Follow the Trees?

From Mt. Lemmon Homeowners Guide: http://mtlemmonhoa.org/plant-information.html
From Mt. Lemmon Homeowners Guide: http://mtlemmonhoa.org/plant-information.html

If we were really paying attention, we’d notice that trees are on their way up the mountains. With increasing drought and heat, soils evaporate more moisture. Trees are gradually found in greater abundance at higher elevations. Lower ranges where trees forested the landscape are turning to grass and woody shrubs.

In Tucson, where my novel, Threshold, takes place, a long term study dramatically revealed this “march up the mountains”.

Richard Brusca and a team of scientists found the lower ranges of mountain conifers and trees had advanced up the mountain over a 60-year period. During that time they also documented a decrease in average precipitation and a 10 degree increase in average temperatures on Mt. Lemon in the Santa Catalina Mountains near Tucson.

A study conducted in the ’60s established the baseline data for a companion study using the exact same transects and protocol to count the numbers of species in the study area. This allowed scientists to compare and document  changes over time.

The message? Forest communities are undergoing ecosystem change on a large scale and in a relatively short time.

 

 

Why My Characters’ Zip Code Matters

Teenager_Boy_clip_art_mediumEnrique, a youth living in Tucson’s poorest neighborhood, begins his life with “the cards” stacked against realization of his dreams. Caught in a web of drug traffickers who recruit disadvantaged youth in his barrio, he navigates each day as one in a war zone with the goal to survive between sun up and sun down. Yet like each of us, he has innate potential that, under supporting circumstances, can change his life.

On the back stoop in the alleyway, he lit a cigarette, drawing deeply, breathing out a cloud, letting the afternoon sun warm his chest and arms. His thoughts turned to friends who had joined Bloods Southwest. He decided to talk to Pepe tomorrow at school. Then he went back inside to do his math homework. At least he could work numbers with no problem. He liked that math was governed by rules that never changed, and when he sought answers, he could always work them out.                                                ~ Threshold (2016), Fireship Press, Tucson, AZ

Research shows that a person’s zip code predicts how healthy they will be, how long they may live, what degree they may earn in school, and the size of their pay check. Your zip code can predict your chance of being obese, asthmatic, a drug addict or alcoholic, whether your baby is likely to be born prematurely or with a disability — and even how likely it is that you will live past age 5.

Where you live is a powerful determinant of your life outcomes. What’s more, your zip code may determine how resilient you can be as climate change advances.

How can we end this terrible injustice? Read Threshold to learn how characters find solutions.

 

GRID FAILURE: Are We Ready?

Living on the Gulf Coast I am painfully aware of what its like when the grid goes down. Moist, hot coastal air enveloped residents in Pensacola after Hurricane Ivan. In some areas of the seaside city, residents were without power for two weeks. Life came to a halt: no business could be conducted, no schools could function, only emergency services were available; finding  potable water and food became residents’ daily preoccupation.

But, what if the power grid in the U.S.A. went down? Security would be nonexistent, vulnerable people would perish from lack of cool or heat depending on the season. Markets would be down and silent. No trade could take place. The lifeblood of capitalism would be cut off.

How vulnerable is our grid? An article in the Wall Street Journal, How America Could Go Dark, reviews how substations on the grid are wide open to sabotage:

The U.S. electric system is in danger of widespread blackouts lasting days, weeks or longer through the destruction of sensitive, hard-to-replace equipment. Yet records are so spotty that no government agency can offer an accurate tally of substation attacks, whether for vandalism, theft or more nefarious purposes.

In my novel Threshold, a plot to disable the grid where hydropower is generated along the Colorado River system is discovered. It is designed to deliver a double whammy: loss of power and water. In the Southwest, that could be devastating.

The point is this: life percolates along in the face of climate change and other long-term security problems as long as citizens can turn on their lights and get water from a faucet. We are distracted by what is immediately before us : terrorism and violence and a failed political process that obfuscates the truth. Meantime, we are not paying attention to the trumpets sounding for our action.

Solutions will come at all levels of society. For example, the millions of dollars we need to secure our grid will require governments and business collaborations to make it happen. On the community level, citizens can bring pressure on officials for these reforms, and they can plan on municipal and neighborhood levels to protect people in the event of a grid failure or compromised water supply. See what Tucson is doing to promote neighborhood organizing for the latter.

Can a city make its own energy?

The novel Threshold explores possible outcomes in Tucson, Arizona as climate change continues to dry out and heat up the Southwest.

The National Climate Assessment targets heat, drought, and insect outbreaks among other impacts for the Southwest. Surface water supply is expected to decrease as snowpack and stream flow decrease.

Projected regional temperature increases, combined with the way cities amplify heat, will pose increased threats and costs to public health in southwestern cities, which are home to more than 90% of the region’s population. Disruptions to urban electricity and water supplies will exacerbate these health problems.

Threshold tells a story about characters caught in a spiraling heat emergency and black out that stuns the city. South Tucson, a city within the Tucson city limits, rises to become more self-reliant through a solar field and solar gardens.

