Posts by Char Miller
Dec 11, 2017 (7:30 am)
La Tuna Canyon. Anaheim Hills. Thomas. Creek. Rye. Skirball. Each of these evocatively named fires has ripped across portions of Southern California since August, consuming tens of thousands of acres and forcing the evacuations of hundreds of thousands of residents. This crazed choreography of flame and people appears mono-directional: as each of these conflagrations—and countless others before them—scream over ridgelines or roar up canyons, panicked homeowners bolt. Flames get us moving.
It is also true, however, that human beings have made these fires in the most fundamental sense: we bear torches. The most obvious of these torchbearers are the arsonists who take advantage of the region’s desiccated and fire-prone landscapes and the intense, wind-driven events known locally as the Santa Anas. Under these conditions—all of which fueled the firestorms of 2017—it does not take much to spark up an inferno.
Once lit, whether by means intentional or accidental, these fires gain their people-scattering force as a direct consequence of human geography, of how and where we live across the Southland. For more than a century, Los Angeles has pressed out from its central core. Late 19th Century streetcars and then automobiles facilitated this oft-white flight, a dispersal that accelerated after the 1920s, and then took off in the postwar era. Sprawl and the City of Angels became synonymous.
Less well understood, but just as synonymous, is the close relationship between fire and sprawl. Between the 1950s and 1970s, new wealthy subdivisions in the Hollywood Hills, Beverly Hills, and Bel Air experienced devastating fires. Subsequent waves of exurban migration into such valleys as the San Fernando, San Gabriel, and Pomona, Simi and Santa Clarita, have flowed along the ever-expanding grid of freeways and their interlocking subdivisions (with the requisite billboard exhortation at each exit: “If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home By Now!”), and produced the same smoke-filled results.
The pattern has continued apace, even as the region has become increasingly dense. LA is now the second densest city in the United States, a crowding that has led those seeking affordable housing to move out to an ever-expanding periphery. Some of these peripheral developments, which city halls, planning boards, and zoning commissions have dutifully sanctioned, were among those recently engulfed in flames.
In early September, the La Tuna Canyon fire burned more than 7000 acres in the Verdugo Mountains in northeastern Los Angeles, after jumping the 210 freeway and consuming a number of cul-de-sac neighborhoods. A month later, the Anaheim Hills blaze scorched 8000 acres in Orange County, including dozens of homes that crowded up into this high ground. In early December, four fires erupted under extreme Santa Ana conditions. The Thomas (230,500 acres and counting); Creek (15,000+); Rye (7,000); and the smaller Skirball (475 acres) may vary widely in terms of size, but thy are similar in this respect: they propelled massive evacuations, burned countless homes and other structures, and their toxic fumes smeared the sky.
Their physical siting is as revelatory. Each burned in and around vital highways, disrupting daily life. The Skirball hugged the 405, arguably the nation’s busiest freeway. The Creek was framed to its south by the 210 (and also hopped it at one point). The Rye flowed along the Interstate 5 and Highway 126 corridor, while the runaway Thomas fire not only swerved close to the 126 it also torched both sides of the 33 and the 101. Every highway we grade. Every yard of concrete we pour. Every construction permit we pull. Every house we build. Every mile we drive—each act, individually and collectively, helps set the stage for Los Angeles’ most-fiery dramas.
Yet the season for this show used to be a lot shorter, concentrated in the late summer and fall. Now fires can (and do) explode in any month, thanks to another anthropogenic driver: Climate Change. It is responsible in good measure for the bone-dry conditions accompanying seven years of drought, a process that is powering fires in Southern California from January to December. This 12-month cycle will hold true across the rest of the 21st Century, too, with temperatures rising and precipitation decreasing. When these climatic conditions collide with the built landscape, as they did this month, the consequences will be every bit as unsettling and disastrous.
Photo by Erin Donalson: Thomas Fire Burns Mountains in Ventura County via istock.
Char Miller, the W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, has written extensively about wildfire in Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dream (2016) and On the Edge: Water, Immigration, and Politics in the Southwest (2013), both from Trinity University Press. His most recent op-ed on the subject, “What the Trump administration doesn’t understand about wildfires,” appeared in the Los Angeles Times in October.
Jun 19, 2017 (9:27 am)
Xavier Becerra, California’s combative attorney general, has become the Golden State’s face of resistance to the Trump administration’s domestic initiatives, the blunt voice rejecting the president’s attempts to roll back the progressive immigration and environmental policies so central to California’s sense of itself.
