From sky to bedrock, researchers near Crested Butte are resetting what we know about water in the West ~ The Colorado Sun


The mobile observatory is manned by 100 scientists who hope to show how the West can get a better handle on where and when water will be available

Mark Jaffe

Oct 24, 2021

With Gothic Peak in the background, Anna Hodshire, associate scientist for Handix Scientific, works on a climate study installation as part of the Atmospheric Radiation Management)study being conducted by the mobile laboratories at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory facility in Gothic, Colorado, on September 15, 2021. The mobile units are one of three portable units used to study climate change across the globe. The units study the atmosphere using equipment sophisticated enough to measure the size of raindrops and snowflakes. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

CRESTED BUTTE – Eight white shipping containers, instruments spouting from the tops of some and a generator humming away in another, sit in the East River valley, on the outskirts of this mountain town, pulling data out of the air.

The containers, a “mobile atmospheric observatory,” will gather bits of information over the next two years about the winds and clouds and rain and snow and heat and cold above the silvery and serpentine waterway as it slides past the gray granite dome of Gothic Mountain on its way to the Colorado River.

“It is like a satellite, but on the ground looking up,” said Heath Powers, who oversees the atmospheric observatory program operated by the U.S. Department of Energy. “It’s a traveling scientific carnival.”

Traveling, indeed. The last assignment for the observatory, now in the old mining town of Gothic, 9 miles north of Crested Butte, was on the deck of a German research vessel icebound in the Arctic.

 “We’ve been to all seven continents with these observatories,” Powers said. “It is surprising to find such a remote and challenging place here in the old USA.”

The observatory, while in demand all over the world, is the centerpiece in an unprecedented effort to understand how — and how much — water moves from the sky to the rivers of the West. Three separate teams, nearly 100 scientists in all, are in the East River valley studying every facet of the question.

The researchers are employing an equally large array of instruments, from balloons to drones to aircraft to multiple kinds of radar to cloud chambers and flux sensors to stream gauges and rain buckets.

The goal is to better understand the “water story” so that water managers across the West can, from year to year, have a better handle on how much water will be available.

Those systems, however, are not well understood, hobbling forecasting. “We know the list of physical, chemical and biological processes that affect water,” Feldman said. “The question is how do they fit together?”

It is more than just a theoretical question. As the climate changes, and the world gets warmer, the Rocky Mountain snowpack, which provides 75% of the water for the Colorado River Basin, has already declined by a fifth in the past 30 years and by 2050 the flow of the river, supplying water to 40 million people, could drop by as much as 20%.

“We are moving into a no-analog future, where the past doesn’t tell the future,” Feldman said. “We are moving far and fast away from the past.”

And so, Feldman is leading a group of scientists in the Surface Integrated Atmosphere Laboratory project (SAIL), while Gijs de Boer, is heading the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Study of Precipitation, the Lower Atmosphere and Surface for Hydrometeorology (SPLASH).

Both are seeking to better understand the atmospheric dynamics — clouds and rain, wind and snow.

A solar panel helps collect data on evaporation and undergrowth in a forest of aspen trees on Snodgrass Mountain near Crested Butte. Numerous instruments have been placed on Snodgrass by researchers from Northern Arizona University as part of an interagency group that is researching climate change as part of the Watershed Function Area project in Gunnison County. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The longest-running of the projects, dating to 2015, is the Watershed Function Science Focus Area (no neat acronym, just SFA), which is tracing what happens to the snow and rain once it falls to Earth.

“The goal is to improve water forecasting and water accounting,” said Ken Williams, lead researcher for the watershed project.

Can studying a single, small watershed — with measurements from the size of raindrops to the amount of water finding its way deep into bedrock — tell the tale for the 1,450-mile-long Colorado River and its 246,000-square-mile basin?

“The East River shares characteristics with the vast majority of headwaters in the Rocky Mountains,” Williams said. “What we are learning in the East River will be translatable to other mountain systems.”

“We are used to working in places where you can’t run down to the hardware store.”

The switch was flipped on at DOE’s mobile observatory Sept. 1 and it will gather data through the next seven seasons. 

During the winters the three technicians operating the site will be snowbound, save for a once-a-week snowmobile run to town.

“Lots and lots of ramen noodles,” Powers said. The observatory also comes with its own workshop and supply of spare parts. “We are used to working in places where you can’t run down to the hardware store.”

John Bilberry, a researcher for Atmospheric Radiation Management, stands on the roof of one of the mobile labs parked outside of the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab in Gothic. During one of his previous assignments with the mobile observatory he was stranded in the Arctic by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The units collect precipitation data at ground level and in the atmosphere and contain equipment sophisticated enough to measure the size of raindrops and snowflakes. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Overseeing the operation is John Bilberry, 43, the lead project manager for SAIL. “I run the circus,” he said. Bilberry was with the mobile observatory in the Arctic (he had to hitch a ride on a Russian icebreaker to get there) and got stranded onboard by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In his previous life Bilberry was a recording engineer for a record label and went on tour with the industrial metal band Ministry. “This is a lot like being on tour,” he said. “You’re given all this expensive equipment and you have to make sure it works.”

