Monday, April 4, 2016

The Benefits of Being Lost

While on my way to Table Rock Wilderness Sunday, I took a wrong turn. Instead of continuing straight on the somewhat paved mountain road, I went right, onto a gravel road which quickly deteriorated to a mud road. Immediately, I felt I was in unknown territory, but I doubted my memory — one tree lined road looks so much like another, after all. Soon I came to an old narrow bridge, my car rattling its loose planks, then the road started climbing, up and up and up. I skirted around fallen rocks and oven sized bounders. I inched around an area of road which has been bitten off by a healthy sized landslide. By this point. I was 85% certain I was nowhere near where I had planned to be. 
But what the hell? It was a beautiful day, the last of several. A storm was coming. I could tell by the high thin clouds, and prism like halo circling the sun. Rain was on its way across the Pacific Ocean from somewhere near Alaska, but it was still hours off, so I went on, around bends, over huge pot holes, telling Waldo the dog to hold on. Unfair, I know, given the whole lack of thumbs deal. I scanned the trees for any hint of where I might be, but all I saw were more trees, and the occasional glimpse of far off mountains. Then, eleven miles into this decidedly wrong way, I saw another vehicle.
I always have a bit of trepidation when encountering vehicles in the middle of nowhere. It’s the Deliverance effect, and I wonder how many people have kept their boots clean and dry, unwilling to test just how wild the wilds are. And this vehicle, an old trailer, nearly green on its sides from Oregon mold and moss and lichen, looked particularly sketchy, like it has been in that spot, or one much like it for near forever. There was a porcelain bulldog sitting on its hood, two empty dog food bags lying by the back door, a chair with a radio on it, and a fire pit thick with soggy coals. But instead of driving by, I was forced to stop.
Eight feet behind the trailer a creek ran straight across the road. At that point I was dead certain I was not in the right place, and the only thing to do was either squeeze in behind the moldy rig, and then make an 11-point turn, or go through the creek. To do that, I had to get out from my car and check out the crossing (I’ve had experience with creek crossings, not all of them good — another story.) So I stop my car and get out, and just as I did, a dog starts barking from within the trailer. A moment later, the trailer door squeaked open and out emerged a pot bellied yellow lab and a wizened old man whose skin looked about the texture of some of the old growth firs I’d been driving by. 
The dog runs up, sniffs, wags his tail. Well how are you doing? the old man asks. I tell him I'm doing fine, but that I think I took a wrong turn. I mention where I was headed, and he shakes his head sadly. Ah, Honey, your a ways off from there. The old guy then spends the next fifteen minutes telling me how to get to the trailhead, and he didn't stop there. Next came descriptions of many of the traces that run through these hills, deer and elk trails, turned native trading routes, turned logging roads. I asked him where he was from, and he mentioned a town in the valley, but really what he likes, he tells me, is just coming out here to the woods. I don't ask how old he is. I do note his teeth were worn down to nubs. He says people call him Camper Dave. After we talk, he retreats back to his trailer and I make the 11-point turn, and head back down that long road. 
I did make it to Table Rock. Waldo and I hiked in earnest, determined to reach the peak to see the magnificent view. You can see the the entire valley from up there, the Cascades, too. And on a day like that one, the sky still mostly clear, I might have been able to see from Mt. Rainer to Diamond Peak. A distance of some 350 miles or more. But there was snow at the Trailhead and it only got deeper as we climbed. Two and a half miles in, the route got treacherous over the mountain's boulder field, so Waldo and I stopped in a sunny spot, split a sandwich then turned and hiked back to the car
Now I am home, dry, warm. The rain has started. And the wind. I hope Camper Dave and his dog are doing alright up there in the hills. I wish I had asked to take his picture.
-Naseem Rakha 4/4/16

Almost back to the car after prodding through thigh deep snow.

Thursday, March 31, 2016


You know what really pisses me off about the whole “Women should be punished” for having an abortion comment made by Donald Trump to MSNBC’s Chris Mathews? It’s all these pro-lifers who have come out screaming about how terrible of a thing that was to say. These women are “victims” they tell the media. They are “broken people who should be saved, not punished.” They are “animals who are locked in a cage and have no choice.” 


I had an abortion. I went to a Planned Parenthood, they had me pee in a cup and then they confirmed what I already knew: I was pregnant. The problems was, I did not want to be pregnant. I talked with their counselor about options. I talked with her about risks. I talked with her about my physical well being and my emotional health. I talked with her about my worries and fears and trepidations. And then, I went home and I read the literature she gave me, and I spoke with my husband, and then we, together, made a difficult but well informed decision. 

Never, not one day since my abortion, have I ever considered myself a victim. Or broken. Or an animal in a cage. And I am not alone. In a 2015 longitudinal study out of the University of California, San Francisco, ninety-nine percent of the women surveyed said they had no regrets over having an abortion. Also, interestingly, in a survey conducted last year by Lifeway Research, seventy percent of women who had abortions identified themselves as Christian.