At a June 16 press conference, for example, Becerra pushed back against stricter immigration enforcement, saying his office would review conditions at immigrant detention facilities in conjunction with a legislative measure that prohibits local governments from renting out jail beds to U.S. Immigration and Customs. One week earlier, Becerra sent Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke a withering, 11-page letter that flat-out rejected the president’s executive order aimed at delisting or shrinking national monuments his predecessors had established in California.
Yet as eloquent and forceful as the attorney general may be in his defiance, there are limits to the state’s protective stance. Becerra is mounting what amounts to a rearguard action because he has little choice in this age of Trump the Tumultuous.
Viewed from my perspective as an environmental historian, this defensive rhetoric runs counter to the no-holds-barred approach that defined California’s post-World War II drive for economic growth and social justice.
It is as if, for the time being, the California Dream so critical to Becerra’s personal success – and many others’ – has been put on hold.
The hardworking son of immigrants and the first in his family to go to college, Becerra finished law school in 1984, was elected to the state assembly, and then served in the state’s Department of Justice before winning an impressive 12 terms to the U.S. House of Representatives.
At each stop along the way, he has been a staunch advocate for the poor and marginalized, those who need a hand up and out. In January 2017, Gov. Jerry Brown (who is playing a similar role as Becerra on an international stage) tapped the politically savvy Becerra to replace newly elected Senator Kamala Harris as AG to become the first Latino to hold this high office in California.
Becerra’s tough-minded approach to his latest job has made him ubiquitous this commencement season. Between May 15 and 23 alone, he addressed the political science graduates at the University of California, Berkeley, those receiving their law degrees at USC and the University of San Francisco, and bachelor’s-earning undergrads at Occidental College.
(California’s first Latino attorney general, Xavier Becerra has taken a defiant – and, by necessity, a defensive – tone vis a vis Washington. AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
Even as he cheered these graduates’ academic successes, he reminded them of the rough-and-tumble political environment they were entering. Becerra spoke of how he and other state AGs were challenging the legality of Trump’s Muslim travel ban. He affirmed his deeply felt support for the undocumented and asserted that cities could proclaim themselves sanctuaries, free from executive branch interference.
In resisting the Trump administration’s review of national monuments, Becerra wrote what amounts to a legal brief that cited judicial rulings and legislative records and made a strong case for a kind of states-rights environmentalism. Arguing separately against a plan to open up offshore drilling, he said: “Instead of taking us backwards, the federal government should work with us to advance the clean energy economy that’s creating jobs, providing energy and preserving California’s natural beauty.”
California’s cultural clout
The late, great Kevin Starr argued in his magisterial, multi-volume study of California that the state’s particular genius is in offering “the highest possible life for the middle classes.” It proved time and again to be “the best place in the nation to seek and attain a better life.”
Fueled by a generous stream of tax dollars, the state’s educational systems, from K-12 through college and university, were the envy of the world. So, too, were its high-speed highways and highly engineered water systems, as well as its agricultural productivity, artistic energy and technological creativity. California was a state on the move.
(The Sequoia National Monument is one of the national monuments the Trump administration has put under review, which the state is fighting. David Prasad/flickr, CC BY-SA)
Its benefits were also broadly accessible: Beaches were public, parks and open spaces plentiful, higher education was cheap. Here, democracy flourished, or at least it could do so. Where it did not, people battled to ensure that it would.
Those toiling in the fields of the Central and Imperial valleys, for example, endured oppressive conditions, but gained an important measure of control over their lives and livelihoods through the formation of the United Farm Workers of America. The struggles that African-Americans and Asian-Americans, Latinos, women and LGBT activists have waged for increased rights, solidarity and opportunities did not always originate in California, but they gained political visibility and cultural clout when manifest on the coast. If you wanted to remake yourself, go West.
Setting pace on public health
But all that prosperity took its toll. Clearing the air of the state’s legendary pollution – “don’t breathe too deeply when you arrive in California” used to be the warning – has taken decades. Grassroots activists, dedicated educators and scientists, and some principled public officials fought against entrenched opposition in Sacramento, Detroit and Washington, D.C. to secure what now are the nation’s toughest environmental controls. More needs to be done, but these regulations have had a profound impact.
