Peter Shelton

Myth of the Automatic Earth

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on May 31, 2012

I should have seen Under African Skies, the movie about Paul Simon’s controversial album Graceland, on Mountainfilm Saturday.

It was a dry wind

And it swept across the desert

And it curled into the circle of birth

And the dead sand

Falling on the children

The mothers and the fathers

And the automatic earth . . .

Telluride had its very own haboob, or dust storm, on Saturday, as the sky turned gray and wind gusts in the 60s and 70s swirled through the streets, dropping branches and cutting power temporarily to the theaters. Instead, I saw it on Sunday night in the park, under a scimitar moon and brilliant, cold, dust-free skies. The automatic earth reset.

But is the earth automatic still? Will it be able to reset – its climate, its water, its ice – now that we’ve passed seven billion? That was the big question at this year’s gathering of films and film people. A significant percentage of the movies, and the presentations, were about artists, artists becoming activists, particularly when confronted with oppressive governments (Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry), with pigheaded injustice (Bidder 70), and with willful denial in the face of photographic evidence (Chasing Ice). Paul Simon, too, in 1985, defied an international embargo, and accusations he ripped off the natives, to make music with black South Africans in the midst of apartheid.

These are the days of miracle and wonder

This is the long distance call

The way the camera follows us in slow-mo

The way we look to us all . . .

The way we look to Paul Ehrlich is morbidly funny. Ehrlich, the author of the 1968 mind-blower, The Population Bomb, told the symposium audience on Friday that there was in fact one “essential purpose to the automobile – as a place for American teens to have sex.”

Ehrlich was deadly serious, too. He insisted that “population and consumption cannot be separated . . . Starting a war over oil (to burn) is like starting a food war over cyanide (to eat),” he said.

“We will need many Uncle Tom’s Cabins to change the story” of our consumptive trajectory. We have had successes, he added, some hope hedging his bleak humor. “When the time was right, we have changed. We changed consumption patterns completely during World War II, for four years. We had the political will. Our biggest challenge now is to ripen the time. Like the civil rights movement. Like the fall of the Soviet Union.”

What if, a questioner in the audience asked, we found a completely clean energy source, like nuclear fusion? “It would be like giving an idiot child a machine gun,” Ehrlich responded. The consumption would reach berserker stage.

These are the days of lasers in the jungle

Lasers in the jungle somewhere

Staccato signals of constant information

A loose affiliation of millionaires

And billionaires and baby . . .

Journalist Richard Heinberg, author of The End of Growth, told the same symposium that we need to “contemplate a future without growth.” Though, “for politicians, including the Obama administration, there is no getting off the growth treadmill.”

Ehrlich interjected, “There are people in the administration who know the path is insane, and they tell him, and he believes them. But his political advisers tell him he can’t go there, or he won’t get re-elected.”

Poet/biologist Sandra Steingraber, of Cape Cod, was the subject of the film Living Downstream, which chronicled her ongoing struggle against bladder cancer and her investigation into the more than 100,000 toxic chemicals that have been introduced, with little understanding, from pole to pole. As a scientist she knows better than to blame her personal disease on environmental pollution, but her worry, her “living in ambiguity,” is a clear metaphor for the near panic she feels for the planet as a whole.

(My wife, Ellen, who had breast cancer in her 40s, remembers riding bikes with her friends in the cool fog behind the DDT truck on Long Island.)

Steingraber’s newest book is about fracking for natural gas. “We’ve got to stop blowing up the bedrock and setting the results on fire so we can turn on the lights,” she said from the stage at the Palm Theater, her face tight with anger.

Asked if there is a weak spot in the headlong rush to fracking in this country, she said, “Water. Four to 9 million gallons is required to frack each hole. And it’s poisoned. Half of it stays in the ground. Half comes back up, with other poisonous hydrocarbons like benzene. It cannot be cleaned. We’re taking water out of the water cycle forever. We have water to blow up the bedrock, but we don’t have water to grow food? I think most people won’t support that.”

The day I saw Steingraber speak happened to be Rachel Carson’s birthday. Rachel Carson, who was dying of breast cancer in 1963 as she testified before Congress about DDT and other pesticides in the food chain. Rachel Carson, who wrote: “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”

The Sierra Club once dubbed Steingraber “the new Rachel Carson.” But once Steingraber learned that the doyen of environmental groups had accepted $25 million from gas-driller Chesapeake Energy, she composed an open letter which began, “Dear, Sierra Club, I’m through with you. Call some other writer your new Rachel Carson . . . The hard truth: National Sierra Club served as the political cover for the gas industry and for the politicians who take their money and do their bidding.”

The way we look to a distant constellation

That’s dying in a corner of the sky

These are the days of miracle and wonder

And don’t cry baby, don’t cry

Don’t cry.