So how dare these holier-than-thou-types like Mike Huckabee or Ted Cruz claim that people should be held responsible for their actions, yet eagerly jump to the conclusion that reproductive aged women should be treated like children who must be protected from themselves. 

But, of course it is all just crap. These pro-life junkies don’t care about women. If they did, where are the masses of pro-lifers calling for parental leave, or working wages, or affordable childcare, or Head Start, or better schools, or any of the programs that would make a difference in the lives of woman and their children? Their silence on these quality of life issues is profound. 

What all their “don’t punish the women” rhetoric is really about is distraction. The reason they abhor Trump’s comment is that it is true. When abortion was illegal in this country women were punished. Up until 1960, many were arrested and threatened with prosecution if they did not reveal who did the procedure. They were demonized, their names printed in the paper with their crime. Abortion was a metaphorical scarlet letter. M for Murderer. 

This is the reality the Forced Birth movement does not want you to know. They are very well aware that the American public would not stomach a march to make abortion illegal. People do not want their moms, or sisters, or daughters or cousins or co workers not just persecuted but possibly prosecuted for terminating a pregnancy.

So they come on stage all puffed up in fake outrage, telling anyone who will listen that they would never want to punish the women. They are just victims, after all. We just want to save them, and their babies. 

Like bloody hell. 

-Naseem Rakha 3/31/16

Monday, March 21, 2016

Open Letter to Senator Mitch McConnell

March 20, 2016
Dear Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell,
I don't care what mental gymnastics you have done to decide it is somehow better for the Nation to postpone a hearing and vote on President Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, but I must respectfully disagree. Your action, or rather, inaction, is in fact driving a deep wedge into our country, and subverting our democratic process as well as the intent of the U.S Construction. 
Your claims that you, "want the people to decide," are specious, at best. If they were sincere, you would honor the voice of the majority of American voters who made Barack Obama President, or the majority of people who today say the Senate Judicary Committee needs to do their job and hold hearings and a vote. 
In your hope to preserve the status quo on the Court, you are dishonoring the institution, and the people you say you represent. Lastly, if you think this is somehow good for your party, you are miserably wrong. It is this type of negative, self-serving grandstanding that is currently destroying the GOP. 
Naseem A. Rakha

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

A Haunting Glimpse of Anonymous Humanity

Painting on negatives by Nick Gentry
What I love about the internet is that it is truly becoming the Earth's nervous system, a high speed causeway for information. Every photograph, film, voice, song, email, text, pdf, recipe, and memory, potentially causing a reaction in parts unknown, to people unknown. Every electron moving us closer to a sensate planet that has the ability to watch and consider itself as a whole. 

That's what this piece, Directed by Lei Lei, and Thomas Sauvin is. It collates more than 3000 found images into a collage that speaks, to me, of both the beauty and futility of humanity. It gives me unique glimpse into who and what we are, the remarkable similarities that we so exhaustively try to deny. 

Artist Lei Lei's describes the work as, "a dizzying, eerie animation. The effect is both a flip-book glimpse at three decades of Beijing's history, and an uneasy, voyeuristic peak into the private lives of thousands of people - or, as the artist describes it, 'an almost epic portrait almost epic portrait of anonymous humanity.'"

I find the film haunting —so many faces, so many stories reaching out from a recycling plant in Beijing.

Recycled from RAY on Vimeo.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Why I Won't Denounce Trump -- Yet

In one of the oddest election seasons in recent history, progressives and many conservatives have come to agree on one thing: that the caustic and divisive rhetoric that spews from Donald Trump's mouth is creating a dark age of overt intolerance. Republicans and Democrats are coming together to renounce his aggressive words and tactics. Some Democrats, ever in pursuit of a cause, have even urged their cohorts to switch party alliance for the primary, voting instead for one of Trump’s opponents. 

I don’t support this, and this is why: Though Trump is a bombastic narcissist and a habitual liar, and though his proposed policies would play hell on minorities and the downtrodden, we do not see the other Republican candidates as better. If anything, they are more partisan, more anti-choice, more tied at the hip with big-monied donors, and just as likely to leave a lasting legacy of intolerance by appointing right wing ideologues to the Supreme Court. Trump’s opponents are just as eager to destroy unions, stop gay marriage, and kill even the most meager attempts at gun control and immigration reform. They are just as adamant about reducing government regulations, subverting affirmative action, and ignoring climate change.

Texas Senator, Ted Cruz at rally
Even more than Trump, his conservative counterparts never fail to mix a good shot of religion in with their government, and they never miss an opportunity to spout their misguided and dangerous belief that the United States was created by and for Christians. Like Trump, they ignore history. Yes, his competitors talk about having empathy for women, the poor, immigrants and minorities, yet their first policy objectives once they reach office is to kill the Affordable Health Care Act and Planned Parenthood.