It is not by happenstance that the EPA owes its existence to a Californian (President Richard Nixon signed it into law December 1970). Or that the Clean Air Acts grant the state the right to institute stricter measures than the federal government (which is why the current administration tried to deny California’s right to set higher standards).
The ground-level consequences of such innovations as catalytic converters is evident in enhanced public health. When I was a student at Pitzer College in Claremont in the 1970s, I almost never glimpsed the smog-enshrouded Mt. Baldy (elevation 10,050 feet), a few miles away. Today, its towering presence is visible 24/7.
There was no way to predict this remarkable turnaround when my classmates and I gathered outdoors for our graduation in 1975. And no way would bluer skies have become commonplace had the state heeded the advice our commencement speaker imparted to those entering a depressed job market in a society constrained by the budget-busting Vietnam War and post-Watergate cynicism. Hunker down, he said, hunker down.
That 1975 recommendation from a California assemblyman to retreat from the world was as wrong then as it is now in our similarly fraught environment. Rather than simply throw up a wall to fend off the barbarians at the gates, however understandable, California needs to reassert the bold, expansive, and democratic vision that has made it California. A prospect that requires a shared and tenacious commitment to the commonweal.
And a sense of agency. “You don’t have to do it by yourself,” Xavier Becerra told Berkeley seniors. “You don’t have to have done it before. But when you get out there with the guts and the grit and the ganas [desire], you can make a difference.”
That’s how dreams become real.
(Originally posted on 6/17/17 at The Conversation.)
Dec 15, 2016 (2:14 pm)
Spurs Nation is a much-needed balm, especially now that I live 1,327.3 miles west of the ATT Center, a straight shot on Interstate-10. The fanzine-like book’s soothing words span the distance between my home in Southern California and my former life in south-central Texas, fusing the past with the present.
But the heavily illustrated book also helps bring the present into sharper focus. So I thought the other morning while I was working my way through the sports section of the Los Angeles Times. On Pearl Harbor Day, the Clippers went up against the Golden State Warriors and were destroyed. That didn’t bother me, as I’m not a fan of either team (but I love that their coaches are former Spurs).
What bothered me was this rankling line in columnist Bill Plashcke’s withering, postgame analysis of the Clippers’ collapse: “Everything was in place Wednesday night for a celebrated meeting between the two best teams in the Western Conference and a potential preview for a spring showdown.” Read that again—“the two best teams in the Western Conference.”
The claim is nonsense on so many levels. On this particular Day of Infamy, the Clippers were, in fact, the third best team in the Western Conference, running two and a half games behind the Spurs. Put that stat in the larger context of the two franchises’ histories and Plaschke’s comment is even harder to fathom. In the long run, the Clippers have nothing on the Silver and Black’s record of success in regular or postseason play; the Clips have yet to win one championship, let alone five.
So, yes, I take solace in Spurs Nation and its colorful depiction—in prose and images—of the Spurs’ extraordinary run to date, from the 1987 lottery pick of David Robinson to the loss in the 2016 Western Conference semifinals to the Oklahoma Thunder; from the grainy photo of the smiling Robinson holding up his jersey (5-0! 5-0!) following the Spurs’ selection of him to the now iconic shot of Tim Duncan, his back to the camera, his right hand raised in farewell as he walks off the court for the last time.
In between these snapshots are a wealth of memories.
- 1994: David Robinson drops 71 points on the hapless Clips on April 24 to snatch the league scoring title from Shaquille O’Neal.
- 1996: Gregg Popovich’s surprise firing of Coach Bob Hill on December 10. Twenty years later, the controversial move seems so right, as does Pop’s commentary when asked if he would coach the following season: “Next year? I’m not even thinking about next year. It doesn’t interest me. I’m just thinking day-to-day on how to get this team where it needs to be.” Mission accomplished.
- 1999: Ring One. “The old ABA franchise that couldn’t finally did.”
- 2003: Conference finals. Malik Rose captured the Game Six crushing of the Lakers, the Spurs’ nemesis: “Once we started to materialize in the third quarter, we started to smell blood, and see blood. So we went for it.” Ring Two followed.
- 2004: Okay, let’s agree not to talk about what happened when the Silver and Black lost to the Purple and Gold. I remember hiding out in the local H-E-B.
- 2005: I spent a lot of time in that same grocery store pretending to shop while casting furtive glances at a flickering screen broadcasting Game Five. That’s where I witnessed Robert Horry drain the 3-pointer that kept the Spurs alive. Game Seven brought Ring Three.
