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Nature is Trying to Kill Me!

These raccoons had their way in our backyard during our annual Posada on December 17... fearless critters!

These raccoons had their way in our backyard during our annual Posada on December 17… fearless critters!

There haven’t been any recent attempts that I’m aware of, but I know it’s true. We had some very rambunctious raccoons rolling around our backyard during the Posada on December 17,and they were utterly unafraid of the dozen humans standing a few steps away. But they made no move to attack.

It’s actually a standing joke among my friends. I write and talk a lot about ecology and transforming urban life to harmonize with natural systems. I’m very concerned about climate change and probably pay more attention to the cascading bad news than most people I know. And yet I hate camping (dishwashing in the woods as far as I’m concerned). People and their pets (especially dogs) drive me crazy—I hate how people anthropomorphize their animals and then treat them like children. I eat meat with enthusiasm, and find proponents of animal rights and/or veganism too often some of the most pedantic, moralistic, and generally unhappy and unpleasant people I’ve met (with some exceptions, happily).

In spite of being an inveterate urbanite who feels safer sitting in a parking lot than next to a babbling brook buzzing with insects and birds, I think about nature and ecology a lot. Lately I’ve been reading a lot too, and I’ll be quoting from five different books during this post. It’s been a bit like taking a quick class in urban ecology, though the books covered here aren’t quite that focused. From the most philosophically minded, Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species (by Ursula K. Heise, University of Chicago Press: 2016), to the most down-to-city-earth Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, The Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness (by Nathanael Johnson, Rodale Press, New York: 2016), the books here help us take a big step back from the panicky urgency that arose in response to the election of Trump.

I understand that the Trump regime will be a wrecking ball to most of the environmental gains of the past half century. Moreover, developing a nuanced understanding of a healthy relationship between human life and nature will not only not gain traction, but whatever has been gained will likely be reversed now. But going into panic mode and rushing about without a strategy seems like a bad idea to me.

The view of Mt. Diablo from the top of the Sibley Volcano just southeast of the Caldecott Tunnel in the east bay hills.

The view of Mt. Diablo from the top of the Sibley Volcano just southeast of the Caldecott Tunnel in the east bay hills.

Nature having its way with infrastructure!

Nature having its way with infrastructure!

I decided it’s a good time to think deeply about where we are and where we might go. The fraught politics of inequality built on centuries of racism, sexism and general fear and loathing of “others” is not something that doubling down on the smug self-satisfied rhetoric of coastal know-it-alls is going to adequately address. It’s hard to believe that anyone in their right mind could vote for an obvious liar and huckster like Trump. But when you pause for a moment it’s easy to see that Trump is not such a departure really, and that Americans have voted for frauds and charlatans as president almost as often as not. Something primal happens to voters, apparently, and given the chance to support a venal, hateful demagogue who promises the moon an awful lot of people say “give me the moon then,” realism be damned.

I am thankful for the time I had to read these smart books, which in addition to the two mentioned, also include Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (by Frans de Waal, W.W. Norton & Company, New York: 2016), Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction (by Mary Ellen Hannibal, The Experiment LLC, New York: 2016), and Satellites in the High Country (by Jason Mark, Island Press: Washington DC 2015). An earlier book I read kept looping itself back into the conversation these books had in my head, which was Feral by George Monbiot that I briefly mentioned in an earlier post.

imagining-extinction-cover-9780226358161

satellites_9781610915809book-cover-jpg-citizen-scientist-196x300unseencitycover-667x1024smart-animals_9780393246186_198Monbiot argued in his book that we should restore apex predators into our environment to re-establish a sense of awe, fear, and excitement that we are lacking in modern life (imagine having to consider encountering a bear on the way to the corner store!). His book seeks to break with the dogmas of mainstream environmentalism, and to a great extent that is what is refreshing about all of these books too. Each of the writers in their own way is trying to rethink, reimagine, and propose a new approach to what has become an impossible cul-de-sac of environmental degradation, climate chaos, and rapidly accelerating extinction. All of the writers here have gone beyond the paradigms that beset radical environmental thinking only a generation ago, wherein humans were still largely outside of and the opposite of “nature.” All of them, in various ways, are trying to articulate new approaches to some kind of reconciliation, to finding a way that humans as natural beings can find an appropriate set of philosophical assumptions to shape new behaviors that in turn work with the logic of nature instead of being implacably against it.

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Dislocations Near and Far

Moto-trikes at sunset after big tropical downpour, Teabo, Yucatan, Mexico.

