In this episode, Alicia points out that despite Chris's delusions of popularity, there are people who don't know who he is. Hilarity ensues.
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Transcript Season 0, Episode 4: Who is Chris?
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Alicia Pike: So Chris, when you invited me to be a part of this podcast, I naturally assumed I would need an introduction, but I figured everybody knew who you were. You have a storied background in being a desert defender. I figured everybody’d just naturally, like, “oh, it's Chris Clarke.” I don't necessarily think that's true. I think out of the 7 billion people on this planet, there are a few who don't know who you are.
CC: Good point. What should we do about that?
AP: Maybe we should do a little special introduction to Chris Clarke.
Bouse Parker: The sun is a giant blow torch aimed at your face. There ain't no shade nowhere. Let's hope you brought enough water. It's time for 90 Miles from Needles, the desert protection podcast, with your hosts, Chris Clarke and Alicia Pike.
AP: So who are you, Chris?
CC: I am just this guy. I live near Joshua tree with my wife, Lara and my dog, Heart and 14,000 fathead minnows in a former swimming pool. Are there specific things you think we ought to talk about?
AP: I think your background in ways that you've been building momentum to get to where you are today.
CC: Well, my first visit to the desert, I was six years old. It was the summer, 1966. I have a few really vivid memories of it. I remember camping at Park Moabi, south of Needles on the Colorado River and being sick. Because it had just been so hot and I'd been drinking gallons of really bad theoretically fruit flavored stuff, an inauspicious introduction to the desert.
But there were things like going to Petrified Forest National Monument — at the time it was before it was a national park — and seeing petrified logs and the Painted Desert, which was absolutely breathtaking. Even as a little kid, I was like, “wow, this exists?” It was so different from the small towns of upstate New York, where I grew up.
16 years later, I was 22 years old and heading to California, sitting in a Greyhound bus that was heading west on interstate 80, going across the Great Salt Desert at night, and just got a sense of something immense and awesome out there. And the next day Northern Nevada looked incredibly desolate to me, cause my eyes had not yet adapted to the west, and It was terrifying at the same time, it was really intriguing. And now of course, Northern Nevada looks like a tropical rainforest to me, cause it's just all really lush sagebrush and junipers and pines and things like that.
A couple of years after that, uh, my girlfriend at the time was heading to law school and we were doing the tour of campuses and left the Bay Area, got to Mojave pretty late at night, stopped in a restaurant that's no longer there for dinner. It was amazingly picturesque even in the dead of night.
I woke up with a start because my girlfriend had fallen asleep at the wheel and then woken up after about a second and hit the brakes reflexively. And we piled out of the car. There were Joshua trees and saguaros growing together, and there was a coyote standing in the middle of the road, laughing at us, and it was just intoxicating. And I got propelled into it by some cursing and brake noise. And all of a sudden I was in this magical land. It was amazing to me. I just couldn't believe what was there.
I mean, I knew that desert existed, but my introduction to the desert was just life altering.
AP: I'm struck thinking about this listening. I've heard some of these stories before, but yeah, I grew up in the desert. San Diego doesn't look like it desert, but I knew from a very young age that we had planted a bunch of Palm trees and paved over what was chaparral and it, you know, basically desert.
And all the road trips I took with my mom as a kid were to Arizona and Nevada seeing other parts of California that it's all desert. Like I've never known anything else.
And it's striking to me to think you came here from lush green water-rich woods back east. And I grew up in this dry desert environment. And I feel like I can fall in love with nature wherever I go, but I'm just realizing that I'm taking it for granted, that I grew up in the desert and have always cherished the chaparral as that's home to me, that that smell to this day, whenever petrichor hits the air, I'm transported to my childhood and just being wandering around in the canyons and just being free. And in my church.
CC: Nice. Yeah. I mean, it was, it really took some time to get acquainted with how the desert is supposed to look. And I think one of the reasons that's a hot button issue for me when people bring their assumptions from elsewhere to the desert is because I know I did it.
And not that I want to detail every single trip I took to the desert, you know, cause I'm already well on the way down that road, I'm going to just stop. But I was living in the Bay Area and I had this old beaten up Volkswagen pickup truck that really should not have been driven to the store, much less to Organ Pipe National Monument, but I tried! I was young and foolish and it was an adventure, but because it was a truck that was likely to break down, I realized as I was on interstate 40 passing the East Mojave National Scenic Area, which later became Mojave National Preserve, that I was absolutely terrified by the landscape and wondering how fast I would die if I got a flat tire.
And this is Interstate 40! I mean, it's basically a linear extension of Los Angeles. There's no danger on interstate 40, except from driving. Somebody will see you and stop and give you water and take you where you need to go. And that's just the way it is, even in the late eighties. But it was a daunting landscape.
