Saturday, July 18, 2009

Dead Park Walking [UPDATED, July 24]

[Update, July 24:
As Brian notes in the comments, today's action by the State legislature has spared most of the California state parks from closure, if that ever was a serious possibility. Some State parks will almost certainly close, but lists I've seen of the ones on the Governor's plate of possibilities include only those that actually could be physically closed: museums, historical homes, and mines, for example. So it seems that "Kelsey's Park" -- our local Henry Cowell Redwoods -- is likely to remain available to him for at least a while longer.
Now I can get back to the business of worrying about my colleagues' jobs, my students' welfare, my community's ability to function, and the intelligence of my State's leaders.]


California isn't just broke, it's broken.

How do you close a forest? How do you close a river?
Kelsey and me, 2001, Henry Cowell State Park

The state is in a state of financial collapse. The legislature and the governor are trying to address a deficit of staggering proportions. The numbers are numbing, and beggar attempts to fathom: currently, the figure is $26 billion dollars for the next year. To try to put that in perspective, it's almost twice the entire yearly expenditure on prisons, and almost half of the entire state annual spending on elementary through community college education, and one-third of its annual expenditures on health and human services. Any fix will involve massive reductions in services, and conjures up images of Dickensian despair among the poor.

Just how the State with the world's eighth-largest economy got itself into this horrid mess can be (and is) debated endlessly, but it all boils down to an initiative process which has written mandatory, large expenditures into the State constitution while also making revenue increases almost impossible. We've been heading toward this gargantuan train wreck for more than thirty years, and it's here.

My own job is in jeopardy, of course, since my salary as a community college teacher ultimately comes from the State's coffers. While the people of my local district have been very, very generous over the past few years, taxing themselves to the tune of half a billion dollars to fund capital improvements (including my incredible new planetarium), that largesse can only go to capital improvements -- it can't fund salaries. My department is in relatively good shape, since we teach huge classes... but the folks at the Titanic's stern were in relatively good shape, too, in the spring of 1912.

Kelsey helps his mistress around the circuit after surgery, Henry Cowell State Park, 2002.

Since crucial state functions like education, safety, and social services are about to fall into an abyss, I almost feel guilty writing what I'm about to. But I'll write it anyway.

Bliss, 2004, Henry Cowell State Park

At last look, California is planning to close 220 of its 279 state parks. This supposedly will save, over a two-year period, about two-tenths of a billion dollars, if one doesn't factor in additional expenses that trying to keep forests and beaches "closed" will entail. Among those 220 are the three parks in our part of the Santa Cruz Mountains: Big Basin (California's first state park with an awe-inspiring stand of thousands of years old Sequoia Sempervirens), Castle Rock at the crest of the mountains, and Henry Cowell Redwoods park in Felton.

That last one is what pierces my heart like a shiv, since it is Kelsey's favorite place in the entire world.

Shortly after we rescued Kelsey from the pound in 1998, we took him for a walk in Henry Cowell park. The joy he manifested on that first visit was thrilling: he didn't walk or run, he leapt from place to place along the path. Sniffing, peeing, pooping, bouncing, grinning... it was like he had found heaven after his puppyhood of neglect. The course we took through he park -- a roughly two-mile circuit through the hardwood forest and along the banks of the San Lorenzo river -- burned itself into his brain then, and he and I have followed that course countless times since.

A winter's walk, 2006, Henry Cowell State Park. Our friend Lucile jollies Kelsey, while Diane is tended by the spaniels.

On most of those trips along his circuit, it has been just him and me, and we traipse it a couple of times a month. Now eleven years old, he can tell when I'm even thinking about taking him to "Kelsey's Park," and his usual dour demeanor changes to giddiness. He will remain patient in the back seat as we drive, until we go past the turn that would take us to the vet, and then he begins trembling. As we turn in to the road to the park entrance, he whines a warble that he never does at any other time, and when we get out of the car, he becomes ecstatic. For a while. Then he becomes all business, sniffing every leaf along our well-known path, marking his specific spots until both tanks are empty, and even beyond that. He wades in the river for about a minute along the way, pauses respectfully when horses pass on the horse-trail part of our circuit, and ignores, for the most part, other people and dogs. He has business to do, you know, and doggy newspapers to read on the scents of the grasses and the leaves.

From a horseback vantage point, 2000, Henry Cowell State Park.

River dog, 2005, Henry Cowell State Park.

If and when the park is closed, I suppose we will find other places for special times -- but, at his advanced age, he will lose something that has been an integral part of his joy forever.

And so will I.

Closure of the parks pales so much compared to other losses that will befall this State that I can't bring myself to become too active in protesting them. Many of the poorest among us are about to be handed a slow-motion death sentence, not by lethal injection but by lethal abandonment. My students, for many of whom community colleges are the last, best hope not just for them but for their families, will lose that opportunity. My co-workers will lose their jobs. How dare I worry about what effect it will have on my dog?

I don't know. You try explaining it to him here in the evening twilight of his life. I can't.

His heaven.



Chris Clarke said...

Henry Cowell was the first California State Park I ever visited. I remember walking up Kelsey's river — not yet having lost the eastern hydrological snideness that made me think of the Mighty San Lorenzo as a "creek, back where I come from," conveniently ignoring the fact that just behind me were trees each of which contained more board feet than the combined timber output of Delaware and Rhode Island.

There are more dramatic and wilder parks nearby, but I love it there. Moreso now that I know it belongs to Kelsey.

Mike said...

