Author Archive

Temporary Paradise in San Bernardino

Posted in Uncategorized on April 14, 2010 by rcspray

A cloud of black smoke descends on my hometown.

As a former resident of Southern California,  Mike Davis’ “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn” made me remember the wildfires I’d experienced. Though approximately 70 miles from Malibu, the same conditions exist: dry foothills and Santa Ana winds. In October of 2003, the ‘Old Fire’ started in the mountains above my hometown of San Bernardino. One site describes the impact of the fire as such:

“Fanned by the Santa Ana Winds, the fire burned 91,281 acres (369.4 km2), destroyed 993 homes and caused 6 deaths. The final cost of the fire was $42 million dollars. It should be noted that a USFS report on the “true” combined costs of the 2003 Old Fire, Padua, and the Grand Prix wildfires which burned at the same time was nearly $1.3 billion. When cleanup, watershed damages and other costs are considered beyond the mere “bill” for firefighting, wildfire impacts are much higher than many realize.

The fire threatened San Bernardino and Highland, as well as the mountain resort communities of Crestline, Running Springs and Lake Arrowhead and forcing upwards of 80,000 residents to evacuate their homes.’”

For a middle school girl, the tower cloud of dark smoke engulfing my city terrified me. The winds were incredible, everything not anchored down took to the sky. And my father’s new pastorate was in the heart of the burn center.

But I’d have to say Barbara Solnit describes my experience the best:

“Few speak of paradise now, except as something remote enough to be impossible. The ideal societies we hear of are mostly far away or long ago or both, situated in some primordial society before the Fall or a spiritual kingdom in a remote Himalayan vastness. The implication is that we here and now are far from capable of living such ideals. But what if paradise flashed up among us from time to time – at the worst of times? What if we glimpsed it in the jaws of hell?”

And: “The positive emotions that arise in those unpromising circumstances demonstrate that social ties and meaningful work are deeply desired, readily improvised, and intensely rewarding.”

The day after the main fire descended on the town, the members of my father’s church, in the heart of the burn area, meet in the sanctuary for organizational meeting and prayer. Across the street, three houses had burned to the ground. So had the houses to the side of the church, yet it suffered only a warped window.

The rest of the day was spent out of the streets as the congregation banned together to provide victims with whatever we could. We barbequed hotdogs and hamburgers and walked the devastated streets handing out food to people who stood in the pile of ashes that yesterday had been there home.

The church has always emphasized community outreach with frequent handouts and Christmas caroling, but that day spent in what no longer resembled our neighborhood was perhaps their best. We stopped at every single plot, gave people everything we could and referred them back to the church for more supplies.

For most of the year, that neighborhood was unreachable. People hid behind their doors, their fences, their walls. But that day it was truly a community.

But, back to Davis, that community didn’t last too long. All to soon the walls started to be rebuilt, and with a different class dynamic. Whereas before, the neighborhood has been a mix from lower- to upper-class families, now only the middle-upper and upper-class remained, rebuilt their dream homes, meticulously landscaped, yet to this day burnt out plots of those who couldn’t afford to come back remained.

Panorama of the 'Old Fire' as it burned at night.

The Crazies: effective biohazard containment

Posted in Nuclear Apocalypse, Popular Culture, Risk & Fear on March 4, 2010 by rcspray

So this weekend I watched a strangely apt movie: The Crazies. The plot line of this fantastic remake is basically this: Government plane transporting biological weapon crashes in the marsh that the town of Ogden Marsh ( uses as its water source. Rather than warning the citizens of the danger, the government waits until the townspeople start going murderously crazy to contain and shoot – everyone. After this mass genocide is over, the government deals with the remaining toxic contamination by NUKING the city (which is in the middle of farmland Iowa) and writing it off as a mild chemical explosion from a nearby plant.

Welcome to Ogden Marsh, Iowa. The friendliest place on earth.

This movie deals with three themes of this week’s reading: the responsibility of the government to warn citizens about the affects of chemicals, nuclear radiation (always an effective way of stopping another manmade, rapidly mutating toxin – superheat and irradiate) and the perception of risk.

The very idea that the government is shipping biological weapons across American soil and not even bothering to notify the citizens when something goes wrong makes our skin crawl, though as Rachel Carson points out toxic chemicals are used everyday (especially in farmlands), and everybody sees it as the norm – not even questioning whether massive food production is so important we have to poison ourselves and the environment for it.