- 2007: Another series, another ring. Michael Finley said: “A lot of people wrote us, as they usually do. But we stayed resilient, believed in the system, and believed in one another.”
- 2013: “An epic collapse.” A painful read.
- 2014: Cinco = joy.
The Spurs have had an extraordinary two-decade run. Moments golden and dark—and you need one to frame the other, so that the whole can emerge in its memorable fullness—are nicely juxtaposed in text designed to resemble the layout of the sports section. The words, with all the authority of a Tim Duncan putback, jump off the page right into our lives.
Oct 25, 2016 (11:00 am)
Leading environmentalist and historian, Char Miller, analyzes California’s ecological history in his new book Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dream. For all the glitz and glamour that the state has to bring, Miller uncovers some of the less enticing environmental issues that hide just below the surface where most do not notice. Char Miller will be in conversation with Bob Rivard of The Rivard Report on "California Dreams, Texas Schemes: Two States in Environmental Crisis and What They Can Learn From Each Other.” Free and open to the public at the Trinity University Holt Center on Wednesday, October 25. Before that, Miller brings us a few words to open our eyes to one of the environmental isuues they will discuss. Seating is limited, but you will be able to view a livestream at tupress.org. More information on the event here.
The trees are dying. The forests are not.
This subtle but absolutely critical distinction is getting lost in all the angst over the tree die-off in the Central Sierra, coastal ranges, and other forests of the Golden State. Players ranging from the U.S. Forest Service to Cal Fire to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and other public officials are ignoring this key fact in their rush to do something, anything, about the dying trees.
Feinstein, in a recent letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, urged him to transfer the tidy sum of $38 million to the Forest Service so that it can immediately harvest thousands of red-needled pine and other dead trees in high hazard areas in the Sequoia, Sierra, and Stanislaus national forests.
“After five years of historic drought,” she argued, “which has led to the death of an estimated 66 million trees in California alone, my state and its people face a heightened and potentially catastrophic risk of wildfire this year and for years to come.”
Her words are important, for how we talk about drought, fire, and ecosystem resilience is revelatory of larger issues. As I argue in Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dream, “A wildland fire is never just a fire. Even as it burns through forests, grasslands or chaparral, it also eats into the political landscape, like acid on a copper plate. And in that etching, with the surface opened, we can glimpse a society’s most basic philosophical commitments, its deepest operating assumptions.”
Those assumptions are partly revealed in Senator Feinstein’s request for funding to harvest large swaths of the Sierra. She, and those who are co-promoting this policy, are calculating that dead trees equal catastrophe. To avoid catastrophe, clearcut the forests. Their calculation is flawed.
Consider the attention-getting figure of 66 million dead trees (or “snags”), widely publicized this summer. It seems like a lot, yet the figure shrinks when set in its wider, arboreal context. As Doug Bevington of Environment Now has reported, there are 33 million forested acres in the state, meaning that the recent pulse of tree mortality on average has increased the number of dead trees by a mere two snags per acre.
“To put that number in perspective,” he writes, “forest animals that live in snags generally need at least four to eight snags per acre to provide sufficient habitat and some species require even more snags.” Portions of California’s forests suffer from a deficit of dead trees, not a surfeit.
Besides, dead trees are not dead. They are essential to the life chances of such cavity-nesting species as the endangered California spotted owl and the increasingly rare black-backed woodpecker. Ditto for the little-seen Pacific fisher, a forest-dweller related to the weasel whose diet in part consists of small mammals that take advantage of snag-ecosystems. A host of other organisms feast on dead trees upright or fallen, so that what on the surface might seem like a ghost forest in fact is a biodiversity hotspot, a teeming terrain.
While countless living things thrive off of the “dead” trees, fire does not. This seems counterintuitive, which may account for the head-scratching, heated rhetoric that Senator Feinstein, Gov. Jerry Brown, and firefighting agencies have deployed to make their case that California is on the verge of burning up. In doing so, they have dismissed the findings of fire ecology research demonstrating that snags do not burn with a greater intensity and that their presence does not accelerate the spread of fire.
As scientists reported in the 2014 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Contrary to the expectation of increased wildfire activity in recently infested red-stage stands, we found no difference between observed area and expected area burned in red-stage or subsequent gray-stage stands during three peak years of wildfire activity, which account for 46 percent of area burned during the 2002–2013 period.”