Even after a decade of living in California, I was not yet used to the Mojave. I'd only ever seen it at night, really. And it was just… it was sublime in the original sense of beautiful and terrifying both. The landscape got its hooks into me. I was at that point working for environmental organizations, writing and editing and publishing magazines, newspapers, that kind of thing, All of which had to do with preserving the environment. And in those days, a lot of the work that I was doing. Involved much moister places.
AP: Julia Butterfly.
CC: Exactly right. It was Redwood Summer and people were protesting Pacific lumber cutting down the last of the old growth redwoods. And I was getting up into the Redwood trees and sword, ferns and salad and Western azaleas and just all this beautiful stuff that I still love.
And thinking about the Sierra Nevada, I had a job for a while, updating Wilderness Press trail guides. And so I was like hiking through Yosemite and Tahoe and south of Yosemite I'm around mammoth and Ansel Adams, wilderness, places like that.
And so I just really loved California, but the desert? The desert was where I went when I needed a psychological break. I would get really fed up with my job or just with life in general. And I would throw a bunch of stuff in the pickup truck, head out into the central valley in California and drive south. Sometimes I would drive north and end up in Lava Beds or something like that, but mostly I would drive south and get to the Mojave and maybe I wouldn't go any farther than Red Rock Canyon State Park, just inside the west edge of the Mojave, but it was where I could decompress.
And at one point, and I remember the precise month. It was October, 2003. I was on route 66 between Essex and Cadiz. I just had this incredibly strong feeling that I belonged there and it wasn't like “I belong in nature.” It wasn't like “I belong in wild places.” It was, “I belong here.” And it took me five years to move.
I was really obsessed with deserts reading... well, reading Ed Abbey, of course, and developing a rather nuanced critique of his work Reading people like Gary Nabhan. His writing is marvelous. Terry Tempest Williams, Ellen Meloy. If I had to recommend one desert writer to inspire you, it would be Ellen Meloy
AP: Big fan. Big fan.
CC: And my own writing, took a decidedly desert turn by had this blog while I was living in the east bay. And it was all about nature in the east bay, except that it also had a bunch of nature in the desert stuff. And pretty much nobody was surprised when my divorce happened, and my then-wife suggested that I moved to the desert and she was really being nice.
AP: “Get out of here and go move to the desert!”
AP: If we could back up real quick, I think it's important. At what point during your college years or wherever it was in that transformative point in your life, did you see that you were going to move in the direction of advocacy?
CC: That was pretty early on! and it was college years. This is in Buffalo, New York. I got involved in the support for the defendants in the trials that were going on over the Attica prison riot. So I, I came into activism from a social justice point of view. And before I left Buffalo, I had gotten involved in anti-war stuff and resistance to draft registration. I was the local person who refused to register publicly. There were hundreds of thousands of people that refused to register quietly, but I put out a press release.
And from age 14 or 15, I saw myself as an activist. To the point where there was a period of about three years in my mid-twenties where I wasn't doing any kind of activism and it was a crisis of identity. Because I just didn't recognize myself without taking part in something. In 1989, went into activism essentially full-time, and that's been since to one degree or another.
And as I think I've said on this podcast before in the desert, even though we are fighting against things, it's pretty obvious that we are fighting for something, you know, we are fighting for this beautiful landscape that has a right to exist, regardless of what services it offers us or not. It's just, it's a place that has integrity and its own identity. And it's not simply here to serve us... though It does. And it's just a beautiful entity, this large piece of essentially undisturbed habitat.
There was this day I was in the desert for a minute and I was heading back into the city and I didn't want to go. And there was a Mojave Yucca that was growing out of the lava flow and I was jealous of that Yucca cause it could sit in that spot and just survive and hang on and endure and witness all these things for hundreds of years without worrying about sunscreen. Or fleece clothing in the winter. It didn't need to have a canteen, didn't need a tent, none of that stuff. And I was just sitting there suffused with rank envy of this plant because it could do what I wanted to do, which was stay there. And I couldn’t. And I felt that way for a few minutes.
And then I realized that there was one thing that the plant couldn't do for itself, which was defend itself from people and their crazy ideas about what should be there instead.
We're doing this little teaser episode to introduce people to who I am, if they don't know my work and more people don't than do. And we could talk about the resume, sure. I worked at the Ecology Center in Berkeley for nine years, and then I worked, uh, Earth Island Institute publishing the Earth Island Journal for a decade, and then ended up being the environment editor at KCET public television in Los Angeles for a good five years.
AP: You are currently the…
CC: The Ruth Hammett Associate Director of the California desert program for the National Parks Conservation Association. And it's a lovely job that really like the people I work with and the things that we're working for and opinions expressed on this podcast are not those of the National Parks Conservation Association, though they are more than welcome to adopt them for their own. This is a side gig.
