Hay Fever (and climate change)

It’s not the hay, though.  It’s the ragweed.  Ambrosia artemesiifolia or Ambrosia psilostachya, both from the Sunflower family.

I’ve had ever-worsening allergies here at Hopi for the last five years or so.  Last summer was the pits – Kerry even had to give me a lift to Flagstaff (my eyes were swollen shut) just to escape the pollen.  Keep in mind, I’ve never had allergies until now.

The cause?  As best I can tell it’s the ragweed.  And the Russian thistle (a brush against the plant causes my arms to break out).  And also perhaps lodgepole pine (up at Vail the second week of June, I’m a runny, congested mess).

Yeah, yeah, yeah.  We’ve all heard it.  And we all have allergies.

Which is my point exactly.  In the last few years, it seems that everyone here is walking around with itchy red eyes, swollen faces, and congested sinus.  Hopi Health Care ER is full of it.  And this year I’ve done my own informal survey, asking every checkout clerk in Flag, every person in a chance conversation, etc. if they have allergies.  The answer has been uniform, 100%.  Yes.  But not like this.  Or not until now.  Or never this early.  Or it is way worse then I’ve ever experienced.  100%.  Not one person (out of perhaps 100) answered differently.


I asked the pharmacist in Walgreens about it.  “There’s probably some pollen or something in the air that they’re allergic to,” she said.

Now there’s a waste of eight years of education.

What’s interesting is to have a widespread allergic response at Hopi.  They’re an isolated, genetically uniform population that have been living in this environment for over two thousand years.  By now folks would have either adapted to allergens native to the environment.  Or if they had always been this severe,  I doubt people would have settled here in the first place.

So at a birds eye view, what’s going on?  Non-native invasive species (ragweed and russian thistle) have moved in.  But that happened with grazing and land disturbance at least a hundred years ago.  What’s happened in the last few years?  It could be diet or lifestyle related – think homeopathy.  Bodies were once able to cope with local allergens because folks spent most of each day out on the land and had exposure year round, as well as consuming micro quantities through the local food.  Now people are holed up inside in cubicles or watching TV at home.  But it still doesn’t quite add up.

The best answer through my lense came from Bill McKibben a few weeks ago in his book Eaarth.  It’s climate change.  According to McKibben, a recent study showed that ragweed grows 10% taller and puts out 60 percent more pollen with increasing temperatures. Ten of the hottest years on record have occurred in the last 13 years.  In addition, the pollen season has extended because the growing season is longer.  And ragweed pollen can travel hundreds of miles.  It doesn’t need to be growing here.

What holds true for ragweed may hold true for other plants.  A friend who was in Beaver Creek this last month (and is normally not prone to extreme allergies) was a mess.  She described walking through “storms of pollen raining through the air”.

Which means climate change isn’t going to just result in trivial disasters like super cell storms, class 5 hurricanes, severe flooding in the upper and lower midwest, 365 straight days of rain in Columbia, and massive tornados wiping out Joplin Missouri.

All of our eyes will be swollen and itching, too.


Disaster’s Playing Field

Two nights ago, I lay awake at 2 am listening to the howling wind. It was hot and dry, and blowing at night no less. Usually the winds die down by dusk. Even more importantly, this stuff is supposed to be done with by the middle of May. This year, we’re coming up on July and the wind is still blowing relentlessly.

If this is just an abnormal year, that’s totally fine. Abnormal means we have a normal to return to. Some year’s it’s hot. Some it’s cool. In the end it all works out. But if this (or something like it) is the new normal, I believe we may be in trouble. Here, unless you’re really good you can’t successfully dry farm under these conditions.

Dry farmers in this part of the Plateau depend on the pulse of moisture that arrives in January and February. If you’re lucky it soaks in and permeates deep layers of clay. If you’re even more lucky, you get a light pulse of rain in April or May that will jump start the seeds when you put them in. Even when the winds hit in May, the corns are well enough adapted to withstand it.

But when the winds blow through June, you can’t even get out there to plant. And if you do, the old moisture is evaporating so quickly out of the soil that the tap roots may not be able to chase it down fast enough. And if the winds blow through July, well, hardly any plant can survive that.

Or rather, they can if it comes upon them slowly. Technically speaking, dry land farming is, in part, about applying gradual selective pressure to seed stock so that over time it can evolve to withstand extreme environmental conditions. But that’s not what’s going on. Last year, the winds quit at the beginning of June. Now it’s four weeks later. Plants may not be able to adapt quickly enough.