SAIL, which is being run under the auspices of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, has deployed about 50 different instruments, some on the roofs or inside the shipping containers, some on valley hillsides.

The project also releases weather balloons twice a day and has a larger tethered balloon with an array of instruments that will be trucked around the watershed.

Those devices will gather detailed data on eight elements that affect the water cycle: the fine particles floating in the air called aerosols, clouds, rain and snow and the winds that drive them, sunlight, thermal energy and temperatures.

The total sky imager is tracking the horizontal distribution of clouds, microwave radiometers are measuring the water content of those clouds, doppler lidar radar is gauging the direction and speed of the wind, and a nephelometer is measuring the behavior of aerosols.

Wesley King, site tech for Rocky Mountain Biological Labs in Gothic, brings a research balloon to the launch site on Sept. 15,. Two balloons are released each day, coordinated with other balloon launches all across the globe. The balloons rise to a height of nearly 30,000 meters, gathering data from the atmosphere for transmission back to the ARM Atmospheric Radiation Management) mobile labs located in Gothic. The balloons implode after reaching their maximum height and fall back to Earth. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Other instruments will log ozone levels, the water content of falling snow, how much snowpack is lost to evaporation (known as sublimation) and the surface energy balance — heat coming in from the sun and that radiating back into the air.

Every hour a bank of computers, linked to the sensors, collects all the data and uploads it to the internet for use by SAIL and researchers around the world. “It is a virtual machine,” Bilberry said.

Each of these bits of information are like tiles in a mosaic. “Here we have an opportunity to piece these things together,” Feldman said.

Fitting the data into a big picture will be a challenge as the behavior of any one element can be complex.

Aerosols, for example, can, in the form of soot, warm the air, while sulfate aerosols can cool it. Dust covering the snowpack leads to a quicker melt. Aerosols create the nucleus around which moisture in the air forms rain and snow. Too little aerosol, no rain, too much and the moisture is disbursed and again there is no rain or snow, until it builds up and leads to really heavy downpours or snows.

“Aerosols have all these different effects that they are exerting on these mountainous watersheds,” Feldman said. “Aerosols are impacting the way water is delivered downstream.”

While SAIL efforts are centered in Gothic, NOAA’s SPLASH gear will be arrayed over more than 10 miles and will be focused on gathering data to help improve the administration’s forecasting tools.

These include the Unified Forecast System, which makes up to 14-day forecasts, the Rapid Refresh Forecast System, which provides hourly updates, and the National Water Model, which predicts stream flows.

“SPLASH was born out of a desire to build upon SAIL and tune things to be more specific to NOAA needs,” de Boer said. “That has turned into a very significant investment from NOAA.”

The project is being led by NOAA’s Physical Science Laboratory in Boulder and the University of Colorado, in collaboration with about a dozen other institutions, including Colorado State University and the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

Among SPLASH’s installations will be a 33-foot tower to measure winds, turbulence, radiation and temperatures. It will also deploy three drones to measure things such as soil moisture and snow reflectivity.

“When combined, SPLASH and SAIL provide what may be the most comprehensive study of the physics of the lower atmosphere and exchange with the surface, including water, ever conducted in areas of complex terrain,” de Boer said.

Some water near Gothic has been underground for 2,000 years

On a late summer morning, the SFA’s Williams was up on Snodgrass Mountain drilling a deep well into the mountaintop — SAIL’s white shipping containers could be glimpsed down below.

Granite dust billowed from the hole as the drill pounded away searching for groundwater.

Williams, a Berkeley Laboratory geologist, has drilled wells across the East River valley — into the shale beneath Aspen forests, the loose landslide deposits of Alpine meadows and hard granite of conifer forests — in search of groundwater.

That mixture of granite, shale and soils from mountainside erosion, and the spruce, aspen and evergreen forests, along with Alpine meadow sitting atop them, is a terrain widely shared by Rocky Mountain watersheds.

“The work we are doing is broadly representative of the Rocky Mountains in general,” Williams said, “and will enable us to get a handle on the structure of that system and how physical processes play out in that system.”

Seth Escudero, a driller for the Authentic Drilling Company, shields his face as ground water spews from drilling rig during the Watershed Function Area project on Snodgrass Mountain near Crested Butte on Sept. 11. In order to send a camera down the drill hole, ground water seeping into the hole had to be blown out so the camera would have a clear view of the strata being drilled through. Researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory drilled four different sites to a depth of 100 feet in order to find out what the flow of groundwater. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Williams’ wells have hit groundwater 15 to 20 feet below the surface, but in the well atop Snodgrass Mountain they found no water even at 300 feet. A dry hole. Williams lowered a borehole camera and found only fractures with seepage. Still, they are being monitored. “All data is useful data,” he said.

Once the water is found in a well, sensors are lowered to measure the soil moisture content at different depths. Samples are also taken for geochemical analysis, such as water dating. Some of the groundwater SFA has found has been down there for as long as 2,000 years.

