Refractions of two cities on the edge
By Paul K. Haeder
Treading Lightly perspective
Treed by a pack of javelina? Oh, around 18 of these desert peccaries getting the best of you while hunting white-tailed deer near Cochise’s “last stand?” Not many in Spokane have those memories under their belt. Stung, scratched, gouged, bitten and seared through by every type of scorpion (my favorite, the giant hairy), mammal (kit fox pup put a hole in my thumb once), plenty of snakes, like that 8-foot bull snake I kept as a pet, and the army of cacti and agave (Spanish dagger is one of the prettiest and nastiest in the waning light).
I’m thinking a lot about Spokane down here in coccidioidomycosis land (Valley fever) as I prepare to bid goodbye to my familial and formative years’ legacy in this town of odd characters and fantastical ecosystems revealed to me with a bit of salt and lime on the rim of a cracked glass listening to ranchero-Celtic fusion live music under a Georgia O’Keefe sky.
I watch bird-feeder fattened spiny swift lizards – probably 150 percent meatier than those not habituated by these Tucson retirees originally hailing from Iowa and kids from San Bernardino – scamper through the oil drippings in my mother’s garage – a huge box of shadow, sweltering, but cooler than the 109 degrees just outside.
Goat-eyed geckos do their anti-gravity boot walk through my mom’s old photographs of her early days in Powell River, BC. Most of the black and white images have been stripped of cellulose by termites.
Hope wafted up in all that heat a long time ago, but now, the entire thing is looking more of a mess than one could have predicted 30 years back ago after attending all those heady environmental-neighborhood-historic preservation-planning meetings attended by the likes of Leslie Silko and Father Greeley.
Here’s where we’ve progressed to in sunny Arizona -- the runways in Phoenix get hotter than hell and jets at Sky Harbor can’t take off. More than forty percent of all the electricity used in Scottsdale and Tucson goes for conditioning the air with refrigeration. Constant asthma alerts (Phoenix is number one in that category) and ominous code yellow health advisories to folk during Tucson’s Cairo-like inversions.
Over 355 sunny days in Tucson, little rainfall, yet the solar panels and xeriscaping yards are few and far between.
But it’s easy to get caught up in the predictions of collapse or all that stuff I’ve studied concerning total global human die-off. Or the proclivity to violence when things get tough in parts of the Sun Belt, the South.
I see in my mind’s eye the pattern of outflow in the Southwest when the water restrictions get severe, when the Tiger Woods-designed fairways wither, when the electricity costs $400 a month just to stay cool at 80 in the summer. Spokane would be well advised to prepare for a demographic shift and influx, including the resulting drains on our ecosystems, increases in housing costs, burdens on health care and social services, and just way too many people squeezing in a limiting geography.
Like Spokane, Tucson is more than a collection of zoning, population, ecological, and energy issues. Both are a state of mind, the landscape of the mind, really, where poets like Sherman Alexie or Barbara Kingsolver have etched the power of aboriginal narrative and the concussive forces of modernity clashing with the land deep into the granite of time even as they themselves have moved on and out.
Getting "high" with Edward Abbey – he was the main speaker in a writing workshop I took – or finding the bloated bodies of Salvadorans on the US-Mexico border near Naco while working the 80-hour a week reporter’s gig in Cochise County.
Now I’m in the drama of a forty-five-year old recovered Meth head as he sneezes so hard that his dentures end up between my feet on my first day teaching night school at Spokane Falls Community College.
Or the Cheyenne Indian healer, Gray Owl, married to a Nez Perce who shows me the way of the sweat lodge, power of sage smoke, and the good direction in earth walking right where Meriwether Lewis stared at the Clearwater.
Here is my place, hanging out with loggers who use horses rather than skidders to reduce the impact on micro-soil systems and the understory. Wind farmers from Florida working near Walla Walla showing me the durum wheat alongside the propellers of velocity. Testimonial after testimonial, and personal relationship juxtaposed against personal relationship, and here I am the pragmatist – “who’s seen it all” on many levels – and I find hope in Spokane when the owner of a landscaping company tells me how he “discourages, forcefully” homeowners from cutting down perfectly healthy Ponderosa pines.
Those are my relationships with land, people, story telling –in the Southwest and now the Inland Northwest. I packed the meat of narrative into my ribs, and the stories are still there in the gristle flagging my leg muscles as I launch through the heat of Turnbull and become a trespasser on some guy’s plot of land just south of Cheney where he keeps exotic animals for expensive hunting junkets (“canned hunting”).
I don’t see the Oryx, Thompson gazelles or felines legend has it are out there, but that same off-kilter and funky feeling runs through my bones as it did when I was a salty-browed tanned kid with aspirations of being the next Marlin Perkins while freaking out on my first hammerhead shark dive near Guaymas.
Southern Arizona gave me a lot – the gateway to Mexico and los dias de los muertos (day of the dead). Like Spokane, Tucson is a five-hour drive to the ocean: Sea of Cortes versus Pacific.
