November, 2005 Archive


Monday, November 28th, 2005

I learned this morning of Kenneth Law’s death. Though we were close friends for only a year long ago and though I had no contact with him at all for the last twenty five years, the news made me realize how much I regret losing touch. I’ve tried to find some of that lost connection in old pictures and journals that I’ve scanned or transcribed here. I hope to find more by sharing with others who knew him, perhaps by attending memorial gatherings in Lund and Vancouver and perhaps through this website. If anyone reading this would like to contribute material, please email me words and pictures and I will post them.


Sunday, November 27th, 2005

Jan suggested a hike this Sunday morning, since she no longer has to go to church with her mother. We agreed to catch the sunrise on San Luis Mountain. There were already three cars in the parking lot when we got there and started up the hill in the chill wind. The sun crested the southern horizon as we passed below a great boulder surmounted by two large coast live oaks, and slowly lit up the red, yellow and purple rock. Behind it you could see the sky turn from gray to lapis lazuli blue. As we descended from the summit after enjoying the view of the city surrounded by agricultural fields mountains and ocean and drinking coffee from a thermos, I said that the older I get the more I think its unlikely we’ll move away from this place. On the way home we stopped at Home Depot for a new pickaxe. The one I’d been using broke off at the tip after hitting one too many rocks.

Now I sit at the top of the hill in the backyard on the “60th Anniversary Bench” we gave to my parents, inscribed with the old proverb about love. Its the only spot at our place that gets sun this time of year and the warm rays feel good in the chilly air. The light at midday is better than early morning or late afternoon at this time of year–both low and strong, intensifying shadows and highlights.

I’m reminded of November on our old homestead in British Columbia in the ’70’s. Only on the bank above the driveway, high on the south facing slope could you get out of the shadow of the cliffs and tall trees surrounding the pasture. Here the goats and the cat would lounge all afternoon whenever it was clear.

I’ve been scanning and restoring old pictures of that time from mouldering photo albums.

Its been a long Thanksgiving holiday whose approaching end is marked by the sound of students’ cars returning to campus. On Tuesday morning Ian and I packed provisions and headed for Montana de Oro. We found a site near the trailhead at the end of the campground. As we were setting up the tent, a midsized healthy looking coyote sauntered by and stood scratching itself and watching us as we watched it, for about ten minutes. I was too enthralled to take out my camera. At first I thought it was a dog belonging to another camper.

At the Spooner’s Cove beach we climbed a tilted sandstone outcrop and came to spot on top where the waves roared through a crack below us. I foraged eucalyptus branches for firewood and as we returned to the camp, Jan drove up after seeing her afternoon clients. The three of us took a hike up the Islay creek trail and watched fingers of fog creeping down into the canyon over Reservoir Flats. On the way back to camp Jan told the story of the three little pigs in great detail to keep Ian from thinking about being tired, and we watched the sun dip into the marine layer as we came back to the camp. As the sky turned florescent pink, then purple then black, we grilled dinner with only three candle stubs sheltered by the apple juice container for light.

Inside the little backpacking tent we hung a small flashlight from the ceiling and played Chutes and Ladders till Ian threw the spinner away in rage and then immediately fell asleep. When Jan went out to pee in the middle of the night she heard cellophane crackling and in the morning we discovered that the cookies we had forgotten to put away were missing.

Claire drove up in a big truck in time to join us for breakfast and more games. After Jan left to go back to work, Ian Claire and I struck camp and hiked the bluff trail along the ocean, sighting quail, sparrows, herons, cormorants, herons, and male and female brown pelicans which Ian identified with the bird book. We also spotted an otter relaxing in the surf between protruding outcrops.

The sun hid in the mist and then appeared briefly intensifying colors and shapes. We stayed for two hours in Corallitos Cove, throwing rocks, chasing waves, poking anemones, investigating crabs and observing the comings and goings of the pelicans. In the late afternoon we drove to Los Osos for ice cream cones.

Backyard afternoon

Monday, November 21st, 2005

The furious bluster of this morning’s Santa Ana wind gave way to a whisper of breeze perceptible only in the flutter of mimosa leaves on the silk tree and the shimmer in the tall palms across the street. I suck in deep breaths of the soft dry air, shaded by the hillside from the hot November sun which lights up Poly Mountain across the valley and the treetops around me. The quiet is broken by a loud, scolding, mechanical noise, like a ratchet on a gearwheel. I get up for the binoculars and then remember: hummingbird.

Since no machinery can get in here, I hired a landscape architecture student and his crew to hand-excavate a 13 by 17 foot hole in the steep bank to make room for an addition to Jan’s home office. The day they were supposed to start, he emailed me to say it was too big a job. Our contractor friend said, “that’s alot of digging, it’ll be expensive to have my guys do it.” A couple of days later I realized that it would make a good project for me in the last few weeks of my early retirement recess. I could go at my own pace and enjoy a sense of steady progress, benefit from the exercise, test my newly strengthened back, and get acquainted with the dirt and rock I live on. Last Thursday I went to Home Depot with Ian and found a plastic cart with a scoop nose perfect for hauling spoil and a small spade with a handle we sawed to a length that would reach from the ground to his nose.