Williams’ team of 55 scientists, buttressed by collaborators at universities around the country, is trying to write the last chapter in the mountain water story, how a mountainous watershed retains and releases water and how much actually gets to the river.

SFA researchers are trying to measure every drop from tree top to bedrock, down to the role microbes play.  

“SAIL and SPLASH are providing a much higher resolution understanding of how and where precipitation is falling,” Williams said. SFA is “taking that handoff” and tracking the water flows.

“This is the first study going from the atmosphere to bedrock,” he said. “It has never been done before in a mountainous system.”

Among the questions Watershed Function is trying to answer is how much of the precipitation is lost to trees and plants sucking it up. In one experiment flux meters have been attached to trees to chart the water flowing from roots to leaves and out as water vapor.

Another question is how much water ends up in aquifers and how long does it stay there? While snowpack runoff feeds the river in the spring, by late summer more than 50% of the East River’s flow is coming from ground water, Williams said.

All the SFA data is also being put up on the internet — so far 69 data sets containing millions of data points — although not by the hour.

Data for modeling for everything from next week’s weather to climate change

The tools for understanding the massive amounts of data being collected by the three projects are computer models that aim to reflect everything from how much water flows in a stream, to next week’s weather, to the future impact of climate change on the world.

The models, however, are vulnerable in two ways. First, they are based on assumptions about how the world works — how much water vegetation absorbs or how snow gathers on mountainsides — and then they are only as good as the data they crunch.  “Garbage in, garbage out” is an idiom in computing that goes back, in idea if not the exact words, to Charles Babbage, the 19th century father of the computer.

“There is a critical linkage between measurement and modeling,” Williams said. “The models need to be informed by the data being collected, to show they are anchored in reality.”

“It is data gathering not for the sake of data gathering, but to assure that our predictive models are as accurate as possible,” he said. Scientists call it “ground truthing.”

A computer display shows data being collected in one of the mobile lab units that is part of Atmospheric Radiation Management research taking place in Gothic. The units study the atmosphere, collecting precipitation data at ground level and in the atmosphere and contain equipment sophisticated enough to measure the size of raindrops and snowflakes. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The data can aid in refining the assumptions and algorithms that run the model. “They can help improve our knowledge of the chemistry and physics of how the world works,” said Alejandro Flores, associate professor of geoscience at University of Idaho and a SAIL researcher focused on models.

Mountains have been particularly difficult to model.

“We have a big blind spot in terms of precipitation and how the models retain and release water,” Flores said. “We need to get a handle on precipitation in mountain landscapes which controls that precipitation.”

SPLASH, de Boer said, is seeking a better understanding of the “physics of key processes,” such as sublimation of snow, snow crystals and rain-on-snow events, that govern how much water ends up in the river.

Those data and insights will be used to evaluate the performance of the Weather Service forecasting and other NOAA models.

Ultimately, the data and knowledge of chemical, biological and physical processes gleaned from the East River could inform the Earth Systems Models that project the world’s climate.

“We currently do not have a good ‘truth’ (for these models), since we don’t have the ability to verify the projections as we do with weather models,” de Boer said.

Getting the model right is a bit like getting the recipe for a cake right, Powers said. “You need to know and understand the ingredients, the proportions,” he said. “If you get it wrong the cake is too sweet or it collapses.”

And it is not just a question of what happens in the West. Between 60% and 90% of the world’s water comes from mountainous watersheds. “Mountain environments are important and they are changing rapidly,” Flores said. “This is an important part of the world and it is important to focus on it.”

“Understanding the physical properties of the East River will help us understand what is happening across the Rockies and all the way to the Urals in Russia,” he said. “It will help anywhere there are mountains and people depend upon mountain snow for water.”

Topped out on Everest 40 years ago

It was 40 yrs ago today that I was standing on the top of the world all alone as the sun was fading. So happy to be alive!

