8 yards

That’s what the concrete truck—technically an in-transit mixer—brought today. We had three yards poured yesterday and we’ll get three more yards on Friday. Eight cubic yards is 216 cubic feet. That helps, doesn’t it? If you can imagine a block, a cube actually, two yards (six feet) on a side, you’ll get the idea. (Two cubed is eight, six cubed is 216.) I don’t want a cube of course, I want a driveway. Yesterday we got our new sidewalk, curb, and gutter. (You have to pay for these things even though they are used by the public. Your tax dollars NOT at work!) Friday we’ll get the walkway that connects to the porch. That’s the last of the concrete projects.

Bare ground doesn’t stay bare long. The plants come in whether you want them to or not. So you have to do something with the ground. Decorative gravel and stepping stones. Drought-tolerant ground cover. Perhaps a garden.  Or maybe a lawn. But you have to manage the space or you’ll have dust, mud, and thickets of hardy weeds. A weed is just the name we give to a plant we don’t like. If we liked dandelions and wanted them around they wouldn’t be weeds.

Around my neighborhood we have lots of cats. Not the kind of cats that live inside but the kind of cats that roam. They like my big back yard because I don’t have a dog. They see my open space and think “now THAT’S a litter box!” They see my wife’s beautifully tended raised beds and think “LUXURY litter box!” If a dog craps in your yard you go talk to the owner and say “hey please keep your dog in your yard” and they (mostly) say “OK, sorry, will do.” But you can’t use that argument with cats. I used to have a bird feeder. Lots of finches, man. Very cool. But the neighborhood cats would all gather in my back yard watching the feeder, hoping one of the little fellows would fall. If one did they’d pounce on the poor bugger and make a sort of meal of it. Really they’d just kill the bird and maybe gnaw on it but these were well-fed cats. They didn’t do it out of hunger. I know a cat is natural-born killer so I didn’t hold it against them, they were just doing the cat-carnivore thing. Perfectly natural. But I did not put up the feeder to provide cats with recreational hunting opportunities so I got rid of it.

My neighbors, I’ve no doubt, are salivating over my new driveway. They need a place to turn around, after all. This big wide slab of new concrete will beckon them. They won’t use their own driveways and they won’t go the other way on the street. No, they have to turn around in front of my house. I don’t understand it. I can go west on my street and get to where I’m going or I can go east on my street and get to where I’m going. I can enter my property whether I’m going west on my street or I’m going east. That does not seem possible for my neighbors. They have to turn around in my driveway.

I don’t think the city will be happy if I put in one of those tire-puncture devices along the edge of my new driveway. You remember these things from the drive-in movie theaters. Fee-based parking lots have them, too. You can drive one way over them but not the other. Obviously I’d have to get a retractable one, and just my luck I’d forget and drive my vehicle over them and get four ugly flats in one fell swoop. So I guess that’s out. There’s always a gate. They have these cool remote-controlled solar-powered gates that will swing open for you and close behind you like a garage door. But I’ll be broke after this project and I can’t afford that. Plus it seems like a lot of expense and hassle just to express irritation at my neighbors. I’ll probably just park one of my vehicles in the driveway and that will discourage them. My fancy new concrete cost a lot of money—if they want to chip in I will change my tune.

Last night a couple of dogs nearly ran on to the still-wet freshly-poured sidewalk. I did not want dog prints in my sidewalk. It isn’t really my sidewalk, I have to let other people walk on it. But I paid for it so I wanted it free of rocks, initials, falling leaves, hoof prints, foot prints, or shoe prints. We had barriers and cones up to warn people but dogs don’t read. One of my neighbors lets her dog out to run around freely and he nearly left his mark. But we chased him away. The other dog was unknown to me. Someone on a nearby street also lets their dog out to run freely. Doesn’t seem like very responsible dog ownership, but what do I know? I was worried that the deer that march with impunity down our street on a regular basis might step in the pour. I sat outside at twilight but I didn’t see them come by. They have a much bigger target this evening, but they seem a little spooked by the barriers and the yellow caution tape.

My new driveway will cut down on a lot of mud, dust, and weeds. But I’ve still got lots of bare dirt. You can’t concrete everything, unfortunately. Some of it you have to manage. I don’t like lawns so those are out. The cats don’t like lava rocks, for some reason they are reluctant to walk on the small pumice stones, so I’m sure I’ll get some more of that stuff. We like rock gardens and xeriscapes and such. We’ll get to that at some point, but for now I’m going to watch my concrete cure. It beats watching paint dry.