After ten minutes he decided he didnt like the work, but it suits me fine, especially during this week of dealing with the vagaries of my 89 year-old mother-in-law’s move into an assisted living facility as a result of a fall.

The top ten inches of ground are composed of adobe clay soil that breaks up into light chocolate brown pea gravel that turns to dark sticky mud when wet. I uncover buried irrigation pipe and roots to cut with loppers. Then comes the yellowish-tan hardpan, a dense but penetrable layer that grabs the point of the pickaxe and doesnt want to let go. Then blue-green or wine-brown chert, in some places yielding, like the hardpan, in others brittle and shattering into rock gravel when hit, and in others hard enough to clank, send a shock up my arm and knock the tip off the pick. When I hit this stuff, I look for fracture lines and feel triumph when it breaks.

I just got off the phone with a student who asked me to supervise a senior thesis in Natural Resource Management on the restoration project planned for a steep bank in Poly Canyon. Along with the preparation I’m doing occasionally for upcoming winter classes, this reminds me of the world I’ve been away from since June and makes me glad to return. Early retirement for more than one quarter would be too much, despite the luxury of free time. No part-time project is as compelling as teaching, whose steady stresss I retreat from and desire.

The light has changed, departed from the treetops here and weaker on the mountain, where the lengthening shadows increase contrast but reduce brightness. The large black one creeping over the Buena Vista neighborhood–could it be Bishop’s Peak?

Sierra Summit

Friday, November 18th, 2005

[This report was published in the October 2005 Issue of The Santa Lucian]

I just returned from the Sierra Summit that took place in San Francisco September 8 to 11. My wife Jan and I had decided to attend privately to strengthen our connection to the national organization in this dark time and to learn from a luminary lineup of scheduled speakers. When some of our chapter representatives couldn’t go, I became a delegate in return for half price on the registration fee. The delegates’ job was to bridge a gap between leadership and grassroots and to democratically select goals guiding action and budget decisions over the next five years.

We drove up on Thursday morning with Chris, who’d agreed to become a much in-demand under-30 delegate, checked into a cheap hotel in Chinatown, walked to the Moscone Convention center, and fell in with thousands of well-dressed members of the California Dental Association. Finally we found our way to “Moscone North” and what was billed as “Sierra Club’s First Ever National Environmental Convention and Expo.”

The prospect of a four hour priority setting session after a long drive and no lunch in a cavernous banquet hall was not enhanced by lengthy “motivational” harangues by two professional facilitators with deep southern accents. Though the leader admitted that he had no environmental involvement of his own, he assured me that he did not normally work for energy companies like Exxon, but only churches and financial institutions. Sitting at tables in groups of ten, the seven hundred delegates were put through a series of ill conceived icebreaking exercises and endless questionnaires, and asked to prioritize vague, confusing and overlappingly phrased goals.

Midway through the session, delegates started speaking up, expressing bewilderment and resentment. Carl Pope, Sierra Club Executive Director, convinced the audience not to give up and the facilitators to talk less and listen more. By the end of the session a general consensus among delegates was reached: the first two priorities for future national action and budgeting were 1)build a clean and safe energy future with improved efficiency and renewable resources and 2)build vibrant communities assuring environmental justice and reducing sprawl.

This selection makes significant changes in sequence and wording to conclusions drawn from pre-summit surveys. It signals a shift from primary emphasis on recreation and wilderness preservation and clearly reflects the impact of Hurricane Katrina. That impact was reinforced by the surprise announcement that the Convention would be addressed at 8:30 next morning by Al Gore. He had turned down our invitation because of a previous commitment on the same day to talk about global warming to an insurance industry convention in New Orleans.

The onslaught of Katrina is an apt metaphor for the Bush administration’s onslaught on the world environment. The speeches I heard at Sierra Summit on Friday and Saturday gave evidence of an energy that might be able to resist and protect from these storms.

Gavin Newsome, the radiant mayor of SF, welcomed the Sierra Club to his “49 square miles surrounded by reality” by asserting that cities can act when federal and state governments fail to address environmental issues. San Francisco has required all retired city vehicles to be replaced by hybrids, has embarked upon an aggressive green building program, and has been the first city to adopt the Precautionary Principle as a guiding policy.

In his introduction of Al Gore to a packed hall of about 2500 people, Carl Pope told us he had just returned from India where a hardly reported storm dropped 37 inches of rain on Bombay the day that Katrina hit New Orleans. Carl witnessed that within seven hours 15,000 Indian troops were on the streets helping survivors, within 15 hours all buses in the neighboring states were mobilizeed for rescue and evacuation, within 8 hours, everyone in Bombay had food and water, and within two days plastic packaging was banned because it was discovered that plastic waste had blocked sewers and storm drains. The contrasting fate of the Gulf Coast, said Pope, was sealed on a November day in 2000, when the Supreme Court decided the case of Bush vs. Gore.