Peter Hackett

A Hackett photo from the summit, looking down the NNE Ridge into Tibet

Group aims to reintroduce Jaguars — once nearly hunted to extinction — to Argentina ~ PBS


~~~ WATCH ~~~


The Jaguar, the biggest cat in the Americas, was hunted and poached to extinction in parts of Argentina about 70 years ago. They are in critical danger of vanishing completely. Only a few hundred are left in the country. Rewilding Argentina, a conservation nonprofit, has embarked on an audacious plan to reintroduce the species to its long lost home. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien reports.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:As world leaders prepare to meet in Glasgow, Scotland, for the upcoming international climate meeting titled COP 26, another related crisis has focused the attention of researchers the world over.It is the rapid extinction of species all over the globe, possibly as many as one million. In Argentina, efforts are under way to return some key animal species to their natural habitats.Science correspondent Miles O’Brien takes us to a place where, for the first time in seven decades, jaguars are able to once again roam free.
  • Miles O’Brien:Feeding time for some rare cats in a place of rare beauty, Argentina’s Ibera National Park.Biologist Pablo Guerra is focused on one small task aimed at solving a global crisis
  • Pablo Guerra Aldazabal, Rewilding Argentina:It’s just like a very little piece of work of what we really have to do to try to stop the massive extinction of the species.
  • Miles O’Brien:The species in question is the biggest cat in the Americas, the jaguar. These beautiful animals were hunted and poached to extinction in this part of Argentina about 70 years ago.They are in critical danger of vanishing completely. Only a few hundred are left elsewhere in the country. Pablo Guerra is part of a team from Rewilding Argentina, a conservation nonprofit embarked on an audacious campaign to reintroduce the jaguars to their long-lost home, a spectacular mash-up of the Everglades and the Serengeti that spans 1.7 million acres.He hides tasty morsels as if they were Easter eggs.
  • Pablo Guerra Aldazabal:It helps them to also to not to get so bored and to try to let their instinct maybe go out to express it. It’s amazing. I love it. For me, it’s a dream come true.
  • Miles O’Brien:Not just for him.The dream began in the mind of the late Doug Tompkins, founder of clothing companies North Face and Esprit, and an avid lover of the South American wilderness.
  • Doug Tompkins, Tompkins Conservation:I started to see that the things that we’re doing were incongruent with my thinking.
  • Miles O’Brien:He recorded this interview in 2011, four years before his untimely death in a kayaking accident.
  • Doug Tompkins:If you start going up against your own values, you start to get — you put yourself in an emotional and intellectual corner. This is what happened to me.
  • Miles O’Brien:It also happened to his wife, Kris Tompkins, another retail mogul. She was the CEO of Patagonia. Their ecological philanthropy began in 1991, when they started purchasing swathes of land in Southern Chile, creating the million-acre Douglas Tompkins National Park.
  • Kris Tompkins, Tompkins Conservation:We just got this thing rolling that ended up being 14 national parks and almost 15 million acres. We realized that just saving the land was actually just a strategy towards something else that we were really after, which was, how do you create fully functioning ecosystems?
  • Miles O’Brien:In Ibera, that meant a return of the jaguars. They acquired captive animals and brought them here to San Alonso Island in the middle of the park.We flew there with biologist Sebastian di Martino, conservation director of Rewilding Argentina. He and his team built a one of a kind jaguar breeding center, with Jurassic Park-style enclosures. The cubs learn to hunt by tapping into their instincts and from their mothers’ examples.The team takes great pains to avoid getting anywhere near the cubs, for fear they might lose their natural desire to steer clear from humans once set free.
  • Sebastion Di Martino, Rewilding Argentina:We look from afar, so we never look at the cubs directly. They don’t look at us. And we have several devices which we enter live prey inside the pen. And they don’t relate us with food provision.So, that way, we produce a kind of jaguar that can be released.
  • Miles O’Brien:The jaguars are the marquee species in the rewilding project, but there is a strong supporting cast as well.In fact, the team is focused on repairing several other broken links in the food chain. They have nurtured red-and-green macaws, bringing them back here for the first time in 150 years. They have also succeeded in returning pampas deer, and collared peccary to the ecosystem. They use radio and GPS signals to carefully track them.
  • Sebastion Di Martino:Even when we release them, we still watch them a lot to see if they are doing OK.
  • Miles O’Brien:So, you’re helicopter parents?
  • Sebastion Di Martino:Yes, something like that.(LAUGHTER)
  • Miles O’Brien:They are also dipping their toes into marine ecosystems. The top predator here was the giant river otter, also locally extinct for decades.They are teaching this pair, former residents of two European zoos, how to hunt for piranha.
  • Sebastion Di Martino:They are becoming very skillful on catching the fishes now.
  • Miles O’Brien:But they are not ignoring the top predator of all, humans, who, for generations, made their livings here hunting these beautiful animals for their valuable pelts.So the team worked hard to make this place a nexus of ecotourism, a place where living animals have value. The town of Colonia Carlos Pellegrini, on the edge of the park, now depends on a steady stream of tourists here to see the animals and enjoy gaucho culture and traditions.Lifelong resident Diana Frete is the vice-mayor.Diana Frete, Vice Mayor of Colonia Carlos Pellegrini (through translator): The new generation in town understands that conservation is the way. That’s why it’s so important for us to work protecting this environment. We know where we are headed.
