Saturday, March 10, 2007

Hope Persists

Sometimes just a moment of eye contact can tell a long story. The tale may be entirely imagined, but it seems real enough.

I was in the supermarket last week when a woman walking by looked my way. I looked into her eyes and in an instant saw a world of mingled happiness, hope and fear. This woman was about my age, or maybe a little younger. She walked close beside her husband as they shared cart-pushing duty. As I passed, I noticed that she was breathing with the help of a small, clear oxygen tube under her nose.

She appeared happy in a way that one gets when they can do some mundane everyday thing after thinking they might not ever be able to do it again; the way you might feel when finally bending to tie a shoe without pain for the first time after a back injury. In my mind, this woman was taking a shopping trip out of the house for the first time after a serious lung illness, an illness that may well turn out to be terminal. She was delighted to be out with her spouse and was taking pleasure in the simple joys of being alive and able to move through this wonderful world. At the same time, she feared that this might be one of the last times she could enjoy such freedom from sickness and pain. She was at a crossroads. After a surprise diagnosis and emergency surgery she didn’t know which path she was on. Was she on the road to health and the rest of her life, or would the illness persist and her life be taken from her sooner than she had ever imagined?

I was on a road three weeks ago, but a much happier one. My wife and I were visiting our wonderful daughter in Berkeley, California and the three of us were taking a couple of days to drive over to Yosemite National Park. As we traveled east on Interstate 580 from the Bay Area, we were amazed by the size and number of wind turbines at Altamont Pass in the Diablo Range between Livermore and Tracy. I’m sure I’ve seen photographs of this amazing sight, but being among these huge windmills was a real thrill. Apparently, warm air rising from the hot Central Valley sucks cooler air from San Francisco through the pass, providing the potential for clean, renewable energy. I imagined how far this environment-friendly power could go in a place like Berkeley where temperatures are so moderate that homes are not air conditioned and little heat is required. Many forward-thinking residents of that city are installing solar-electric panels on the roofs of their homes to help further reduce the demand for fossil fuels.

A short while after descending from Altamont Pass, we drove through Tracy, California and I was struck by the reality that all the power that could ever be generated by those windmills wouldn’t get very far. Here, in the Central Valley, home to some of the most productive farm land in America, were acre after acre of tract homes. In places, it seemed like these walled, gated, cookie-cutter communities stretched as far as the eye could see across the flat, fertile land. I don’t recall seeing any solar panels on these dark, heat- absorbing roofs. I thought of the hot summer sun beating down on these houses and the demand for electricity their air conditioners would create. I thought about the energy use and smog that would result as all these new residents drove on their long commutes and drove to all the strip malls and big-box stores that followed them to these brand new towns. I wondered where our food would be grown as more and more farmers sold out to the big developers.

Even hope stirred by something as exciting as a wind farm with its tall, graceful towers and slowly-spinning blades, can be fleeting. A quick search on the Web after I got home taught me that these windmills can be devastating to birds of prey. It turns out that many raptors are drawn to the grassy slopes of the Diablo Range to hunt for ground squirrels and thousands of these hawks are killed by the windmills that now tower over their traditional hunting grounds.

Hope persists. These windmills are old, part of a pioneering effort. It has been learned that taller towers and slower-spinning blades may be less dangerous to birds. I hope we quickly climb such learning curves that allow us to find the energy we need without destroying our planet. I hope we learn to see the folly in building new lifestyles on the shaky foundations of fossil fuel.

Our short visit to Yosemite was wonderful, even though we didn’t have the time or equipment to get into the back country. The weather was unseasonably warm and there was no snow in Yosemite Valley. There were few tourists by Yosemite standards and we were able to enjoy magnificent views and walk among the stately ponderosa pines, Douglas fir and incense cedars. I was moved by the work of Ansel Adams on display in the gallery there and was inspired by the way a gifted artist could follow his own vision and move the souls of millions. Just before we left the park after our second day, I found myself drawn to a special spot. Maybe the ghost of John Muir was leading me, but I found a new spirit bird. I hope to find the words to tell that story soon.

After we flew back to the East Coast, I was eager to get back to the modest but comforting landscapes of Moose Hill and seek signs of spring. I didn’t find any. The trails were coated in a treacherous combination of ice and snow. At one point I came upon a pair of deer, just where I hoped to find them under the hemlocks and among the rhododendrons in a kettle hole, when I started slipping and falling on the ice, making much noise – verbal and otherwise - and scaring them away. The few birds I saw that day were all winter residents.

The next day, Sunday, it was warmer and I saw sap running from the recently-cut branch stubs on a Norway maple. Monday morning, a male cardinal was warming up his spring song in our backyard. Tuesday morning, a mourning dove was cooing longingly from the peak of our neighbor’s roof. Last Sunday morning, I heard my first song sparrow while on our regular group bike ride. Monday morning, I saw my first redwing blackbird of the season. Sadly, he flew many miles only to wind up dead in a gutter where I found him, but I knew there were thousands more where he came from.

The hope raised by these early signs of spring were dashed when we were plunged into an early-March deep freeze, but I know the tumblers of the great cosmic clock are turning and that life will not be denied.


At 1:13 PM, Blogger robin andrea said...

Yosemite is one of my favorite places on earth. How wonderful that you were there and found your spirit bird. Very cool.
Certainly California could be doing a lot with solar. It's really insane that they haven't yet. Those valleys bake in the summer. They could be generating so much solar power. I lived in California when Enron helped flip the switch for rolling blackouts. It was summertime and people were sucking up electricity to keep their air-conditioners blasting. Hard to imagine why these problems haven't been solved yet.

At 7:18 AM, Blogger Larry said...

-Do you know if areas of the USA
have experimented with geo-thermal energy?-I remember reading a little bit about this but have not heard much since.-

At 5:38 PM, Blogger MojoMan said...

Robin Andrea: I am one who tries to see the good in rising energy prices. If we paid the real cost of energy (Factoring Middle-East military spending into gasoline prices, for example), all sorts of alternative would become financially attractive.

Larry: I think Iceland plans to power all their cars with hydrogen produced using geo-thermal energy. Apparently there are many places in the US, especially in the West, where turbines can be driven by tapping heat from deep in the Earth. Yellowstone Park is famous for its hot springs, but there are many places where this fascinating power source is available.


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