If this is the first sign of our agriculture being suddenly bludgeoned to death, we can’t stand on the sidelines. Now’s the time to jump onto the playing field. Why? Because extreme conditions breed extreme diversity. You see it in edge ecologies – biomes that exist on the edge of a stable ecosystem evolve much more quickly with far stranger and exotic and powerful results.

This morning I was out hoeing and I caught sight of my Hopi neighbor watering his corn. It’s pretty much a daily routine for him, almost to the point where you might as well consider it aquaculture. I have to hand it to him, though. One, he’s farming. A lot of people are not. Two, he cares enough to keep his stuff alive at all cost. Three, he’s been maniacal about keeping his yard clear of ragweed and Russian thistle (which few people do around here). I’m highly allergic to both and his house is upwind of mine, so he’s graciously saving me from a huge autumn headache.

We’re growing for completely different things, though. He’s growing for corn. I, on the hand, am growing for resilience and strength. I don’t need a hundred ears. I just need few. In general, I’m not watering. On the worst wind days I’ve applied a cup or two of water just to keep a few of the plants alive. I don’t even necessarily want to keep them all alive, just the strongest. Let the environment dish out everything that it can. The few plants that survive, why, they’ll be the ones. I want something capable of a deep taproot and extreme resilience in the face of catastrophic wind. Overall, this kind of farming/gardening is a terrifying tightrope to balance.

Hopi corns are very smart. Smarter even than a lot of people I know. It figures out conditions quickly and responds physically just as fast. But even so, I fear the conditions may be changing even faster. I need to goose my plants just enough for them to stay alive, but not too much to drive them out of the race.

In the face of a looming disaster, our human lives may depend on it.



I just gave some money to Greenpeace. Why?

  1. Because it’s Father’s Day.
  2. Because my daughter will need to contend with all the environmental havoc that her father and her father’s father have wreaked on the earth.
  3. Because the young canvasser and her young mates receive so much rejection and someone from my generation should give them a bump.  Even though she told some white lies to get my donation.
  4. Because they take direct action. And direct action will be needed to help shut this baby down.
  5. Because I could get away with only giving my name and so I won’t have to get any crap from them.
  6. Because they gave me a nice sticker. And it’s biodegradable.



That’s the maximum number of CO2 parts per million that the planet can tolerate and still sustain life as we know it.

We are presently at 392.

I heard Bill Mckibben speak (for the third time) yesterday. I was reminded of why he was once such a hero of mine.

I remember when I read his first climate change article. Vermont. 1997. The Atlantic. Presaging Elizabeth Kolbert and Al Gore by a decade, he observed that something serious was happening to our planet, that if we didn’t act soon to curtail carbon emissions we would soon pass the tipping point.

His current message: we’re too late.

In the last few decades the global temperature has risen by one degree. 2010 was the hottest year on record. Last year we experienced cataclysmic drought in Russia leading to massive crop failure.  Last year grain prices spiked 70%.  Similarly Australian agricultural production has been decimated by severe drought and flooding. As the atmosphere warms, it holds more moisture.  Dry places are becoming drier.  Wet places face super storms.

All that is the consequence of one degree. We have enough carbon front loaded into the system that in the coming decades we will face another degree increase. Nothing we do can stop this. The consequences won’t be pretty.

If we don’t stop mining, pumping, and burning, the atmosphere will increase a third degree. That’s when things, as far as homo sapien civilization is concerned, will probably come to an end.

I won’t live to experience it. My daughter will. This I know.

What can I do now to help her?

1. Push back to 350. That means I have to stop adding carbon to the system. The effects of this action made today, though, won’t be felt for another 25 or 50 or 100 years. It’s a longterm play, and a small hedge at that.

2. Push for political action . Five weeks ago our congress passed a resolution denying the existence of global warming. The current administration may soon approve large infrastructure development to support the mining of tar sands in Canada.  McKibben calls now for mass action and civil disobedience. Especially by older people. Without even thinking we and our parents created this damn mess.

3. Community. Courage. Connection. These are from my friend Amy Levek. To that I would add compassion.

We’ve come to rely on very complex technical systems. If those fail us, what will sustain us? Human relations. Along with the courage to act. And the courage to face that which we fear most. And connection to a single place. If we feel that connection, if we realize that the place is us, then we won’t violate it. We can’t. Lastly compassion, the opening of the heart. We all will suffer. Some more than others. We all will need it.