  • Miles O’Brien:Where the planet is headed is what ultimately energizes this mission.We are living in a midst of massive dying, an extinction crisis. Perhaps a million species disappear every year.
  • Sebastion Di Martino:I don’t think that it inevitable. I mean, we have many tools. The thing is that we have to start applying those tools to avoid the extinction.
  • Miles O’Brien:But will it all work?In January of 2021, they took a big step, cutting open a passageway to freedom for two of the cubs. They are now roaming free, their helicopter parents watching from afar. And they are proving themselves to be successful hunters, here feasting on a capybara, an overgrown guinea pig.In the midst of COVID, Kris Tompkins and Sebastian di Martino savored the moment remotely.
  • Kris Tompkins:It’s so emotional. And it’s — and it shows that it can be done. And this was always — it seems so obvious now, but it was such — it was such a big question.
  • Sebastion Di Martino:We are completely happy. You cannot describe how happy we are. And we are also kind of emotional.
  • Miles O’Brien:Since then, they have released five more jaguars. The hope, there will be a hundred of them roaming free in Ibera before too long.They and the other species are the missing pieces in nature’s exquisite puzzle. If all goes as planned, it might be an example of how humans can change their spots.

On The Poetry of Simon J. Ortiz ~ The Land Desk



Like an atlas of the Four Corners Country in verse

Jonathan P. Thompson
Oct 20

Note: I wrote this piece in 2013 and it first appeared at and remembered it while reading some of Ortiz’s poetry recently. I figured I should re-up it here.

About 20 years ago, my father gave me the book, Woven Stone, by Simon J. Ortiz. I was reading a lot of Indigenous writers at the time, such as Leslie Marmon SilkoN. Scott Momaday and Sherman Alexie. I was also reading a lot of poetry, from Richard Shelton to Rilke. Ortiz, a poet from Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, fit right in.

Woven Stone, more than 300 pages long, includes poetry written over many years.

As I tend to do with poetry, I also have read it over many years, picking it up from time to time, flipping to a random page, and reading a few poems. Mostly I’ve been drawn to those with vivid imagery and clear, simple emotion. “My Father’s Song”is perhaps my favorite. “Wanting to say things,” writes Ortiz, “I miss my father tonight.” He goes on to recite his father’s song, which is about planting corn at Aacqua (Acoma) and coming across the burrow nest of a mouse:

Very gently, he scooped tiny pink animals
into the palm of his hand
and told me to touch them.
We took them to the edge of the field and put them in the shade

of a sand moist clod.

I remember the very softness
of cool and warm sand and tiny alive
mice and my father saying things.

More recently, however, I’ve relied on Woven Stone as a reference book of sorts, giving me new insight into the Four Corners County. Amidst the evocative imagery and the powerful emotion is a chronicle of the Southwest, a clear-eyed historical account of environmental plunder, exploitation, oppression and the plight of the Indigenous people. 

Nor is Ortiz’s work limited to poetry. Several years ago, as I researched a story about Gallup, New Mexico, John Redhouse, a Navajo who has long fought against reservation border town racism and uranium mining, sent me a packet of stories about Larry Casuse, a Navajo activist who was killed in a firefight with Gallup police back in 1973. The packet included stories from a variety of media, even a New Yorker piece by Calvin Trillin. Because of the way the packet was put together, I began reading “We Shall Endure”—an account of a march memorializing Casuse—without knowing who wrote it. It turns out the author was Ortiz.

“Gallup is a Fever,” he wrote. “Being in Gallup is always pretty much the same feeling. It is a feeling of something not balanced well in the belly.” I had read a number of news pieces about Gallup during the 70s and 80s, but this spoke volumes. And that’s when I went back to Woven Stone and started reading, really reading, the poems.

Gallup, Indian Capital of the World,
shit geesus, the heat is impossible,
the cops wear riot helmets,
357 magnums and smirks, you better
not get into trouble and you better
not be Indian. Bail’s low though.
Indian Ceremonial August 7-10,
the traders bring their cashboxes,
the bars are standing room only
and have bouncers who are mean,
wear white hats and are white.

Gallup is a complicated place, and its relationship with the Navajo and Pueblo people native to the area is especially complex, a phenomenon perhaps best witnessed in the reaction to the Indian Ceremonial, which has taken place every year for decades. It showcases the dances and cultures of a number of tribes, and draws some 50,000 spectators each year, many of them Indigenous. But, to the bafflement of many white people, it was also the main target of the 60s and 70s activists like Redhouse and Casuse, who protested against the event under the banner of Indians Against Exploitation, or IAE. Redhouse explained in 1973 that the ceremonial exploited Indigenous culture for the benefit of local businessmen, with none of the profit going back to the Indians: “The original idea of the ceremonial is beautiful, but it’s been twisted around into something ugly.”

In just a few verses, Ortiz captures the complexity, and helps us understand what it felt like—and still feels like—to be an Indigenous person in Gallup. While he could be talking about almost any reservation border town in these verses, he’s not: Nearly every Ortiz poem is grounded in a specific place. “Ten miles / the other side of Nageezi, / we stopped / a mile south of the highway,” he writes, in “Buck Nez.” One could almost navigate the Four Corners region using Woven Stone as a poetic roadmap.

