A Long Annual Letter: Life in 2012

People typically send life update letters around Christmas or New Year’s. I’m not that organized. So as the holiday spirit fills our mailboxes with festive glee, I will, for the first time ever, join in. Here is what I sent friends and family. In July.


July 8-16, 2012

My dear friends,

It is 105 degrees and I am hibernating, Tucson-style, inside my Territorial-era abobe duplex, the shades drawn and swamp cooler at full blast. Our town of one million is quieted by the scorching sun. Raytheon engineers build missiles down the road crisscrossed at dusk by coyotes in search of water; auto mechanics roll up their doors onto frying-pan parking lots, plaintively enlivened by the ranchero radio of Sonoran hot dog stands; the 47th of over 60 trains to rumble across downtown today bleats a low, long whistle by the brewery, warning of its cargo of coal, cars, and crap Hecho en China. True Tucsonans know the magic of summer, I am told. Feathery ghost-green mesquites are letting drop branchfulls of sugary legumes. They loudly snap-crunch plumes of flour under my bike tires. Cinema La Placita is screening classic films in the courtyard on Thursdays. Any day of the week, Eddie at the Historic Depot will mix you a Cooler of gin, lime, cucumber, and agave with a hint of cilantro. It is a good time to evaluate life.

Two years have passed since graduating college and leaving the Pacific Northwest to a wide-armed welcome in Southern Arizona, an embrace that has unexpectedly rooted me. It is on that phenomenon, rootedness, and its inverse, change, that I write my annual missive, with lessons learned and questions burning.  Permanence/mobility, resilience/evaporation, community/self: these dualities define not only my work and age but also the zeitgeist of our era.

How the quality of my own life juxtaposes with that of our world amazes me daily. Why do blessings crowd in when, for so many, scarcity ascends? These are the basics: I work with a small staff and dozens of volunteers in a spacious, bright architect’s office directing outreach for a nonprofit called Imagine Greater Tucson (IGT). Daily life passes in eclectic routine. In my five-minute bike commute, I pass by the expanding food co-op, over the new streetcar tracks, and under murals for Calexico concerts or in protest of SB 1070. Classes at the University of Arizona on conflict & collaboration and international water policy have connected me to incredible landscapes and people. Dancing with friends in a salsa concert, riding a 24-hr mountain bike race, and learning to cook Mexican for potlucks have rounded out the year since last letter.

Basically, the “Tucson vortex” long ago whirled me under. Upon meeting another capital-I Individual in this, a Mecca for the space it affords personalities, I think: Of course you’re here. Where else?

My job is to build public engagement, partnerships, and momentum for IGT’s collaborative process addressing urban land use. Our short-term goal is to create an attainable Vision for the future of the growing metro Tucson area that is based on shared regional values. The booming Sun Corridor megapolitan region is our geographic backdrop. In essence, IGT is an exercise in democracy by which the public influences City and County long-range plans. In the long run, we aim to foster an inclusive and proactive culture of regional decision-making. To organize from the grassroots to grasstops, we facilitate community conversations, scenario mapping workshops, survey campaigns, panels and presentations.

The best part of my job is working alongside the Hispanic Outreach Team (yes, HOT), who have taught me to serve Tucson. Just go, and listen: into schools full of our future but too broke for toilet paper; south of 22nd where pastors hold carwashes to buy kids musical instruments (and for heaven’s sake, no, you won’t get mugged); west of the freeway that bisected neighborhoods the likes of which New Urbanism salivates after. With pen in hand I am apprenticing myself to these amazing students, promotoras, politicians, businesspeople, professors and neighborhood leaders who know how to break the bulldozing lockstep of the -isms. Although the learned habit of exclusivity comes easier, it is more than ever the collective equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot. Plus – the status quo can be hella boring.

All in all, it is an honor to help involve over 10,000 people in urban planning and regional governance. Pessimists say XYZ failed last time. To optimists this is something new; Tucson feels like Austin did on the eve of utter hipness. Working with IGT feeds my addiction of making believers of bystanders and neutrals of cynics. Rumor has it that we’ve helped moved the conversation from growth v. no-growth to a richer notion, quality of life. By engaging our community in tradeoffs and complex choices about the future, we notch handholds for progress in the discourse between sectors, jurisdictions, and socioeconomic geographies.

