I left 25 years ago, and except for occasional news about former
acquaintances, a few obituaries in quirky rags of various hues and distributions and one casual mention of the town’s oldest dive bar finally burning down, I’ve gone years at a stretch without thinking of my time here. Even now, I’m only stretching my legs before continuing a long drive back to my current life.
This place was once my hometown. It was one of the first destination ski resorts in North America, and like most “last best” towns betrayed by travel mags out to make a buck, it suffers the afflictions common to other pick-your-poison elite retreat/real estate development zones that dot the Mountain West. The streets are familiar, but the stores are up-scale and mostly empty of shoppers, seasonal-worker safehouses I once hung out in are gingerbread restoration projects geared to flip on the next boom cycle, dogs are on leashes and so are most of the people I meet. I’ve had about enough nostalgia for one walk and am heading back to my truck to get the hell out of town, when I look up and the unmistakable facade of the old bar materializes from the mists of my memories.
Through a Glass
Like the rusty prow of a cargo ship moored among yachts, unpretentious but imposing, it rises above its neighbors. The barn-shaped roofline still defines the block, and the front door is just as unassuming as the last time I stepped in after a long night-shift to sip one beer before closing time. Only problem I can see with having a cold one before leaving town is that, according to a reputable source, this dive burned down about five years ago. Temporarily suspending disbelief, I open the door, and confront another problem — the entry hallway that used to smell like spilled beer and vomit is clean, carpeted. There are posters on the walls, and a revealing light that makes me want to turn and leave before I reach the inner door. Thinking that this feels like the start of a long trip toward the bright light that supposedly awaits all mortals, I push open the final door.
There are the exposed log beams that have long supported the second floor’s mysterious goings-on. A few tables sit empty in dim corners. A small television emits stale scenes from a wall at the far end of the bar. The pool tables are in the places I remember, and the row of stools could be propping up the same cast of characters who used to nod in my direction before turning back to their own stories. I look down, and there is an old dog, lying just inside the door where an unobservant tourist might kick him and cause the bar’s regulars to raise their own defenses. I step over the sleeping dog, and head for an empty section along the bar. No heads turn, which can be a good sign when you have no acquaintances in a place like this.
No taps. Bottles of swill beer lined up on the back-bar, and in front of the patrons. The bartender sidles over, and I ask for his darkest brew. He pulls a can of Guinness from one of the wooden-framed coolers I remember, sets it and a cold glass in front of me. I mention that it’s been a long time since I passed this way, and it seems not much has changed, at least in here. He nods, and says with a half-apologetic smile of long practice, “No, except that you can’t smoke here anymore.” My lack of reaction must encourage him to add, “Smells better, anyway, for working in here all day.”
I nod, and he grabs more beers to replace empties down the bar, where guys about my age are solving the budget, reducing taxation, restarting the economy and greeting a recently returned regular in a swirl of barstool bonhomie I figured had gone up in smoke when this bar burned to the ground. Next pass, I’ll try to ask the bartender about the story of a fire, but for now the fine tawny head of the stout in front of me demands attention.
Through the dark glass, I see ghosts of the naïveté that once eyed me from the back-bar mirror while I sorted through the temptations, vicissitudes and possibilities of a wide-open ski-town in full roar. The other old guys down the bar must’ve been young then too, and we may have roared together or butted heads a few times many beers ago. More and more these days, I wander through my old haunts this way, looking and listening for familiar markers that say whether the old ways were just passing fads, or are as venerable as some old buildings and the mountains that surround them.
In the spreading glow of the nearly empty glass, a decision must be made. To move down the bar, ask about a few friends that might have survived to become one of the late-afternoon regulars at this old bar from my half-remembered past, or to quietly pay up and move outside into the late afternoon’s light. On the edge of town, I could drive past more history, and in the next town, see if that one friend still lives in the house I helped him finish. There we could search for more memories, or I can move on through the high sage desert to a dirt road I once drove to its end, where coyotes howled me into the dawn of a new day.
As the bartender comes my way, I glance through the bottom of my glass once more, and a certain amount of clarity returns as the old dog by the door glances up and waits.
Long-time contributor B. Frank is currently traveling incognito through climes hotter than Dante’s imagination. He is the author of “Livin’ the Dream: Testing the Ragged Edge of Machismo” (Raven’s Eye Press, 2010) and occasionally scribbles The Ragged Edge missives to MG readers.
Here I am, entering another small town after yet another week spent haunting a wild river and its scenic wilderness environs, this time with a now (mostly) wilderness-and-scenery sated group of fellow travelers. I just passed a sign that proudly proclaims this town (which shall remain mostly un-pilloried in this missive), with its 133-year history and ubiquitous Main Street lined with decaying buildings and dusty pickup trucks, to be THE WILDERNESS GATEWAY. No shit, here I look up through the bug-spattered window of my own dusty, dented and otherwise well-used truck, and see that this very town will be the site, this very weekend, of the IDAHO LIBERTY SUMMIT.
Now, my trusty Wiktionary traces liberty thusly: “Middle English liberte < Old French liberte < Latin libertas (“freedom”) < liber (“free”); see liberal.),” so imagine my chagrin upon realizing that I have foolishly made other plans, which in this case involves sitting my sweet ass down, driving another 800 miles and earning enough of the empire’s (rumored to be utterly worthless and filthy) lucre to finance my next exploration of wild and scenic backcountry.
I’ll miss the opportunity to be lectured about secretive “biggovernment” plots, by presenters specializing in “Righteous Indignation,” and the “UN Agenda 21, Wildlands and China in Boise.” (By the way, not staying for the speeches, I have no idea what the hell these titles mean. All hyperlinks in this paragraph are my doing, are offered in a spirit of fair play and/or fun, and were not approved by Summiteers, presenters or any biggovernmental handlers.) I’ll miss listening to a contributor to “Justice My Ass!” (please don’t ask), and I’ll not find out how wolves are eating all the elk before hunters can get a shot at them. (“Just who,” you may ask, “will get shot?” I dunno, but wolves, elk and enviro-friendly intermittently feral writer-types might want keep their heads down until the smoke clears.) Once again, I’ll be leaving town before the big event, living my mostly unfettered life in a swath of North America that seems irresistibly drawn to flaming causes that define the larger society as an enemy to be defeated on a battlefield strewn with slogans, strange bedfellows and the decaying hulks of formerly thriving communities gutted, abandoned or bypassed by the movers and shakers of corporatized American politics.
