the state road leading out of town (to where, I wondered?) as evening's shadows deepened on the rocks. No one stopped to pick them up, and eventually their forms disappeared into horizon and night.

The sight of the Sandias looming over the desert is the best thing, in my mind, about Albuquerque. My brother and I used to spend part of our summers in Albuquerque, shuffling between there and Farmington - where my dad lived - depending on his work schedule. Sometimes on weekends we'd drive up to Sandia Peak and have a picnic. When we couldn't, I'd roam the desert wastelands near my grandparents' house looking for reptiles. It was, and is, a lovely area, but even then I remembered Albuquerque proper as a horrid city in a beautiful place (as most cities are) and some twenty-five years later, driving through at the peak of rush hour, I saw no reason, no reason at all, to modify that long-ago adolescent assessment. Windows up, seat belt on, and foot on the gas is the best way to experience Albuquerque. 

Crossing into the Texas panhandle I realized that virtually all the kitschy roadside shops and businesses I remember desperately wanting to stop at as a child are now gone. Hell, even Stuckey's is out of business. Of course, remembering their food I can see why. Most serial nostalgics pan the interstate highway system as cold and impersonal, and I guess it is. I'm way too young to remember Route 66, however, so for me I-40 has always been my ersatz version of the Mother Road. It was the route we always took to visit my dad's family in New Mexico, and later, after the divorce, my dad. I have many fond memories of I-40, but while I have visited New Mexico a number of times since then, I've not had occasion to drive I-40 from Amarillo west in some twenty-five years. So many things have changed, though thankfully not the landcape itself, mostly.

I turned north at Amarillo, back into my country, into the high, arid plains where interstates and their long, unbroken lines of motorized ants give way to two-lane blacktops, farm-to-market roads and obligatory steering-wheel waves to oncoming traffic. East of White Deer I stopped to check out a large playa lake that I always used to give a look to when we'd visit friends in Amarillo. On one such drive years before, I observed more pintails on and above that playa than I'd ever seen at one time in my life. Wave after glistening wave of ducks augered into the shallow water, while above them even more pintails circled and undulated in what the dumbshit stars and aficionados of avian snuff films like to call a "duck tornado" but what I (stealing from the Brits and their damn starlings) prefer to call a murmuration.

There were no murmurations today. Just the keening wind and the roar of oilfield traffic. No ducks, no shorebirds, no water and no life, even though it was the middle of April, ostensibly the rainy season. The playa was dry, just a vast, dusty bowl of heat and nothing, which pretty much describes the whole region at the moment, and perhaps longer, probably much longer, if that vast, evil, world-wide conspiracy of climate scientists and their pesky, goddamned facts are to be believed.

I got back in my car and drove deeper into the empty plains, silently contemplating the inscrutable mysteries of climate doom, In-N-Out burgers and the death of roadside kitsch as I steering-wheel waved to friendly strangers the whole way home. It was a good trip.