Pretend this Environmental Impact Statement is a national park

This post appeared on The Last Word on Nothing on Jan. 22, 2016

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Behold, the majestic white cliffs. They form ghostly canyons that stretch into forbidding fog. Swallows build mud-daub nests on their walls. Falcons dive from their precipices to eat the swallows. Some say people have vanished here without trace, back during the first days of exploration.

Limestone? you ask. The incised and sculpted leavings of an ancient seabed?

No. Paper. Thousands of pages of stacked paper. But really, we’re not concerned about those cliffs. We must look beyond them: The landscape we’re here to “see” is contained therein, and it looks nothing like this one. Continue reading Pretend this Environmental Impact Statement is a national park

The masks we wear

This is crossposted from The Last Word on Nothing, a science writing blog where I just became a regular contributor!

Revised alien

When I put on the metallic silver unitard and homemade alien mask that rainy morning, I had no idea that I was about to embark on one of the most stressful weekends of my life.

How could I? I love wearing costumes. One Halloween, I dressed as a vulture-like Skeksis from Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal, and stalked through the local grocery sniffing packages of meat. Another, I made 30 little men out of fabric and baling wire, gluegunned toothpick spears into their tiny mitts, and sewed them all over my clothes. When my friends asked what I was, I screamed that I was “being attacked by tiny people!”

A mask gives you freedom to reinterpret yourself. Sort of like the way being drunk cleanses you of all your inhibitions: Maybe you dance “15,000 times better in costume than out,” as one of my friends puts it, or maybe you finally have an excuse to talk to that cute stranger dressed as a box of wine. To wear a costume is to take on a sort of power.

But the difference with my alien getup was that it wasn’t Halloween. It was an ordinary March day. As a newcomer to Portland, Oregon, I had decided to take on the role of the ultimate foreign visitor for a travel story that I was writing – a sort of cross between performance art and social experiment where I would spend 48 hours seeing the city’s sights through black, ovoid eyes. There was a tenuous journalistic angle, in that Oregon had the highest per capita rate of UFO sightings in 2014, and Portland was a hotspot. But it was personal, too: Moving from a town of 1,500 to a city of 600,000, I felt invisible. I yearned, with tinges of existential dread, to set myself apart from the faceless masses. To be a special snowflake. A special alien snowflake. Continue reading The masks we wear