I saw the SILENT MAJORITY SPEAKS sign as I approached town. Saw the VOTE CORRUPTION OUT sign as I drove through a week ago, towing my 50-something-year-old raft trailer loaded with well-used gear, on the way to store it at the edge of town while I joined another trip. I should’ve known the haranguers were about to arrive, and made appropriate plans. It’s always this way, though. I missed the National Tequila Party Movement’s “kickoff rally” in Tucson, back in the spring when its website was injudiciously graced with a banner ad for a brand of tequila made in Mexico, thereby likely alienating a sizable chunk of the (now formerly Republican) founder’s donor base. I was on my way to the mountains and canyons of Colorado and Utah at the time.
I checked recently, and this movement still seems to be having trouble defining its goals, except for being some form of right-of-center leaning get-out-the-vote response to the spate of “Tea Partier” rhetoric that makes being brown in Arizona analogous to being black in Mississippi and points south, east (and too far west and north) a few decades back. Maybe it’s something about the name; though the founder tells a reporter that “It’s just a drink,” the group’s slogan is “your shot for change.” All this leads me by circuitous neural pathways back to catchphrases defining towns, events, people and their political movements. I’m a self-described well-groomed mountain man, with a history of spouting small-l liberal-leaning rhetoric spiced by anarchic actions never to be revealed in prosecutable detail, though mostly I stay under cover as a gray-bearded, amiable outdoorsy sort who never sits with his back to the crowd while in a dimly-lit bar that uses the words “Rod,” “Gun,” “Whitewater” and “Saloon” on a sign advertising its wares in a small Idaho town which, like The Wilderness Gateway loosely described above, will remain un-named in this piece.
I retrieve my river gear from the storage unit at the edge of town, am informed that all but one week of my storage fee will be returned since I didn’t use it (which makes me feel all warm toward ruggedly individualistic, libertarian-rhetoric spouting denizens of small Idaho towns). I decide to drive to the aforementioned Saloon to sip one more beer in front of the “SAVE AN ELK, SHOOT A WOLF” bumpersticker that graces the back-bar below lined-up bottles of cheap beer and rotgut tequila, and then to quietly slip through the “red state” bastions of Idaho and Utah on my way back to the left-leaning, downturn-shocked, teeming population center of my home range. Somewhere in the night, while sipping my last river beer, I’ll check in on the civilized world’s progress in my absence by the light of my failing laptop, and will see “natural” disasters, wars, riots, famine and angst. Studiously ignoring the attendant throng of pundits spouting rhetorical cure-alls from their respective political camps, with the last of my battery’s charge, I’ll also read that ’twas ever thus, courtesy MJF’s “Conservative.” Enjoy.
“You oughta go look down by the bridge — that ol’ boy got some equipment wet.”
“He don’t have much sense anyway … ”
The old-timer’s club had been at the town store, drinking coffee and waiting for the café to open, when I walked through their circle and heard these lines.
Now, at a breakfast table near mine, one asked another, “You gettin’ any work done these days?”
“No, just waitin’ for the river to drop outta my hay meadows. Gettin’ all my irrigation done though.”
“Irrigation and fertilizin’ too,” said another old man.
Sometimes, it’s best for a dirtbag writer/river rat to keep his head down and ears open for a little high-water wisdom from some long-time neighbors of the last free-flowing river in the Colorado River system.
Plates of eggs, potatoes and bacon arrived, the old men’s conversation drifted to other topics, and within hours I’m in a shuttle van cruising past the flooded property by the river bridge, marveling at the assortment of tractors, stock trailers and trucks half-submerged by the Yampa River at flood stage. I am eying the sacrifice and idly considering the decision process that led to this so-called “flood damage.”
Put it down to “don’t have much sense,” or to misplaced trust in past high-flow marks? No time for research, because (to misquote old John Muir) the river is calling, and some of us must go.
One thing about group river trips — you never know who you’re going to meet at a campfire, and I happen to be sitting by a guy named Geoff one night. He lives on a property that has river frontage in the Yampa Valley, and I make plans for a visit.
A week later, and I’m back in the valley, on a hill overlooking two ways of living with a river in flood. Describing a river’s path through the landscape, it’s natural to face downstream. River left, a mature grove of cottonwoods; river right, a few cottonwoods with their lower foliage browsed off at cow-reach. River left, no sign of erosion; river right, a desperate attempt to the river’s advance into a pasture that cattle have mown to lawn height. Left, a riverside fringe of young cottonwoods with water flowing between the trunks; right, a fleet of earth-moving equipment transports a pile of dirt to the undercut riverbank, adding to a new levee.
Right, a large sign advertising the ranch headquarters as an investment property. Left, a conservative mention that the property is owned by an organization whose mission is “to preserve the plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth” — and about here I could turn this exploration into a self-righteous screed about right and left, with an I-told-you-so finger-shaking at the failings of the Old West land use model vs. the New West vision of land as “view shed” for a telecommuting populace of uplinked do-gooders. Luckily for all of us, as my new river pal Geoff showed me around the ranch on river left, the history of the Yampa Valley (and of ranching in the Interior West) cut through stereotypes of right and left, old and new ways.
The Yampa River leaves a canyon just upstream, meanders through the valley’s meadows, and picks up speed again farther west. Taking the path of least resistance, it adjusts course by testing the banks for weak spots. When high water pushes the river from its banks, old decisions pay off, or rise to haunt the current owners.
River left is the Carpenter Ranch, begun by a cattle baron from Texas and sold to the Republican scion of a shoe-factory owner from Chicago and points east. The young Republican became a homesteader, his town’s first attorney, a player in local and state politics and a lobbyist for Western ranchers’ interests during the Great Depression. This “new” Westerner eventually became the first manager of the Taylor Grazing Act, which attempted to codify the use and conservation of grazing lands managed by the federal government in the Interior West. (The Act’s successes and failures will be listed at another time.) In the decades that Ferry Carpenter owned the ranch, a decision to fence the river off from his prized cattle herd inadvertently created a home for river otters, an idyll for birdwatchers and a safety valve that allows the Yampa to renew the ranch’s bottomlands by spreading high-water flows through a healthy riverside grove of narrow-leaf cottonwoods, box elder and red-osier dogwood.
River right is a ranch that placed most of its holdings under a conservation easement, a decision that precludes the slice-and-dice hobby ranch cycle that has boomed and busted many mountain valleys of the New West. (Many readers may name a favorite valley as victim of this plague, while others will need to buy a grizzled mountain denizen a few beers for further diatribes on the subject.) Still, the river eats away at the owner’s investment, with only the newly built levee between river and pasture, in a holding pattern that sends the river’s cutting action to downstream neighbors. The few cottonwoods are aging, and no saplings crowd the riverbanks.