The gravity and eloquence of Gore’s speech are impossible to convey. I urge you to read or listen to it at He put Katrina into the context of the gathering storm preceding World War II prophecied by Winston Churchill. We have tasted the first sip of the bitter cup that awaits us, he prophesied. Four years ago it was vacation time when dire warnings about the prospect of an attack by Al quaeda and identification of students at flight schools with no interest in learning to land were provided to the President. This summer there were warnings about what could happen if a large hurricane hit New Orleans. Three years ago, there were dire warnings that FEMA was being rendered helpless. He asked us to draw the line connecting the emotions we felt when we saw the images of Abu Graib and the emotionswe felt when seeing the people in the Superdome and then to draw the line connecting those responsible for both tragedies.

Gore compared the warnings about Hitler wilfully ignored by the British government and the West and the warnings about global warning wilfully denied by the American government, quoting Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” He insisted that we have the vision and know-how and technology we need to address global warming, but we lack the political will. “But political will is a renewable resource,” he concluded, and the audience came to its feet and roared.

The glimmer of hope kindled by Gore’s conclusion exploded into sunshine during the next presentation I attended, a talk by Bill McDonough, the author of Cradle to Cradle and prophet of the Second Industrial Revolution. His maxim is “how do we love all the children of all species for all time?” McDonough often works with people the Sierra Club is aligned against, such as the Ford Motor Company, for which he designed a green assembly plant in Dearborn Michigan. McDonough and his company devise products, buildings, industrial processes and cities according to standards that require zero waste and zero pollution. He showed us some of his ecotopian plans for the construction of seven new cities commissioned by the government of China which he said has adopted Cradle to Cradle as their industrial policy. Less optimistically, he alerted us to the fact that the world’s oceans are rapidly lowering in Ph, and that if the present trend continues, by the year 2100, calcium carbonate will dissolve, destroying all coral and molluscs”the bottom of the food chain. If you want to know more about McDonough, a seminal thinker on Sustainability, try

While McDonough spoke to an audience of 800, six other presentations were taking place simultaneously. For the late afternoon session, I attended a small one on “engaging youth” mounted by the Sierra Student Coalition. These young people organize projects like “Victoria’s Dirty Secret” exposing the practises of the catalog industry which is destroying boreal and appalachian forests to produce the junk mail. SSC may be able to help us start a local group bringing together high school, college and university student allies.

Delegates convened again Saturday morning from 7:30 to 11:30 to prioritize means to achieve goals prioritized the day before. First place went to organizing people locally to take action. Second was creating new allies and coalitions. Others included supplying environmental expertise, getting people outdoors, public education, bringing legal action and creating media visibility. Delegates were then treated to a lengthy study by Harvard Professor Marshall Ganz on how the club could increase general effectiveness (NPLA). He concluded we need motivated well trained leaders and lots of attention to engaging new members in club activities. If interested, see

Saturday’s highlight for me was the plenary session featuring Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Security was extensive and the great hall was even more packed than for Gore. Hoarse with laryngitis, at times desperate with anger at others ecstatic with ardor, Kennedy repeatedly brought me to tears. This is a person you could follow to the barricades. Presented with the Sierra Club’s William O. Douglas award, he spoke at length about his childhood relation with Douglas and then went on to indict the present administration”headed by the worst environmental president in history who has corrupted all agencies by heading them with the bought dogs of the corporations who finance his campaigns. A former NY state assistant attorney general who spearheaded the salvation of New York’s Hudson River, Bobby’s son spoke about his three sons who suffer from asthma brought on by the unprosecuted criminal activities of corporate polluters. He talked about the subversion of the free market by the corporations that now control government. He talked about the ignorance of what’s going on caused by the corporate media’s refusal to report it. He talked about his own success at awakening and converting Red-state audiences. And finally he rhapsodized at length about Saint Francis, the Bible, religion and nature. You can find an early version of this speech at

A quiet and lyrical coda to this Riverkeeper’s jeremiad came in a presentation by Robert Hass entitled “River of Words.” Another local as well as national hero, Hass used his position as former US poet laureate to create an organization promoting environmental education for children. As he does with his students at UC Berkeley he encourages teachers to take their students outdoors, to cultivate their senses and encourage their observations of nature, to get them to follow Aldo Leopold’s advice to “think like a mountain,” and then to have them write poems and draw pictures about their experiences. This traditional but nowadays rare approach has generated thousands of submissions from around the world which his organization makes available online and in published collections, and which in turn generate more rivers of words. Rather than reading his own lovely nature poems, Hass spent the hour showing and commenting upon exquisite examples of the childrens’ work. For more information on this project see,

There was much more at this amazing conference than can fit here. The impact of what I heard and saw is still not absorbed. And though I have doubts about the effectiveness of a very abstract exercise in deliberative process, the sensation of simply being together with so many people of like mind, common loss and shared aspiration–people for whom I immediately felt affection and respect–will nourish me for a long time.