Even the state’s firefighter-in-chief, Cal Fire’s Director Ken Pimlott, agrees with the “emerging body of science that has found dead trees don’t significantly increase the likelihood of wildfires.”
Don’t get me wrong: there are legitimate reasons to log some snags located in portions of the wildland-urban interface to ensure public safety and protect vital infrastructure. But slicking off tens of thousands of trees willy-nilly—let alone the 3.7 million that have been proposed for harvest in the Central Sierra national forests alone—cannot be defended in terms of science or policy; and doing so would break the bank.
Nor can it be defended as a kind of political logrolling, in which agencies and their allies spread fear of imminent ecosystem collapse that can only be averted with a massive infusion of federal and state dollars to prop up the collapsing timber and biomass industries. The latter turns board-feet into kilowatts, a process as inefficient and CO2-spewing as coal, accelerating the planet’s warming. Not climate-smart.
So let’s take nature seriously. Those who mourn the loss of the iconic, pine-scented sweep of green, for example, should remember that the “death” we perceive in California’s forests presages their regrowth, a point I also stress in Not So Golden State.
“Set aside the concept that fires inevitably, irreparably destroy forests,” I observe, “and consider instead the idea fire may have a regenerative capacity.”
But don’t take my word for it. Read John Muir, the troubadour of all things Sierra, who in 1878 concluded that natural disturbances were how his beloved sequoia flourished. Erosion and floods, the “burrowing of wolf or squirrel,” and the “fall of aged trees” cleared the way for successive generations to flourish. Even fire, “the great destroyer of Sequoia . . . furnishes bare virgin ground, one of the conditions essential for its growth from seed.”
Muir’s penetrating insight was controversial in the late nineteenth century, but it shouldn’t be today.
The trees are dying. The forests are not.
Jul 13, 2016 (9:26 am)
After living in Southern California for nine years, I should be used to fire season—and the fact that there is something called fire season—but I’m not.
My wife and I moved to the Southland in late summer 2007, and within the month we saw some of the region’s most horrific firestorms consume vast stretches of chaparral-cloaked foothills, deep canyons filled with alder and oak and, at higher elevations, thick stands of pine and cedar.
From the Mexican border to the Santa Ynez Mountains east of Santa Barbara, wildlands—and more vividly, the many homes and trailers that had crowded into these spectacular terrains—went up in smoke. Journalists were not wrong to proclaim this a fire siege.
Dumbfounded, I began to write a series of essays about the tragic loss of life, the acrid air, and the bewildering sense that the world, and a lot of the neighborhoods my students came from, were on fire.
Many of these pieces appeared in On the Edge: Water, Immigration, and Politics in the Southwest, and when the book entered its final stages of production, I was relieved. It almost seemed as if its publication would put an end to my having to confront such a disturbing subject, on the ground or in print.
And then the next fire season rolled around, and the one after that, and the one after that. With each wave of fire, nature burned through my wishful thinking and my writerly conceit that somehow I might have the last word.
The natural world’s capacity to dislodge us from our imagined safe havens—places material or intellectual—is one of the central themes of my new book, Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dream. It’s no surprise that fire is one of its key subjects, but how we approach it as a biochemical fact, a political reality and a policymakers’ conundrum, matters a great deal.
“The West does not always flame out every summer; it just seems as if it does,” I write in the book’s introduction. “And not every fire is a smoke signal of distress, though many of them are. Picking through the region’s fiery terrain is a tricky business, then, as tricky as trying to extinguish a roaring blaze in the baked heat of August.”
Trying to capture fire’s complexity, its erratic movements as it chews through a forest and the public imagination, led me to write about some of the West’s most fearsome conflagrations.
The 2009 Station Fire roared through 250 square miles of the San Gabriel Mountains, filling the Los Angeles basin with a thick shroud of smoke. Water-dumping helicopters and fire retardant–laden jets made sortie after sortie. Every day a massive pyrocumulus cloud absorbed the sky, an eerie sight; and every evening I was transfixed as politicians, pundits, and the public laid waste to the firefighting agencies’ strategies and tactics.
Bigger still was the 2011 Wallow Fire, which burned an astonishing 841 square miles in Arizona but nary a structure—a result of many people’s newfound appreciation for how to build defensible space in their homes and communities.