High Water Lines
When a river drops, it’s tempting to repair damages, congratulate winners, blame losers and ignore lessons that high water offers; but this tale of left and right riverbanks confounds sound-bite politics. The current owner of the Carpenter v on river left is the non-profit Nature Conservancy, with a stated mission to “conserve the natural and agricultural heritage of the Yampa River Valley.” The ranch on river right is run for profit, and has signed conservation easements that are monitored by the Nature Conservancy and the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife. Both sides are still working cattle ranches, creating opportunities to apply lessons that may help keep the river and its valley healthy.
In this year of flooding in the Rockies, late summer is a good time to walk the high-water lines of your favorite river. You’ll see flotsam from past decisions, in the roots of doomed trees exposed by undercut banks and ruined machinery. Look closely, though, for cottonwoods and willows sprouting from the rich soil left by receding floods. If you get to the High Country, walk a creek to timberline. Notice here, too, that high water has fed lines of new life on the banks, while setting a fresh course to follow. Talk to some neighbors about what you found, and listen for the freely shared observations of old-timers over early-morning coffee. These may cut across political lines, and could help remind us how to live beside our last free-flowing rivers.
[Writer’s note: My tour guide of the ranch on river left was Geoff Blakeslee. As the Conservancy’s “Yampa River Project Director,” it is his job to measure the pulse of the river, the valley, its inhabitants, and to show a dirtbag writer around the Carpenter Ranch. I appreciate his patience. The Ranch hosts research projects, and is open to the public for bird-watching and education. For more on Ferry Carpenter, read his “Confessions of a Maverick,” State Historical Society of Colorado, ISBN 0-942576-27-6.]
Senior correspondent B. Frank’s last piece for the Gazette was “In the Zone,” which appeared in MG #180. Author of “Livin’ the Dream,” Frank splits his time between the Four Corners and the Borderlands.
I just got off a river trip with a bunch of scientifically minded folk who are passionate about rivers. While we lived a wet dream of high-flow waves, sun, sand, camp games (and maybe a few good beers among those so inclined), they hooked me up with a raft of information on Colorado’s water needs and politics. Back in the research facility, bleary-eyed from staring at online documents, and stiff-necked from puzzling through a virtual tempest of predictions and planning processes, I figure that I shouldn’t keep all the fun to myself.
Let’s take a look at some boat-mates ridin’ the waves …
Flowing at 24,000 cfs (visualize a wall of 24,000 basketballs per second flowing through a canyon bottom), the Yampa River in Dinosaur National Monument is big enough to delight, drench, scare and otherwise satisfy the crap out of any self-respecting river-rat.
Uncontrolled by dams, the Yampa can seem more than a little alien to a lot of folk who regard rivers as a resource or a scourge, depending on where and how high the waters flow, and this is why I’ve been digitally lurking through the chambers of power for clues of just where the Yampa may fit into the grand schemes of water politics.
The Yampa’s yearly flow is a player in the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s strategy of using “identified projects, water conservation, agricultural transfers (both permanent and nonpermanent) and development of new water supplies,” to meet Colorado’s future water demands, as is laid out in the Statewide Water Supply Initiative (SWSI 2010).
Members of the Yampa River Awareness Project were worried enough about the options for “development of new water supplies” to lure my distinguished river-mates onto the wild waters. They see a mighty straw sucking at the Yampa’s bounty; sure enough, one proposed trans-mountain diversion would create a pipeline-feeding lake in the brush-covered hills a few miles upstream from Dinosaur, and (proving how water crosses political and state lines) another straw is proposed for Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Green River. In politics, water tends to run towards power, so if you see yourself playing a role in where and how high your favorite rivers flow, it’s high time to decide which of the Initiative’s options will best float your boat.
If you’ve had about enough clicking, reading and fact-checking, watch these quirky Colorado River Districtfilms on water supply fun and games, and then go dawdle in some secret oasis in the nearby faraway.
(Courtesy: Nathan Fey again [sometimes, it’s good that somebody brought a camera])
Old man Harrison knew the apple business, and he had a vision. He liked to walk the orchard with his fastest pickers before the harvest, telling us how much we’d make on the first day, thanks to his judicious pruning, thinning and the measured applications of water, fertilizer and pesticides. When we agreed with his appraisal, he showed his pride by picking a still-green apple from a tree. He’d open his pocketknife as we walked and cut slices to hand around, so everyone could taste how much sugar was coming up in the fruit.
“I’d say just a few days now, these trees’ll be ready to pick,” he predicted. As we walked on, the old man described how he’d seen the future while on a driving vacation through California with his wife a few months back. “Why, those dry valleys are nothing but sun-blasted brush now, but they could be filled with orchards, just like this–,” he interrupted himself to wave at the trees, “–with water, you could grow all the fruit you wanted.” He looked around at us, “And I saw plenty of water, behind that Hoover Dam.”
The old man grew the best-damned apples I’d ever picked, with irrigation water impounded by one of the projects extolled in the local paper’s masthead, “Apple Capital of the World, and the Buckle of the Power Belt of the Great Northwest.” Although I was several years shy of my 21st year on the planet, I knew enough to listen to him.
The orchard was next to the once-mighty Columbia River, now tamed by an assortment of dams begun in the 1930s. Private electric companies had opposed the competition from public funding, while irrigation promoters loved the promise of cheap water and flood control. Bonneville and Grand Coulee became “New Deal” names rolling off the tongues of left-leaning politicians hooking for votes from an electorate recently humbled by economic collapse, while right-wingers thundered that it was all part of a “Socialist boondoggle” leading the country to ruin. To help combat this charge, by 1941, the Bonneville Power Administration had retained an “information consultant” named Woody Guthrie to write songs for a film promoting its projects. From Woody’s “Grand Coulee Dam” comes this:
“Uncle Sam took up the challenge in the year of ’33
For the farmer and the factory and all of you and me.
He said, ‘Roll along Columbia. You can ramble to the sea,
But river while you’re ramblin’ you can do some work for me’.”
While the Northwest’s self-named Inland Empire digested its doses of backbiting and branding, Hoover Dam had already jump-started the Desert Southwest’s multi-decade fling with cheap hydro. To transmit the electricity produced, transmission grids that eventually became part of the Western Interconnection soon crisscrossed public lands, and enough impounded water was pumped from the canyons of the Columbia and Colorado rivers to feed dreams of human industry.
I’ve been dreaming old man Harrison’s industrious vision tonight, after a long day spent driving a rented HEV (hybrid electric vehicle), looking at BLM’s (Bureau of Land Management) proposed SEZs (Solar Energy Zones) in the Mojave Desert (no acronym, sorry) of southern California (SoCo). Several decades beyond my fruit tramp years and in a new century defined by fears of impending collapses, the idea of orchards in these dry valleys seems far-fetched, as abandoned lettuce fields in the Imperial Valley 100 miles from here grow dust-clouds so the over-booked Colorado River can continue sprouting housing developments on the California coast.