Moto-trikes at sunset after big tropical downpour, Teabo, Yucatan, Mexico.

Sitting in Mérida, Yucatan, munching on the irresistible marzipan candies that are available everywhere here. Came down for a family wedding, and stayed to join a community delegation to support the Luis Gongora Pat family in their efforts to generate local awareness about the case, and hoping to pressure the Mexican government to, in turn, pressure the U.S. and San Francisco District Attorney to prosecute the police who murdered Luis on Shotwell Street about 4 months ago. On November 1st, we travelled to celebrate the Hanal Pixán festival, feast for the spirits as part of the Day of the Dead days. November 2nd is Day of the Dead, or All Soul’s Day.

The town of Teabo put up an altar in Mérida's central square for the Hanal Pixán celebration

The town of Teabo put up an altar in Mérida’s central square for the Hanal Pixán celebration

Dozens of altars filled the square, many of them with labels in Mayan to help celebrants learn how things are named.

Dozens of altars filled the square, many of them with labels in Mayan to help celebrants learn how things are named.

I should quickly note that I haven’t written much lately and haven’t posted a thing since the end of my summer in Mexico City. Why, my millions of readers want to know? Well, returning to San Francisco turned out to be more jarring than I had previously experienced, or ever would have expected. I felt pretty dislocated from my own life for more than a month before getting back in the flow.

I know perfectly well that the soul of the city has been draining away. It’s like someone pulled the plug a few years ago and now the bathtub is practically empty, the last murky waters circling the drain as we see what made many of us feel so strongly about San Francisco disappear in the last swirls into the void. It was also true that I loved being in Mexico City, a big vibrant city with lots of history and countless places to explore. And finally I was beginning to enjoy some real communication in Spanish after being blocked by my shame at bad speaking for so many years. Returning to SF from Mexico City was a bit of a letdown, given that San Francisco is very small and relatively provincial compared to a true world city, and its history that I know so well pales in comparison to places like Mexico City or other places with centuries behind them. (Not that I don’t still love local history, I do. And I’m fully engaged with Shaping San Francisco to this day and have no plans to stop.)

I also returned to the quadrennial madness that passes for democracy here. It’s a completely shameful spectacle that has so little to do with what we are actually facing, whether locally, statewide, nationally, or internationally. I inevitably find it terribly depressing to see so many of my intelligent friends become unhinged on cue during this process of mass hysteria known as the Presidential election. Spare me the lectures about how awful Trump is. I know. Or how awful Clinton is, I know. Or how the differences between them are SO important. There have certainly been some artfully concocted campaigns to create that impression. And I generally believe there are much greater differences between these two than we’ve seen in past elections, and that a Trump victory would (and to some extent already has) “unleash the beast in White America,” as a KPFA commentator put it a month ago. But I also still think that even though the narcissistic windbag has blown up the GOP with his campaign, there is a tight consensus in the American ruling class about the role of the U.S. military in world affairs, the inviolability of private property and wage-labor, and the basic structure of life that has benefited their class so handsomely. Neither candidate is going to challenge the hegemony of banks, oil, or the war economy. Neither candidate is going to address climate change, dismantle the car-centric physical structure of life, reorganize the plumbing in every house to accommodate gray water and composting, develop urban organic agriculture as an alternative to the endless proliferation of bullshit jobs, or replace the absurdity of GNP and endless growth with a new logic based on a good life for all, a stable state circular economy, and less work! My idea of what is necessary and urgent doesn’t even enter the conversation. And it depresses me deeply to realize that what I’m arguing for is considered so far beyond the pale that it is simply laughed away as improbably unrealistic. I’d say my very scratch-the-surface list above is much closer to a basic realism than any of the capitalist utopians promising a better future based on the broken logic of the ways things are.

Teabo, Yucatan, outskirts. The term "Pueblo Biciclitero" is used derogatorily against small towns in Mexico to indicate their backwardness... but in the Yucatan a huge number of people use bicycles regularly and it is clear evidence of an advanced way of living!

Teabo, Yucatan, outskirts. The term “Pueblo Biciclitero” is used derogatorily against small towns in Mexico to indicate their backwardness… but in the Yucatan a huge number of people use bicycles regularly and it is clear evidence of an advanced way of living!

Anyway, I came to Mexico for a week, and it’s a relief to get away from the incessant yammering and overwhelming tidal wave of bullshit that passes for democratic debate in the United States. If this isn’t evidence of a collapsing society I don’t know what is!