Before he became a poet, Ortiz worked for in the uranium mines and mills near Acoma. That work later inspired some of his fiercest work, in Fight Back: For the Sake of the People, For the Sake of the Land. This is not the fiery rant one might expect from the title. These poems are instead calm and circumspect, matter-of-factly detailing the ways corporations used Indigenous people—and sometimes others—as cheap, disposable labor to man the mines that tore up and poisoned the land and people. When the other miners, those from Oklahoma, Colorado, Texas, and beyond, tried to organize and better the unsafe working conditions, writes Ortiz, “that jail full of Indians sure came in handy … The unions didn’t have much of a chance, and Grants just kept on booming.”

The poet’s worker’s-eye perspective is especially revealing in poems like “Ray’s Story,” in which he relates the story of Lacey, an Indian from Muskogee who worked on the crusher, the first place you worked after graduating from the labor crew.

Dangerous, no shit about that,
and you had to pick that stuff out
of the ore
before it went through the crusher
and plugged it up.

“Anyway, one night — I wasn’t on that shift — he was down there and I guess a mess of steel cable came through.” Lacey apparently grabbed the cable to keep it from going in the crusher and

then a curl
of the heavy cable must have tangled him up
and pulled him—yeah pulled him—
right down into the jaws
of that crusher.
It makes a hell of a racket
that nobody can hear nothing
and nobody heard Lacey
if he had a chance to yell at all.

In Woven Stone’s introduction, Ortiz writes about how he identified with the people he worked with in the uranium industry, mostly working-class white men from all over, because they weren’t far removed from their land-based backgrounds. They had followed the boom not to get rich, for the most part, but just to save up enough cash to go back home and buy some land or a house. In his poems, Ortiz sometimes expresses exasperation at their ignorance, especially of his and other Native cultures. But he also writes about them with deep compassion and sensitivity.

“To Change in a Good Way” is about Bill and Ida, two white Okies who came to work the mines. They befriend Pete, who also works at the mine, and Mary, who are from Laguna Pueblo. While the piece is fictional, its portrayal of everyday life is remarkably accurate, giving weight to the mundane without overdoing it. It reminds me a bit of Raymond Carver’s short stories in subject and style—or maybe I should say Carver’s stories reminds me of Ortiz’s work.

Finally, “Our Homeland, A National Sacrifice Area” should be required reading for anyone wanting to know about the history of the Southwest and the Pueblos, Acoma in particular. You might say it is Ortiz’s version of his own creation story, tracing his ancestral line back to those who built the structures at what are now known as Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde, in the context of colonialism. But it’s also a eulogy for the land from which he came, told with a mixture of verse and prose, jumping back and forth between imagery and exposition. An acerbic wit peeks through the poetry from time to time, as seen here in his description of Chaco and Mesa Verde:

The park service has guided tours,
printed brochures, clean rest rooms,
and the staff is friendly, polite,
and very helpful.
You couldn’t find a better example
of Americanhood anywhere.

Ortiz ends “Our Homeland” with a rallying cry:

We must have passionate concern for what is at stake. We must understand the experience of the oppressed, especially the racial and ethnic minorities, of this nation, by this nation and its economic interests. … Only when we are not afraid to fight against the destroyers, thieves, liars, exploiters who profit handsomely off the land and people will we know what love and compassion are. … And when we fight … we will win. We will win.

Ortiz is far more than just a poet—he is an observer, chronicler, historian, storyteller and, most importantly, a voice for the people and the land. As a journalist of the Southwest, I find Ortiz’s work informative. More than that, though, it’s humbling: No matter how much I struggle to find the right combination of words to communicate this land and its people, I know I’ll come up short. Ortiz shows us that the best, most truthful language with which to communicate this harsh and rich landscape is poetry.

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‘The Last Cosmology’ is an idea, a perspective orientated towards the sky and a theory supported by photographer Kikuji Kawada.


Words Henri Robert

© Kikuji Kawada

‘I was born at the beginning of the Showa era. During my childhood there was a great war, then I lived [through] the period of reconstruction and growth and now I am slowly approaching the end of life.’ These words spoken by photographer Kikuji Kawa, born in 1933, accompany the collection of his work produced between 1980 and 2000, compiled in 2015 by London-based publisher MACK.

Originally from Ibaraki prefecture, Kikuji Kawada co-founded the renowned collective VIVO in 1959 alongside Eikoh Hosoe, Ikko Narahara, Akira Sato, Akira Tanno and Shomei Tomatsu. In 1974, his work was presented at the MoMA in New York as part of the New Japanese Photography exhibition. As another acknowledgement of the importance of his work, he was recognised by the Photographic Society of Japan in 2011.

Questioning the sky

Struck by illness from childhood, the artist navigates through a state where the barriers between dreams and reality are blurred. This period led him to develop a passion for observing the Tokyo skies, with the aid of a refracting telescope. Kikuji Kawada’s work rests on an ancient belief that states that events in humanity are linked to astrological phenomena, particularly in the context of the late Showa period with the death of the Japanese Emperor. In ‘his’ post-apocalyptic universe, chaos affects the cosmos through lunar eclipses and solar storms, and the Earth through extreme weather phenomena. It intersects them.

As explained in the presentation text for this work at the  Michael Hoppen Gallery, the artist is fascinated by ‘the firmament’. Inspired by painter Emil Nolde’s apocalyptic celestial landscapes, he describes his approach as follows: ‘I imagine the era and myself as an implicitly intermingling catastrophe and I want to spy on the depths of a multihued heart that is like a Karman vortex.’