But if I was asked what my career is, it would be hard to choose between activist and writer, because I have a foot in each world. The KCET job burned out my writing circuits for awhile, and I still haven't picked up too much just because I wrote essentially 1,500 pieces [note: actually closer to 1,750] for them in the space of five years. It's been hard for me to get that motivation back to do that.
AP: It was exhaustive. I think that those 1,500 pieces [see above] could be compiled into a book and be a sort of desert manual, because I know that I personally shared so many of those articles to people who had questions for me, that I knew the answers because I had read your article, but I wanted them to read the article to get the in-depth background on cholla, on ancient creosote on whatever it was that we were talking about on trail that day, you wrote so much that contributed to my education in those KCET days that, like I said, I think it could be a book desert manual.
On occasion I'd find myself feeling like, oh, there's this article he wrote about Joshua trees from I’d go type in “Chris Clarke. Jaegeriana” And go find that article so that I can reread because they're so dense people talk about food as nutrient dense. I feel like your writing is like that. It's food for the desert-curious mind.
CC: Yeah. And it had to be information dense because for awhile, I was expected to write three stories in a typical day And so I didn't have time to pad them out and put in prepositions and things like that. Yeah. They're rather… rather jam packed with info. It's nice to feel like I'm starting to want to write again, whether it's material for this podcast or finishing up the book I've been intending to do on Joshua trees for some time, or the email newsletter that has been languishing a little bit called Letters from the Desert. But yeah, that's what I do for creativity, aside from putting cacti in the ground and that kind of thing.
AP: We all need a break sometimes, especially when you're creating out of passion and love, and I could understand very easily why you would experience bouts of not being able to write because it hurts. And even while you may be writing something about something you love, that's something is generally being threatened…
CC: or no longer exists.
AP: or no longer exists.
CC: A more important way of saying who I am is something that I get at sometimes when I'm speaking to people, if I'm doing something formal and if I think people are going to go for it. And we're in the desert. I ask people to close their eyes and just relax for a minute and then breathe in and then exhale, and then breathe in again and think about the desert plants that provided you with the oxygen that you're taking in. And then exhale, and think about the carbon dioxide that you're providing to those plants. And that means you're part of the ecosystem. You are part of the desert. And you are part of the desert that has grown aware of itself and of the desert. You can act to defend the desert against things that might harm it. We are the desert's immune system.
AP: If we so choose to be.
CC: if we choose to be. And we're not the entirety of it, the desert has a lot of ways it can heal itself and protect itself. It's got cactus thorns and poison water and, you know, rattlesnakes and all that kind of stuff. We are a part of the desert's immune system and that's who I am. When I am at my best.
AP: And I sure do think it's a great thing that you have that visceral awareness of how important it is that we make other people aware: You're not some outside source. You are part of the source and I I've always admired your work. And I look forward to the work we're going to do on this podcast, Disseminating that important information.
CC: Me too.
[Outro] Bouse Parker: This season zero preview episode of 90 Miles from Needles was produced by Alicia Pike and Chris Clarke. Podcast artwork by the wonderful Martin Mancha. Intro and outro music is by Brightside Studio. Follow us on Twitter at @90mifromNeedles and on Facebook at facebook.com/ninetymilesfromneedles. Find us wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks to our Patreon supporters: Jeff Hunter, Cat Lazaroff, Sergey Konozenko, Karl Young, Monica L. Mahoney, Lorraine Suzuki, Madhusudan Katti, Cara Barbero, Derek Loranger, Jim Stanger, Eve Brown, Meera Sethi, Luana Lynch, Sarah Jane Kennington, Sean Sharp, Sam Easley, Patrick O'Driscoll, Juvenio Guerra, Lynn Sweet, Heather Hurley, Florian Boyd, Kathy Holmes, Michele Simmons, Anne Graham, Terry McGlynn, Cody Hanford, Bonnie Brady, Darryl Evans, Mary Ann Ruiz, Anne Kelly, Caroline Conway, Michael Mack, Adan Lopez, Deborah Bollinger, Brian Fies, John Griesemer, Juniper Harrower, Matthew Woodman, Judith Lynn Laffoon, S.P., Justin Tappan, Riah Buchanan, Brendan Cummings, Kenneth C Erickson, Brett Barry, Tenkai Kariya, Jasmeet Singh, Gloria Putnam, Laraine Turk, Charles Peterson, and Sarah Cardin.
All characters on this podcast are angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night. Support this podcast by visiting us at 90milesfromneedles.com/patreon and making a monthly pledge of as little as five bucks. This has been Bouse Parker. You're all invited back next time to this locality.