Republicans are freaking out because Trump is not one of their own. They want one of their own: someone they can keep on message. Yes, we think it is disgusting what Trump has brought to the surface of the American face. But the pus was there to be pushed out. The question is how do Republicans convince Republicans to start being more rational. The "Party of Lincoln" crossed the Rubicon when, in the 1960's, they decided to become the party of the status quo — protecting the rights of the white establishment while bowing to the social norms of the Christian right first by attacking abortion, then later, gay rights.

The Republican Party has done some important things in the past. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration were both a product of the Nixon Administration. But those days of rational pro-environment and pro-worker policies are long gone. Today’s brand of Republicans won’t even follow the Constitution they profess to love. If they did, they would hold hearings and vote to replace Justice Atonin Scalia. They would work to find reasonable ways to protect innocents from gun violence. They would not try to subvert women’s reproductive choice. And they would not support the increasing presence of religion in schools and government institutions.

Do we renounce Trump? Yes. He is a cancer, but he is a cancer galvanized by a party which traded its soul to the most radically conservative elements of our society. The voice of the moderate middle has been drowned out by the howling haters. Do I support those who suggest Democrats should shed their party affiliation and help the Republicans maintain this middle ground? No, I don't.

Republicans need to own this mess, and then clean it up. How do they do that? Moderate Republicans need to define a moderate path and then push for it every single moment of every single day. They need to dump the demagogues and stop pandering to social conservatives. They need to renounce calls by their leadership to implode government for the sake of partisan politics and stop obstructing everything Democrats are working on, and instead work with Democrats to craft middle ground policies which benefits more people than not. They need to stop the fear-based, hate-based, war-based rhetoric, and start treating voters like adults.

For the sake of our republic, Republican’s need to re-create their party into something more reasonable and humane.

-Naseem Rakha, 3/13/2016

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Beyond Dancing

In the act of preserving land for the future, we have often neglected the future of people who considered those lands not just home, but hunting and burial ground, 
garden and god

Hopi dancer outside Hopi House, Grand Canyon South Rim, 9/2015

In the Grand Canyon I hike down to a place called Indian Gardens. It's on the canyon's south side, halfway between the rim and the river, and it's a pit stop for mules and hikers alike. Water is piped there from the North Rim. There are composting toilets, picnic tables, camp sites, a creek with duck weed floating on its surface—all shaded by redbud and giant old cottonwoods. Also at Indian Gardens, off the trail and unknown to most who hike by, are the remnants of two granaries and several other structures used by indigenous people that made the Grand Canyon home for at least 13,000 years until anglos came and called it their own. 

When Southern Pacific railroad built their tracks to the Grand Canyon's South Rim in 1901, Havasupai Indians still lived and grew crops at Indian Gardens. They accepted the white men's intrusion into their isolated lives, and even allowed them to grow crops beside their own. Then, in 1928, when the canyon became a national park, the Havasupai were forced to leave.

It's much the same throughout the Colorado Plateau. You hike and you come across the curve of kivas, the hollow of granaries, the geometry of rock weirs. There are agave roasting pits, flint chips, arrowheads, petroglyphs, grinding stones—all set within a landscape so big and bold and breathtaking it's impossible not to think of the Devine. 

The people who once inhabited these places were eventually driven away. Some by other tribes, some by desertification, and some by white man and their diseases. The ones who survived were eventually routed to reservations. 

Havasupai Girls playing game, Indian Gardens, 1898
By James, George Wharton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Ahwahnee did not survive. Their home was what we now call Yosemite. During the 1851 Mariposa War, anglo miners "discovered" what the Ahwahnee called "the gaping mouth place" while pursuing the tribe into the mountains. The only thing that remains of Ahwahnee now is a lodge that bares their name. A lodge that will soon lose that name because of a trademark dispute between the concessioner and the National Park Service.

Mount Desert Island, off Maine's coast was once home to the Wabanaki—People of the Dawnland. It was there that they fished, collected clams and sweetgrass. Now that area is known as Acadia National Park. 

Yellowstone was used by the Crow, Cheyanne, Nez Perce, Flathead, Bannock, Shoshone. All of these tribes were displaced as a result of the christening of the parks. 

This idea, that conservation projects must be cleansed of their ancestral inhabitants, is not unique to the United States. It is happening in the jungles of India, Brazil, and Central America. It's occurring in China's lowlands and in the savannas of Africa. Around the world, indigenous people have been and continue to be jerked from their homeland and tossed onto less valuable, less productive lands, marginal places for a people often treated as marginal, at best. 