The desire for a new direction is surprising both for its intensity and the on-the-ground reality. An overwhelming majority of the 6,700 respondents of our latest survey rejects the status quo of sprawl. You can check out the interactive results on our site: http://www.imaginegreatertucson.org.  Consistent with national trends, our public wants more compact, walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented development that respects our values. Of ten values outlined in the survey, respondents overwhelmingly chose clear clean and sustainable water resources, clean air, and our unique natural environment (see: saguaros). Now, to adjust course in a hurry…

About those priorities. It goes without saying that the water story in Arizona is pretty extreme. The Central Arizona Project (CAP), the biggest energy suck in the state, is an engineering marvel of canals, pipes, and pumps that export the Colorado River far beyond its banks to sustain the likes of Phoenix and LA. The CAP on Navajo coal keeps water flowing 300 miles uphill into metro Tucson’s veins. Here, municipalities are fighting over who gets to own sewage treatment plants, and our local Santa Cruz and Rillito “rivers” are sandy highways for rabbits and stray shopping carts.  Few know that their tap flow originated in Wyoming. (Years ago after a UA water conference, a friend and I wriggled our way out of a headlight ticket with that fun fact – “Officer, did you know…?” Man, the crazies you meet on the beat).

Four years of dabbling in the UA water policy scene has left me in awe of the resource’s complex study and management. Ask for whom and what for and watch casually-defined “sustainability” squirm in its seat. If most non-urban uses in the Tucson Active Management Areas were to cease, apparently our supply could support another 1.2M people (Medgal et all, 2006). But what of Native users and agriculture? what of Las Cienegas National Conservation Area if the copper mine is built? what of the common ratepayer circa 2035—or much earlier—when shortfalls hit home and procurement by extra CAP and desalination adds $500-$1,800 to the cost of an acre-foot? (Smith, 2011). Never before have I so questioned the notion of expertise. (Get your fill here, under “Recommended Reading”: bit.ly/Q32fQV). Because the knotted inter- and intrastate politics are largely inaccessible and the dry heat undeniable, I volunteer with the Tucson-based international Watershed Management Group, a “trickle up” organization that empowers neighbors to capture the rain themselves. The WMGers are remarkably hardworking, creative risk-takers that make me feel sane.

Besides work, I like living in the grit and the extremes of the desert. Psychologically and physically meeting the challenge of its hot dry stress is climate bootcamp in an overheating world.  Your skin toughens. You learn gratitude for shade, oases, rare monsoons that replenish endangered aquifers—grants, a kind word, a mentor to lean on.  You admire the people who stay.  The poet who organizes in detention; the organizer who inspires church gardens; the gardener who gives away watermelon in the barrio.  Beauty and lack burn into each other with unfiltered light.

Guata (y mente) llena, corazon contento.  So what’s the beef, chica?

Tell me if this resonates. You know when, on a bright day, you close your eyes but can still see what was before you, imprinted on the back of your eyelids? We are in that moment. By choice or misfortune, we are now opening our eyes upon a dramatically different scene. The change did not happen in a blink. Needle by needle, forests dry; inch by inch, lakes drop below the intake; one by one, the birds or young people, the salmon or tourists don’t return. But vectors intersect and matches ignite and wells run dry all of a sudden. Are we planning our cities and families and retirements with our eyes closed?

Time. People know, in their heart of hearts, that we are on the precipice of deep change. That tipping point is writ large across headlines, in white-hot record breakers, in that particular astonishment about the weather, no longer the dressings but the meat of conversation. Flooding, conflagrations, melting, torrential downpour or insidious drying, outbreaks, extinctions, a new ecology of storms: derechos, haboobs, tornadoes pummeling into new habitats. If weather is salsa this is a mild taste of our future. Pushing the limits till we have become the gods we taunted, our relatively infant and smart-but-not-wise species has irreversibly messed with the earth’s life-support physics. But, as David Orr writes, rising to the occasion is a fundamentally political act. Already, our teetering economies demand new (or very old) ways of making, doing, defining success, and taking care of each other. The imperative of leadership falls to each of us. Activism is just one way among many. Buy less, share more, choose health and then tell the world why: that makes a movement. We do not need gurus. We need each other.

To many this is not news, to even more it is distasteful, but to all it matters. Global emissions have exceeded worst-case scenarios as outlined by IPCC models, and we are counting down the few remaining months of scientifically meaningful timeframes to seriously curb those emissions. Only 3% of this year’s natural disaster coverage mentions climate change (bit.ly/MQAJne). This is a conspiracy of silence, as Senator Kerry made clear in June on the Senate floor (please, read this: bit.ly/PlWmdy). Among those who are in on the open secret I witness waves of ironic apathy, gallows humor, anarchy, defeatism succeeded by defensive selfishness. But we also feel the stomach-flipping thrill of the highdive. The waters are rising. Here is an invitation to springboard into reality with a twist and shout rather than wait for a push, mute and lead-footed, into the pool.

