If We Lived Within Our Means

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I arrived home from the deserts of Arizona yesterday. I enjoyed the moments, after the rain, when the sun shone warm on my face and a breeze lifted my hair. I think you can guess where this is going.

Back in Grand Lake, Colorado, where the temperature was a balmy 34 degrees last night, I breathed a sigh of relief. The dry air brushed against my hands and curled under my hair to give me a chill, but the kind of chill that is friendly and invites you to put on a roomy sweatshirt.

This morning in the strident sun, it’s 23 degrees and perfect. The smooth snow advertises a pillowy comfort while my littlest dog runs along its hard-shell top with the tiny steps of a toddler trying not to slip. New Ponderosa Pines and tiny firs demonstrate resilience in this pine-beetle-wasted lot, their needles vibrant and clearly vigorous.

Yes, there was green grass and budding flowers in the desert city. Every time I’m down there I wonder about the cost.

A few summers back, I straddled the headwaters of the Colorado river, amazed that the seepage in a green meadow would become the high class rapids I rafted down a decade ago. It all begins here, maybe 15 miles from where I live.

I think most of us know that the Colorado River only began reaching the sea again in 2014 after the U.S. and Mexico made the Minute 319 addendum that now allows the waters to reach the Gulf of California and the Sea of Cortez. I’m frustrated that the addendum was even needed.  Every time I see the crops, homes, and flowers of the Salt River Valley, I’m reminded that the 12th largest metro region in America, with a population of more than 4.5 million people, shouldn’t be there.  The people, the crops, the golf courses full of sprinkler systems for exceed the capability of that area’s water. Instead, they take long showers, mostly unaware of the source of their water. The Salt River project obtains water from the Colorado River, among other sources.

Water and oil don’t mix. And water will be the resource we battle over in the future.

Even as the Colorado River now finally returns to the Sea of Cortez, much of the snow melt in the Never Summer range in Colorado runs into the Grand Ditch, built in 1890, and flows to the east side of the front range in Colorado. Another reclamation project, the Adams Tunnel, takes water pumped from Grand Lake into the Shadow Mountain Reservoir and sends it 13.1 miles, an exact half-marathon, under Rocky Mountain National Park and to the dry eastern slopes of Colorado. Originally this water was intended for agriculture, but more and more it supplies water to the growing population in Eastern Colorado. The Front Range Urban corridor extending from Denver to southern Colorado Springs has more than 4.8 million people alone.

I wonder how this story ends? Reading post-apocalyptic books, especially Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus, shows us the imagined possibilities of what all this man-made manipulation could create. After turning the dark pages of this potential future, I’m always hoping for something better. Could nature simply choose to reclaim the alterations we’ve made for its own purposes? Could we reverse the damages in time?

What would the world look like if we lived within our means?

 

History in the Making

Apocaplyptic Lady Liberty
Photo from Doug Cunningham’s Facebook Page

I’ve been grading student work. In fact, most people who teach on a traditional schedule have been working like crazy to finish up first-semester grades. I’m on terms for my institution, so we simply start over every 10 weeks, and I’m only grading milestone projects. They’re not memorable.

I think most of my teacher friends would agree that the majority of our grading isn’t memorable. Occasionally one person out of 81 students will write something that rings true. A bell chime from a Buddhist monastery. An angel receiving its wings.

One student paper that wouldn’t have been memorable took on significance in a changing context. Nearly more than a decade ago, a talented young man had just beautifully argued that terrorism would become the warfare of the future. As I was marking the A- on the top of his paper, my phone rang. “Turn on the TV.”

Click and I find the first tower billowing smoke. Within a few seconds, a massive object sweeps across the screen and explodes into the second tower. I’ve never forgotten that paper and, much the same as any cognizant American on September 11, 2011, I’ve never forgotten the images searing that moment into my identity. That was history, happening in front of my eyes.

Sometimes we know when history is being made. Sometimes we know events unfolding before us will become lore and eventually the content of student textbooks and the basis for more immemorable grading.

A factor that makes the American 9/11 stand apart from some other historical moments is the ubiquity of the images. With a limited number of channels and a 24-hour news cycle, we saw the same images repeating themselves: images that are iconic today. We all share memories of the same image, even if our contexts were different. I was standing in my living room. Recently, my students described how they were in elementary school classrooms watching TV. But we all know what that second explosion looked like.  And we cannot erase the haunting image of the man falling. We know the dust cloud chasing the people up the street.