Yesterday, Reuters published an interesting review about changes in solar industries, showing how big solar (large scale solar fields for example) are becoming cheaper and more efficient than roof-top solar.

Many trace the tipping point for utility-scale solar to a 2014 announcement by Austin Energy that it would buy power from a new 150 megawatt solar plant – enough to light and cool 30,000 homes – for 5 cents a kilowatt hour. At the time, it was a record low price for solar power. Since then, projects have brought the price below 4 cents a kWh.

In Tucson, the  Bright Solar program offers residents an opportunity to buy blocks of solar power from a solar field. When the grid goes down however, how can residents continue to generate power if they do not have their own home or neighborhood solar panels and battery storage?

It is important to think carefully about these new technologies and the opportunities they offer people for more democratic ownership of common resources. See the concept of Solar Commons.

As solar power becomes cheaper to generate, will everyone benefit? How can a city and utility work to make solar power available to everyone? As the solar industry develops, how can communities make sure their residents have access to new training and skills necessary for employment in the solar power industry?

In Threshold, South Tucson answers those questions and solves another challenge: the high rate of unemployed youth in their community.

 

Excessive Heat: Have We Passed a Threshold?

Threshold book coverAll across southern California and the Colorado River Lower Basin in Arizona as far south as northern Mexico, an excessive heat warning has been declared by the National Weather Service for the next 4-5 days.

Phoenix is expected to reach temps as high as 120 degrees — well above the norm for this time of year.

In my soon-to-be-released novel, Threshold, heat and evaporating water supply are two threatening conditions that impinge on characters. While the book is set in the “very near future”, the plot is contemporary and presupposes what might happen in a metropolitan city like Tucson, Arizona.

The impacts of climate change will be felt differently across a city or region depending on a person’s personal resources, both financial and social. I wrote the story in Threshold to explore what might happen, and allowed characters to tell me what they would do.

Enrique dabbed his grandmother’s face with cold water, but her breathing grew shallow. He ran to fill the tub with water. But when he turned on the faucet, no water came out. In a panic now, he returned to his grandmother. . . It took him a few seconds to comprehend what had happened.

WILL A “NEW NORMAL” SPUR INNOVATION?

The Citizen’s Guide for Resilience to Climate Extremes is a planning guide for neighborhoods to increase their resiliency and to institute climate solutions such as planting trees for shade and making walk-able, bike-able neighborhoods. It is a community-based model any city will find useful to mobilize citizen’s for climate change.

Check back to read Guest Bloggers from Tucson and the Southwestern region. 

 

The Tucson Ghost of Times Past

Readers know that I’ve been blogging about an uncanny web of contacts and events that keep me ever tied to Tucson. Last week I wrote about how I became friends with a fellow ex-Tucsonan through our mutual membership in the West Florida Literary Federation. We both settled in Pensacola never knowing each other while in Tucson.  Threshold book coverVictoria became an important part of the writers who helped me while I completed Threshold which will be released in November by Fireship Press in Tucson.

ANOTHER UNCANNY TUCSON CONNECTION

While assisting the West Florida Literary Federation to bring two major New York City poets to Pensacola, I learned that one of them – Barbara Henning – lived in Tucson (while I was there) and was on the faculty at the University of Arizona Poetry Center. This link to the Poetry Center features a series of upcoming readings by poets with the focus on climate change which is the subject of my novel. I plan to attend Joy Harjo’s reading and then stay on in Tucson to promote the release of Threshold which means I will miss Barbara Henning’s performances and workshops in Pensacola during the Foo Foo Festival — our local celebration of arts and culture.

What is it that draws people to Tucson? To Pensacola? Check back soon to read “A Tale of Two Cities” and my migratory route between them over a 20 year period.

 

Right of Passage in a Monsoon Storm

moth-daturacroppedWhen I fist moved to Tucson, Arizona, I was new to the high desert. Biologists refer to its flora and fauna as “lush”–a term that up until then I would not have chosen for a desert.

Through colleagues at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, I learned about a poetry reading at University of Arizona by Dr. Ofelia Zepeda, 

Dr. Zepeda is a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, a lifelong desert dweller, a linguist, and cultural preservationist. In 1999 she was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship for her work creating a Tohono O’odham book of grammar. However, Dr. Zepeda’s poetry is what I wish to focus on and how the chance encounter with her performance in the first week of my residency in Tucson led to my deep feeling for a place and community as culturally rich as any I’ve known.

The poetry reading took place in the circular auditorium (kiva) in the American Indian Studies Department at U.A. In the large room with rows pitched down toward the lectern in its center, a soft voice rose and fell. Dr. Zepeda’s was reading from her book, Ocean Power She spoke in O’odham and English, alternating between each as she read.  I closed my eyes to listen to the language of desert communities at Tucson’s origin.

She explained the relationship of her family and community to rain in the desert, its precious nature, and how, after the long hot, dry foresummer, the first monsoon clouds gather, and people point and wait for the first cold dollops of rain.