I’ve seen four SEZs in the last few days, will drive by three more tomorrow, and can close my eyes and visualize the landscape surrounding about a dozen more from rambles similar to this one in decades past — seemingly, aimless travel on a budget is a side benefit of living a life of outdoor leisure interrupted by short (usually) periods of industrious labor for (sometimes) lucrative manna, with which to finance my hedonistic pursuits in “undeveloped” places managed by the alphabet soup of public lands agencies.
After dark, I turned off the highway onto a dirt road that led toward the dark side of Joshua Tree National Park, hoping it would lead to a dead-end set of ruts, and maybe a bit of shelter from a tailwind that had raised the hybrid’s digital efficiency graph to periodically claim 75 MPG (yup, another one — miles per gallon, this time. Get used to it, there’re more of ’em coming.). The road ended in a bulldozed patch of dirt by a chain-link fence. The wind kept howling, and I unrolled my sleeping bag on the lee side of the low-slung car. Not as good as hoped, but not bad.
Now the only light is from a half-moon that rose while I slept. It shines directly in my eyes. Ah well, probably what ended the dream for me, but at least the wind has died. The only sound is a gentle burbling from the other side of the fence. It is the sound of water flowing. No more sleep for a while now. A short walk to the fence confirms that I’ve managed to camp right by the Colorado River Aqueduct as it carries old man Harrison’s vision through the still-dry-as-dust Mojave. To the west, there are no orchards, no green fields. Beyond the aqueduct, the moon lights the Coxcomb Mountains inside the national park. Northeast, the proposed Iron Mountain SEZ site is hidden in shadows cast by its namesake mountain range. South, toward Interstate 10, is more crosshatching on the BLM map that marks yet another SEZ.
It’s time for a bit of exploration here. The SEZ process seems to be another effort to establish long-term land-management plans during my own home-state-produced, honest-to-gawd cowboy-hat-and-boot-wearing Secretary of Interior’s tenure. Though it’s hard to paint the honorable Mr. Secretary as an environmentalist’s wet dream, overall it’s been a refreshing change from the “Drill, Baby, Drill” sloganeering of the now-busted boom time. He reminds me of an old-time steward-of-the-land-type rancher preaching grazing rotation and summer/winter pasture gospel, though, as usual, “the devil is in the details,” as me own aphorism-spouting, FDR-hating great-grandmother would’ve phrased it.
SEZ is an acronym dreamed up by the current occupants of the Interior (DOI) and Energy (DOE) departments, in the process of setting an overall policy for permitting utility-scale solar-energy projects on 22 million acres of BLM land in six states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah). The plan would remove another 77 million acres of BLM land from consideration for solar, while streamlining the permitting process in 24 zones (yup, the SEZs) chosen for proximity to power transmission corridors and roads. Current projections are that between now and the year 2030, developments will cover over 200,000 acres with solar arrays producing 24,000 megawatts of electricity (an output roughly equal to five Fukushimas).
As of now, the details are still being hashed out, and as a citizen of the benighted empire, I’ve taken the liberty of casting myself as a “stakeholder” while attending public meetings, reading virtual reams of official descriptions and media coverage courtesy the web, chatting with a few jargon-fluent Departmental suits, walking some proposed SEZs, driving past others, clicking panoramic photographs handily available on the solareis.als.gov website (I know, I know, enough acronyms/abbreviations already), and closing my eyes to visualize just what some of these zones would look like with brush, sand and rocks replaced by fields of solar collectors pumping electricity into the humming wires of the Western Interconnection.
According to every formula for effective “advocacy journalism” I’ve ever stolen from, this is where I should deftly preach my own gospel of a shining future: for the enviro-defensive demographic, the preservation of our beloved public-land jewels; for upwardly-green-and-mobile strivers, a 21st Century riff on ol’ Woody Guthrie’s paean to the Grand Coulee Dam. I know, I know — but one problem is, we’ve got some cross-over on this one, as defenders of extraction extol the virtues of open spaces (the preservation of which will incidentally improve their favorite oil/gas/coal/nuclear corporation’s bottom line), while more than a few self-proclaimed environmentalists offer to trade acres for peace of mind on the production front (quoting actual online comment here, “Ultimately, I think it’s worthwhile to displace some tortoises if we can get real meaningful energy change by developing solar plants.”).
Comments I’ve collected so far have some environmental organizations defending their favored stretches of “habitat,” farmers worried about competition for water and land, residents of housing developments jealous of their “viewshed,” accusations of a BIG GOVERNMENT SCHEME TO LOCK UP THE WEST IN A GREEN ENERGY SOCIALIST BOONDOGGLE, and/or (fill in a favorite fear or two here), while corporations hoping to crash the renewable energy production party let their actual endgames lie fallow, to let bureaucrats take the heat. We’ll hear more from them later, I’m guessing. Currently, the multi-agency group that drafted the plan is sifting through a mountain of opinions, accusations and actual relevant comments while finalizing an EIS (Environmental Impact Statement), so tune in for the next round in coming months.
Here’s another problem — a point-of-view can be an amorphous thing, subject to having “skin in the game,” as the investment gurus say these days. After all, Guthrie’s celebratory lyrics promoted projects that took a formerly free-flowing stretch of public river and turned it into a daisy chain of industrial sites that provided a decent chunk of my early, very minor, part in boosting the empire’s GNP (gross national product [couldn’t resist this one, sorry]). I don’t recall being racked with guilt as I spent that apple-picking money. Depending on the stretch of country I see, I can feel both sides on this one, too. As a certain young brasileira sadly said to me as I left Rio long ago, “Is muito complicado.” Yes, I agreed, complicated indeed. So, what the hell, I’ll do as always and ramble on.
*SEZ DOI DOE BLM GNP* So it’s the next day, and I’m poaching a hike on one of America’s jewels, leaving tracks in a shallow desert wash without benefit of a day pass. A line of signposts awhile back proclaimed the park boundary, and my view is a ragged skyline far from popular parts of Joshua Tree NP. Turning east, I can see the shape of my rented hybrid car by the flowing aqueduct, and far beyond the Iron Mountain SEZ, I can visualize other valleys in the Mojave that some corporate-board-types may be eyeing as I walk. Across the Interior West, the prospect is the same.
