Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Pinin' fer The Big Green Tree That Ain't There

Keep a-movin’ Dan, he’s a Devil not a man and he cools the burning sand with water . . . cool, clear water.

* * *
They turned on the Rio Grande the other day, a few days earlier by the calendar than last year.  And why not?  The upstream reservoirs  — we call them “lakes” here in New Mexico — are at 18% of capacity.  Last year at this time it was 11%.  They were playing beach volleyball on the river bed at this time last year. Travelers tell me they’ve had some significant rain up north where the run-off feeds into the river, which can only help matters.

* * *
O, Dan and I with throats burned dry and souls that cry for water . . . cool, clear water.

* * *

This is arid New Mexico’s worst drought since 1873.  It is our third consecutive year of severe drought. The southern half of New Mexico has been mostly devoid of precipitation. A little rain and snow fell over the western and northern high terrain and the central and northeast highlands earlier this month. More than 97% of the state is in “moderate to exceptional” drought. The drought is “severe to exceptional” over 86% of the state. One third of New Mexico is now suffering “extreme to exceptional” drought. There’s no relief in sight.

Water use restrictions, where they exist at all, are not very stringent in New Mexico. They’re mostly in the north of the state — which still gets a little rain and snow.   Here in the dry, dry south, Las Cruces imposes token use restrictions — but the golf course grass is still green.

Over all, this politically conservative state hasn’t much stomach for conservation.

* * *
All day we trace the barren waste without the taste of water . . . cool, clear water.  

* * * 

The water flowing under the Fairacres bridge yesterday was neither cool nor clear.  It smelled bad. Lots of ugly flotsam.  The thirsty pecan groves and onion fields of the Mesilla Valley don’t care about cool or clear or flotsam.  All they care about is wet.

Someone opened the floodgates too wide up at the Caballa reservoir. River water appeared down here sooner than expected.  It flowed bank-to-bank yesterday — close to flood stage — where only a day before ORV jockeys had played silly games in the sand.  


We’re in debt to Mexico for its share of the Rio Grande.  An international commission meets often in a frantic effort to do the impossible: allocate too little water to too many users.

We’re luckier than most here in Dona Ana County, sitting atop a big aquifer.  But maybe our luck is running out, faster, even, then we realize.  You can still drill maybe  40 feet and get cool, clear water flowing from your well.  The water table is 35 feet below the surface.  Well drillers advise household users to drill 100 feet because the table top is sinking fast.  One big pecan grower just drilled 300 feet even though irrigation water has to travel only 200 feet to his grove. When, that is, there is any river water.

Meanwhile, all the pols in the pockets of the oil and gas extractors want to frack and drill for fossil fuels, a process that corrupts the dwindling water table.  Go figure!

* * *

O Dan can’t you see that big green tree where the water’s runnin’ free . . .

* * * 

Along the Rio Grande, the “big green tree” is Russian salt cedar, a foreign invasive species that sucks up water at the expense of native plants.

When will we ever learn?

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Foreign Policy in One Neal Shine Line

The late C.J. (Neal) Shine, onetime city editor and then publisher of the Detroit Free Press, had a sharp, spontaneous wit: he was genuinely funny and spared no one.  Friends thought he looked like the actor Pat O’Brien.  When the Real Item came to Detroit for a comedic gig the Freep staff rigged a face-to-face battle of one-liners between the two.  I think it was a stand-off.

Shine once answered the telephone and the caller asked to speak to a colleague known for his long, liquid lunch hours. “Sorry,” Shine said, “but he’s out having his semi-annual liver transplant. The liver took but he rejected the strip of bacon.”  When Norm Cash struck out yet again at old Tiger stadium, a fan shouted, “Good riffle, Norm.” Shine said, “He leads the league in good riffles.” He once said of an infamously corrupt Hamtramck politician, “he’s got the reverse Midas touch.  Everything he touches turns to shit.” He had a million of ‘em.

I want to borrow that last one and use it to describe United States foreign policy.  Take Ukraine.  Please. (Sorry, Neal).

We spent $5 billion in direct cash and millions more in Black Ops to overthrow a democratically-elected president whose body odor we didn’t like.  Now Ukraine is divided — Crimea has voted to attach itself to Russia — and blood-spattered. It has Willy Wonka as its new boss man, and Euro-style austerity as an economic model.  Just what an already poor and starving people need. Civil war and stale bread. 