The artist, who has sought throughout his life to photograph Halley’s comet, in vain, examines the sky in order to respond to the feeling of the collapse of the Earth, and looks for answers, truth. Kikuji Kawada’s work questions how the cosmos can help us to decipher terrestrial phenomena, and encourages the public to reflect more widely on the human condition and our own place in the world.

In a different subject area, the artist’s first book, Chizu (1965) — reissued in 2014 by Akio Nagasawa —, published twenty years after the Hiroshima bombings, documents the repercussions of the atomic bomb and war in Japan, particularly the invisible, imperceptible aspects of this violence.

The Last Cosmology (2015), a collection of photographs by Kikuji Kawada published by MACK.

© Kikuji Kawada

© Kikuji Kawada

© Kikuji Kawada

© Kikuji Kawada


Conservation groups say revised Bureau of Reclamation predictions are welcome realism showing Colorado needs to save water now

Michael Booth

Oct. 20, 2021

A pair of fisherman cast lines into the Gunnison River as it flows into the eastern edge of the shrinking Blue Mesa reservoir Monday September 6, 2021aerial photo. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)

A new federal system for projecting Colorado River water flows in the next two years confirms dire news about drought draining the West’s key reservoirs, and increases pressure on Colorado to conserve water immediately to avoid future demands from down-river states, conservation groups say. 

The federal Bureau of Reclamation’s new system for projecting vital Colorado River flows in the next two years drops earlier, wetter years out of the historical reference, and gives more weight to two recent decades of drought. The regular October update this week shows water runoff into Lake Powell, the storage basin for four Upper Colorado Basin states, was only 32% of average for the 2021 water year, which runs from October to September. 

The new projections for the next two years show that even with federal officials draining portions of Blue Mesa, Flaming Gorge and Navajo reservoirs to get more water to Lake Powell’s hydroelectric generating station, a moderate winter would leave the Colorado River in the same crisis a year from now. And a low-water scenario this coming winter season would drop Lake Powell well below the minimum level required to generate electricity by November 2022

In addition to federal officials trying to protect hydroelectric generation at Lake Powell, and at Lake Mead as the downstream water bank for the Lower Basin states, water compacts govern how much Colorado River water needs to go downstream for use by agriculture and cities. 

Colorado and the other Upper Basin states of Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico are required under interstate compacts to deliver 7.5 million acre feet of water a year into Lake Powell, in a 10-year rolling average. If enough bad water years ruin that average under the compact, Colorado must find water to send downriver to Nevada, Arizona and California — and 80% to 85% of Colorado’s available water is used for agriculture. The great majority of Upper Basin water originates from Colorado’s high country snowpack.

“We don’t have any more time to talk about it,” Matt Rice, co-chair of the Water for Colorado Coalition and Director of American Rivers’ Colorado River Basin Programs, said after reviewing the latest Bureau of Reclamation update. 

Starting with the October update, the bureau begins the historical average calculations in 1991, instead of the 1981 cutoff used until now. The 1980s were much wetter in the Colorado River Basin, Rice said. 

“These projections are worse than they have been in the past, but they’re also more realistic,” Rice said. Many conservation groups find that a positive step despite the bad news, Rice added, because it increases pressure on state water officials, local water conservancy districts, agriculture interests, cities and environmentalists to work faster on solutions. 

At the same time, Rice said, the updated numbers should drive home the reality that there is 20% less water available now in the Colorado River than as recently as 2000. “There’s no more flexibility in the system, right? We’re looking over the edge of the cliff.”

Water conservation experts in Colorado have worked for years to avoid their worst-case scenario, which is a “call” or a sudden demand from federal managers to deliver more water for hydropower or to satisfy the compacts with the Lower Basin. Without advance planning, a call would force the state water engineer and local conservancy districts to cut irrigators’ water rights based only on the seniority of their water-use rights. 

While state and local officials have been working with nonprofits on conservation plans, there are legal tangles that could require new legislation, and seemingly endless ethical questions about which parts of the state would suffer the most water loss, said Sonja Chavez, director of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District. 

Blue Mesa Reservoir in her region has been nearly drained by drought and by federal officials taking extra from Western reservoirs to solidify Lake Powell’s power pool. Blue Mesa is projected to soon be down to 27% full, Chavez said. Blue Mesa was 33% full in mid-September, according to Bureau of Reclamation records. 

State and private officials have cooperated to experiment with “demand-management” programs, where instead of buying agriculture land and its accompanying water rights outright, they buy the right to rent the water for a few years out of a decade. That rented water can be sent downstream in dry years, and in theory the restoration of water in other years should preserve the farm or ranch land while providing income for the farmer. 

But renting or buying of water rights on the scale to meet compact demands would require hundreds of millions of dollars, with no current pot of money to pull from, water experts say. Colorado officials have mentioned the possibility of using money from the infrastructure stimulus plan currently under debate by Congress, but it’s uncertain whether the bill will pass, and how much water-related money will be in it if it does.