I rented my eco-consumer’s transitional dream car in a desperate bid to not change my pattern behaviors too much, now that gas prices are pushing past $4 bucks a sip again; and I’ve got to admit it feels good to be researching solar development sites without asking my old Chevy’s 350 CI (cubic inch) engine to suck at peak oil’s ever-ready teats. In my decades of rambling, when occasional bouts of social consciousness have interfered with my daily routines, I’ve rationalized that my unseemly gasoline consumption is more than offset by an equal number of years living with minimal drain on the electrical grid that keeps our cities and backyards secure from the terrors of darkness, but if enough of us switch to HEV or EV (electric) cars to make a serious dent in national oil consumption, we’ll need more electrical generation and transmission capacity than now exists.
Most of the proposed Solar Energy Zones I visited are near highways and along existing power lines. It’s hard to make a case that putting a solar plant on most of these would scar the landscape more than current uses, but the idea of yet more industrial sites on public land offends my sense of balance. Noise and dust pollution, water use, loss of habitat and wildlife corridors will vary with each site and by type of power generation built. This makes a one-size-fits-all assessment impossible, but some zones are beyond roads and along corridors that have not yet had transmission lines installed. I’m eyeing the Colorado River Aqueduct, seeing shadows of old man Harrison’s vision of the future, and envisioning sacrifice zones.
Right now, choices are being made in corporate and government offices that will decide the mix of power generation in the rest of this century. King Coal wants to dig, Big Oil/Gas wants to drill, the Nuclear Renaissance wants to do both, and a budding Green Energy industry promises enough capacity to give extractive-industry-types nightmares. Common ground for all the above is the desire to dig, drill and/or build on public land, rather than deal with the headaches and hangovers of private land development (read: cheap land = higher profit). Also in agreement on a desire for more power transmission lines, corporate lobbyists of all stripes clamor for additions to the power grid, preferably near their clients’ investments. For proposed power lines on public land, count on finding a multi-year planning process already grinding its gears toward completion, so Solar Energy Zone planning is not the only game in town right now.
We need to decide how much undeveloped public land can be turned into bottom-line profit; put another way, “Just how many displaced tortoises does it take to power an empire?” The piecemeal approach to permit processing has led to rape-and-run Superfund sites, and to true-believers climbing trees, trashing equipment or crashing resource-leasing parties with fake bids in desperate, usually futile attempts to save this or that jewel from development. You know the stories by now, and I know these observations could be expanded into a visionary gospel, but I see too many incongruities anymore. As the old saying goes, “One man’s meat is another’s poison …” or something like that.
Before looking for a place to camp yesterday, I drove my HEV to the top of a hill overlooking an operational solar power plant. Rows of collectors concentrated the sun’s heat onto tubes full of fluid, superheating it enough to power turbines that fed energy into wires stretching across the desert. There was no plume of smoke, no smell of burned petroleum, no invisible cloud of radiation. To the east and west stretched strings of trucks and cars on the highway that replaced old Route 66, the Mother Road that carried Woody Guthrie to California a few years before he sang for the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams. Beyond the shining rows of collectors, traffic and wires, I studied the Mojave’s mountains and tried to decide if the solar plant was a blight or blessing for the desert landscape.
As I drove back to the highway, I approached a roadside antique store’s back-lot. It was full of old signs: Standard, Texaco and other blasts from our passing fling with muscle cars and unlimited resources. As I drew closer, I saw a scantily clad mannequin leaning against a chain-link fence — and then she turned around and glanced my way. As the lovely leather-bikini-sporting model waited with her retinue of irritated photographer and bored assistant, I continued driving my oh-so-defensible dream of renewable mobility right through the background of someone else’s fantasy shot of unattainable pulchritude. See — incongruity rules. Ah well, so goes life on the mother, the road.
I realize I’ve started stripping off layers as the sun brings on another day’s heat. Turning back to the mountain, I climb toward a longer view. I don’t yet know how far I’ll go, but I’m going to leave you with a vision that came to me — of a no-longer-young man walking naked in the desert, picking a cautious path through a wilderness of thorny denizens and dilemmas. Now try to think of your envisioned character as a slightly confused uncle. Sam, let’s call him. He doesn’t know yet which way he’ll turn, and asks for some advice.
This Uncle Sam needs more from his citizenry than slogans, accusations and fear. Take a look at the public lands in your own stretch of country — then have a say in how to generate the power our visions and dreams will cost, where you’d like to see it developed, and maybe, just maybe, how much is enough.
More alphabet soup anyone?
Here are a few places that will aid entry to “renewable” energy’s weird wired world of grand plans and piecemeal permit applications.
Keeping in mind that all internet links are ephemeral, check these:
So what’s transmission got to do with it? This year, rivers have been out-competing wind projects for space on the Western Interconnection’s transmission grid in the Northwest, pointing up the impending storm over too much generation capacity and too few wires. This’ll get you started:
If high-tech methods fail or leave you cold, contact your oft-maligned Honorable Representatives of a government of by and for “we the people” — via old-fashioned mail, phone or the very direct action of walking into the local office of said minion. Good luck and let your reception guide your vote. Enough said.
Senior correspondent B. Frank is the author of “Livin’ the Dream.” His blog, “The Ragged Edge,” can be found here. Frank splits his time between the Four Corners Country and the Borderlands.
Come in outta the sunlight, will ya? There’s cold beer an’ whatever else might strike your fancy over there in the shadows, but step over here first. On the subject of light, you got to take a look at some of this cool shit I’m finding. Your eyes’ll adjust.
You ever wonder just how much electricity you could make with the sunlight in your backyard? On your roof? On the patches of abandoned farmland and tailings piles on the edge of town? On the never-developed pieces of meadow, hillside, plain, brushland — the over-grazed and still-recovering rangelands and watersheds that make up the “mixed-use” designated public lands managed by the erstwhile minions of the BLM, NFS, FWS, alphabet soup? I can tell you soon enough.
With viral YouTube videos of the Gulf oil well spill still making the rounds, King Coal in a full duck-and-cover fetal “Clean Coal” subsidy-begging crouch, and the still-leaking nuclear power plant in Japan as incentives to finally, “Just fucking DO SOMETHING, ANYTHING!” to promote renewable energy production, we of the interior hinterlands have been asked by the Bureau of Land Management to weigh in on how they should allow/regulate/promote solar power projects.
It may not be too late to have your say, and in the process of finding out what you think about the BLM’s proposal you just might discover whether your favorite stretch of country (or backyard) is a candidate for helping save our sweet selves from continued domination by the globalized hydrocarbon cabal. Interested? Read on …
Currently, most utility-scale solar plants create steam to drive turbines that produce electricity, in a process known as Concentrating Solar. Information courtesy the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).