Oh, quit whimpering, Ukraine, and eat a bon-bon.  What if you were, say, Iraq, to pluck a country out of thin air.  When it was being bullied by Saddam Hussein — remember Saddam? He had those magic WMDs that made mushroom clouds without even existing! — at least the air was thicker.  Now that we’ve liberated it, all it’s got is  violence, pollution and starvation.  And only 1,455,591 Iraqi men, women and children had to become collateral damage to achieve this gift of democracy. Thanks, Amerika.

Or Afghanistan.  Now there’s a foreign policy prize for you — if you can remember why we went there in the first place.  If you say to chase down Osama bin Laden, you’ve been smoking too much of the Afghan national product.  And by the way, tell me again why we had to whisk bin Laden’s carcass out to sea and dump it as if it were evidence or something. The people of Afghanistan are indifferent as to which particular warlord is bloodying their turf. They’ve been ravaged by history’s best — Alexander the Great, various Muslim armies, Genghis Kahn, colonial England, Russia and now us.  Do what you will, Yank, but leave my poppy field alone, ‘kay? We’ve wasted roughly $5 trillion fighting shades in this stinkhole and the cost rises daily.  Oh my! We’ve run up a deficit! Quit feeding those shiftless Darkies in Arkansas and send more bombs to Kabul.

You name your place Libya and you’re begging to be liberated by Amerika, right? And it only cost us $2 billion to off Muammer Qaddafi, as the great economist, Joe Biden, reminded us. What that pittance bought for today’s Libya is a human rights nightmare overrun by militias. Bloodshed and chaos mount daily as does the threat of civil war. Every now and then our supine media take note of Libya, like when an oil tanker is seized by rebellious militiia; or when a British oil worker is shot dead while having a picnic; or when the country's prime minister is kidnapped. What’s a raghead prime minister or two when you’re keeping the world safe for democracy?

We can thank Vladimir Putin for not being able to add Syria to our list of foreign policy disasters, except that it’s not kosher in Washington to thank Vladimir Putin for anything except possibly his rendition of “Blueberry Hill” on You Tube.

Which brings us back to Ukraine. Do you think the CIA really hijacked the country’s entire gold reserves the other day? So what if it did?  Only amounted to $1.8 billion or so.  Wouldn’t even fetch us another Libya.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Day This Land Was Our Land

The Organ Mountains overlooking my home town, Las Cruces, N.M., have the absolute capacity to mesmerize. They did so the first time I laid eyes upon them two decades ago. They did so again  a few days ago, when something very good happened in Barack Obama’s United States.

We celebrated the designation of these mountains by Mr. Obama as the nation’s newest National Monument, embracing not just the Organs but also their neighboring desert, lesser peaks, volcanic holes in  what was once a prehistoric sea, canyons rich with the art and sacred relics of earlier native civilizations—nearly 500,000 acres of stark natural beauty and wonder.

Most of the hundreds gathered on a high school soccer field with a stunning view of the Organs had fought for a decade or more for a more protected status for these public lands. As waves of new development swept over the area, their struggle became more urgent, and took on the classic form of public discourse in our divided nation. On one side. petitioning for monument status, were The People — hikers, picture-shooters, scholars, horsemen, hunters, scientists, bird-watchers, petroglyph and pictograph admirers, wildlife fanciers, tribal councils and native American culture preservers, a spectrum of ordinary Americans as wide and deep as our rainbow race itself.  On the other side, the money people: makers of off-road machines, ranchers whose hooved locusts graze our lands for pittance fees, a congressman wedded to the interests of oil and gas extractors who made him rich, NRA kooks who think this natural paradise is theirs to shoot up at will,Tea Party nuts accusing the federal government of stealing land it already owned. 

One would think that protecting something so beautiful, so sacred, so valued by so many would be a simple task in a democratic nation.  But it wasn’t. Money, greed and corruption wield vast power in this country against even the most noble of goals. Bill after bill to protect the lands languished in Congress.

Finally, last Wednesday, Mr. Obama invoked his powers under an Antiquities Act signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt more than a century ago. He proclaimed the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks area of southern New Mexico to be a National Monument. 

Only two days later, on a grassy field, where the spring sun and shifting clouds made the Organs dance to the wind’s song, The People gathered for their brief, shining Camelot moment.    A native American tribal leader invoked blessings upon them and the sacred lands they came to celebrate. Leaders — three U.S. senators, the Secretary of the Interior, a mayor, state legislators, commissioners, councilors, heads of large and small organizations — thanked themselves and the President for the gift of perpetuity for our magnificent lands, but unanimously decreed that the greatest gratitude should go to those who truly brought it about — The People.