Grad Speech: Of Love and Labradoodles

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on May 24, 2012

Thank you for asking me here to deliver the commencement address at Colona University.

The CU graduating class may consist of only the one person, me – graduate and speaker; it is a little schizoid – but it reminds me of the very wise story my uncle’s second wife told about the cruise they took when her Powerball numbers came through at last and they were able to follow their dream of travelling to exotic shores. And she said: “The food was terrible. And the portions so small!”

They told me not to look directly at the eclipse Sunday. When I was in college we never trusted anyone over 30. Or what they told us. And look at us now! We may not have been the first generation to look right at the sun, but we very well may be the first generation not to outlive our parents. We may be the generation to break the bank of Medicare and Social Security. The Beatles told us, “All you need is love.” And that might be all we have left in the end.

We used to laugh at Chris Farley on Saturday Night Live talking about “living in a van down by the river!” Now, because we followed our bliss, that scenario is not actually out of the question for Ellen and me. We sold my VW microbus years ago, for a dollar. We liked the kid, and figured it was good karma. Now I guess we might have to look for another van.

Thank you also for the wonderful honorary degree. You could have asked Carlos Slim to jet in from Mexico and give your commencement speech. And he might have dropped a couple million of his telecom bucks on you for a real university building.

I know it was tough holding classes under that big sagebrush. But that toughness is going to serve you well out there in your future. That’s what I’m here today to talk about, the future. You need to be in on it. The one percent are not going to do it for you. Their money’s on vacation in the Caymans. You have to be paying attention. And taxes.

Be engaged with the world. Take the G8. Please. They’re meeting right now in Chicago. Deciding the future. Don’t blame Kobe. It was his teammates’ fault. Besides, he wasn’t in Chicago. He was in L.A. If the world were full of people as motivated, as blameless as Kobe Bryant, it would be a different place. For sure.

Greece is a slippery situation. There’s the Eurozone. But honestly, weren’t most of us immigrants from there to start with? We’re a nation of immigrants. Except for the Utes. But I guess they had to have come from somewhere, too. So there you have it.

In Pakistan (most of them emigrate to Britain) they just blocked Twitter for posting blasphemous images of the Prophet Mohammed. Any attempt to visually represent Mohammed is blasphemy. Have you followed that? Of course you have. On Facecrack. Or Frackbook. I can’t keep up. You young people invented multi-tasking. Just please don’t be doing it while driving. I have enough trouble keeping it on the road with two hands.

Then there’s gay marriage. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The President has come out in favor. And I see that Bristol Palin, on the other side, has pronounced the absolute value of “growing up in a mother/father home.”

Speaking of Wasilla, the Romney campaign has indicated a willingness to exhume the Rev. Jeremiah Wright scandal that worked so well for McCain/Palin in 2008. Apparently they want to bring up the subject of religion. This from an elder in a faith that baptizes dead people and believes in magic underwear.

No, dear graduate, you must set your sights high. You must raise your eyes to the mysteries of the universe. Who knows, you might someday unravel the mystery of Tiger Woods’ tragic decline. Or the mystery of all that CO2 up in the air.

You might be the archeologist who deciphers the truth of the labradoodle petroglyph in Horsefly Canyon. Or you might serve your fellow man by designing a missile defense system to keep the Front Range from stealing any more water from the Western Slope.

Above all, as you head out into the limitless world, do as I say, not as I do. Don’t ski your brain out, or freelance, or stay home with your babies and watch movies, and ride bikes together, and listen to music and be happy and have no ambitions beyond that.

No. Somebody has to keep Medicare afloat. And I don’t want to have to share too many of my secret stashes.

Pulling Up Stakes: From Hometown to ‘Chinatown’

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on May 17, 2012

Daughter Cecily and son-in-law Mike Bryson are starting a new life, with new jobs, on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada. Mike is leaving in little more than a week to a full-time position – something he has been seeking for a while – with a helicopter crew based in Independence, Calif., fighting fire for the U.S. Forest Service.

They figure they’ll look for a place to live in the bigger town of Bishop (pop. 3,800), about 40 miles north, where the Owens Valley jumps up abruptly to the higher country around Mammoth and June Lake, country that is every bit as severe and beautiful as the north side of the Sneffels Range. (more…)

Time and Baseball: Playing Catch

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on May 10, 2012

Baseball is a game of throwing and catching. Hitting and running and sliding, too, of course. But mostly, it is a game of catch based on the primordial, leisurely, endlessly variable conversation between fathers and sons under the sky on a patch of grass. (more…)

Goodbye and Hello

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on May 3, 2012

You may not be surprised to hear that I stole north to Utah for anther closing weekend. A last blast of winter at Alta: cold and wind and fresh snow swirling from the hard edges into soft hollows.

Is it an addiction? This wanting more. (more…)