Find out where the sun delivers the most kilowatt hours for the buck at the Solar Energy Environmental Mapper from the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE). Topo, relief and terrain maps, aerial photos; with overlays showing solar potential, agency boundaries, proposed solar development alternatives, streams and rivers, roadless area, protected resources, wilderness study areas, and more.
Take a look at BLM’s Solar Energy Zones in Interactive Panoramas. 360 degree images, with links to descriptions, then grab a cold one and walk a few of them for yourself.
If sailor tales to sailor tunes,
Storm and adventure, heat and cold,
If schooners, islands, and maroons,
And buccaneers, and buried gold,
And all the old romance, retold
Exactly in the ancient way,
Can please, as me they pleased of old,
The wiser youngsters of today:
—So be it, and fall on! If not,
If studious youth no longer crave,
His ancient appetites forgot,
Kingston, or Ballantyne the brave,
Or Cooper of the wood and wave:
So be it, also! And may I
And all my pirates share the grave
Where these and their creations lie! – (Robert Louis Stevenson, “Treasure Island,” 1883)
The land was dry, and so was I.
Did you ever come to a place where your throat matches the landscape, both being drier than an old whor– (whoops … almost made anatomical reference here to a lady of the night, but won’t) — let’s make that “drier than an old dog’s fart?”
I had wandered out of the desert just before nightfall, lured to an Interstate by a lighted billboard promising food and beer (for this, I ask forgiveness from the ghost and disciples of Cactus Ed). I took the highway exit and arrived at a river that, like me, begins its life story within a few miles of the high mountainous spine of this long-abused land once known as Turtle Island. My old friend the river now sported a Disneyficated dream of a pirate cove/beach bar resort, where I wandered with my old dog on raked beaches of trucked-in sand, while ogling the cove’s only current (except for aforementioned travel-worn dog and ogler) visitors, a tethered float plane and miniature version of the vessel that might have carried any of Stevenson’s pirates to a watery grave, but didn’t. Seemingly, the developers had gotten the promotional cart ass-backwards (as me long-gone daddy might have said), and lit the billboard before the official grand opening ceremonies, thereby drawing unsuspecting travelers such as myself to disenchantment. A scattering of tracks from the parking lot, across the beaches and back told the tale.
The outdoor bar was there; the barstools and tables could have been full of the laughing, partying, big-spending resort patrons that fill any self-important PowerPoint prospectus presented to new-money venture/hedge/slush funders of such freebooter market enterprises, but they weren’t. Newly finished wood glowed darkly in the crepuscular air. The only sign of human habitation was, quite literally, a sign. A garishly painted bas-relief wooden sign, as I would’ve called it in my artiste days of carving and painting signs as a means of earning money for beans, beer and artiste supplies. But where was I? Ah yes — this sign depicted a bathtub with a seemingly quite naked pirate in it. He just wasn’t my cup of tea, though the comely wench depicted in the act of approaching said pirate was, shall we say, of some passing interest to my desert-dried eyes.
The overall effect of the deserted cove of the Naked Pirate was depressing, which is how, less than an hour later, I came to be perched on a barstool in a dilapidated riverfront bar on the other side of that very same river, nursing a Corona with lime while ogling an off-duty bartender’s snake tattoo, as it slithered down her scantily clad torso, only to get lost in the ever amazing crepuscular cove that forms just at the top of the bottom half of a string bikini, where a comely wench’s abdominal zone becomes, well, something else entirely.
Just then, a clutch of graying developer-types wandered in, faking friendly banter while power-slamming shots of something and slapping each other’s shoulders. The unintended effect of which was to emphasize the heaving paunchy evidence of better days gone by that hung like spare tires around their waists, barely covered by the pastel polo shirts that provided a uniform for their club. They slammed the now-empty shot-glasses on the bar, and one ordered another round. A gaggle of women, sagging in all the right places to denote spousal fealty in their ample two-piece bathing suits, moved around the bar pointing at almost life-size pictures of bikini-clad women and bare-chested men. I was coming to understand that some of these pictures were of the very developer- and wifely-types that suddenly surrounded my barstool. They seemed not to notice me though, so I continued my observations unmolested.
* * *
Now, before I get any deeper here, I will emphasize that nobody’s body parts touched yours truly in the making of this tale, though a wifely type did nod in my direction, and the comely off-duty bartender did stand within a few inches while slinging her arm over the shoulder of a graying developer-type birthday boy (thus providing a tantalizing vista of the snake’s tail hung over her shoulder, and the body going down, down), while she told the on-duty bartender (who was definitely not wearing a string bikini, being more of a “somebody’s mother someday” type of young woman) to pour her a shot of whatever Birthday Boy (who would later slam a “Muff Dive” [I swear, this is the name of an actual drink]) and his friends were drinking. By the label, it was tequila, a dangerous drink to be sure, and I pretended to concentrate on my Corona. The off-duty bartender with the snake tattoo saw through me though, and smiled. Then she sashayed toward the bar’s darkened riverside patio, there to engage in animated conversation with a swarthy young guy who probably was not the social equal of the developer and wifely types proceeding to get shit-faced all around me. Most likely the guy was, like me, a seasonally employed, part-time romantic type.
By now, this may seem a celebratory tale of an oasis of licentious behavior and unquenchable lust in the desert night, an honest-to-gawd American answer to tales of 1001 Arabian nubile nymphs in a harem fit for an oilygarchy sheikh’s night out. It isn’t, or won’t be by the time you read this, because at my elbow as I scribble away another perfectly good beer buzz while camped along a far-upstream stretch of that same anonymous river a few months later, I’m eying a brochure in which the dilapidated establishment that housed the tableau described above is replaced by a multi-story veritable fucking (here I quote), “Spa & Resort!” Gone is the sun-blasted face of the old bar, the creaking door, the slanting floor, the bar where I sat ogling the snake tattoo while idly wondering just where fangs and tongue had been etched by the inspired tattoo artiste. Gone are the darkened patio over the river, the romantic words between swarthy young seasonal worker-types and comely off-duty bartenders, gone even are the aging developers and their fading spouses, holding up pictures of themselves in smaller bikinis in more comely days, taken down from the ceiling of the now-vanished bar as ’80s pop-rock tunes played on the jukebox that stood against the wall that night. The brochure shows instead an “artist’s rendering” of a multi-story hotel and micro-brewery, waterfront teeming with speed-boats and jet-skis, an honest-to-gawdawful American dream of orderly decadence that one-ups the Naked Pirate resort cove for committing blasphemy on the dam-tamed river that was once too thick to drink, too thin to plow — and wild enough to sculpt canyons that defy description. This tale is, instead, a commiseration on some current misfortunes, and a hope that one day my old friend will regain its former glorious role in the art of carving a continent. Time and a river flowing, as one book named it long ago.