Anomalous water

I live at the bottom of a hill on top of a big pile of gravel. They call it ‘alluvium’ on the geologic maps, but that’s just fancy-talk for rocks and sand that have been washed off the hillsides. A veneer of dirt sits on top. I hesitate to call it ‘soil’ because it’s barely that. If you want to grow anything besides juniper or star thistle you have to add nutrients and other organic matter. When you irrigate the water that doesn’t get retained by the soil percolates through the alluvium until it hits a clay layer. We call that clay layer ‘hardpan.’ It’s impermeable. It causes tree roots to turn sideways. When the rains come the water hits this layer and flows underground. We used to have a cellar that was below grade and it flooded every winter. In fact it would flood if my upstream neighbors watered their lawns.

It’s mostly desert around here. But there’s more water than you think. It’s just underground. I can dig a hole in my yard and a couple of feet down it’s saturated. Or not. It seems random. Dig a line of fence posts and there’s nothing. The next one over and you hit a pocket of water. When it really rains, and that happens sometimes, the hardpan will block the downward flow and the yard will fill with standing water. Over the next few days the water will soak into the ground and move on. I suppose it shows up in the creek beds below me, or joins an aquifer, or something. I don’t really know. It’s pretty damn dry around here, it’s not like this mysterious underground water is feeding a forest.

We had some digging done the other day for a concrete project. At one end of the dig there was standing water. Just a few inches, but it was there. Where did it come from? I don’t know. After spending all day panicking that I had another leak in my water line (we just had that fixed after much hassle and expense) I came to appreciate that it was perhaps just more of that anomalous water that regularly bedevils us.

I’d be willing to bet that if we could peel off the street and look beneath it we would see a web of rivulets. Capillaries of trickling water. Pockets of the stuff trapped in the aggregate sitting on top of the clay and just waiting to be freed. And a few feet one side or the other, not a drop. It’s vexing, this anomalous water. It’s not predictable. The gravel the town sits on is not uniform. It’s thick in some places and thin in other. Some spots are mostly big rocks and some spots are mostly pebbles and fine particles. It’s all jumbled up and mixed together. The hardpan varies as well. You can’t expect nature to erode mountains with any kind of regularity. It’s a big random conglomeration and that’s why we get this whack-a-mole water stuff.

My contractor is a very exacting fellow. He does not like surprises. When he forms up a concrete pour he does not want to worry that one end of it will be a soupy mess. And I’m writing the checks so I’m all for his careful approach. I want my concrete to last. So neither of us like this anomalous water. It appears here and there but not everywhere. It appears in odd places and at odd times. This is the first day of fall. That means we’ve just had summer. Why are there pockets of water under my feet after months of hot, dry weather? I don’t know.

Richard Feynman was quoted saying “I can live with doubt and uncertainty” and other stuff like “I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things.” He was usually talking about big problems in theoretical physics, not little problems like anomalous water in my yard. But I think the same attitude has to be applied here. I don’t understand what’s under the ground, but I guess can live with it.


Our Atomic Future

I remember well Our Atomic Future. After The Bomb, it was the promise of peaceful uses. Uranium would power our homes, factories, and business. No more smelly oil or coal, no more air pollution, just pellets of enriched earth silently and invisibly glowing, making steam from the heat and making electricity from the steam. Then shit happened. First came a probing jab with the left hand, easily fended off, but ominously named: Three Mile Island. The right cross that followed was a doozy: Chernobyl. Our Atomic Future, now staggered, was no match for the left hook: Fukushima. Down it went.

I miss Our Atomic Future. I wish I could still believe in it, but futures that never happened don’t seem belief-worthy. Our gigantic carbon experiment will continue even if we revolutionize ground transportation with electric cars and biofuels. Diesel engines running on heavy fuel oils power our shipping fleets; kerosene-based fuels power our commercial aircraft. We’ll be sucking on our hydrocarbon-rich basins for many years to come, don’t you worry, we love blasting the ancient reservoirs of fossilized life into the sky for all to enjoy.