And then they set off a nuke and downplay it, like an inverse Three Mile Island.  I’m especially fond of the idea of minimizing the effects of one manmade chemical with another, but isn’t that often the way we deal with it? (Like the fact that you can get cancer from radiation, but then you go into radiation treatment, never really made sense to me). Is the effects of one toxin better than another? And what about the effects of compounding toxins, which Carson deals with in her selection? (I want a sequel where the blood-crazy infected of The Crazies combines with the cannibal monsters of The Hills Have Eyes)

this +

this = awesome(ly relevant)

But see, in The Crazies, all this happens in the space of three days. It is a single disaster that drastically effects everyone involved (you’re either dead or two surviving heroes). The risk is very real and undeniable, whereas the effect of everyday toxins is not only slow but unacknowledged.

Perfection is a Liobam

Posted in Atwood, Post-Apocalypse on February 18, 2010 by rcspray

One of the things that struck me about “The Year of the Flood” was the convoluted sense of perfection in the book.

Pigoons: pigs that grow human organs. From

  1. Corporations are trying to make perfect humans and perfect animals. That’s what’s up with all the gene-splicing; skin, hair, face, whatever replacements; the liobams and pigoons and even BlyssPlus (It’s perfect sex).
  2. Then there’s the God Gardener’s sense of perfection, which is a little more down to earth and involves trying to perfect human nature and especially human’s relationship to the earth and other animals.
  3. Then there’s Crake out there trying to create the perfect people, which apparently he does (Perfect to whom?), and does so by combining God Gardener’s beliefs and manpower with the gene-splicing creationism of the Corporations.

In the novel, it’s this push for perfection that ends humanity (Ironic that the guy who’s trying to create the perfect people ends up killing all the “unperfect” ones off – including himself). The book begs the question how close can you get to perfection before you create a monstrosity?

And then at the end of the book, you’re left with only two visions of perfection:

The Crakers (as they’re called in “Oryx and Crake”, the parallel-prequel that deals Crake, Oryx and Jimmy) who are supposedly perfect but will they survive this harsh new world? And will their world and themselves be any more perfect than ours (are we just not the right species)?

And the God’s Gardeners, mostly the more practical and more violent members, who get to use all their fun gardener skills in trying to rebuild this new world?

Are either of these two groups perfect? Or can they become perfect?

A snat, just another something OrganInc Farms.

More illustrations of “Oryx and Crake” at

Are you a sunshine kind of person?

Posted in Uncategorized on February 4, 2010 by rcspray

It was Sunday. Our third day in Juneau, my dad, my mom and myself were driving in our rental car around North Douglas. We’d arrived in Juneau on Friday afternoon, none of us had stepped foot in Alaska before that date. Now, I was moving up here to live; my parents would leave the next day, after dropping me off at the dorm.

During our Weekend in Juneau, we’d done as much driving as we could. North to the end of the road, and south too, east to the glacier and now we were doing Douglas. In a couple miles, we’d have driven on all the roads Juneau had to offer.

It had been cloudy with drizzle the entire weekend. This was what we’d expected from Juneau – we were nothing if not well researched travelers. But we’re Southern Californian, it took a couple years for us to see this much cloud coverage.

The ocean was on one side of the road, a cliff traced with tiny waterfalls on the other. And then the sun broke through the clouds, and all the beauty nature had to offer was suddenly illuminated in gold.

We all marveled for a second, but my parents marveled a second longer than I did. “It’s a nice place,” my dad commented. “But the sun just makes it about perfect.”

I said nothing. I wanted the sun to go away. I’d seen it for 18 years of my life and I was ready for a new view. If there was one dominate feature I’d moved to Juneau for, it was the clouds, the rain, the mist. I’d felt parched – and now, even the air I breathed was wet. It was perfect.

In “A Place For Stories”, William Cronon talks about the field of environmental history and most importantly the role of the narrative in that field. He compares different histories of the Great Plains, showing how the assumptions we make about nature make a huge different in how the stories turn out. Is nature a paradise? Or a wasteland? Plentiful and fruitful? Or needing human hands to harvest it?

And all nature is seen through human eyes. Cronon points out that not only are humans the actors in the environmental story, but they’re the ones that give it value.

My father likes the sun. He likes clear skies, warm days and bright light. While he enjoyed visiting Juneau, that one moment of sunshine was what made the trip for him. He likes the sun, so Juneau on a whole was a disappointment to him.

Me, on the other hand, I’ll let him keep his sun. Give me and overcast sky and some huge raindrops and I’ll be happy. That’s why I’m still here.

Cronon points out that how we view nature will reflect in the point we get out of an environmental narrative. Is human intervention an improvement? Or a degradation? Is sun good or bad?

But without me and my family, that would have just been a random break in the clouds – undocumented and unimportant. Without humans, there isn’t a narrative of nature.