Yesterday I had the honor of accompanying Adriana, along with Tiny of Poor Magazine and her son Tiburcio, to the town of Teabo, about an hour and a half southeast of Mérida, the hometown of Luis Gongora Pat, and his brothers and cousins and their extended families that we’ve come to know in San Francisco. We were greeted by Luis’s daughter Rossana, his niece Viki and his cousin Teresa who brought us to the family home a couple of blocks from the church in the central plaza. There we met the parents, wife, sisters-in-law, nieces, nephews and grandkids, a lovely and resilient group in which the women stand tall and are clearly the pillars of family life here, with the men away working in the US and Merida… and Luis killed.

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Summer in Mexico City!

Many mornings I left from the hotel and walked across Paseo de la Reforma just after dawn...

Many mornings I left from the hotel and walked across Paseo de la Reforma just after dawn…

Sitting in the airport getting ready to leave Mexico City after seven weeks here. What a great time! I came to take a Spanish class at the UNAM, actually in the Centro de Enseñanza Para Extranjeros (CEPE) which I highly recommend. I was placed in Básico 4, and I think that was exactly right. I ended up with 93/100 on the final exam, good here for a B+ (shocking to Americans used to our extremely lax grading standards, where anything over 85 gets an A). The grade was of no importance of course, but the test helped me know if I’d gotten anywhere during the 6 weeks of 3 hours per day classes. Apparently yes!

I certainly feel like I can speak and understand much better than earlier, and now the task is to keep it alive and growing at home. I’ll actually have to have some real discipline, dedicating at least an hour a day to reading Spanish language books, newspapers, or websites, as I’ve been doing all summer. And speaking much more when I’m among Spanish speakers, not uncommon in our daily life in San Francisco. Finally I think I’ve put away the horrible shame I was trapped by when it came to speaking another language. We’ll see.

Early morning on the UNAM campus.

Early morning on the UNAM campus.

Famous murals by David Alfaro Siquieros on the campus.

Prominent murals by David Alfaro Siquieros on the campus.

The famous mosaic murals made entirely of natural stone except the blue, which is glass, covering the 1950s UNAM library.

The famous mosaic murals made entirely of natural stone except the blue, which is glass, covering the 1950s UNAM library.

Spending nearly two months in one of the world’s greatest cities has been an incredible thrill apart from the enjoyable success with the language. Mexico City, famous for its horrendous traffic, air quality, and water problems, is still one of my favorite cities. There are so many gorgeous parks, tree-lined boulevards, neighborhoods of all sorts sporting fantastic architecture from many eras, more museums than any other city, and of course the food! The food here is off the hook. You can indulge in fantastic street food practically any time, and the enormous range of restaurants and bars makes every meal a treat, often accompanied by live music. This place is a cultural powerhouse, and it’s so vast that I barely scratched the surface. But I did manage to get to know a few neighborhoods pretty well, and according to my phone app that is monitoring my walks, I walked over 260 miles since July 1!!

You can't go anywhere in Mexico City without running into traffic jams and gridlock.

You can’t go anywhere in Mexico City without running into traffic jams and gridlock.

I spent some of my time reading "The Interior Circuit" by Francisco Goldman (this is a photo of it, a circular freeway around the city).

I spent some of my time reading “The Interior Circuit” by Francisco Goldman (this is a photo of it, a circular freeway around the city), first in English and then in Spanish after I left it on the plane!

I took this photo inside a morning commute on the Metrobus, shooting into the mirror that looked up towards the front of the articulated vehicle.

I took this photo inside a morning commute on the Metrobus, shooting into the mirror that looked up towards the front of the articulated vehicle.

Having a daily routine where I had to make my way from the city center to the campus at “Ciudad Universitaria” far to the south was a great way to integrate into daily life here. During one of my last rides crushed in a Metrobus, always amazingly overcrowded just like the underground Metro is too, at least anywhere near commute hours, I found myself feeling this great affection for everyone around me. I suppose that when you are pressed together day in and day out, there’s a certain intimacy and shared tolerance that we all have to cultivate, and it left me feeling a weird kind of love. I don’t know if that happens to folks here but there’s no question that Mexican culture is far more polite and generally indirect than most places. I retained a sense of wonder at my daily experiences, and never really felt close to be a “chilango” (a local Mexico City person), but I did feel that I shared the daily life here for this time, and I loved it.

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