These large stories dovetailed with a much smaller one, the thirteen-acre Foothill Fire that in 2013 swept through the Bernard Field Station on the northern edge of the Claremont Colleges where I teach. The once-charred landscape is now a living lab for faculty and students to analyze how a coastal sagebrush ecosystem recovers.
These blazes, regardless of their size, had their origin in human action: an inattentive hiker let his campfire blow up into the Wallow, an arsonist ignited the Station, and chop-saw wielding water company workers sent a shower of sparks into the field station’s tinder-dry brush. Fire, in short, is mostly a people problem.
Yet each of these, and their many analogs over the past decade or so, has also been fueled by a climate-changed environment. Collectively they serve as a signal flare: the landscape is in distress, and our addiction to carbon has intensified its vulnerability.
Multiple reminders of our complicity erupted this June. The Fish and Reservoir fires in the San Gabriel Mountains sent a massive plume of smoke over eastern Los Angeles County and beyond; ashes swirled in the air like tiny snowflakes and covered our car. In the southern Sierra the Erskine Fire—pushed by howling winds—raced across 36,000 acres in thirty hours, killing several people. Even the small Marina Fire in the eastern Sierra has much to tell us about fire’s regenerative processes.
Framing these fires is the news that more than 66 million trees are dead in California, a result of drought and wood-boring beetles. The significance of this data is hotly debated. Some believe the die-off will be responsible for catastrophic conflagrations; others, myself included, suggest that dead trees alone do not a catastrophe make. What is undeniable is that the story of fire in California and across the rest of the flammable West is unending.
Nov 2, 2015 (2:01 pm)
There aren’t many places more beguiling than the native-plant garden on the fourth floor of Trinity University’s Center for Science and Innovation, itself a captivating structure of brick, limestone, and glass. The open-aired plaza, home to blue grama and bear grasses, Blackfoot daisies, salvias, and bluebonnets, faces southeast to capture the prevailing breeze, a movement of air that can take the heat out of the sky. So it did the other night, ruffling green leaves, red flowers, and white tablecloths.
What drew us to the rooftop on that balmy night was a celebration of Trinity University Press and its embodiment of our collective love of books and the cultural conversations they can spark. Our appreciation of words and the worlds they can create. Our respect for smart ideas and the debates they should engender.
As for me, I was also there because of the way the past set up this particular moment under the stars, a direct connection between then and now, history made manifest in a telephone line.
In 2001, the Ewing Halsell Foundation had provided a magnificent leadership gift to re-launch the Trinity University Press. That summer I was asked to chair the search committee for the new director of the publishing program, and so one hot August day I picked up the phone and called Barbara Ras, then Senior Editor at the University of Georgia Press. A friend had recommended her as a consummate editor, superb poet, and someone with a keen sense for where the publishing industry was heading. She’d know everyone I would need to know to build the candidate pool, he advised.
What he didn’t tell me was that I would be bowled over by Barbara: less than five minutes into our first conversation and I was no longer just describing the position but was pitching the job to her — selling this as an exciting start-up opportunity, promoting the University’s intellectual energy, and touting San Antonio’s manifold virtues. By some sweet luck, we managed to lure her to the Alamo City and this red brick campus, and in 2002 the press was open for business.
That puts it too gently: “kicked-down-the-doors open” might be more apt. Notable writers, poets, and critics — like W.S. Merwin, Rebecca Solnit, and Barry Lopez,Naomi Shihab Nye, Edward Hirsch, andGary Snyder, Desmond Tutu, Lucia Perillo, and Peter Turchi — were among the literary luminaries eager to publish with the press. Not bad company.
Better still is to see their beautifully produced books, and the invariably eye-popping covers, laid out on display. Working my way along the three book-laden tables at the recent reception, what jumped out was the plenitude of texts devoted to identifying, pondering, and probing the human place in place, sparking this idiosyncratic catalog of some of them:
The last of these, W.S. Merwin’s meticulous recounting of the painstaking process by which to reconstruct a single tree felled in the woods, a poem gracefully illustrated by Liz Ward’s as-precise renderings of the cellular structure of the arboreal, offers a moral challenge: how will we restore what we have cut down, scraped clean, or paved over? How will we respond to Merwin’s daunting, because existential, charge: “Everything is going to have to be put back.”