Peering closely at the grainy print of the digitally rendered future spa & resort, I spy the artist’s fantasy of just who will be lounging in the outdoor pools and hot tubs. There are requisite pectorally perfect pale young men accompanied by bikini-clad nymphs posing under palm trees. In the light of my headlamp, with my nose pressed close to the page, I examine the lower bellies of each of the digital dream girls on the cover of the brochure. Satisfied, I consider the fact that not one of the young ladies has any sort of a crepuscular cove at the top of the bottom half of her string bikini, much less the tell-tale ghost of a snake tattoo.
* * *
For the purposes of this story, remember that a “Muff Dive” consists of a shot-glass of tequila sunk to the bottom of a pint glass full of whipped cream. The main purpose of this drink seems to be as entertainment for an assembled clutch of developer-types and spousal units as the unlucky aging Birthday Boy meets the eyes of his loving wife, his teeth gripping the edge of the shot-glass, whipped cream dripping from chin to his once-fashionable alligator-logo polo shirt. “Oh my God,” he says weakly, “that was my fifth shot.” She laughs at him.
I finished the Corona, paid my tab, and left the bar by way of the darkened patio. The off-duty bartender with the snake tattoo and her swarthy cohort never looked up from their now-whispered tete-a-tete. I drove far, far up a dark and dry arroyo — out of sight of river, naked pirates, comely wenches and the dreams of spa & resort-tamed developer-types. Sometimes, in the desert of our ever-more Disneyficated New West, a little dryness is about the only oasis my old dog and I can stomach for more than one round.
The boy crouches over a pad of paper and a scattering of colored pencils. He looks out a window, takes a breath and begins to draw. A mountain takes shape on the page — a triangle with a white cap, blue slopes, and a range of green foothills. He shakes his head, rips the paper off the pad. The cartoonish mountain drifts onto a haphazard pile on the floor. He stares at the next blank sheet, then looks out the window and draws a line …
Meet François. Keep in mind that this story takes place in the shadow of a mountain deemed to be a faultless destination for winter tourism, in a time that most assure could never happen again, and that maybe never was. Myself? I’m not so sure, so you are the jury, dear readers.
A bus pulls into a circle, bristling with skis in a rack that stretches from front door to rear bumper. The doors open, and its driver looks out his side window as the passengers get off. Another bus driver waves a flat blue cloth hat that vaguely resembles a beret; points at the hat, then at the first driver. When both buses are empty, the hat-bearing driver walks over, says, “I just found this thing, and you’re the only one of us crazy enough to wear it.”
They say the resort was imagined by an adman, a vision of celebrities on snow and ice designed to sell train tickets to city-dwellers. The railroad baron’s men found their perfect mountain at the end of a rail-line. It was a forested cone on the western horizon of an old mining town. The baron’s money imported a sport and a gaggle of European instructors to accent it, commissioned a concrete dream of a stone lodge a mile from town, and cut ski runs down the mountain. The town’s residents never could have suspected what was coming, and may have welcomed the promise of tourism as a replacement for the played-out mining trade.
By the time François came to the resort, the lodge was old, the European instructors gray and imperious with years of elegant instruction to beginning skiers, and the town’s young and defiant were exploring off the mountain’s trails on a motley variety of scarred Alpine and Nordic skis. François was young, and even his name was a rebellion against a nickname that other drivers started using when he wore the hat. As he drove his bus through the town from mountain to resort, some called him Frenchy on the two-way radio, so he corrected them by getting a new nametag, replacing his given name with François, which suited his sense of himself as a budding cosmopolitan adventurer. Then came the scarves, and soon François was known as a friend to alley dogs and frozen skiers, a judicious confidant of certain romantically inclined middle-aged wives taking time off from the week-long ski school, encouraged perhaps by his response to the innocent question, “Parlez-vous française?” “Non mademoiselle — but I do many French things.”
They sat behind his driver’s seat, leaning forward as details of their lives tumbled over his shoulder, the breath of expensive perfumes and liqueurs wafting on the intensity of their angst over trifles and perceived wrongs. They vented their frustrations with relish, and occasionally stroked his neck or arm to make a point. Details of parties, spousal indiscretions and failing affairs filled his ears, but François kept his eyes on the snow-packed roads, except for occasional glances in his interior mirror to watch the show. He soon learned it was all a façade, which his anxious passenger would drop when she got to the part that they all got to, eventually. It was fear of never quite getting it, no matter how much money and time she spent trying to learn. What the parade of occasional skiers wanted to share were fears of failing to make graceful turns take shape on the snow under their skis.
Finally, it would pour out — details of the European instructors’ perfect lines drawn down the mountain’s flanks, and of expectations that they learn to do the same. The confessions always came just before the end of the bus route, where François would send them back onto the snow with a sympathetic smile or a brush of the hand.
It was a town blanketed by snow for all the months of winter. Snow that came in Arctic storms pushed south across the continent, great drifts that covered the roads and sculpted the rooflines with fantasy shapes, skeins of snow that flew from the mountain’s sunlit top on the mornings after a storm. It was a town blanketed by snow under the roofs too, lines of it on glass-topped tables at the parties, dustings under the noses of wide-eyed novices, traces in the eyes and jerks of strung-out partiers as they tried to ski powder the next day as if nothing at all had happened the night before. Now, though our François was a man of great passions, the parties and recitals of fears soon took his innocence, leaving a jaundice he hid behind a line of patter that kept his passengers at bay so he could go back to his contemplations.
a2 + b2 = c2
Contemplations of what? Imagine drawing a right angle of any size, say the elevation of a mountain and the distance from a town nestled at its base. From this half of a box you’ve made for yourself, draw a line angling from a certain point on the upright angle to the baseline’s end, and you’ll have a perfect proof of a theorem first stated on a stone tablet almost 4,000 years ago. Now put yourself at the top end of the angled line. Ignore the upright line above your starting point for this exercise, and lean your body to a perfect right angle to the slope in front of you. If there is enough snow, your skis are waxed properly and you give up the human desire to maintain a level horizon line, you will begin to descend. Now, feel the imperfections of the line you’ve chosen, and adjust your angle to compensate and carve turns. Done right, there is no need to use the poles in your hands. Keep adjusting to the mountain’s shapes, and eventually you will reach the edge of town exhilarated, flying higher than if you’d ridden to the top of the ski lifts and followed your instructor’s tracks all day.