After her lecture, I walked to my hot, dusty car to drive home. Not long after I was on the road, a massive monsoon cloud, as black as coal, threw lightening strikes like explosions on the ground, and rain burst from the sky, falling n buckets, cleansing the car and blinding my sight. I had to pull over. Flood waters gushed around drains, cars stalled as the water rose, but all the people smiled behind their windshields or stood outside their vehicles with open arms, letting the storm soak them to the bone. It was a celebration, first delivered through Dr. Zepeda’s poetry and, then, by the monsoon itself.  I believe to this day that hearing about rain on the desert in O’odham made the impact of the storm much deeper for me. It was a true rite of passage. Listen to a short video about Dr. Zepeda.

 

Shhh: my book is about . . .

head in sandAs a new writer, taking on the task of a first novel with climate change as the protagonist is tantamount to declaring failure before lifting your pen.

Many dystopias have been written about climate change, and numerous Armageddon-style films produced which draw large audiences. Their stories are so outrageous that we count them as impossible. It may be an entertaining read or box office hit but these forms obfuscate the real threat we face.

When I first conceived the idea for writing Threshold, it followed on a years of reading climate science, talking to local scientists about changes they were seeing in local and regional environments, and reading the latest popular books written for the public’s understanding. The Weather Makers is one that comes to mind. The author, Tim Flannery, is an imminent zoologist who has continued to write about world-wide environmental issues related to climate change.

Yet, a great percentage of people still do not accept that climate change exists. Are we hard-wired to not accept climate change? What is it that defies logic, what we know, to respond instead to what we believe? Does it strike at our deep seated need to protect home and family, to disbelieve something as uncertain as uncertainty?

George Marshall devotes his professional life to studying these questions. In his recent book, “Don’t Even Talk About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change”, Marshall presents the results of interviews and research that make a credible case that our natural inborn defenses and beliefs keep us from responding. But, Marshall is hopeful because what we share in common is so much greater than what separates people about climate change. That fact may be key to bringing about a consensus to act in time.

Planning the book I had to consider who I was writing it for, who would be my readers. How could I write a popular story that gains the attention of people who normally would not read about climate change, may even vociferously deny it (like Ed Flanagan in Threshold). How could I invite everyone into a discussion about it, and what would I learn in doing so? These questions have occupied my mind over a decade, as I drafted, edited, put aside, and finally returned to finish the story.

TO BE CONTINUED

 

 

Birth of a novel…

Books I read that informed Threshold.
Books I read that informed first draft of Threshold.

In terms of years spent writing as a principle activity, I am a relatively new writer. In 2003 I decided to leave working full time to begin a life as an independent businesswoman. This gave me time to write with more purpose. Up until then, I had written memoir and nonfiction pieces, attended a few writing workshops, but had not truly found my purpose nor honed a writing life.

When I made the Big Transition from working for an institution to working for myself, I had been serving the Desert Museum in Tucson as the Director of Education. This was a great privilege for me–one that brought me close to many experts and passionate defenders of the biodiversity and cultural diversity of desert communities.

At the same time, scientists were reporting increasingly disturbing forecasts about climate changes on global scale. The Tucson and Phoenix metro areas were also reexamining their water management plans. Working for myself gave me more uninterrupted time to read and to plan a book.

Writer's Cabin - Frank Water's Foundation
Writer’s Cabin – Frank Water’s Foundation

Threshold was first drafted at the Frank Waters Foundation in 2006 after I was offered an 8-week writer’s residency. The little adobe artist’s cabin on the Frank Water’s property sits at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Frank Waters’ spirit pervades the property. He is considered the grandfather of the Southwestern novel, writing and publishing fiction and nonfiction works from the late 30s to the 80s. All his books are still in print, a fact that proves the relevance of his thoughts and writing. As I wrote my story, I felt Frank’s spirit about.

Aspen grove by cabin - Frank Waters Foundation
Aspen grove by cabin – Frank Waters Foundation

Armed with an outline for a plot that spanned three novels stretching to 2100, I drafted a speculative fiction novel with an enormous cast of characters. I left the mountains with a 400-page manuscript.

This was an impossible task for a new writer of fiction. But, sometimes ignorance allows a creative mind to accomplish more than expected.

TO BE CONTINUED

Threshold: Waatteerr!

water imageNumerous American films portray the desert as a place where victims crawl across the sand, silently screaming –  “WAAATTTERRRR!”

There is nothing worse, or more dangerous, than thirst. Without enough water, anyone crossing or living in a desert region will become dehydrated. Athletes have to pay attention to the hydration of their body or risk serious health risks. If the weather or climate is also hot and dry, it is even easier to become dangerously overheated.

How much water do we need each day? We have all been advised to drink 8 glasses of water per day. Another rule of thumb is to drink half your body weight in ounces. Most of us do not drink that amount. We walk around dehydrated and functioning below our maximum energy level.

Heat stroke or hyperthermia has been identified as the two most dangerous health impacts of climate change on populations living in hot, dryland habitat. See how Tucson, Arizona professional community is addressing this with citizens:

citizens-guide-resilience-climate-extremes