What to do? Retire your TV as a bookshelf. Unplug the i-. Read a good newspaper. Go out of your hurried way to make a friend. There’s no shortage of lists, and they boil down to this: wake up and pay attention to what is being destroyed without our consent, and then resist in your very own way. I recommend Kathleen Dean Moore’s recent essay, Refugia of the Imagination. Just as there is nothing left untouched in this great unraveling, there is no tool that cannot be wielded to restitch, rebuild, rewire, reinvest, reinvigorate, renovate, rectify and reify what is right.  Otherwise we are complicit in our own disappearance. It is not scary to speak up once you understand silence as insane.

This week I will participate in a Roundtable on Resilience hosted by the Island Institute. Our required reading includes a 2004 piece by C.S. Holling, “From Complex Regions to Complex Worlds,” in the journal Ecology and Society. Holling introduces the concept of “panarchy,” the process by which ecological and social systems “grow, adapt, transform, and, in the end, collapse.” There are four basic stages of rising and falling. The “front loop” of 1) entrepreneurial exploitation and 2) organizational consolidation flows into the “back loop” of 3) creative destruction and 4) re- or destructuring. The four elements are quadrants in an infinite figure-eight shape. Although I am not convinced that the planetary change we are living and dying through is cyclical, there is inspiration to be found in her description of our current opportunity:

At such [back-loop] times, the future can also be suddenly shaped by external events such as those we now anticipate globally from slowly changing climate, from entrants of invasive species, from surprising diseases such as AIDS and SARS, from human immigrants driven by geopolitical changes, or from unexpected terrorist events. Such apparently external events can launch a path of future development along an unpredictable course. During such times, uncertainty is high, control is weakened and confused, and unpredictability is great.  At the same time, space is created for reorganization and innovation. It is therefore also a time when individual cells, individual organisms, or individual people have the greatest chance to influence events. … It is the time when a Gandhi or a Hitler can use the events of the past to transform the future for great good or great ill.  … The back loop is the time of the “Long Now” (Brand 1999) when each of us must become aware that he or she is a participant.

My hope is that we each find our individual verb and together compose the coming chapters.  Since time has, effectively, run out, we are living in the Radical Now. Did you know that radical means ‘arising from or going to the root’? Going to the root of our problems will inspire transformation in sync with the root of our being. Let us act despite imperfections knowing that a more perfect opportunity will not come again. May we lift each other up and offer what we have—an ear, a backbone, a shoulder—to the vulnerable plant and animal life that we are, because each of us are just that: vulnerable, but together resilient. May we be generous.

– – –

The dusty beige of the Tucson basin is far away now. I am touching down to Sitka, Alaska. Underneath the jet propellers, sugar-capped mountains and blue inlets astound me, the relief of water unclenches my ribcage into an open hand.

In a few hours I begin a seven-week interdisciplinary fellowship for eight young American entrepreneurs. Our local host, a fresh Yale grad and candidate for state legislature, assembled this program to afford us the time, space, and supportive setting to launch our respective noncommercial ventures. One fellow is developing an open government app and another finishing a graphic novel. My quest revolves around community-based clean energy, conservation and participatory governance. I am interested in working in Chiloe. Over the course of the fellowship I want to clarify my goals, and—if they indeed capture the intersection of what I have to give and what the world needs—start assembling a team and identify funding opportunities. Poke around www.sitkafellows.org to be a part of the Fellowship.

I love staying in touch and try my best to do so. There’s always Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/CamilaThorndike) and Twitter (@camilathorndike).  Best yet, contact me for a snail mail address.

Closing thoughts:

It’s all about gratitude.

Life is good and I am thankful for your friendship.




In the spirit of passing it forward, here are selected treasures shared by friends this year:


  • Long Walk to Freedom (Nelson Mandela)
  • Almanac of the Dead (Leslie Marmon Silko)
  • The Dirty Life (Kristin Kimball)

Musica, Maestro


  • This American Life, Take the Money and Run for Office (love them all but this one’ll really knock your checkered socks off.  Also, if you’re a Portlander, vote Jefferson Smith for Mayor, who has long fought to reform campaign finance and is unlikely to pull an eat-my-words McCain move)  — bit.ly/Huw2Ng
  • Eli Zaretsky, The Future of the Left: the case of the United States (how to overcome our country’s identity crisis) — bit.ly/IDai22
  • David Harvey, Rebel Cities: The Urbanization of Class Struggle — bit.ly/KnyMw1

Efforts Worth Joining


You guessed it… Amtrak! Seriously. My last 3 trips have all run on time and featured the nicest of people. Sign up for the Guest Rewards Program and earn frequent train miles. Better yet, allow me to send you an invite, cause I’m almost up to a free trip: https://amtrakguestrewards.com/redeem

And what would you recommend?


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