There were tents with cold drinks and hot New Mexican food. A mariachi band with a tireless tenor and a trumpeter who improvised a full octave higher than the score. A fine high school choir singing real good the perfect song for the occasion, Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” There was, my companion said, “a lot of love out there today.”

In our  moment, I felt fleetingly the sense of serene excitement I had when the nation elected its first black President, the man I thought would lead our country to a new birth of freedom, who would launch it on a path to equality, with truth and justice for all.

Barack Obama failed terribly in the great tasks we imagined for him.  But just a few days ago he did a good thing. For that brief shining Camelot moment, this land was my land.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Our 'Time of Universal Deceit'

A writer friend referred in conversation the other day to the amazing prescience of George Orwell, taking particular note of his saying that “political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

When political language is transcribed as “news,” as it is by the United States media these days, the result is a populace enslaved by its own ignorance, a populace that, as Franz Kafka wrote, finds it “safer to be in chains than to be free.” A populace that tolerates with scarcely a whimper the dismantling of the Bill of Rights, the cancellation of individual liberties, the forfeiture of the power of the electorate to the power of the corporations. 

Orwell foresaw for us “a time of universal deceit,” a time when telling the truth would be “a revolutionary act.”  Today, truth-telling is not just a revolutionary, but a criminal, act. Chelsea Manning made the truth available to us, and was branded a traitor, and tortured and incarcerated. Dennis Kucinich spoke the truth in Congress when he voted against an illegal and immoral invasion of Iraq.  He was gerrymandered out of public service.  Julian Assange created on the worldwide web a place to find truth in governments’ own documents, in videos of murder in the name of democracy, and has been branded a criminal, forced to seek amnesty in the Embassy of Ecuador in London.  Edward Snowden revealed the truth to us, the terrible, ominous truth of our own government’s spying on us, and on other governments, friendly ones, a Big Brother so awesome that virtually every move we make can be recalled by government spies and used against us. Snowden is in exile in Moscow. Aaron Swartz, a computer science genius and activist for a free and open Internet, was hounded by trumped-up criminal charges until he hanged himself.  Others whom we thank for telling us the truth, and whom we call whistle-blowers, face arrest under specious laws like the infamous Patriot Act and jail under a politicized judicial system.

“War,” Orwell predicted, “only happens when the moneyed classes think they are going to profit from it.”  Who, pray tell, has profited from Iraq, from Afghanistan, from Libya; would have profited from Syria; stands to profit from Ukraine, Somalia, Central Africa, Iran, Russia?  Big oil.  Big defense contractors.  Bought-and-paid-for politicians.  Murky spy-and-security firms.

We are sick with every social illness Orwell foresaw, and more. A woman exercises her constitutional right to public protest in a grassroots movement called “Occupy,” is groped and mauled by a policeman, and is sentenced to 17 years in prison for “assaulting” her captor. Judges tell rape victims they “asked for it.”  Millions of women are deprived of their right to privacy and to primacy over their own bodies —by leering, lascivious, Bible-thumping male politicians with the personal morals of skunks. White supremacists slay young black males who “threatened “ them with Skittles and walk free under “stand your ground” laws passed by the same slime who demean our women.  Our de facto state religion is Christianity, especially a brand of Christianity that sanctions the killing of abortion-providing doctors and calls itself “pro-life.” Never mind the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion, for which Justice Scalia has nothing but contempt. They demand King James Bible-based law, but vilify Quran-based law.  We willingly commit trillions of tax dollars to the killing of our own citizens if their views are unpopular, to the killing of innocent women and children in Asian, African and Arab countries — but we “cannot afford” to feed our hungry, clothe our poor or comfort our jobless.

We still refer to this sorry society as a “democracy” only because, as Kafka wrote, we believe so passionately in something that does not exist, that we create it.

But the myth of democracy does not absolve our immoral wars, our punishment of our poor, our hungry, our jobless or our own huddled masses yearning to breathe free. It does not absolve our torture, our murders, our brutal interference in the affairs of other nations. 

And we who tacitly consent to all of this, who lack the courage to rebel against it, are as guilty as our oppressors.

“If you want a vision of the future,” Orwell wrote, “imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”