The sun and wind make up our new dreams. It’s very cool to imagine such a thing: Our Renewable Future. That future crowded out Our Atomic Future to the point where only a handful of adherents remain. Yet the atom was split to save all mankind and no one is going to take that away. A new nuclear age is an easy one to envision thanks to that noted futurist, Steve Jobs. This fellow made everything pocket-sized, and slick to boot. Cool look and feel, solid performance, cutting-edge features. Design was paramount, tech became the new aesthetic. Our Atomic Age could never be revived in such a marketplace. Nuclear power plants are just slicker versions of the old-style power plants. They weren’t new so much as improved. And everyone knows that Americans expect new and improved.

Imagine Steve Jobs redesigning Our Atomic Future and setting in motion our new nuclear age. Palm-sized devices for extreme places. Suitcase-sized power plants for running a village. Generators the size of beer coolers giving communities off-the-grid energy. All of them smooth, silvery-surfaced, with simple and intuitive interfaces. Hell, a child could run one. Or perhaps that other mythologist— George Lucas—could chip in with atomic cars and boats and planes that have friendly personalities and colorful appearances. In fact I think we should build an AI of those two consciousnesses and have it spew out possible nuclear futures.

Everyone could have their own personal nuclear pile, like a key fob. It could run all sorts of things. You wouldn’t have to be tethered to the nearest AC plug to keep your phone or laptop charged. Just charge it up with the little atomic box. Forgot to pay the power bill? It will keep the fridge running and the water heater going until you can scratch the cash together. That’s real energy independence.

I suppose folks might be squeamish about all that fission. But big problems need big answers. When we are all living in vast beehives in the currently uninhabitable parts of our globe, or in enormous termite mounds in earth orbit or on the moon, we’ll need lots of energy. Something will have to supplement the sunshine. Maybe by then we’ll have unlocked the secret of the sun—fusion. It worked in Back to the Future, right?


Plutonium dreams, Zoloft nightmares

Forty years ago we launched Voyager and it’s still out there, just past the edge of our Solar System and nosing its way into interstellar space, its nuclear heart still beating. Plutonium-238 (not the Pu-239 used in bombs), in a gizmo called an RTG (radioisotope thermoelectric generator), powers our longest-traveled spacecraft. Atomic power was the last to be harnessed in our earth-bound vessels but will be some time before (or if) it ever replaces our carbon-based engines. Our fossil fueled jumbo jets can shrink time and distance at 600 mph, that’s ten miles a minute or one-sixth of a mile per second. A furlong is one-eighth of a mile at 220 yards, so one-sixth is a few paces short of three hundred. I can walk that in a few minutes.

Voyager has gone thirteen billion miles or so in its four-decade journey, that works out to about eleven miles per second, or sixty-six times faster than a 747. Every significant gaseous orb, ball of rock, or hunk of frozen goop out there got a flyby and the information is still coming. Voyager’s electromagnetic voice takes nineteen hours to reach us and it is expected to keep sending its data for three or four more years. And despite all the magnificent science being done we are still faced with the fact of the vast emptiness of space.

We aren’t getting anywhere near another star, let alone a habitable planet. The further and faster we go the less ground we cover. The post-war era was all about shrinking the earth as our transportation web grew in size and speed. The space race showed us our tiny earth and we’ve since surrounded our little blue marble with constellations of our own satellites. But we still dream of exploring the unexplored places. Unfortunately space is too big for our puny dreams, un-explored is perhaps better said as un-explorable.

All of our science-fiction stories rely on some miraculous faster-than-light scheme for their characters to traverse the mind-bendingly huge interstellar distances. Otherwise they would just be studies in despair as generations of humans would yearn for the stars but be unable to reach them. It would take Voyager tens of thousands of years to come close to a star other than our Sun. We’ll have to content ourselves with Martian probes or even perhaps human astronauts exploring the red planet’s surface. Anything beyond that is science fiction—fantasy, really, as no one is close to figuring out how to go faster than a rocket. And a rocket is a pea-shooter in the big scheme of things.

So our plutonium dreams have gotten us no closer. We still stand on the edge of the black emptiness. The abyss still yawns before us. It would give us nightmares if we thought about it too much. Lots of substantive, temporal things give us nightmares, we certainly don’t need any cosmic ones. Humans have medicated themselves with all sorts of creations throughout our history and today we have an enormous pharmacopeia of possibilities.

Some of those possibilities are called anti-depressants and we’ve been taking them at ever-increasing rates. One in six of us here in the States takes psychiatric drugs, that’s just the prescribed ones, and that’s over fifty million people. I’m not ant-drug or anti-pharmaceutical by any means, lots of folks need this stuff to function, and I’m not one to argue with how people get through the night. But I came across a story that gave me the creeps. It’s here, at the SUNY Buffalo campus, and it says they are finding antidepressants in the brains of fish in the Great Lakes.