To bring awareness to this issue, the human rights group Survival International has started a "Stop the Con" campaign which calls for governments and conservation groups throughout the world to work with native people to preserve land and wildlife. Instead of evicting people from their land, and then turning away as they struggle to survive, enlightened conservation plans include tribal people in efforts to build biological diversity and sustainability while protecting the area from poachers, vandals, and developers.

The Grand Canyon is a good example of a place where this kind of cooperation is sorely needed. The national park only occupies a portion of the canyon. To the southeast is the expansive Navajo Nation, to the Southwest, the Havasupai and Hualapai reservations. Over the years, development plans on these reservations have come in conflict with the national park's conservation goals. 

On the Hualapai reservation, a Las Vegas developer David Jin built the notorious Skywalk. The Skywalk is a curved glass balcony which juts over the canyon like a giant toilet seat. Visitors pay seventy nine bucks to be bussed in and greeted by a tired looking group of native dancers, who will let you take their pictures, for an additional price. From the Skywalk, many visitors are then bussed down to one of several heliports, where for an additional two to three hundred dollars they will be flown over and into the canyon.

when tribes are not part of a conservation plan, 
their plans for economic development can be become part of a conservation problem 

The experience, from the air, is considered unsurpassed. But the experience from below—for wildlife, for hikers, for rafters—is more than jarring, it is an affront to everything the canyon is about: peace, quiet, isolation, spiritual renewal. From sunrise to sunset the western end of the canyon is more like a scene from Apocalypse Now than the natural wonder it is. What makes the intrusion even more jarring is that the helicopter tours are in direct conflict with the National Overflights Act of 1987, which aimed to preserve the quiet in Grand Canyon National Park. In 2000, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) granted the Hualapai a hardship exemption. Baring bad weather, the Hualapai heliports are today among the busiest in the country, flying hundreds of visitors into and over the west end of Grand Canyon National Park every single day. The FAA exemption allows the Hualapai to fly up to 300,000 flights a year.

In 2011, the Navajo's applied for a similar exemption. A portion of their land also borders the Grand Canyon, and tribal members who support the idea imagine drawing from the millions of tourists who visit the national park every year. Navajo leaders are also considering teaming up with a Scottsdale, Arizona-based development firm to build a gondola that will carry people from the rim of the canyon to the confluence of the Colorado River with the Little Colorado River. The project is very controversial. The gondola would offload its passengers just feet from the national park boundary, and put them within walking distance of one of the Hopi's most sacred sites—the place where they emerged into this world. The gondola proposal has split tribes between those wanting the Grand Canyon Escalade and those trying to Save The Confluence from the spoils of unfettered tourism.

The bottom line: when tribes are not part of a conservation plan, their plans for economic development can be become part of a conservation problem.

The experience, from the air, is unconsidered unsurpassed. But the experience from below is an affront to the canyon

Stop the Con is right. Governments and conservationists need to do more to include ancestral people in the planning, management and development of protected lands, and they need to aggressively support sustainable and economic development projects which help native people thrive. 

It's difficult to pass judgement on the Navajo for trying to find ways to cash in on the millions of tourists who come to see the Grand Canyon when you learn that more than 40 percent of their tribal members are unemployed. It's difficult to criticize the tribe for not developing other opportunities in other regions of their nation when you learn that there are more than 600 abandoned and unreclaimed uranium mines scattered over that land, that their water often is contaminated, and that many of their streets, sidewalks, houses, and schools were built with radioactive tailings (A Killing Wind, 2013). It is difficult to square white man's history of paternalism, abuse and neglect and not realize we owe a debt to native people who considered the lands we hike and raft and climb not just home, but hunting and burial ground, garden and god. 

If there is a way to actually "conserve" land and wildlife then the steps to do this must not just align with native values and goals, but native people should be part of their very design.

-Naseem Rakha, February 22, 2015

Sunday, February 7, 2016

A Few Facts About Flint Michigan

To save money, officials in Flint, Michigan stopped using water from Lake Huron to draw it instead from the Flint River.

The problem: Flint River water was polluted and corrosive causing lead to leach from the city's old pipes.

Eden Wells, Michigan's chief medical executive, has said that all children who drank the city's water since April 2014 have been exposed to lead. That's 8,657 children, based on Census data.

There is NO safe level of lead in the body, but the impacts of lead are considered most severe on the developing brains and nervous systems of children and fetuses.

Astoundingly, Flint, Michigan based General Motors stopped using Flint River water when they recognized it was too corrosive. City officials were aware of this, and hoped it didn't "set a precedent for people to jump off the Flint system." (Michigan Live, GM's decision to stop using Flint River water will cost Flint $400,000 - 10/14/2014) 

Flint River water has also been linked to an uptick of Legionnaies' Disease. State officials have been warned about this, but did nothing. 

It's not just Flint, Michigan that is experiencing this crisis. As the NPR report Beyond Flint Michigan indicates, communities around the county, particularly in the rural south, have contaminated drinking water.