Picks from this afternoon’s screenings:

Barber of Birmingham. Simple men and women standing up. And being beaten down. And standing up again. And crossing that bridge on Bloody Sunday on the march to
Montgomery. And a delicious reminder of the euphoria of that 2008 election.

A Time Has Come. Six Greenpeace activists scale the interior of a coal power plant smokestack and effectively shut it down in the belief that the emission of CO2 is a crime against the planet. A story which, in this town and at this time, can only be received in the context of Tim DeChristopher (aka Bidder 70) who singlehandedly halted oil and gas development in parts of Utah by making fraudulent bids in a public auction. He now faces 10 years of jail time. And he has said publicly that he is happier and more at peace than he has ever been in his entire life.

What action would we give our lives for to make the world a better place?

The Bowl and the Spoon

This year they’ve declared Mountain Film, a zero waste festival. That means I’m carrying a small canvas bag containing a cup, a plate, and a utensil. The initiative came directly from the screening of Bag It last year. Since then the presence of any single use disposable in my life has come to feel like a mortal rather than a venal sin.

I’m grateful to the festival for upping the ante. We’re all grownups, after all. They don’t need to give us plastic chum. They can ask us to bring our own plates and we should be able to figure it out. Stores can stop giving out bags and we’ll get it.

But their policy summons even greater questions and action. Candidate rules to live by:

1. Don’t buy anything. Ever again. In my life. Why should I? I live at the top of the food chain in the richest country in the world in the twenty-first century. What possibly could I need or want?

2. Don’t buy food unless I’m hungry. Truly hungry. Am I eating because I need to or because I want to? And if I want it, do I really want it?

3. Try to see the whole life of the food. Where did it come into being? How was it harvested? How did it come to me? Eat only those plants and creatures that I know.

4. Substitute human energy for fossil energy. This is a big one. Where can we use our hands and bodies and not rely on the grid?

5. When it gets dark let it be dark. Darkness is a gift from the universe. Why mask it with light? What a colossal waste.

6. Be where I am. Why talk with someone far away rather than the person right next to me? And why look in a device rather than the vista ahead? How much energy could we save if we weren’t trying so hard to be somewhere else?

7. Think twice before flipping a switch. Any switch. Every switch incrementally warms the world.

Anything anybody would care to add?

The Windmill and the Whale

I wish we’d bought a map, Anna says.

Don’t worry, I mutter. Look on the phone. We have Google maps.

Dawn. Driving through west Texas. Somewhere southeast of Lubbock. This entire corridor is given over to energy production.

It once was energy for people, energy in the form of cattle. Solar energy harvested by grasses, concentrated into bovine fat and flesh by the gut of a steer, then rendered for our consumption.

Then the land was given over to extracting energy for things: factories, cars, lightbulbs, plastic juice bottles. And the energy came mainly in the form of oil. Ancient solar energy harvested by cycads, velociraptors, all manner of antediluvian life, then rendered by heat and pressure and time into thick black goo.

Biological life condensed into energy to give life to mechanical things.

West Texas wafts with the acrid smell of crude. this morning we drive for miles and can’t escape it.

Until we hit the turbines.

Sixty. One hundred. One hundred and twenty miles of horizon to horizon wind turbines. Solar energy heating the air that then moves in currents and drafts around the planet, to be harvested by windmills to once again feed…things.

There ain’t no farms here. And not much in the way of people. Farmsteads or ranches that once held purchase on thousand acre spreads are now abandoned, crumbling at the ankles of these Cervantian giants.

Those homes that still remain resemble more minuscule bacteria cultures lodged in the creases of the flesh of some great beast.

Any advocate for (or future victim of) wind energy should check this place out.

But it’s clean energy, Anna counters. I think it’s beautiful.

But I think of an unadulterated horizon. Of ranch hands dead and buried. Of migratory birds and raptors, of insects. Of virgin life. Of consequences of which we have no foreknowledge.

And clean energy for what? For things. For this rough beast. For Google server farms. And Google maps.

What, I wonder, would happen if we chose to have no energy? Those turbines power some Leviathan that evades our comprehension, though it is in part of our own making. What if we chose to abandon our devices and starve this thing?

Abilene. Where do we turn next? Anna asks.

Look on the phone, I say. But too late, we’ve missed our exit. I wish we had a map, she says.

It’s going to be a bit longer to Austin today.

Posted from my iPhone