News from the Valley of the Cool Sunshine

And some thoughts on water and activism

So here we are, August 1st already. Wow. Our abandoned house project is coming along well, but not quite as fast as we initially imagined. There are many distractions. The Utah desert and the Colorado high country beckon. Plus, a few house guests have stopped by, bringing pleasant relaxations and a rekindling of old friendships.

Fortunately, we are at least on track still to complete what has to happen before the first frost. We’ve installed around 130 sheets of drywall (the majority of which fell to Steve’s strength), with only three or so left to go. If all goes well, we are just a few days away from having complete electricity.

The natives we’ve planted — chamisa, great western sage, wax currant, Apache plume, and others — seem to be comfortably established. The volunteer sunflowers, planted by the birds, are also unfolding their late-summer cheer.

And we’ve had rain. More rain than is typical.

We are in an unusual bubble of good fortune right now. The massive heat domes, a term I had never heard before this summer, have not yet managed to stretch their tentacles into these headwater lands of the Rio Grande. So far, Colorado’s eastern Rockies are not yet ablaze.

For those who are not familiar with the West, you should know that something here has fundamentally changed in the last three years. There is an unspoken uneasiness now, an unsettling lump in the pit of people’s stomachs. We collectively wonder if our iconic bright-blue-sky summers may be no more.

We don’t actually wonder. We know. But no one will say it out loud. It’s too difficult.

On most days now, a great carbon haze settles over the horizon, a concoction of remnants from the burnt northwestern homelands of gray jays and barred owls. Colorado has been under a months-long air-quality alert, as we breathe in molecules that were once Englemann spruce and giant sequoias.

It seems inevitable that smoky summer skies is the way it’s going to be now. For centuries to come.

How many times can we say “A New Norm?”

Our valley’s brief bit of unseasonable rain is the exception, a temporary reprise to an ancient, shrubby desert playa that averages 7 inches of rain a year. Meanwhile, the Great Salt Lake has dried to the point that the fall migrations of white pelicans and avocets will likely end in tragedy, while freshly-dried toxic dust will scatter with each gust of wind.

The Colorado River is also in a death rattle. The waterway is the lifeblood for 1,400 miles of habitat as it winds from the alpine snowfields of Rocky Mountain National Park, through the now-charred walls of Glenwood Canyon, to Lake Powell. Poor Lake Powell. The people of Page, Arizona, are suddenly broke and trying to figure out how to survive. The water finally stopped short of the boat ramps that fuel their recreation economy. This was no surprise. For years, scientists predicted this outcome. For years, officials warned them to prepare for this moment. For years, business went on as usual.

What’s left of the Colorado makes its way to Lake Mead, whose hydroelectric turbines are on the verge of not having enough water to feed the air conditioners of Arizona and California’s subdivisions. Vast seas of pavement, which sit atop the former homes of cactus wrens and giant saguaros.

The endgame for the watery beast is the Colorado River Delta, and its once-broad wetlands that distinguished its vibrant transition into the Sea of Cortés. But it hasn’t actually flooded its namesake delta in many decades, except for a few weeks in 2014 when the United States decided to throw the Mexican farmers a courtesy bone by releasing a pulse flow.

But back to the Valley of the Cool Sunshine

It’s only about 72 degrees today, and cloudy. It’s August and I’m thinking about putting on a hoodie. I’m also trying to come to terms with not feeling guilty about our good fortune, however temporary it may be, in the face of this rapidly changing West.

I’m trying to come to terms with how my water use takes away happiness from the people of Juárez, and makes survival challenging for the songbirds along the Rio Grande. It’s all connected, after all. Others’ Arizona retirement dreams, the transplanted chamisa I have to water until its roots grow strong enough for it to survive on its own, and the death of the Great Salt Lake.

But less and less do these thoughts push me into despair.

I’m beginning to see something. Those feelings of hopelessness, grief, and anger that we get when we realize that we have already passed a particular tipping point — they are rational. Helpful even. It is okay to grieve anew, with each piece we lose. It’s also okay to find happiness in the beauty of what we do have. It’s even okay to feel nihalistic sometimes.

Then it’s time to get to work. Like the people in Page, eventually each of our own security bubbles will burst, and we will be forced to reckon with what comes next. Instead of clinging to the way it was and wishing it wasn’t so, it might be more helpful to look toward the future, realizing it will be different than the past, and helping one another prepare. There are some ideas on that below.

Okay. I’m outta here for today. Gotta get out and enjoy the cool temps while they last. Peace and laughter, over and out.


What does taking a stand look like?

It looks like a lot of different things, but I think that mostly it means being aware of the consequences of our actions, and trying to be a decent person. For example, I just heard that Maui locals are having to ration water so the tourists can play away without worry. The mayor is pleading with the airlines to reduce the number of flights, and locals are begging people not to go there. So taking a stand could be not visiting Hawaii. Or it might be campaigning against a city’s planned destruction of wetlands (we just had a campaign about this in Boulder, which seemed hopeless but now suddenly seems to have legs, yay!). Or volunteering. Here’s a nifty list of projects, compiled by Patagonia, of nonprofits who need help with specific tasks.

Or meditating, since we must do right by ourselves in order to help others.

When we visited — on an incredible blue-sky day — there were a couple of people meditating at this stupa on the slopes of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, overlooking the San Luis Valley. Winds carry compassionate wishes from the prayer flags across the lands for all beings. Photo: Karuna Eberl.

Another powerful step toward helping is reading Gary Ferguson and Mary Clare’s new book, Full Ecology. They give some truly wise advice about how to get connected with ourselves and nature, before we go off on a frenzy trying to fix the world. This is really a must-read, full of hope and the author’s contagious, grounded, and positive attitudes.

Want more ideas? Here’s a great list from climate writer Emily Atkin, who more and more is hearing from people starting their own movements that were inspired from her newsletter. It’s catching.


A Parting Thought

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