The town had a community art studio and small coffeehouse on a side street where such exercises were discussed, and conversations examined mathematical equations for scale and meter as often as predictions of when the next Arctic storm would hit the mountain. François would contemplate the theories of his cohorts, throwing an occasional bone from his own pile into the conversational fire. Then he would go back to his bus and scribble lines of poetry in his sketch pad, or surreptitiously draw the features of his latest group of passengers. Ah, yes, our conducteur d’autobus was an artiste.
It had started with the triangular mountains he drew as a child, and he was hooked by a feeling of immortality the first time he looked at a mountain and his hand made the shape come alive on a blank piece of paper. It felt like a secret drug. Chasing the high, he found a way of synchronizing thoughts, scene and movements; breathing just so, angling his gaze and ignoring all that wasn’t part of his vision. The perfection was fickle though, and he searched old masters’ techniques for a formula to call up the feeling on demand. Sometimes, it worked, and he would lean the finished painting against a wall to consider it.
François learned enough telemark technique to occasionally feel the same high as he slid down the mountains near town, and he began climbing the old mining roads on early mornings, to find untracked slopes where theories could be tested without the interruptions of conversation. He also practiced techniques of survival essential to starving artists of romantic persuasion in upscale economies. He wore a thrift-shop wardrobe, got free drinks and meals from local restaurants in return for discreet endorsements to bus passengers, and skied on cast-offs from the more affluent resort visitors: soft leather boots, battered poles, a pair of soft-edged Nordic skis designed for touring through gentle meadows. Elegant turns required a perfect shift of weight to the forward ski, with angle-to-slope finely tuned to the mountain’s imperfections. Many times, the artiste dug himself out of a snowy pit at the end of a face-plant, a cartwheel, or a careening skid and desperate butt-plant just before kissing a tree or tipping over a cliff. Eventually, François got the angles right more often than not, and it felt like drawing a picture that could transform a perfect feeling into a vision.
How to translate a vision? There is the phrase attributed to French master photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, “the perfect moment,” when scene, action and photographer become one. The “sweet spot” of baseball is where size and shape of bat and angle of swing dictates a vibration-free collision with a fastball. Some say this is “the zone” — or “flow.” Skiers, rock climbers and river runners have long used the ubiquitous “perfect line.” In classical and jazz music, some call it “the perfect note.” Some Zen practitioners believe it is “the sound of one hand clapping,” and the Indian mystic Siddhārtha Gautama (aka the Buddha) named it, “A place beyond identity, called Nirvana” — though the rock band that adopted this name couldn’t save their lead singer from himself.
On a topographic map, the symbol for a mountain is a triangle, though its perfect sides are belied by the squiggles of elevation lines surrounding its peak on the page. To experienced eyes, the map reveals slopes that can draw a skier to Nirvana, or to a line that leads to an explosion of snow and a growing run-out of debris that just might encase the skier’s last insights, along with the body. Some of François’ friends followed the high of a perfect line to this end, a few fell from cliffs, while too many fried their lives on cocaine or its chemical cronies. Some started families, others moved away. A few seemed to balance temptations and desires, while drawing discreet lines on the mountains around that town, or another one less pressured by fame and greed. Some chased money and power until their lines blurred with the resort’s tourists. A fellow artist from the community studio, who had created one masterful abstract painting after another, became a slum-lord in a budding resort town far, far away.
François lived somewhere between, seeking lines in pictures, mountains, canyons, words and the theoretic equations of jazz. Eventually, he stopped expecting perfection from artistic representations, and reveled in the evidence of an attempt, no matter how unsuccessful the result. He left the gentrified resort town that introduced destination skiing to his continent, put away the tattered beret and scarves, and adopted another name. The artiste François, le conducteur d’autobus, was no more.
Many years later, the traveler who had been François began asking practitioners of various arts if they had ever felt that ephemeral moment of perfection, how it had felt, and if they had found a way to get back to it. He got: a river guide’s “feeling the current with my oars,” a jazz musician’s “becoming one with the thing,” a painter’s “the one with no imperfections,” a writer’s, “like time standing still,” an extreme skier’s “total commitment.” Then each described a formula with variously eloquent or convoluted language. The traveler stopped asking questions, and contemplated the problem while observing the imperfect lines of mountains rimming the horizons of his retreat.
“In any right triangle, the area of the square whose side is the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle) is equal to the sum of the areas of the squares whose sides are the two legs (the two sides that meet at a right angle). If c denotes the length of the hypotenuse and a and b denote the lengths of the other two sides, Pythagoras’ theorem can be expressed as the Pythagorean equation.”
Exercise, memory and song. One old Greek story has lucky poets being anointed with these gifts by three goddesses of the arts. Others say there are nine Muses, and generations of artists have believed in one personal muse bringing perfection. In the literature, there are no proofs for these claims, but about 2,600 years ago, a Greek philosopher named Pythagoras started using mathematics to illustrate his theories, and his school produced the first known proof of the theorem that bears his name.
Pythagoras is credited with discovering that musical notes can be represented by mathematical equations, and is said to have believed that the movements of planets and stars could be translated into a symphony. He thought living harmoniously, practicing mental and physical exercises as daily rituals, and meditation on cosmic harmony would deliver immortality. His philosophies were feared by the surrounding communities, who attacked and chased the practitioners from their sanctuary in what is now Italy. A story says Pythagoras accepted death rather than breaking one of his own philosophical taboos. His son became leader of the dwindling sect, and three daughters preserved or explained Pythagorean theories. The one known as Arignote wrote, “The eternal essence of number is the most providential cause of the whole heaven, earth and the region in between. Likewise it is the root of the continued existence of the gods and daimones [demons], as well as that of divine men.”
By the time of Leonardo da Vinci, art students were dissecting and measuring cadavers to learn mathematical equations for imitating Greek sculptures said to depict the perfect human form, and then drawing boxes and circles to block out the areas for face, torso, limbs and extremities. Somewhere in Leonardo’s notebooks, he illustrated a formula first recorded by a Roman named Vitruvius.
To try it yourself, do this exercise: Hold a sketching pad in a portrait orientation. At the top of the page, draw a square as wide as the paper. Inside this, draw a remembered human face 1/10 as tall as your box. Measure this from hairline to chin; the brow is 1/3 of the way down, the nose begins 1/3 of the way up. Height, length of leg, arms, hands and feet, even the width of shoulders, are dictated by this beginning, and the arms might reach off the page.
I have no proof for a formula that will bring life to your representation of human perfection, though a poet named Dante Gabriel Rossetti sketched this intriguing equation in an ornate Victorian-era poem directed to the figures in a Venetian painting —
“Say nothing now unto her lest she weep,
Nor name this ever. Be it as it was,
Life touching lips with immortality.”
Senior correspondent B. Frank is the author of “Livin’ the Dream.” He dreams his livin’ in southwest Colorado.