“There are a lot of questions that really haven’t been resolved,” Chavez said. “Who are the cuts going to come from? How’s it going to be distributed equitably? Who’s going to shepherd that water?” 

Gunnison officials have also spent much time and energy to protect the sage grouse, a threatened species, Chavez noted. If a statewide demand management program sought across-the-board cuts, and “if we got rid of 10% of our wet meadows, how does that impact the bird?” she asked.

The largest amounts of water to be conserved are in agriculture, by far, but Front Range residents must be part of the statewide discussion about finding more water for the downstream Colorado River, Rice and Chavez said. 

“You’re not going to get as much out of a city compared to what is the amount of irrigation water diverted for agriculture,” Chavez said. “But there’s also agriculture on the Front Range that benefits from our transmountain diversions,” some of which are created and controlled by urban water departments. “That has to be part of the picture.”

Why Life Is Absurd By RIVKA WEINBERG ~ NYT

A Consideration of Time, Space, Relativity, Meaning and Absurdity (Yep, All of It)

I. Relativity

DZIGAN: Professor Einstein said, “In the world, there is time. And just as there is time, there is another thing: space. Space and time, time and space. And these two things,” he said, “are relative.”

Do you know what “relative” means?

SHUMACHER: Sigh. Nu? The point? Continue.

DZIGAN: There is no person these days who doesn’t know what “relative” means. I will explain it to you with an analogy and soon you will also know. Relativity is like this: If you have seven hairs on your head, it’s very few but if you have seven hairs in your milk, it’s very many.[1]


II. Absurdity

In the 1870s, Leo Tolstoy became depressed about life’s futility. He had it all but so what? In “My Confession,” he wrote: “Sooner or later there will come diseases and death (they had come already) to my dear ones and to me, and there would be nothing left but stench and worms. All my affairs, no matter what they might be, would sooner or later be forgotten, and I myself should not exist. So why should I worry about these things?”

Life’s brevity bothered Tolstoy so much that he resolved to adopt religious faith to connect to the infinite afterlife, even though he considered religious belief “irrational” and “monstrous.” Was Tolstoy right? Is life so short as to make a mockery of people and their purposes and to render human life absurd?

In a famous 1971 paper, “The Absurd,” Thomas Nagel argues that life’s absurdity has nothing to do with its length. If a short life is absurd, he says, a longer life would be even more absurd: “Our lives are mere instants even on a geological time scale, let alone a cosmic one; we will all be dead any minute. But of course none of these evident facts can be what makes life absurd, if it is absurd. For suppose we lived forever; would not a life that is absurd if it lasts 70 years be infinitely absurd if it lasted through eternity?”

This line of reasoning has a nice ring to it but whether lengthening an absurd thing will relieve it of its absurdity depends on why the thing is absurd and how much you lengthen it. A longer life might be less absurd even if an infinite life would not be. A short poem that is absurd because it is written in gibberish would be even more absurd if it prattled on for longer. But, say I decided to wear a skirt so short it could be mistaken for a belt. On my way to teach my class, a colleague intercepts me:

“Your skirt,” she says, “is absurd.”

“Absurd? Why?” I ask.

“Because it is so short!” she replies.

“If a short skirt is absurd, a longer skirt would be even more absurd,” I retort.

Now who’s being absurd? The skirt is absurd because it is so short. A longer skirt would be less absurd. Why? Because it does not suffer from the feature that makes the short skirt absurd, namely, a ridiculously short length. The same goes for a one-hour hunger strike. The point of a hunger strike is to show that one feels so strongly about something that one is willing to suffer a lack of nourishment for a long time in order to make a point. If you only “starve” for an hour, you have not made your point. Your one-hour hunger strike is absurd because it is too short. If you lengthened it to one month or one year, you might be taken more seriously. If life is absurd because it’s short, it might be less absurd if it were suitably longer.

Absurdity occurs when things are so ill-fitting or ill-suited to their purpose or situation as to be ridiculous, like wearing a clown costume to a (non-circus) job interview or demanding that your dog tell you what time it is. Is the lifespan of a relatively healthy and well-preserved human, say somewhere between 75 and 85, so short as to render it absurd, ill-suited to reasonable human purposes?


III. Time

Time, as we all knew before Einstein elaborated, is relative. It flies when we are having fun; it “creeps in this petty pace from day to day” when we are wracked with guilt. Five minutes is too short a time to explain Einstein’s theory of relativity but it’s just the right length of time for the Dzigan and Shumacher routine about it. Our perception of time is relative to space, yes, but also to purpose, to other spans of time, to task and probably to other things I have not thought of.

To assess whether human life is usually too short, consider human aims and purposes. People are commonly thought to have two central concerns: love and work. So much has been written about how little time there is to do both that we need not elaborate. Suffice it to say that when people ask me how I manage to be a philosopher, mother, teacher, wife, writer, etc., the answer is obvious: by doing everything badly. We could abandon love or abandon work, but giving up one fundamental human pursuit in order to have time for a better shot at the other leaves us with, at best, half a life. And even half a life is not really accessible to most of us — life is too short for work alone.

By the time we have an inkling about what sort of work we might enjoy and do well, most of us have little time to do it. By the time we figure anything out, we are already losing our minds.

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