As early as 1925, Maurice Halbwachs was writing, in French, about the idea of collective memory and the way that the images we see in the present influence our memory of the past. We find an effect from the group experience of these touchpoints in history, and they shape our memory of how we arrived at this moment.

Only a few years after 9/11, Alison Landsberg wrote a book about “prosthetic memories:” images, broadcast to us, that seem tangible to our minds and yet, in many ways, they are “inauthentic” because we don’t experience the events firsthand.  All of these images are mediated in some way for us. In the case of 9/11, the TV channels decided the angle, the duration, the commentary.

One of my favorite people to work with at the Air Force Academy, Professor Tom Vargish, taught me about contingent reality, that our present-day moment or personal reality is contingent upon the sum of personal experiences that brought us to this point. So many of us have shared experiences because of the nature of our increasingly connected, media-centric world where we personally witness a communal media event, and yet we never have identical experiences. Still, we can speak about this moment, the first day after the winter solstice of 2017, with a collective memory.

We knew history was happening on 9/11. How do we know when history is happening in more subtle ways? So many of my friends have felt the unrest of our present moment. We share the memory of hearing our nation’s leader say he assaults women as a regular practice: (“Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”). We witnessed neo-Nazi protests end the life of a peaceful counter protestor in Charlottesville. We share the #metoo movement hanging out of balance with wave after wave of evidence that a systemic culture of assault and oppression exists in our country. Not just assault against women, but assault on most forms of decency. The tax bill moving out of Congress promises to increase the gap between the most wealthy and the most impoverished. Our supposed leaders cower before the threat of retaliation.

All of these “memories” belong to us, collectively, are being mediated for us through multiple sources, and are becoming the fabric of who we are. How do we know when history is being made?

Sometimes I fight this history, spooling out before me into an apocalyptic nightmare that is actually coming into existence, by creating my own memories, mediated through my own, tangible experience.  When I glide through a pine-beetle-devastated forest on too-little snow, sometimes I can set aside my fears about global warming and our future. Sometimes I strengthen the foundation of my contingent reality with crunchy snow steps, bounding dogs, and the tracks of rabbits disappearing into wood piles under the watchful eye of snow-capped mountains.

If only for a moment, I make my own history.

On Buoyancy

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I’ve never thought of snow as buoyant. Nor have I thought about how the word buoyant extends out of buoy and makes me think of plastic floats bobbing on waves. Lifeholds. Hope against drowning.

At 18 degrees farenheit in the sun-dense warmth that is uniquely Colorado, I float within and around diamond-flaked snow.  Strapped to my feet are snowshoes that give me superpowers. I cross scrub-saturated meadows with easy grace, lifted over the tangling growth by the snow.

Of course, I’m thinking about how these devices and a little snow transforms the world around me.

Snow is so forgiving. Molding over bushes and softening the lines of trees; snow blankets the frigid and weary foliage, a solace against the winds and ice. Snow spreads out the weight of my footsteps, holding me above the everyday surroundings.

The weight of the world, especially this world in this moment, also spreads across this snow.  I don’t posthole into the softness in my technical, green shoes. I think about how naturally these things come together and I understand that the snow and the shoes and the world are love.

Shuffling up a mountain trail, the love spreads before me and around me. Squirrels alert others about me. The sun heats my body until I’ve peeled off all but my bottom layer. Suffused in light and warmth, cradled in the mittened winter hands of the world, I admire the example set forth here.

We need to fill in spaces with pillowy soft forgiveness. We need to bring along our own green-shoed acceptance, the only way to embrace and rise on the this love-gift. We need to imbue everything with our love, meeting their love, creating the world’s love.

Then maybe we can make tracks away from the place we’re in.
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Lunar Howl

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Chill blue.
Mountains mere ink blots,
Trees stretch bony arms.

An orb ascending in the vast
Infinity of space.

Nothing infinite about this space.

I can’t read.
Can’t watch.
Can’t barely breath.

Fake?
It’s all too real.
History unraveling before me.

There’s nothing new under the sun.

Then the remote glow breaks
Over peaks, higher than you.
Higher than me. Higher than this.

Lake transformed to a
Mirror reflecting other-worldly light.
Other-worldly.

Is it too much to hope for,

Something new?
Under the new, full moon?