No one wants to imagine his hometown and stomping grounds suffering tremendously under the plague of environmental catastrophe, but the reality is most of the Southwest, places like Vegas and Phoenix, and Tucson, are at tipping points. Water is the next battleground royale. Clogged freeways. More and more federal money shunted away from the edge communities where poor people live in trailers and use Wal-Mart fans to cool down freezers full of frozen food.
In Spokane you have citizens packing into city and county meetings in a ritual to stave the rapine of neighborhoods through an endless subdivision hucksterism. Real grassroots efforts to plan for growth. People willing to roll up sleeves and beat pavement to recall a mayor. In our the City of Hoopfest.
Spokane – the people making it work, and those making no sense of what is right or at least what should be feasible for the place – is a launching pad for hope, maybe, or for building a new type of community. This place is chock full of character and characters.
It might be a city on the river, or at the edge of some political boundary separating Red State from Blue State, or it might be considered hokey when compared to hip and urbane Seattle. However, Spokane has all the forces in place to assist it in developing a truly practical and workable sustainable ethic.
There is an uncanny capacity here in Spokane for its people and those scattered in its hinterlands to understand relationships, and the disharmony of doing it too quickly, too shoddily and way too big.
Eastern Washington and Gonzaga and even Whitworth work on urban planning and reconnecting the disconnect in economically-struggling neighborhoods. Not just a handful of planners and developers and community activists see a need for community participation in ruddering Spokane’s and the region’s biological, hydrocarbon, and economic futures.
We have county extension agents who know about no-till farming and bio-diesel possibilities; master gardeners who dedicate themselves to helping people grasp the power of backyard veggie gardens; urban foresters who care about sustaining the roots of this region’s native and historic flora while still convincing naysayers that Ponderosa and Douglas fir were meant to be here. We have economists and politicians who jointly care about the Spokane River’s health, it’s impact in bringing a hardened thread to the community, and the vibrancy and spiritual undertow it carries with it for a future.
There is hope in the organic agriculture major just initiated by WSU. There is hope in the Community Building hosing sustainability forums and allowing voices other than corporate-shills to speak out to this city.
Even that plain-Jane neighbor down the road who composts, who knows about huckleberries and native tribes’ holy and caloric bounty from their seasonal forest plant harvests, heck, she carries with her a pregnant rectitude and certitude that young people will learn the right things about their place in life and their roles in healing their place.
There is hope in facing off the consequences of rising global temperatures, dwindling resources, and the calamitous energy-war policies taking center stage nationally and globally, yes, here in the Inland Northwest when we see efforts by WSU to conjure up a Peak Oil Conference or Spokane Falls Community College, Gonzaga and EWU bringing James Howard Kunstler to rock our boat a bit with his prognostications of a long, painful, sorrowful emergency.
The people here – those who have weathered several generations of memory and change and those who have moved here in the past 30 years – are willing to throw in and solve the very issues plaguing and pummeling Tucson, Albuquerque, El Paso, Denver, and Vegas.
A compelling measure of this region’s stick-to-it-ness and seriousness concerning building a tangible food security and sustainable communities comes in part next year, in April, when both EWU and University of Idaho host the Sixth Annual British-American-Canadian Conference on Rural Geography. A proposed book with 26 contributors, including yours truly, is being considered by EWU Press in conjunction with the international conference.
In its pages we see hope, tied to this region’s actual dynamism and one-of-a-kind evolution in the area of rural and urban landscape. A look at the Russian, Chinese, Hispanic, Huterite, and German immigration patterns and the Native Americans’ urban lives as well as their aboriginal importance are just one slice of the pie.
An understanding of wetlands, the geomorphology of cities, the impact of the railroad towns, the fragility of the shared aquifer, the intellectual legacy of the great flood, and even tidbits about the Olmstead Brothers, these are lasting Spokane legacies.
The strategists are here, and so are the communities, and the people who have a deeply seeded love of Spokane – both the Spokane of memory and that which might come out of long-range bioregional planning.
Yeah, I remember filling up my desert-scarring 400-cc Bultaco at a truck stop outside Tucson, in the southern reaches of the famed Saguaro National Monument, where those 300 and 500 year old cacti were the Tai Chi masters of sunset and sunrise.
Two orange juice tankers side-by-side were gobbling up diesel. I chatted with both drivers, and we all scratched our heads when the absurdity hit: Buck’s truck with 40,000 gallons of syrupy Florida OJ was headed for California. And Buell’s tanker filled with the same amount of syrupy Valencia, California, OJ was headed for Florida.
Here I am now, in Spokane, seeing that very same cross-continental citrus juice being consumed at an art opening. I’m thinking about how deeply Tucson, the Southwest, all of the underpinnings of what it is to be an Arizonan mean.
Then the shroud of equinoctial shadow overtakes me, and I’m here, at the glacial recesses of Sullivan Lake. At the apex of the trail out at Liberty Lake. Or at Deep Creek Canyon looking the Great Flood in the eye.
I might now walk in the dark like I did in the Sonora and see by feeling. Things familiar here take shape daily. Faces and hands of new friends are my guides in this walk-about.
The grace in this place’s people just might bring us through.