You are right that the problem is one California has been heading for for a couple of decades, after populist moves that were hard enough in good times and devastating in bad. It's like a functioning alcoholic who loses his job and has it all come crashing in -- it couldn't really have been held together indefinitely, but still ...

As far as mourning the loss of a park over the other losses, that's really a natural part of grieving -- you get through the Big Heavy Stuff and then suddenly find yourself blindsided by some odd trinket that hit you when you weren't braced for the shock.

And, after all, it would be easier to explain to your students why they can't continue their education than to explain to Kelsey why you don't turn down that road anymore. Sad indeed.

Ronnie said...

How, indeed! big No Trespassing signs?

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

What's happening to this economy nearly sends my brain into shutdown. My brother just got fired by his university, though his wife is still employed, thank fortune. I hate watching the things we supposedly value in this country turn into "luxuries we can't afford," and education, especially community colleges, is one of the biggest. But only one.

And yeah, it's hard to see Kelsey lose one his joys, however many he still has, because, blast it, he deserves to keep it.

ronnie said...

So sad.

Don't feel bad mourning this. We're all entitled to mourn what affects us personally and emotionally. And especially what affects people and critters we love personally and emotionally.

Our families have emerged miraculously unscathed by the recession so far (except for taking a nausea-inducing hit on our investments). Even my brother, who works for a GM dealership, was spared when his was one of the 1/3 of dealerships GM decided not to close in Canada. We've also both missed being caught up in 700 job cuts in the provincial civil service. Still, the stress and tension all around is scary and worrying about the long-term effects of what is happening now, much more so.

Poor Kelsey. Victim of humans' stupidity, the never-ending fate of our animal companions, it seems.

Adam said...

Scary in more ways than one.

How long until the dangerous marijuana planting drug cartels claim the unsupervised land?

Sherwood Harrington said...

Chris, I love "eastern hydrological snideness"! Especially when it comes from someone from the Western end of Upstate, near Niagara. But the San Lorenzo Creek can sometimes rise up and be temporarily fierce.

Mike, thanks so much for your wise pointing out that it's the unexpected little things in a spectrum of loss that can strike us so emotionally. After my parents died in 1999, I kept for years feeling an immediate urgent sense of wondering as I pulled into our driveway if they had called an left a message while I was away, and I had missed an urgent call. That brief acceleration of the heartrate has decreased in frequency since, but hasn't gone away. That they won't ever have called is a tiny fraction of what their loss has meant to me in the Big Picture, but it is the most long-lasting in its immediacy.

And Doug's loss strikes me often in similar little ways, and others' who have left empty chairs or empty food dishes. The big things make our lives, but the little things make our days, and we live in the days, don't we?

Ronnie, how, indeed? I'm hoping, as the budget negotiations in Sacramento come down to their final hours, that the lunacy of trying to "close" state parks gets put aside. It's a classic case of "penny wise but pound foolish," isn't it? Trying to fence off, or patrol, or enforce "no trespassing" zones, and trying to prevent fires, or even opportunistic marijuana farming (which our local mountain parks would be ideal for) would certainly greatly exceed any savings from "closing" them. Let's hope that little bit of sense comes into the negotiations.

Ruth, I worry for your brother and sister-in-law. That we're grateful for one-half of a family's income continuing is a pretty telling message about our current circumstance, isn't it? And, yes, Kelsey deserves to keep his joys, since he has provided so many more to us.

And, ms. cat, they are always, always the victims of our stupidity. And they always forgive us and love us nonetheless. That's what's at the root of my incredulity whenever someone claims, offhand, to not be an "animal person" when it comes to domestic companions.

How can they possibly be so?

Sherwood Harrington said...

Adam - Your comment got posted at precisely the time mine did, and it's absolutely right on.

Adam said...

GREAT photo of you and Kelsey by the way. Don't think I've ever seen it. I assume Diane's responsible.

Brian Fies said...

Well, crisis averted, apparently. Last I read from Sacramento, current budget numbers will allow "most" state parks to remain open. Apparently the federal government's threat to take them over if the state couldn't handle it had a concentrating effect on the political mind.

I'm with you Sherwood: the very concept of "closing" a state park makes zero sense to me. You could put a chain across the gate, but what stops anyone from parking down the road and walking in? Bicycles? Horses? You'd have to have rangers at the gates and on patrol--undoubtedly more rangers than it'd require to stay open in the first place. Then when you *do* get the money to reopen, how much would you have to waste renovating roads, paths, fences, outhouses, etc. that weren't maintained? It's ridiculous. Insane.

I'm convinced nobody's that stupid and the threat to close parks is always a bluff. They pull it out every couple of years to get attention. It worked again.

Sherwood Harrington said...

Adam, you mean the one with my gut hanging out over the San Lorenzo River? Yeah, Diane's responsible for that one.

Brian, the parks still on the short list for closure appear to be ones that actually could be closed physically, such as the Governor's Mansion, the capitol museum, and (one of my favorites) the Empire Mine in Grass Valley. You're right that this kind of "bluff" gets trotted out regularly, but, in this case, I wonder why the Governor's office would do it? What possible benefit, and to whom, would this threat generate? I really can't figure it out.

At any rate, we can be sure that we'll be treated to this kind of low burlesque again soon, since the "fix" our elected geniuses came up with only closed 15 of the 25 billion problems -- the remaining ten were "fixed" with ploys of questionable legality (such as stealing money from counties and cities) and unquestionable silliness (such as drilling for oil sideways and paying state workers on July 1 instead of June 30.)

I'd say "Fie on them!" except Fies are far above what they deserve.