Dixie Meadows is a smudge of vibrant green in an otherwise muted pink and tan landscape. To travel there from Fallon, Nevada, the nearest city, one must first drive 40 miles east on US Route 50, a stretch of highway known as the “loneliest road in America,” and then another 40 miles north on a gravel road into Dixie Valley, a low-lying plain between the Stillwater Range and the Clan Alpine Mountains. Desert shrubs extend as far as the eye can see, until a shimmer of water appears on the horizon—the first sign of a desert oasis. Fed by a series of over 100 seeps and springs, these 760 lush acres at the foot of the Stillwater mountains encompass the entire global range of the endangered Dixie Valley toad. They are also a “surface expression,” as geologists put it, of an as-yet untapped geothermal energy source.
Wearing a straw cowboy hat and using a wooden staff as a walking stick, Patrick Donnelly leads the way into Dixie Meadows’ shoulder-high reeds, where we hope to find the smallest of the western toads. As the Great Basin director of the Center for Biological Diversity, Donnelly campaigned to get the Dixie Valley toad listed as endangered, which the Fish and Wildlife Service did in April on an emergency basis for only the second time in the past 20 years. Donnelly has also worked tirelessly to halt the progress of the largest threat to the Dixie Valley toad and the green oasis it calls home: the Dixie Meadows Geothermal Project. Donnelly is concerned that if the geothermal project proceeds as planned, it will disturb or even dry up the series of hot springs that have created this verdant oasis.
Many experts believe the future of geothermal energy lies in enhanced geothermal systems, which lack some of the natural characteristics needed to produce electricity from the Earth’s heat but may be used as geothermal energy sources with the right human interventions. Proper development of enhanced systems would drastically expand the potential for geothermal energy’s role in the US energy system.
Like so many others, artist Jessica Maffia took refuge in nature in the earliest days of the pandemic. “I’d been thinking about our local nature for some years, but during quarantine, that’s all I wanted to do,” she says. “I wasn’t making art for a long time—I was just coming and getting to know who the more-than-human neighbors are.”
Although she took part in her first guided bird walk in 2016, it was only in the spring of 2020 that she began birding more seriously, taking classes on birdsong—Maffia can now identify more than two dozen birds by ear—and patch birding, revisiting the same place and learning its avian residents and visitors. Since then, Maffia has embraced Inwood Hill Park in uptown Manhattan as her patch. That’s where I reached her by video call in May, her face framed by trees, the birdsong in the background as clear as her voice. “I’m finding that my nature enthusiasm and art practice are very much merging,” Maffia says.
Glen Kenny usually knows when someone is about to succumb to heat. He’s seen it a thousand times.
Workers may become less responsive than usual. They might struggle to stay focused on the task at hand, or forget to follow safety protocols. They might be short-tempered or aggressive when someone interrupts them. They might tell someone to back off, to leave them alone.
“Their body is under stress,” says Kenny, a professor of physiology at the University of Ottawa who studies the human heat stress response. “And for them, any voices, any distraction, that takes away their focus on themselves becomes an irritation for them. So you’re going to see irritability, you’re going to see loss of awareness of their surroundings, an inability to communicate effectively, all these become critical signs.”
The scary thing is, by the time an individual starts to feel unwell, they are already in the danger zone. Unlike strenuous exercise, heat stress is gradual. It builds, often without the individual noticing it—until all of a sudden, he or she does.