Logan Williams


Reflections, data, and observations of an urban creek.

"With ongoing environmental degradation at local, regional, and global scales, people's accepted thresholds for environmental conditions are continually being lowered. In the absence of past information or experience with historical conditions, members of each new generation accept the situation in which they were raised as being normal."

Soga, M. and Gaston, K. "Shifting baseline syndrome: causes, consequences, and implications," Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 16-4 (2018).

This is one year of the Earth.

This is one year of California.

Imagine 100. Imagine watching landscape-scale changes manifest, the ones we can only read about now. Imagine watching the yearly exhalation of Sierra-fed wetlands cease.

The research on the “shifting baseline” problem is surprisingly young — two oft-cited papers at the forefront of describing the issue were published in 1995.

Recent papers also suggest ways to fix the baseline in place: observation, measurement, and communication.

Pauly, D. "Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries," Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 10-10 (1995).
Kahn, P. and Friedman B. "Environmental Views and Values of Children in an Inner‐City Black Community," Child Development, 66-5 (1995).
Soga, M. and Gaston, K. "Shifting baseline syndrome: causes, consequences, and implications," Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 16-4 (2018).

I built a water-monitoring station for Glen Echo Creek, the small urban stream flowing beside my house.

There it sat, a depth sensing strip hanging a few centimeters in the water like a citizen scientist's toe, while I tried to decide why and for what I had built it.

The visualization accompanying this text shows its complete output: several months of water and atmospheric observations, recorded with intermittent consistency and accuracy.

More technical details are available in the repository and exclaves.

I wish I could explain how it feels to read Muir, listen to the Sierra stories of my uncle, or even read a BackpackingLite forum post from 2006. It's a shameful kind of jealousy and sadness and anger. Knowing that these experiences of isolation, wildlife, and discovery are gone now.

To know that ducks over the Central Valley could blot out the sky at sunset; to learn that insects have lost 70% of their population; to hear of cities that were meadows not 100 years ago but 40 years ago; to imagine bears roaming the grasslands of that sick joke, Grizzly Peak.

I wish I could justify the frustration I feel when someone says "there are no seasons here."

In the face of shifting baselines, the act of measuring becomes an act of resistance.

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Of course I managed to under-estimate the strength of the creek.

On the hardscape of urban Oakland, rainstorms drain too quickly.

One morning, woken by a tempestuous pattering and grimacing against a horizontal deluge, I spotted the sensor awash downstream, dangling from a CAT5 cable.

The creek didn't always have behave so ferociously, of course. And to a signficant degree, that was why I was doing this — the possibility of connecting to something greater than me in space and time.

And the rains did bring some welcome and unexpected moments of suprising connection among the chaos. A river otter began to frequent the creek, spending several months intermittently appearing in the night — perhaps using the creek as a corridor between Lake Temescal and the bay.

The creek isn't wild, but it's far enough from our life to be something different.

I cling to this echo, but must resist the temptation to claim this mangled, distorted and subdued replication as the thing itself. I must resist this misrepresentation as equally in the Sierra as I do at our creek.

The only thing worse than claiming wildness exists is claiming wildness exists.

In the end, it was neither nearly being washed away, nor tupperware's predictable vincibility to the drumbeat persistance of an atmospheric river that ended the sensor.

Instead, the year-scale churning of plants upward, leaves downward, algae outward, that slow and ignorable recycling of the entire ground of our existence, choked its sensors and its solar panel.

It simply could not compete.

As I write this, the creek's shallow pools trickle languidly with what's left of last year's rain. The pile of trash under the bridge keeps growing. The shallow light no longers shines at the right angle to illuminate the sculpin and sunfish beneath the surface.

Our dry November continues for now. This is the most difficult, uncertain, and dramatic time in California, a hundred thousand acres of predictable earthquakes.

All the annuals but the nichest natives are gone, every perennial's taproot stretched deep as possible, all but the last leaf dropped in a desperate attempt to make it to that first drop of rainfall. And when the rain does fall, these dry terrible sticks somehow sprout leaves anew.

Animals can't do that.

We can't do that.

I'm not sure how people don't notice this.