This morning I finished reading H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, which ends with one of the loveliest sentences I have read in a long time, “Over the bright horizon the sky swam like water.” Skies in Harney County are often like that. When I moved here from Jerome AZ, their bright horizons seemed a beacon pointing me towards a new incarnation. After eight years, I am still confused, roaming in a huge swath of air and trying to piece together what life in an era of climate turmoil is all about.
I heard a presentation from a scientist proposing to do a $100,000 and upwards study of the interaction between upland and lowland juniper trees and water recharge in predominantly closed lava basins. This was followed by one of our county commissioners talking about the necessity for a forum on groundwater that could address angry explosions from ranchers about why applications for new wells are being turned down. This in a county where drought has been declared official by the state of Oregon and where wells are increasingly having to be dug deeper or have become altogether dry. As a visitor to this board a few months ago, I learned that conservation is a dirty word.
Today on Facebook, are photographs of the tens of thousands of Ross’ (snow) geese and Sandhill cranes that have stopped over in the large wetlands here during their annual spring migration.
Last year a Snowy White owl paid a rare visit. Some ranchers are mad as hell about bird migrations because the birds land on the fields, eat new seeds and shoats, and leave their shit. Cannons are fired at night to try and scare them off the land. Other ranchers are angry that they have to do something to help allay decreases in sage grouse lest the Environmental Protection Agency list them as endangered species. Many ranchers hate the tourists that roam the back roads. Still others rail against newcomers with ideas at odds with theirs. Jerome was like that as well when I moved there in the early 1980’s. At least that echo of life is familiar.
While writing these musings, son Max calls from Denver. He tells me that hydraulic fracking and pot are the two biggest money earners in Colorado. Protests against fracking are futile. Protests against pot have seamlessly folded into the vast wealth they are earning. According to a recent headline in the Denver Post, “Colorado’s record January marijuana sales yield $2.3M for schools.”The Cannabis Cup trade show sponsored by High Times in mid-April drew over a million visitors. Many B & B had bowls of pots available for their visitors. The Chamber of Commerce is still counting the bucks.
I told Max that here in Harney County, citizens are still facing off about the new medical marijuana store that opened. On the one hand, are people fearful of pot turning their kids into heroin addicts; on the other vets and others that depend on pot to alleviate PTSD and chronic pain. The hypocrisy of the pot naysayers is not self-evident.
A prominent business person recently asked a local councilperson: “I worry about the ambulance that is going to roll to the funeral parlor with a teenage corpse that drove his car into a ditch because he was high on pot. Answer, “Well wasn’t it you who dried out overnight in jail when you were 17 and got a DUI that resulted in a minor accident because you were drunk on your ass?”
When someone at a town meeting with Senator Ron Wyden mentioned that hemp takes less water than alfalfa, most of the people in the room didn’t know what hemp was. Some of the few that did thought hemp and marijuana were the same plant. He politely explained the difference.
A few weeks ago, I gave a lecture at our local library about themes of drought and migration in the ancient Puebloan cultures. The talk was framed within the building of hand-built walls in Jerome, AZ and Puebloan cities. From Craig Childs’ book, House of Rain, I learned that these ancients planned for drought in the 12th century by building large cities for people to migrate to in such places as Aztec, Hovenweep, Acoma, and as far as Casas Grande in Mexico. It speaks of sophistication and organization. Aztec, according to archeologists that Childs met with, was built as an exact replica of Chaco. Doorways and roofs were built with the trunks of 200,000 trees from forests some ten miles away that had to be harvested and carried by people.
In the once fabulously wealthy mining city of Jerome, the mountains surrounding it were denuded of trees to build eighty-eight miles of tunnels, a city larger than the one above it. The mountains were named Mingus for the man who founded the company to cut down the trees, and Woodchute, to commemorate the construction of the long chute that cascaded logs down the mountain. The Yavapai, the Native Americans living there before the mines made their first claims, called them “Mountains of Many Trees.” I ended the lecture by saying, “We will be marked as a civilization by how we will respond to changes wrought by drought—individually and as a culture.”
Threading through the cross currents of climate turmoil is risky. It’s difficult to find a place in my mind where I can safely fly, much less land. How many causes can I attach myself to? What in my experience will help others chart their way? What is effective action?
During times of economic and environmental turmoil, some of it unpredictably chaotic, these are the questions that matter.
(Diane Sward Rapaport is the author of Home Sweet Jerome: Death and Rebirth of Arizona’s Richest Copper Mining City.