Step One: read. Read to deepen our environmental literacy and regain our sense of agency, for this knowledge and activism are as crucial to the restoration of this blue planet’s once-teeming biodiversity and as they are to the rebuilding of more resilient, just, and habitable communities.
There is nothing new about the claim that words can change the course of human events. “I cannot live without books,” the author of the Declaration of Independence once asserted, believing them “a necessary for life.” If only we could conjure up Thomas Jefferson, invite him to join us in a certain upper-story garden, where we will have spread out some of the press’ most recent publications—The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness, A Muse and A Maze, A Natural History of North American Trees, A Cloud of Unusual Size and Shape, and Crossing the Plains with Bruno—and then watch him dream up a new found land.
Jun 23, 2014 (8:31 am)
The San Antonio Spurs taught me my place.
Not by what they did on the basketball court, impressive though their slick shooting, quick passes, and tight D have been over the years, but by my vocal reaction to watching their championship runs. I yell and groan and take players to task. That’s perfectly acceptable at the games, whether they have been played in the intimate, sight-line-challenged HemisFair Arena or the cavernous Alamodome, or now in the AT&T Center.
Apparently it’s much less so at home, when everyone in the family is jammed on the couch, watching television in close quarters. Every so often I’d get tossed out, like Bob Bass, Cotton Fitzsimmons, Larry Brown, or Pop ejected from a game. So I’d go for a walk, which is when my lessons began.
I learned the first one quickly enough: if I wanted to monitor the ebb and flow in a pre-smart-phone era, I had better not stroll through my leafy neighborhood of Olmos Park. The houses are too big, too separated from one another, too well sealed (to keep the air conditioning inside). I could tell by the flickering lights that folks were watching Los Spurs, but I couldn’t decipher the game’s progress because nary a sound or word escaped outside in this buttoned-down enclave.
Across McCullough Avenue and the railroad tracks to the west, updates were much easier to come by. Working my way through Olmos Park Terrace, Northmoor, and adjacent neighborhoods, weaving along Mandalay, Lovera, Thorain, and Mariposa, running up and down Howard or Belknap Place, the homes are smaller, windows up, and televisions loud. So were the inhabitants; like the light pooling on the front lawn, their voices spilled through the screens, slipped past chain-link, and filtered through oak and crape myrtle, becoming an audible record of the game’s momentum. The cheers, boos, and silence served as my play-by-play.
Occasionally I’d pass others walking through the noise and dimming sky. Had they, too, been shown the door? I stumbled on an answer during the 2005 NBA finals. The Spurs had squared off against the Detroit Pistons, as tight and tense a series as there had been in a decade (the Spurs won in seven). Asked to do something more useful than bemoaning our fate, I headed to the local H-E-B to buy groceries. The store was unnervingly empty, as the streets had been; at game time in San Antonio, you hunker down.
Inside the too-bright store, a small television, set within an endcap devoted to Spurs paraphernalia, had the game on, and as I loaded the cart I made certain to pass it coming and going. By the time I reached the only available checkout line, so had the handful of others who had been cruising the aisles. While the cashier rang up my purchases, I felt compelled to admit that I had been exiled so my family could watch in peace. Several folks behind me started to laugh. “We were, too!” they said.
I found them again at the celebratory river parade on June 18, following the Spurs’ utter dismantling of the Miami Heat, its fifth championship since 1999. After each triumph, the newly crowned NBA champs have piled on to an armada of barges and chugged along the Riverwalk, bathing in their fans’ thrilled adulation. At moments like these the Spurs remind us of the river’s central function, I wrote in Deep in the Heart of San Antonio, as our “communal artery and civic stage.” The place where we come together and act out, releasing the pent-up anxiety stored during the long regular season and compressed during the playoffs, finally to explode in unfettered joy when the first boat swings around the bend.
This year the electricity sparked while I was standing with a sweat-stained throng jammed on the Convent Street bridge. As his craft plowed toward us, Tony Parker sensed our energy and raised his arms in a V. We screamed. I don’t know what I was yelling, but I loved that I could.
Char Miller, a Spurs fan since 1981 when he and his family moved to San Antonio, teaches at Pomona College (where current Spurs coach Gregg Popovich once coached). He is the author of Deep in the Heart of San Antonio: Land and Life in South Texas and On the Edge: Water, Immigration, and Politics in the Southwest, and editor of On the Border: An Environmental History of San Antonio, all with Trinity University Press.
Photo credit: Spurs Facebook page.