Now that’s what they call an unintended consequence. As far as I’m concerned people can take all the Xanax or Prozac or Celexa or Zoloft they want or need. That ain’t my concern. But I’m pretty sure no one wants to dose the fish with it! I’m all for targeted drugging. When I knock back a whiskey or puff on a pipe I’m aiming at me and hoping I don’t hit anybody else.

Seems we’ve gotten pretty good over the years at treating our waste streams for excess phosphorus or nitrogen and we kill the pathogens and whatnot but there is stuff in there now that we can’t yet handle. We’ll have to figure it out at some point. Right now the fish are still edible (we don’t typically eat fish brains) and that’s cool but you have to wonder if the fish get screwed up by all this stuff. It works on our brains, I expect it will work on theirs, too. But no one has any notion of the impacts, at least not yet.

What it tells me is that we have to re-imagine the meaning of waste. Stuck here as we are on this ball of watery rock in the midst of uninhabitable nothingness, I say we ought to make good use of things. You grow something or dig it up and turn it into something cool you would do well to get more than one use out of it. In fact what happens to our coal or oil, or our textile fibers or construction materials, should be just as important as their first-use. Products should be designed with end-uses in mind so that we don’t have waste at all, just a resource being re-purposed. We thought we had a handle on our piss and shit but now we find we are washing our drugs into the heads of unsuspecting creatures we share the planet with.

We will still dream about the stars. And we will still wrestle with our terrestrial nightmares. Everything we see out there in space only makes us seem more remote and more isolated than before. Not that I want them to stop, mind you, I dig all the groovy science. And I’m OK with cosmic nothingness, it forces me to focus on the everyday things. And we need our meds, man. Sleep doesn’t always come easy and a human being that can’t get a decent sleep is a goddamn mess. But our nightmares belong to us, we don’t need to foist them on the fishes.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

We got a bit of a respite from the smoke this morning and now we are anxiously awaiting the predicted rainfall. While the smoke here in our little bowl has been thick and persistent we are fortunate that the fires are not closer. Some here in the State of Jefferson have had to evacuate, others are preparing to do so. Here in town we are relatively safe even if we are gagging on the ashfall.

It’s the new normal for us in the rural West, these smoke-clogged summers, and this year we’ve shared our experience with the millions who live in urban areas like Seattle, Portland, and Denver. Los Angelenos are well-versed in this annual ritual; the city has been spreading its tentacles into the wildlands for decades, more and more contemporary Californios live within shouting distance of wildfire country.

I get depressed when the sky is blotted out by the smoke and everything smells like the inside of a Smokey Joe. I love the high desert twilight and I haven’t seen much of it lately. There are days when Butcher Hill, a mile at best from my homestead, has been almost completely obscured. It’s not just the itchy eyes and scratchy throat and genuine unhealthiness, it’s the feeling of helplessness. I keep hoping for a good stiff breeze and then when one comes it just dumps more smoke into our little nook. Yreka sits in the northeast corner of a broad river valley, butted up against the remnants of a large mountainous complex to the west. The hills act like a trap and hold in the foulness until some significant meteorological event comes along and scours out the basin.

But I ought not to complain. Some folks around here have it way worse. And as a fellow I heard the other day say, “complaining is for those folks in Houston.” Yeah, that disaster makes ours seem paltry. But it is a disaster nonetheless. Life in the West is mostly a mirage. There’s no real water to speak of, except along the Pacific littoral, and even they have issues. Southern California is home to the great hordes but they can’t live there without the gigantic plumbing apparatus that delivers water from the mountains. I remember trying to explain our climate to my Irish cousin: she did not believe that we can go six months without rain. The reason they call it the Emerald Isle is because three days without rain is unusual!

But the skies have opened as I type this and glorious rain is coming down. Whether it will do anything lasting about the smoke is hard to say. With the summer rain there is thunder. With thunder there is lightning, and lightning sets fires. I think they call that a Catch-22. But I intend to enjoy this fresh precipitation as much as I can. At some point later this month the climate will start moving toward the autumnal cooling and the fires will abate somewhat and the smoke will clear. Then we’ll get our lovely clear winter. Sadly, we’ll do it all again next summer.

Stay safe out there. Here’s a little Jo Stafford to make you feel better:


She can really sing, eh?